By Kendra Langdon Juskus
*This is the second post in a series of creation care community responses to a Derrick Jensen article in Orion Magazine. Read part one here.
What lies beneath
So Jensen’s understanding of personal responsibility is reductionist and over-simplified, his logic in undermining personal action is faulty, and his interpretation of human nature is at once indulgent and short-sighted. But what is so dangerous about all of this?
Many readers complain that Jensen doesn’t solve the double bind he explains at the start of his article. Others who give the article a cursory read assume that his solution lies in policy change and political activism. And Jensen does acknowledge that community-oriented, political action is important, but his conviction is that its goal should be to undermine and destroy existing “intellectual, moral, economic, and physical infrastructures.”
What is dangerous about these words is not that they advocate for change, or the envisioning of just systems, or even the dismantling of destructive forces. What is dangerous is their implicit segregation of “us” and “them,” and the inference that “we” are right, good, and righteous, and “they” are wrong, evil, and unjust. Writes Jensen, “ . . . acting decisively to stop the industrial economy is very scary for a number of reasons, including . . . the fact that those in power might try to kill us if we seriously impede their ability to exploit the world.”
As Christians, we hold in our hands the fragile paradox that we are all sinners, and yet we are saved. We are made from earth by the spirit, with the breath of the Living God in our lungs of dirt. It is blessed knowledge to be aware that we are capable of much good, but also much evil. That knowledge spares us from unequivocally trusting in humanity and allowing ourselves to fall into the trap of self-righteousness that has snatched up Derrick Jensen here. At the same time, it frees us to flesh-out hope, trusting only in God.
Where Jensen advocates for tearing down, he will have to rebuild. And even he is fallen enough that any systems he puts in place will be cracked and faulty and unfair in their own way. In the process, he will have trampled the good of technology, industry, and government along with the bad. He will also have trampled those who are, according to him, wrong, evil and unjust. We know his willingness to go to these lengths from his own closing words:
“ . . . the role of an activist is not to navigate systems of oppressive power with as much integrity as possible, but rather to confront and take down those systems.”
When justice (or one’s interpretation of justice) becomes an idol, and is meted out unaccompanied by love, mercy, or humility, it can easily transform into injustice. In any action, if your integrity is sacrificed to destroy even “the destroyer,” then you become the destroyer, instead.
Is being human, and capable of sin even as we are being perfected in Christ, cause then to give up? Are we in a new sort of double bind, where neither personal responsibility nor grand achievements are worthwhile if they come from our broken hands?
Ironically, Jensen helps us answer this question. He begins and ends his article with remembering the remarkable changes wrought in our society by the defeat of Nazi Germany, the abolition of slavery, the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Jensen invokes these historical benchmarks to demonstrate that great, healing change arises out of mass, popular activism. But I use them for a different purpose. These societal shifts call to mind the soul-searching struggle and ultimate sacrifice of Dietrich Bonhoeffer; the personal discipline, communal intentionality, and public courage of William Wilberforce; and the ardent faith and bold, creative persistence of Dr. Martin Luther King.
Yes, these are individuals—and there are many more like them—whose personal disciplines and lifestyles became manifest in dramatic social change. That is a point that could be made in defense of personal responsibility. But more importantly, these individuals—and the many more like them—were grounded, albeit not always perfectly, in the humility, love, and sacrifice of Christ. Whatever good came of any of their actions came from Christ. Their call was first to obedience, and second to change. This is the right ordering of things, and while it in no way excuses us from doing something, it reminds us of why we do it. We are called to pursue faithfulness, not success. In our faithfulness, God brings the success he desires.
In 2006, Orion printed another article of Derrick Jensen’s, entitled “Beyond Hope” (be forewarned that this article contains profanity). It is the author’s quixotic attempt at convincing the reader that hope is an airy-fairy distraction that prevents us from engaging in meaningful action. The dramatic irony lies in the fact that the reader of faith sees that in portraying what he thinks hope isn’t, Jensen in fact describes what hope is.
Hope is action. And no, it doesn’t stop in our showers, or in our hybrid cars, or in our backyard organic gardens. But neither does it start with a vision of trampling and destroying. It doesn’t start with hubris. It starts with love. “ . . . Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know. But the man who loves God is known by God” (1 Cor. 8:1b-3). God knows what we need. And, in that mystery of his sovereignty and our faithfulness, may he bring it to be.