Is the Prince of Peace Bad for the King of the Jungle?

There’s something still stuck in my head from Advent. I’ve thought about it before, but for some reason the question is sticking with me longer this year (probably because I’m also reading an old book by Holmes Rolston III). The thought is this: What do we do with Isaiah’s peaceful vision? Is the arrival of the Prince of Peace bad news for environmental ethics? It seems an odd question at first. Within the current political alignment, concerns for peace are often allied with concerns for the environment. And in the annual run-up to Christmas churches typically work their way through some of the prophetic passages in Isaiah, the ones that New Testament writers then link to Jesus of Nazareth. Preachers like myself then tie the radical enemy-love of Jesus with Isaiah’s picture of predator and prey living peacefully together. Lion and calf, wolf and lamb, leopard and kid, bear and cow, baby and asp—they are all put together in the nursery of Isaiah 11. And we think this depicts a great future.

In a violent world like our own, this vision of peace is one we welcome. Wouldn’t it be great if all of creation, even animals, stopped killing each other? Wouldn’t that be the sort of place we’d want to live? Isn’t that something worth hoping for? This is the hope embodied by Jesus—or so I find myself preaching each Advent. But every time I give a sermon like that the thought gnaws at me: Isn’t this kind of hopeful talk a disparagement of nature as it is? Why is a world where animals kill each other not good enough (and this reality goes to the core of the biosphere we inhabit)? How is my peaching Isaiah’s hope different from every other so-called “development” project?

I’ve long thought that there was something unstable or too-easy about the relationship of Christian pacifism and ecological justice. I think this is it. We can imagine building peace among human communities without devastating them, but that’s not possible with ecological communities. A vegetarian wolf is not a real wolf, it’s a zoo exhibit. Can Isaiah’s readers not affirm the goodness of God’s creation as it is? Do we have to put on our eschatological development goggles to see the goodness of lions and bears and sharks?

I know I’m not the first person to have been troubled by this, but I’m not yet satisfied with the answers I’ve seen. Some theologians seriously think they’re doing environmental ethics a favor by envisioning animal vegetarianism. The essential problematic is the theological question of continuity/discontinuity between this world and the renewed creation. It’s how we write the story forward from here. But to put it that way is too conceptual. It’s like ethicists who fail to consider the actual lives of the ‘issues’ they’re pondering. The good news, on a personal level at least, is that I’ve got about eleven months to ponder the question before the Advent carousel brings these passages around again.

 

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