Dr. Ruth Padilla DeBorst yearns to see peace and justice embrace in the beautiful and broken world we call home. A wife of one and mother of many, theologian, missiologist, educator, and story-teller, she has been involved in leadership development and theological education for integral mission in her native Latin America for several decades.
She works with the Comunidad de Estudios Teológicos Interdisciplinarios (CETI), a learning community with students across Latin America. She coordinates the Networking Team of INFEMIT (International Fellowship for Mission as Transformation), collaborates with Resonate Global Mission, and serves on the board of Arocha and the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies. She lives with her husband, James, in Costa Rica as a member of Casa Adobe, an intentional Christian Community with deep concern for right living in relation to the whole of creation. Ruth is committed to a gospel of reconciliation with God, people, and all of creation that is as holistic as it is thoughtful.
Steven Spicer and Paul Dzubinski host this edition of the Creation Care Missions Podcast. Click on "Read More" below for the full text of talk that Dr. Ruth Padilla DeBorst gave at the Creation Care at the Frontiers of Mission conference.
As usual in a true Latin American fashion, I must begin by bringing you greetings, greetings from Casa Adobe. This is the intentional- not international, although it is also international- Christian Community to which my husband and I belong in Costa Rica. In this community, we're learning what it means to live day-in-and-day-out, from Monday to Sunday, from shared meals to dirty dishes, from music night to composting, from community organizing to bridging cultural differences, what it means to live as a body of followers of the servant King. Greetings also from our Community of Inter-disciplinary Theological Studies, CETI, a learning community with staff, faculty and students from across Latin America which seeks to nurture whole life discipleship, an integral mission for the sake of God's rule and God's justice.
Now, impacted by the news on August 2nd of last year, I posted the following on Facebook: "Today August 2, humanity has overshot it's ecological budget for 2017. In barely seven months, we have spent all the natural resources that the planet can replace in a year." I was so burdened. I asked publicly, "What are we doing about this?" Among other responses, I received this one: "There's nothing you can do, but don't worry, the Lord is coming and will bring healing to the Nations." We overshoot our ecological budget earlier every single year, we're accumulating a deficit impossible to pay and many Christians only respond, "Do not worry. The Lord is coming. Let's just wait." The entire creation is groaning under the weight of exploitation and irresponsible action of human beings. Species are disappearing at a galloping rate. And children, women and men are losing lives and livelihood at an unprecedented rate. And many only respond, "Do not worry. The Lord is coming. Let's just wait."
Attitudes such as these, on the part of Christians, do not spring from nowhere. They arise from theological positions, conscious or not, that justify and nourish them. I suggest that if we want to stimulate just ecological co-existence, responsible living. If we want to nourish responsible living in the creation community on the part of Christians, we must affect the root of those attitudes. So, I invite you today to consider certain theological positions that have contributed to our neglect and abuse of creation so that we may rethink our perspective and attitude in light of biblical teaching, and hopefully live and encourage others to live accordingly. I suggest that we need to reconsider what we understand to be and how we live out the Gospel, worship, love of God, love of neighbor, matter, end times, mission ethics. (Small endeavor).
But we have to begin somewhere right? So let's begin at the beginning and ask, what is the gospel? Our definition of the Gospel is often in sore need of being massively expanded. What is the Gospel? The word, "evangelium" was in common use during the Roman Empire. The heralds of the Emperor circulated through the dominated lands announcing, "Listen to the gospel. This is the good news. The Good News of the powerful armies of our savior, the Emperor. They've conquered new lands. Good news." Obviously, this good news, this was good news only for the conquerors. For the conquered people the news was one of death and oppression. It was in that context, that the followers of Jesus boldly announced another gospel, the good news of another Savior. Of one who came to bring life, hope and reconciliation. Pax Christi, the peace of Christ. So, we do well as Evangelicals to emphasize that the action of God in Jesus Christ is Gospel, is good news. However, if we reduce the Gospel to the good news of individual salvation or to some exclusively spiritual realm, as it so commonly occurs in our midst, we truncate the biblical teaching and therefore we reduce our understanding of God's purposes for the whole creation and our place in those purposes.
The Bible, we know, begins with this exuberant poem about God's creative action in the beginning. In contrast to the accounts of other ancient peoples for whom the world was generated through the conflict and violence of arbitrary gods, the biblical narrative emphasizes the intentional and loving action of this community of love who breathes life and at every step celebrates the goodness of the created order. This is truly good news. It's the good news of the good creation of a good God.
Now why good news? Because God does not hide from God's creatures; the entire creation reveals the Creator, reveals God's generous, prolific, creative and life sustaining nature. Why Good News? Because human beings are creatures inserted in a creation community that is in itself good, beautiful, useful, pleasurable, dynamic, energetic. This invites us to enjoy, to seek goodness, to recognize ourselves as partners and responsible members in that community. Finally, why Good News? Because although as human beings we are called to properly living, the goodness of creation does not depend on us. God made it good. God sustains it through the Spirit of life and God will fully restore it one day.
