Global Burning and the Christ Fire: A Riff on Luke 12:49-56 by Steve Heinrichs
Spirited Reflection by Steve Heinrichs, Director, Indigenous Relations, Mennonite Church Canada
“I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed! 51 Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” He said to the crowd: “When you see a cloud rising in the west, immediately you say, ‘It’s going to rain,’ and it does. And when the south wind blows, you say, ‘It’s going to be hot,’ and it is. Hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky. How is it that you don’t know how to interpret this present time?
The crowds in Jesus’ day must have been a heck of a lot smarter than we are. Sure, they struggled to grasp the wild word of reorientation that he threw their way (see Luke 12:35-48), but they understood – as Jesus admits with exasperation – how to exegete the promises of earth and the threats of sky (vv. 54-56). Clouds are coming – quick, pull out your umbrella! It’s going to rain. South wind blows – grab sunscreen and shades! It’s going to be hot. They got that. So let’s give credit where credit is due. They didn’t get that demanding Christ-word (v.48), but at least they understood the word that the world was speaking to them. We don’t seem to get either.
The crisis that we – “the crowds” of the 21st century – face, is well known. It’s spoken in movies and TV shows, it’s named in classrooms, preached in pulpits and shouted in books…and for those of us who aren’t so insulated, it’s right there, visibly etched all over earth mother, utterly palpable in polluted skies. We all know what’s happening. But for good measure, here’s the macabre litany one more time:
Every day, one hundred and fifty species that the Creator made are driven extinct by industrial culture.
Indigenous languages – languages the Creator continuously celebrates (see Rev. 7:9) – are going faster than the slaughter of all those nonhuman species.
90% of the ocean’s large fish have been fished out over the last one hundred and fifty years. Some scientists are saying that they will be all gone in fifty years.
The Arctic ice cap is now ice free in the summer because we’ve ratcheted up global temperatures with all those fossil-fuel CO2s. It will be completely gone in as little as twenty or thirty years.
The experts agree – we can’t up earth temps by more than two degrees, or we are cooked. We’ve already upped it by a degree, and the fossil fuel fire shows no signs of abating.
Sorry Jesus. I know you were eager to set some kindling. But someone beat you to it. The dominant culture has “brought fire to the earth” (v.49); a fire that is accelerating with rapacious ferocity; a fire that will destroy the planet unless it is extinguished. And soon.
“You know,” says the Master, “how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky” (v. 56).
Sorry Jesus. We don’t know how. We have no clue. The world is being crucified – we know it. The facts are beyond doubt. Some of us have seen it and felt it too. But we do nothing, or precious little. We do not interpret and respond appropriately – with shock and deep lament and with a determination to do what is right, just and loving. It’s business as usual. And the world bleeds and cries and dies.
But surely some of us are doing something? Some of us can’t bear such a bloody indictment?
Of course, there are those who faithfully watch and pray, write letters and sermons, do vigils and offer education and more education and more education. There are some who even act mildly disobedient (nonviolently, of course) to make a difference. We lift our hands to them.
Yet, I think I hear the voice of Jesus saying,
“You hypocrites! Can’t you read the times?” The 150 each day, the arctic gone, the 2% burn, the judgment that’s coming? The situation is critical. It demands radical action – a prophetic program that will strive to liberate the creation, even if it gets us into trouble with state and church (see vv. 51-53), even if it gets us “baptized,” cross-wise, like our Christ (see v. 50).
Yet that’s too much, isn’t it? So we continue to write a few more letters and a provocative lectionary commentary. We cross hearts, prayerful fingers, and hope.
Jeremiah 23, another uncomfortable text assigned to us this day, offers a clue. There we read of court prophets tossing out visions of a better future to the powers and populace in the face of a Babylonian induced meltdown. These chaplains of the “Jerusalem/Anerican/Canadian Dream” have heard the grave predictions of the Jeremiahs and the Jensens and the McKibbens (and all those Indigenous peoples!) – predictions backed by covenant, supported by judicious facts – but deep down, they don’t believe it. Can’t believe it. Of course, the government makes a couple of reports, even calls for a Royal Commission. Of course, the temple/church conducts a few retreats and some lectio divina classes on the relevant Scriptures. But in the end, it is concluded that those fiery words are just too pessimistic to be true. God won’t let that happen. God loves us, God loves Israel, God loves this chosen dwelling place too much. And so shut eyes and ears to the signs all around, and repeat after me: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manners of thing shall be well.” (Please, forgive us Ms. Norwich).
But they were wrong. All wasn’t well. God allowed Babylon to burn Jerusalem down. Untold catastrophe; billions decimated. All because those sincere church leaders wouldn’t embrace the dark truth and act on it.
Are we not like the prophets of Jeremiah’s day?
I hate being harsh, so let me make it personal. I am like those damned dreaming prophets. I am clinging to promise-box Bible verses (Romans 8? Revelations 22?) that Jesus will save the day and this earth; I’m clinging to the hope that green energy and tech savvy can get us through; and when I’m more desperate, I trust that faithfulness, not effectiveness (a common refrain amongst us Mennonites) is what really counts…and maybe, just maybe, resurrection life will rescue our mother from the tomb.
I think I’m sincere. But maybe I am a hypocrite (i.e., guilty of self-deception). Maybe something much more is needed to address this creation crisis. Maybe Jesus is right, and it’s time to light the kindling. Maybe a bunch of us have to add to our repertoire of prayer and education another set of strategies and bold actions. Maybe we need to “undergo a baptism” too (Luke 12:50) as we seek to respond to “the present time” (v.56) with faith, yes, but also some costly effectiveness.