During the summer of 2011, singer songwriters Joe Mailander and Justin Lansing (also known as the Okey Dokey brothers) spent a month paddling the Mississippi River from Minneapolis to St. Louis. As they canoed and camped, they wrote the songs for their kid-friendly album, Can You Canoe? They produced both a CD and a DVD that present their bluegrass-style music born of a close encounter with the river. The DVD captures the stunning river scenery, of course, but it also draws the viewer into the goofy, child-like fun of Chubby Bunny by the campfire and silly bad jokes about barges. On their journey, the brothers meet Kenny Salwey, a chapped-faced, grey-bearded old man, in worn overalls. Salwey is known as the last river rat. He grew up in a family that lived from the wild land near the river, trapping and hunting and gathering wild herbs and roots. As an adult Salwey lived alone for nearly thirty years in a shack he built himself beside the river’s backwaters. One day, he discovered that he had a gift for storytelling, and eventually found a calling to share his knowledge of the river with a mainstream society grown dangerously disconnected from the natural world. (www.demoinesregister.com
Salwey gives the Okey Dokey brothers a tour of his old River Rat shack, summing up his philosophy this way:
“An outdoor experience evokes feelings. Feelings produce attitudes and values. Attitudes and values in turn create behavior. That’s what it’s all about – how we behave toward the natural world, toward the circle of life. We’re all joined together in that circle of life and we walk that circle hand in hand, eye to eye, heart to heart. With all things, not just beautiful things, like white tailed deer and bald eagles, wild flowers and butterflies, but unhuggable things like deer flies and mosquitos, snakes, bats, boot-sucking Mississippi mud I fall face first into once in a while, poison ivy… unhuggable things in that circle; still they’re necessary and we are fellow travelers with them… If we can learn to tolerate the unhuggable things in the circle of life, maybe, just maybe, we’ll learn to tolerate each other a bit better as well.” (The Okey Dokey Brothers, Can You Canoe DVD, © 2012 Okey Dokey Music LLC)
In the book of Leviticus, the Jewish tradition joins the chorus of sacred traditions in declaring a universal religious law: “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” Jesus offers a slightly different twist on this command, musing: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Here, Jesus makes clear his interpretation of the law, his understanding of the heart of the Jewish faith. There’s no wiggle room when it comes to neighbors. Our neighbors are not simply those who are physically near, or near through the bonds of friendship, family culture, faith, or politics. Even the enemy is a neighbor. Everyone is a neighbor. Neighbor, by extension, is also an ecological term. Even the “unhuggables” of nature are our neighbors: polar vortexes, paralyzing snow, drought, hurricanes, tsunamis. Jesus calls his followers to “be perfect” through love that truly encompasses all. This is not an urging to moral purity. Telos, the word translated as “perfect,” really describes the desired outcome or goal. It refers to the maturity of a person who lives out his or her true identity, who reaches the God-given potential implanted within each of us.
The mature love Jesus insists upon is not warm and fuzzy; it has a hard edge. This love endures grief, displays courage, sacrifices comfort. This love does not cooperate with evil. It does not grow panicky in response to others’ stress, fearful and cowering when violence is threatened, indifferent or apathetic in the face of obstacles. It confronts. It resists. It redeems. This love stands firm, with what Ghandi named “soul force.” The resistance of love is active, creative, and bold. It is powerful. But it is also non-violent, non-coercive.
A quick look at Jesus’ three case studies perhaps give us clearer idea what this love looks like in a practical sense. My analysis is based on the book by Walter Wink, Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way. Here, Jesus speaks to struggling peasants: poor, enslaved in debt, politically powerless. He advocates neither fight nor flight response. Instead, he encourages his followers to stand their ground with loving, creative, non-violent resistance.
Case study one: turn the other cheek. In those days, masters hit servants with the left hand, and social equals with the right hand. It is difficult to hit someone else’s left cheek with your right hand. So, in offering the left cheek, you are saying, your first blow failed to humiliate me. Hit me like an equal. Case study two: give your cloak as well as your coat. A person with only a coat to give as payment for a debt would have used that same coat to stay warm at night. Giving up one’s cloak, or undergarment, as well as the coat, leaves the defendant clowning around in the nude, a protest meant to unmask the injustice of such treatment and to bring shame on both the court and the debt collector. And finally, case study three: “go the secondmile” is a reference to a Roman law that allowed soldiers of the empire to conscript people in the occupied lands, forcing them to carry their heavy gear one mile at a time. Declining to stop at one mile, insisting on trekking a second mile, the conscript takes the initiative, refuses to be intimidated, and likely unnerves the soldier.
Today, we are joining the climate change preach-in, a national expression of creative, non-violent, and powerful resistance to climate change on the part of the faith community. The action we are asked to take as part of the preach-in, along with seventy other congregations in Minnesota, and hundreds nation-wide, is to show our support for the EPA’s new standards for carbon emissions from power plants. More on that during the offering time. There are also various possibilities for action we’re considering as First Church. The Board of Christian Involvement is exploring the idea of doing a comprehensive energy audit that takes into account all our building systems and possibilities for generating our own renewable energy on site. We’re also musing about perhaps being part of a community solar project here in Minneapolis—sharing the journey, the work and the cost with others.
Finally, our denomination, the United Church of Christ, here in Minnesota and nationally, is joining other faith communities, colleges and universities, and individuals, in a campaign to divest from fossil fuel companies. And I am currently organizing with others to ensure that the Pension Boards of the UCC offers a fossil-free option for its members. According to the website “Go Fossil Free,” “Fossil fuel corporations have five times more oil and coal and gas in known reserves than climate scientists think is safe to burn. We have to keep 80% of their fossil fuels underground to keep the earth in livable shape.” (http://gofossilfree.org/faq/) We know that the fossil fuel companies won’t be impacted much financially by this campaign. Divestment is primarily a moral and political strategy, which seeks to spark a big conversation about climate change, and to move our wider society toward action. The campaign is about loving our enemies enough to create a pathway for redemption that allows us all to live as neighbors. We are not trying to destroy the individuals who work for these companies, or those who use fossil fuel (all of us). We are seeking to transform these companies’ business models and reasons for being, so we can construct a new, sustainable, energy system.
As followers of Jesus, let us recognize that climate change is only a symptom of the root problem. The real evil at work is the failure to truly love our neighbors, all our neighbors—human and non-human neighbors, friend neighbors and enemy neighbors, as one integrated whole. Love is the connective tissue of creation; it is source of our systemic health. Without it, none of us can survive for long. Dr. King says this about Jesus’ command to love our enemies: “Far from being the pious injunction of a utopian dreamer, this command is an absolute necessity for the survival of our civilization. Yes, it is love that will save our world and our civilization, love even for enemies.” (http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/ encyclopedia/documentsentry/doc_loving_your_enemies/)