All this is to say that despite the ominous record of humanity with respect to the rest of creation, there is good news because creator God loves creation. In short, we urgently need to recognize and encourage fellow Christians to understand the breadth of the gospel which includes the good news of reconciliation of all things in Jesus Christ in the larger picture of the good news of God's good creation. In that beginning, God created and God celebrated. The community of love rejoiced in the work of God's hands and all that creation burst out in wholehearted worshipful applause. Once we acknowledge the breadth of the good news, we too cannot but worship.
Worship: Love of God
Let's explore what true worship looks like. Imagine that a friend of yours sculpts a piece of art, prepares a tasty dish, and weaves a colorful blanket and gives them all to you. You rip and twist the blanket to make a climbing ladder, you use the sculpture as the first-rung, and you throw the food to the dog, so they will not impede you climbing the ladder you built. Through these acts, you are not only rejecting the sculpture, the food, or the blanket. You are violating your relationship with your friend. Gratitude for her gift would be demonstrated in appreciation for the work of her hands, in care for it, and in proper use of all she has made. So it is with God's creation: gratitude, worship, adoration, is expressed through care for God's handiwork and proper use within the limits of what just and balanced ego existence.
In the current global system of irrepressible consumption goods are idolized, people are discarded, and the rest of creation is exploited. Even within the Church, there operates a functional paganism according to which worship is conceived as hardly more than an ingredient in Sunday services. Meanwhile, so much energy, imagination, personal and community longing are focused on achieving and accumulating those things that consumer society identifies as goods: more lavish church buildings; more powerful sound equipment; radio programs with greater coverage; more prominent political candidates. I don't know, maybe this doesn't happen in this country, surely does in Latin America. More. More. More. The race to the top is endless.
In this environment, it is urgent that we free ourselves from the myth of progress that only favors a few, and that we recognize the beauty of small things. We need to recognize that growth can be pathological and destructive. And you should read Schumacher, "Small is Beautiful". It is urgent that we nourish, in ourselves and in others, amazement before the Creator and wonder at what God has created. This wonder at who God is and at the intricate work of God's hands must translate into consciousness of limits and into the search for more sustainable ways of living that respect that creation. That is true worship. That is how we respond in love to God's love.
Love of Neighbor
Only a humbly worshipful posture before our Creator will put us in the proper place before the rest of creation, of which we're a small part, and at the same time, allow us to fulfill the second core commandment: love of neighbor, of all neighbors. "How can we say we love God if we despise our neighbor?" cries out the Apostle John. Now despise may be too strong a word. We may not want to describe in those terms our attitude towards the millions of people displaced today because of climate change, rising waters, the desertification. All of us, I mean after all, most of us are so insulated from those conditions, we've never even met their victims. We don't know them, let alone despise them. We are simply indifferent. We read the stats, we see the news blitz, perhaps we write a check to some charity as distant donors, but we so easily wash our hands. We avoid engaging with the deeper causes of the vulnerability of so many who do not have the means to insulate themselves from the impact of our plunder of the planet as we do.
And of course, we most certainly would never use the verb despise in relation to our beloved children, our grandchildren, our great-grandchildren. We are simply indifferent to the impact of our current lifestyle on future generations who will have to endure its consequences. If our love does not move us to guarantee sustainable living for the human and biotic community across the world and across time is it really love? In our willful blindness, we run the risk of being among those who on the last days will remain unrecognized when we ask, "Lord, when did we not feed you?"
Matter and End Times
Now, it is precisely theological perspectives about the future of this planet that can actually reinforce both our passive indifference and our exploitative action. While the Psalmist calls out, "Live on the earth and be faithful," much of our thinking is summed up in choruses and hymns like, "In the sweet by and by we have a home beyond the sun". Lyrics like this express another theological position that urgently needs to be revised. The expectation that the material world will be absolutely destroyed and the faithful will be drawn to some spiritual place beyond the sun responds more to a platonic philosophy than to biblical teaching. It is true that the world as we know it, the whole creation, suffers under the impact of sin and groans for its liberation. It is true that the biblical writers of both the New and Old Testament paint in bright colors the pictures of a new heaven and a new earth in which there will be no longer crying or pain or loss. It is true that Jesus promised to prepare dwellings for His followers.
At the same time, two other truths must be highlighted. First, in ancient Hebrew thought, and therefore in that of the first followers of Jesus, there was no such a thing as good souls detached from bad and condemned bodies. Although deeply affected by human rebellion against its creator, the whole creation in all its materiality is loved by God. And loved to such an extent the God even took on human body and stepped into the world, into history. After being executed, Jesus rose victorious over death and made himself known to his disciples, in his resurrected body, as the first fruit of the new creation. He showed them his wounds. He ate with them. He did not float like some ethereal soul. So first, matter- in all its intricate diversity and biotic interweaving-matter matters to God. And so it should to us. Further yet, Biblical hope points to the liberation and transformation of this world. As in the time of Noah, the world will pass through judgment and purification. But it will be preserved says Peter, 2 Peter 3:6,7. Scripture does not teach us to expect a rapture by means of which our souls will be whisked off to some other world. Rather, even as we groan along with all of creation for the necessary renewal of all things, we are called to live responsibly on earth here and now and to remain faithful to our missionary vocation.
