Sunday, June 06, 2010

climate change, justice and social welfare. In 1 Kings?

I preached at the Corner Uniting Church this morning. The lectionary text was 1 Kings 17:8-16 and the more I studied the story, of Elijah and the widow of Zaraphath, the more impressed I began. It’s an ancient story, yet suddenly seemed to start speaking to climate change, social justice and missional theology today. Let me try to explain.

First, the story starts in drought and thus addresses climate change. In 1 Kings 17:1 :Now Elijah the Tishbite, from Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, “As the LORD, the God of Israel, lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word.”

Here in Australia, the Prime Minister is famous for suggesting that “Climate change is the great moral challenge of our generation.” I’m not wanting to debate the politics of the statement, simply to note how climate change is linked to human values and the decisions we make about how we live our lives.

Same for Elijah: that in his country “split into two factions.” (16:21); one wanting to follow Baal – fertility god, who sends rain to mark the end of drought. Another faction wanting to follow YHWH, the Lord of creation. So drought is framed as a moral issue – live in the way of YHWH? Or the way of Baal? Climate change becomes tied to cultural values and the decisions we make about how we live our lives.

Second, it’s a story about being missional. As a consequence of the drought, Elijah heads to Sidon: 1 Kings 17:7-9: “Some time later the brook dried up because there had been no rain in the land. Then the word of the LORD came to [Elijah]: “Go at once to Zarephath of Sidon and stay there.”

Sidon is a town mentioned in the previous chapter: 1 Kings 16:30: “Ahab …. married Jezebel daughter of [the] king of [Sidonians] and began to serve Baal and worship him.” So to spotlight the moral issue, Elijah heads to Sidon. To the place where Jezebel, the Kings wife was born, to the place where Baal worship is strong and thriving.

Often I see Christians tempted to flee from belief systems that are different from ours. Yet here Elijah heads for Sidon.

Third, the moral issue of sticks. Elijah finds a woman gathering sticks. Which introduces a second moral issue. Climate change impacts people.

To quote from a Bible commentary: “There were many widows in [Elijah’s] Isreal and the surrounding areas because of war and famine. Traditional family and village systems of support for widows had broken down since the king … had started buying up the land and corrupting village leaders. Prices for oil were high because they were chief export crops. This widow could not afford them anymore.”

They always talk in the news media about needing to find the human interest story. Well here in 1 Kings is the human interest story. YHWH, the God of the Old Testament, has a human interest in widows. This is surely theology at it’s best, locating God and the activity of the people of God in and among the poor and dispossessed. (And it doesn’t just happen once in Kings, but repeatedly).

Fourth community empowerment. I am fascinated by the way that Elijah doesn’t give her a handout. Instead he empowers her. Invites her to simply give what she’s got.

One book (Elijah and Elisha in Socioliterary Perspective) noted: “The key [to 1 Kings 17] is that [Elijah] does not do the miracle for [the widow] [Instead he] enables her to do it for herself.”

Here’s a way to work with the poor, in ways that do not leave them victims, but invited to use what they have got – the twigs they can collect, their flour and oil.

1 Kings 17: A text in which we see a God who cares about climate change, who invites us to do mission and theology in ways that bring to the fore the human interest stories of the poor, and to work with them in ways that empower.

Or am I pushing an ancient text too hard?

Posted by steve at 03:47 PM