The prognosis for our planet is deeply troubling. Already we are witnessing such drastic events as roads melting and people dying under the scorching heat of the summer, droughts killing crops and drying up streams and other sources of potable water, monster storms relentlessly buffeting islands in the Caribbean and the Pacific, and blizzards dropping record breaking amounts of snow through out the North American continent. Things are not looking good for the prospects of life as we know it, and especially human life, in this blue planet that we call home. What is the church called to do in the midst of such overwhelming circumstances? Is there a word of hope, of credible hope, that the church can speak to our dying world?
Yes, says theologian and pastor Robert Saler in his article for this issue of JLE on the ecological crisis. But he warns us that we should not rush to hope too quickly lest we miss the true power of the gospel to sustain us even when there is no hope left. He finds in the music of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, “a devout Eastern Orthodox Christian who has mostly composed settings of liturgical and sacred texts,” an example of the power of what he calls a “bright sadness” (a term he borrows from Bouteneff). The particular way in which Pärt’s music interlaces silence and harmony evokes in the listener a paradoxical sense of sadness and hopefulness without breaking the tension between the two. Perhaps, Saler muses, that is why Pärt’s music is often heard among patients who are under hospice care. The church must learn to dwell with others in that space of sadness and resist the temptation to rush to hope too quickly. Only after patiently dwelling in that place of bright sadness can hope be seen and proclaimed.
In the second article of this issue, Archbishop Antje Jackelen’s sermon to the 2015 graduating class of the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, the primate of the church of Sweden reminds us that hopelessness does not just happen by accident but it can be used as a strategy by those who benefit from the status quo. She says: “One of the most lucrative businesses the evil one is engaged in is the killing of hope! The world is crying out for credible words of hope and for the works of love that the Gospel of Jesus Christ compels us to carry out, together with people of good will from many traditions.” Rather than allow ourselves to be paralyzed by the illusion of hopelessness we are mobilized by the power of faith and love. Thus we find joy even in the midst of such daunting prospects, and dare to act. She says:
[F]aith can generate a joy that may be hard to find elsewhere. Yes, changes of lifestyle will be needed. Yes, sacrifice will be needed. But who, if not people of faith, can be examples of joyful sacrifice? If material and intellectual choices are inspired by spiritual choices, we will find that the path to a climate-smart and climate-just life is not just a tough one, but also a joyful one.
The prognosis of our planet is indeed frightening. But the church does have a light to shine amidst that darkness. That invisible light shines forth as both a “bright sadness” and a joyful love that inspires us to act because in the end, if we are to be true to our deepest conviction, we walk by faith and not by sight.
Journal of Lutheran Ethics