Our last point for today has to do precisely with our part in God's mission. Living a just ecological coexistence is a prophetic dimension of mission. A few years ago, we were in a week-long retreat of Christian university students in Puerto Rico. The center where we stayed served us every breakfast, every lunch, and every dinner on styroxfoam dishes. When some of us suggested that we should do something about this, the leaders of the gathering said the following: "Don't bother with those ecological concerns that have nothing to do with our mission. We are Christians, not pagan pantheists of the new age." This position is not uncommon in the Latin American evangelical milieu, but in it there is a false dichotomy that urgently needs to be revisited theologically. It is true that, in contrast to those who worship the created things - whether stars, forces of nature, trees, animals- it's true that we recognize the difference between the Creator and that which was created and is being created. We affirm that not everything is God. But we also admit that the entire created order makes known its Creator and serves as its messenger. Psalm 104:3-4.
Far from being an expression of paganism then, the search for just, good, healthy relationships between humanity and the rest of creation, is an essential dimension of the mission of every Christian community. When the gears of global capitalism smash the great majorities, when the aridity of consumption calcifies hearts and incinerates consciences, when the agro-industrial machinery grinds down forests, co- modifies water, and enslaves entire people groups, followers of the God of life cannot remain unmoved. Facing reality out of a vision of God's reign and God's justice is part of the prophetic mission of the people of God in the world. The prophets of the Old Testament understood this, and many lost their lives. Jesus understood this, and he was executed. Prophetic mission is risky business. It involves announcing, denouncing, renouncing, and living alternatively.
Now a report from two months ago states the following: "At least 197 environmental activists and eco-defenders around the world were murdered in 2017." Nearly four deaths per week. The deaths included, for example, farmers murdered by soldiers while defending their ancestral lands from coffee plantations in the Philippines, an indigenous leader allegedly killed by rebels in Colombia, and wildfire rangers slain by poachers in multiple countries. One of the most infamous cases was the January 15, 2017 murder of Isidro Baldenegro Lopez, an indigenous activist in Mexico who had earlier won the Goldman Environmental Prize for standing up to illegal logging. Agri-business and mining were linked to 60% of 2017 deaths. How many of these, we might ask, how many of these people murdered for their defense of the land, and the earth, and its inhabitants-how many of them were Christians putting their own skin in the fray, not out of political ideology or partisan commitment, but out of a burning desire to care for every last corner and inhabitant of God's world?
We live in an intricate web of coexistence. And the loss of just one species has irreversible repercussions on all others. We need humility to recognize that we depend on the other members of the creation community, of which we are only a small part. Certainly, from the beginning, God entrusted humanity with the special task of cultivating the earth and leading in the care of the whole creation. However, that leadership must be modeled after the style of the Creator. Not with exploitative dominion, but with the loving concern for its welfare. Those of us who have grown up in urban cultures marked by modernity, technology, and developmentalism, have much to learn from the original inhabitants of our lands, who are much more aware of both the smallness of human beings in relation to the forces of nature, and of the absolute interdependence that exists between them and the other members of the created community. My friend Terry Leblanc, a native of the lands that are now called Canada, sums up that awareness: "Mention some time that you, Ruth, a human being, have given to the rest of creation more than it has given to you."
Finally, incarnating a prophetic presence as responsible members in the creation community demands unity. The call is not for individual heroes rewarded for their ecological struggle. This is a community matter, and it will only be corrected by the restoration of all relations. The scale and nature of the ecological problem is such that it demands that we join forces with other communities, our neighborhoods, our regions, to give a living testimony of the good news of the good creation of our good God.
In sum, the task of undoing the theological knots that are holding the Church of Jesus Christ from following the Spirit into this dimension of God's mission, is multi-faceted. We need to recover the breadth of the good news. Respond to our creator in grateful worship. Recognize that ecological implications of a love of neighbor. Live faithfully in the here and now, engaging in the prophetic mission of caring for God's handiwork. This is theological work to be done, not by some illumined elite in some ivory tower, but by all the people of God, from all walks of life. Far beyond an exercise in theological discourse, we need to allow the breath of life to breathe afresh into all our theological constructs, as well as gift and empower us to live here and now in light of God's love for the entire created order.
In conclusion, we need to recognize that the hope of a healthy world, able to sustain all its members, does not rest on any human achievement. At this point, we cannot but admit that much loss of life can only be mourned. We will not bring back those many species that we have made extinct or the millions of people who have lost their lives. We cannot save this world. Our only ground for hope is God's unending love for God's creation. God not only created but entered our beautiful and pained world. Triumphed, triumphed, through surrender over all dismembering forces and opened up the possibility of restored relationships between Creator and creation, and among the multiple members of the creation community. With that hope, tenuous as it may be at times, let us continue seeking to coexist justly as members of that community, knowing that we are not alone. Jesus, Lord over everybody and everything, is with us. He promised so. And the very spirit of God will continue yearning and groaning with us and with the entire creation until God's good purposes are finally fulfilled. And even the trees of the field will again clap their hands. Maybe it be so.