By Ragan Sutterfield
The current level of atmospheric carbon is just above 411 parts per million–a level that is catastrophic and rising. While little has been done, the efforts of most institutions both governmental and non-governmental have treated the problem like a math equation. Cut fossil fuels by X amount. Increase forest carbon sinks by Y. Problem solved. But the problem has not been solved any better than the problem of a person who counts calories but does not trust in the goodness and value of their own body. We have failed to recognize that carbon is not the problem; that it is only the symptom of an underlying disease of our habits and hearts, a matter of our affections more than arithmetic.
The guiding morality of our day has largely been a kind of utilitarianism, that philosophy of the industrial age that sought to calculate the greatest happiness for the greatest number. As Paul Kingsnorth has noted, “environmentalism is as much a victim of the contemporary cult of utility as every other aspect of our lives, from science to education.” We have lost our love for the wild, for particular places and people, and instead advocate for abstract “sustainability” that cheers the rise of “renewable” power and electric cars while lithium mines rip open the earth to toxic effect and windmills kill over 140,000 birds each year. If you love the landscape where that mine is or the birds who fall victim to machines occupying their ancient migratory paths, then it becomes clear that we need a return to an ethic of affection.
I begin with this because our gospel for this Sunday has much to say to this problem of utility. The conflict between the way of Mary and the way of Judas in this story from John’s Gospel seems to represent the two possibilities open to us–the way of effectiveness and utility and the way humility and affection.
Judas, bracketing John’s caveat about his theft, was a utilitarian. He counted costs and calculated benefits. For him the world could be broken down into units of goodness and so it would be easy to calculate what choice was best; what decision was most rational according to the equations of economic gain. His concern is not for particular poor people, but for “the poor.” The generalized needy who could be served by a total of meals served, beds filled, healthcare units distributed. For him, a lump of nard, is an object contained within a market value–easily converted into an abstract price that, if used the right way, could obtain an equally abstract good.
But Mary shows us a different way. Costs and its calculations do not concern her. Instead, she is guided by affection–love for the one who is before her, whose value is beyond any price. Her love then, is excessive, as is the case with any good gift. The gesture of her anointing is meant not to show just how valuable Jesus is to her, but to show how impossible it would be to fix any value to such a person. Nard, this aromatic of the Himalayas, is then simply a token of the infinite love that exceeds the bounds of any mathematics.
If there is any hope for the creation, or any form of its abundance that includes humanity within it, I find it in the way of Mary–the way of affection. It was the novelist Jonathan Franzen who helped me articulate the need for this way of love in terms of the ecological crisis. Franzen is an avid birder–a topic about which he has written frequently for the New Yorker magazine. It was in one such essay, “Carbon Capture,” that Franzen unsettled the standard climate change narrative and questioned whether conservation might be losing out to concerns focused solely on CO2.
Franzen’s problem with the narrative of climate change is that it tends to engage with a problem outside of the scale of human competence and affection; operating on the level of the abstract institution, the government or the corporation, rather than on the level of the personal or local. “It defies individual resistance, creates big winners and big losers, and tends toward global monoculture,” he wrote. “Under the shadow of vast global problems and vast global remedies smaller-scale actions on behalf of nature can seem similarly meaningless.”
Franzen admits that for many years he was paralyzed by the overwhelming challenge of the climate crisis. He couldn’t drive anywhere or buy anything without guilt and anxiety. Franzen felt like a puritan before the pulpit of an apocalyptic preacher where he heard the message: “coming soon, some hellishly overheated tomorrow, is Judgment Day. Unless we repent and mend our ways, we’ll all be sinners in the hands of an angry Earth.” And like many religious people who grew up with such a harsh gospel, he left the faith for a time, living with little care for conservation or climate change simply because he couldn’t handle the anxiety they caused.
The change in his care for the Earth came when he began to watch birds. By paying attention to this beautiful and varied corner of creation, his affection was cultivated. He began to be concerned about deforestation, but not just any deforestation. He began to care about the destruction of specific forests in Appalachia where Cerulean warblers breed. His actions on behalf of those forests were motivated not because of some abstract carbon count, but because he’d come to love a specific creature who lived there. “[W]hen I started watching birds, and worrying about their welfare,” Franzen writes, “I became attracted to a countervailing strain of Christianity, inspired by St. Francis of Assisi’s example of loving what’s concrete and vulnerable and right in front of us.”
Franzen discovered that the way to live in this world changing time is to pay attention to the small and specific and to let our attention lead to affection. “[W]hen you go out and put yourself in real relation to real people, or even just real animals,” Franzen once wrote, “there’s a very real danger that you might love some of them.” What Franzen gives voice to here is what Mary shows us how to do: love those in front of us with all we have. It is only through such affection that “the poor”–impoverished people and impoverished places–will no longer be among, not because there is no longer any lack, but because they are loved and named.
Ragan Sutterfield is an Episcopal priest in the Lower Arkansas River Watershed, the historic territory of the Quapaw tribe. He is the author, most recently, of Wendell Berry and the Given Life.
Wild Lectionary is a weekly blog on ecological justice themes in the revised common lectionary, curated by Laurel Dykstra, gathering priest of Salal + Cedar, Coast Salish Territory.