From time to time, I’m asked to talk about sustainability in religious settings, which I love to do, because it seems to me that sustainability is in many ways the first commandment, implicit in God’s sense that the creation is very good (even before She created people). In any case, here’s one of those talks:
The Prodigal Son and the Pigs
My text today is the story of the prodigal son, told in the gospel of Luke:
There was a man who had two sons. The younger one told his father that he couldn’t wait for him to die, and that he wanted his share of the estate now. So Dad divided his property between the two sons. The younger son took his share and blew it all in wild living in a foreign country. After he had squandered his whole fortune, there was a severe famine in that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a farmer, who put him to work caring for pigs. The young man was so hungry that he wanted to eat the slop that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything. So he headed home.
While he was still a long way off, his father spotted him and was filled with compassion. So he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. The son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”
But the father said to his servants, “Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fatted calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” So they began to celebrate.
As you might imagine, the older brother was not too thrilled and refused to join them at the party. So his father went out and pleaded, but the older brother was not convinced “You must be out of your mind,” he said. “All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. But you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. And then when this son of yours who has squandered your fortune with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fatted calf for him!”
“My son,” the father said, “you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and now he is alive again; he was lost and is found.”
I’m the oldest brother in my family, so I have a peculiar relationship to this story. I know it’s about repentance and forgiveness, about justice and mercy, about law and love. But, frankly, it’s still not fair. It’s also not fair, when you think about it, to the fatted calf. But, lucky for you, I don’t really want to talk about that today. Instead I want to talk about the younger brother and the pigs.
The younger brother is us, the prodigal sons and daughters of a Creator who gave us first a planet and then a savior as a gift. The word prodigal means “recklessly wasteful and extravagant,” and as the recent reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggest, the people of the so-called developed world have practiced prodigality from the beginning of the industrial revolution until now. One reason for the wastefulness of the over-developed world is that we have an under-developed sense of stewardship, which gets us to the pigs.
The root of the word “stewardship” is the Middle English word “sty,” which is an enclosure for pigs. At first, a steward was simply the keeper of swine. Eventually, the word involved broader responsibilities, and the steward became the keeper of the hall. As we now understand it, a steward is a person who takes good care of something that belongs to someone else. And in a religious sense, a steward is a person who takes care of God’s creation, since all of it is God’s, including us.
So the first lesson of stewardship—and a hard one in a culture of capitalism, consumerism and private property—is that we don’t own anything. It’s all God’s, and when we bend nature or human nature from God’s purposes to our own, we’re not stewards but thieves. Genesis 2:15 suggests that we’re called “to till and keep” the earth. But as Larry Rasmussen points out in Earth Community, Earth Ethics, a better translation requires us to “serve and preserve” the creation—and not just the “natural resources” that serve and preserve us. As stewards, we can consume nature, but we can’t pig it all. As stewards, we can take from nature, but only if we always take care.
A second lesson of stewardship is that, etymologically at least, we’re called—like the younger brother—to take care of pigs. For most of us, this is not an attractive career choice—or even a practical one, since pigs are now manufactured, more or less, on factory farms. But if we go looking for the biggest pigs on the planet, we actually don’t need to look any further than the mirror. Currently, human beings use more than 40 percent of the biologically productive capacity of the earth for themselves. And Americans consume collectively more than anybody else in the world. Just five percent of the world’s population, we consume about 25 percent of the world’s resources. Like the younger brother, we take too much, in part because we take so much for granted.
So maybe we should consider stewardship in its original sense, and think of our responsibilities to be keepers of pigs—pigs who, in this case, happen to be ourselves.
In this definition, a steward would be someone who watches over the piggishness of human beings, and who tries to manage it for the good of God’s creation. Such stewardship involves the management of natural resources, but also the management of cultural resources, especially the cultural resources that conserve natural resources. Colleges and universities have traditionally served as stewards of cultural traditions, and they’re desperately needed again today, when the cult of novelty and a culture of consumption relentlessly replace the tried and true with the “new and improved.”
As cultural stewards, we need to take care of our piggishness by cultivating cultural values that cultivate restraint. In Earth Community, Earth Ethics, Larry Rasmussen suggests that stewardship is intimately connected to Sabbath. He suggests that Creation culminates not on the sixth day, when Adam and Eve are created, but on the seventh day, when Adam and Eve learn how to leave creation alone. The Sabbath, then, is not just a day of rest for people; it’s a day of rest for the rest of creation. It’s a day of restraint, a day of re-creation, a day in which we watch the world grow without our interference, a day in which we humbly acquiesce to God’s creative complexity. As stewards of the creation, therefore, our first duty is to learn how nature works, and then to figure out how to work with it.
As cultural stewards, we need to take care of our piggishness by telling stories about taking less, stories that counter the acquisitive nature of our culture. For more than a century, we’ve lived in a society of conspicuous consumption. Now it’s time for a culture of conspicuous frugality. Instead of praising each other for our new purchases, it’s time to exert peer pressure in favor of restraint, repair, and renewal. For more than a century, we’ve marveled at what people can do—and we’ve done it, with disastrous results. Now, it’s time to marvel at what people choose not to do.
As cultural stewards, we need to take care of our piggishness by cultivating institutions that can shape communities for the common good, including the common good of all God’s creatures. In the 20th century, we cultivated supermarkets and shopping centers and Wal-Mart. In the 21st century, we need to cultivate co-ops and repair shops and local businesses. In the 20th century, we cultivated an institutional infrastructure for cars and carbon consumption. In the 21st century, we need to cultivate institutions that replace fossil fuels with other energies, including our own. In the 20th century, we cultivated a politics of distrust, division and denial. In the 21st century, we’ll need to cultivate a politics of permanence based on common work for the common good. In the 20th century, we cultivated an economics of unlimited growth. In the stewardship century, we’ll need to cultivate what Bill McKibben calls a “deep economy”—one that looks not to the bottom line, but to the bottom half, where the endangered species—both human and natural—cry out for economic development based on harmonizing human development with the natural rhythms of the beautiful blue-green planet. In the 20th century, we cultivated our hubris, with disastrous results. In the 21st century, it’s time for humility, and the attentiveness to natural cycles that it allows. In short, the 20th century was the age of the so-called “economic miracle.” But the 21st century will be the age of the ecological revolution, nesting the human economy gently within nature’s economy.
To put it another way, in the 21st century, stewardship becomes vocation and vice versa. All of our work—including the work of consumption, where most Americans change the world most dramatically—must, in the words of Genesis, serve and conserve the gardens of creation. Our vocation isn’t just what we get paid for—it’s what we do in our lives to serve the common good, and the commons good, the good of the global commons that we share with all of God’s glorious creatures. And that might mean that an essential part of our vocation today is to create the vocations of tomorrow by transforming public policy and the economy so that people do get paid to serve and conserve God’s creation. Instead of providing perverse subsidies to corporations that undermine the health of natural communities, including our own, we might direct public money—the money of “we the people”—to projects of restoration and regeneration.
At the beginning of the ecological revolution of the 21st century, we all have work to do. We have pigs—and piggishness—to take care of.