John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D. is Professor of Theology Emeritus at the Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, California, and Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies there. His many books currently in print include: Reclaiming the Church (1997); with Herman Daly, For the Common Good; Becoming a Thinking Christian (1993); Sustainability (1992); Can Christ Become Good News Again? (1991); ed. with Christopher Ives, The Emptying God: a Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation (1990); with Charles Birch, The Liberation of Life; and with David Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (1977). He is a retired minister in the United Methodist Church. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org..
This sermon was preached at Canada Memorial UCC in Vancouver, BC on July 15, 2007. This material was prepared for Religion-Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
There was a time when the West took great efforts to protect the poor and weak, but today the rich and powerful work to advance their interests, rather then seeking justice for the poor and week. What is possible for those who survive is to live locally and in community with others who have the same values rather than those of the self-destroying society around us.
As I read the passages of scripture in the lectionary for today, I found myself identifying most with the author of this psalm. Obviously I cannot do so in any literal way, but I doubt that the original author was literal in intention either. He, assuming it was a man, may have thought more literally than I of a heavenly council presided over by the God of Israel. But I am confident that he did not really claim to know the exact content of what transpired there. Clearly he was projecting his own hopes and wishes.
He was writing at a time when the rich trampled on the poor and the powerful on the weak. This was the context of much of the writing of the Hebrew Scriptures. But he could not accept this as simply the way things are. He believed that his God wanted something else. He pictured the God of Israel speaking to the other gods and chiding them for taking the wrong side. Apparently they have been in charge of things. But the God of Israel declares that though they are gods in some sense, they do not have the immortality that they suppose. They will perish. Presumably when they are gone the world will change. The justice of the God of Israel will rule.
Thirty or forty years ago, I might have held this psalm in the background and focused on the passage from Colossians. Here we have the same dramatic contrast of the world of injustice and that of justice. The latter is being realized in the new congregations of believers in Jesus. Jesus himself contrasted the basileia theou with the Roman Empire, characterized by oppression and exploitation. This is usually translated as Kingdom of God, but I like to translate it as the divine Commonwealth. Paul did not emphasize the divine basiliea as Jesus did, but in the lectionary reading from Colossians, we read of the basiliea of God’s beloved son in contrast to the "power of darkness" from which believers have been rescued. Although the congregations of Jesus’ followers no doubt fell short of their ideal of mutual love, those who participated in them knew a profound difference from the larger society. In general, within these communities people were not judged unjustly, partiality was not shown to the wicked, justice was given to the weak and the orphan, the right of the lowly and destitute was maintained, and the weak and the needy were rescued and delivered from the hand of the wicked.. In short, the hopes of the psalmist were realized.
It would be possible to trace the history of the West in terms of efforts to protect the poor and weak. It would be a checkered history. Responsibility for such protection was long in the hands of the church. Gradually in the modern world it was transferred to the state. In Europe and North America and Japan it reached its highest point in the nineteen seventies. In many countries, degrading poverty was virtually abolished. In many countries the role of government was far more to protect its weak citizens than to exploit them. Of course, there was much wrong with the world of the seventies, but the sphere in which the weak and needy were being helped was growing.
In the United States at that time we were becoming conscious of our crimes not only against Africans, but also against Native Americans and Mexicans and many immigrant groups, of our patriarchal oppression of women, and of our share of responsibility for the Holocaust. We were also acknowledging our degradation of the Earth itself. We certainly did not feel that we had arrived. Yet just because of all this recognition of our sins, we could finally have claimed that, in light of Jesus’ message of the divine Commonwealth, we were repenting. In that context I could have picked up a theme of the social gospel at the beginning of the century that in large parts of the world the commonwealth of God was being realized.
Alas, today I cannot view history in that promising light. On some fronts there has been progress, but at deep levels the direction of events has been reversed. The poor have reappeared in most countries, and governments have become instruments of the rich and powerful working to advance their interests, rather than seeking justice for the poor and weak.
In the United States, even if discrimination on the basis of race and gender has declined, class lines and the manipulation and exploitation of labor limit the possibilities for many of the same people. The brief glimpse we had of the possibility of justice for the poor and weak is a fading memory. The rich and powerful have a tighter control over our society, government and its foreign policy, both political parties, business and finance, the health industry, the educational system, the media, and the courts than ever before.
Worst of all, the promise of the early seventies with regard to ecology was not realized. It seemed then that we might truly repent of our profligate ways, our exhaustion of natural resources, and our pollution of our environment, and that we might reorder life in harmony with nature. Congress passed encouraging legislation, and if in successive years we had built on that, real change in our culture and our economy might have occurred. But that burst of legislative activity proved to be, not the beginning of transformation, but the only real step forward that our government would ever take. The most that environmentalists have been able to do since then is to beat back efforts to weaken such legislation as the clean air act, the requirement of environmental impact reports, and the endangered species act that were passed at that time. The crises, about which "alarmists" warned us then, are now upon us, and we have done almost nothing to prepare for them. The "bottom line" still takes precedence over a livable Earth.
In the image of Psalm 82, whatever we claim to do in our churches, as a people we have worshipped the gods against whom the God of Israel speaks in the council. These gods, these powers and principalities, are very powerful, but they cannot save us. Instead, as God says in Psalm 82, they will die. Only the God of Israel will live on.
The assurance that God lives on is our hope. But for what, more concretely, can we hope? The psalmist hoped that God would rise up and judge all the nations. He hoped that this judgment would end the injustices of the society in which he lived. Of course, that would not undo all the past injustices. Today, even more seriously, it would not restore the losses in soil, forest cover, water, and species that have already occurred or prevent the destructive changes in weather that our past actions have already made inevitable. Since, even now, when debates about the fact of global warming is largely over, no nation is considering taking the really drastic actions that might significantly reduce the catastrophes that lie ahead, it seems that we are all too likely to experience judgment for our collective sins. Sadly, those least responsible will suffer most.
Fortunately, elsewhere in the Hebrew scriptures the focus is not so narrowly on judgment. There is also the note of renewal and redemption. In the New Testament this note is clearly primary. If the true God is the God of redemption and renewal, what then can we hope for?
Jesus said we could hope for the divine Commonwealth. I described above the experience of his early followers as participating in communities that cared for all of their participants and exploited none of them. I went on to speak of how, as the church grew and became a dominant force in society, the church and later the nation took some responsibility to protect the weak and powerless. I said that in the seventies it was possible to hope that the spirit of Christ was transforming all society, bringing forth repentance for our many crimes and calling us forward to becoming sustainable societies.
My account pointed to a duality or tension in the understanding of the divine Commonwealth. On the one hand, when Jesus said that the divine Commonwealth was at hand, he meant that those who heard him could choose to live from it rather than according to the expectations of the Roman Empire. The communities that Paul brought into existence actualized this contrast.
This did not do away with the factual domination of society by Rome, although it threatened the Roman authorities sufficiently that they crucified Jesus and persecuted his followers. Nevertheless, both Jesus and Paul seemed to expect that, in one way or another, the new order they proclaimed would triumph publicly over Rome. The Christian mission was never simply to be the church. When the church became a powerful force in the larger society, it tried in various ways to affect it.
The tension is then between two images of God’s saving work. On the one hand, God is drawing us out of societies ruled by the false gods or principalities and powers into communities that live by love and justice. On the other hand, God is calling these communities, and each of us as members of them, to participate in the salvation of the world God loves.
Most of my life I have placed emphasis on the second of these foci. My concern for the salvation of the world intensified as my eyes were opened to the danger to the whole planet resulting from human excesses. I addressed the church first, in hopes that the church, by repenting, would helpfully participate in a wider repentance. In some ways I am proud of the church’s response. In many of its institutional expressions it has repented. But the effect of this repentance even on the behavior of its members has been minimal. In the 1970s, a Canadian, Jitsuo Morikawa, made heroic efforts to involve the American Baptists as a denomination in real lifestyle changes. But little followed, and no other denomination even tried.
We Christians, even those who are genuinely committed and worship God rather than wealth, are more shaped in our day-to-day choices by the economy than by the teaching of the church. And in the economic guild and in the great transnational corporations there has been no real repentance. The highly touted globalization of the economy has taken us in exactly the wrong direction.
It is now too late to avoid social disruptions on an enormous scale. Where the earth can no longer support the people, they will move at whatever cost. But there is no place for them to go. And the food surpluses with which we now feed refugees will disappear. Famines will be followed by disease and violent struggle. In many parts of the world, top down order will break down. In such a context, what is the meaning of turning to God? What can we hope from God? What can be our Christian message?
I suggest that this message may now need to focus on the first and primary meaning of Jesus’ proclamation of the nearness of the divine Commonwealth. The effort to work with God for the salvation of the world reached its peak in the early seventies. The door of seeming opportunity then closed. The false gods resumed their domination of the planet. Now they are destined to die, but there is little chance that this will be an opportunity for a new world order of peace, justice, and sustainability. The collapse that destroys them will destroy much else.
What is now possible and will remain possible for those who survive is to live locally and in community with others from the values of God’s Commonwealth rather than of the self-destroying society around us. That was difficult in the Roman Empire. It is difficult in the American Empire. It will be more difficult in the time of trials that looms ahead. But it will provide the kind of joy that is still possible when things fall apart.
The most promising movements in the world today have come together in the World Social Forum. Their slogan is "Another World is Possible." What they mean is much the same as what Jesus meant in his proclamation of the nearness of the divine Commonwealth. For the most part these movements work locally to bring about justice and sustainability for small groups of people many of whom are experiencing already profound threats to their lives and their livelihoods. They have not given up hope that the overall global system may change instead of collapsing, but they are ready either way. They do not despair, although they do not base their hopes on guidance from national and global leaders. They do what they can where they can and adjust to new situations, however negative they may be. This is the life of faith, hope, and love to which we, too, are called.