Extractive Theology

Extractive Theology

The past 5 weeks or so I’ve been participating in a cross-class dialogue circle lead by Equity Solutions. A few weeks ago, one of our homework assignments was to read a zine called “From Banks and Tanks to Cooperation and Caring” that discusses practices of an extractive economy. It looks at the various ways that both people and the planet have been misused in service of making money. From clear-cutting (which turns a renewable resource into a non-renewable resource) to genocide and slavery, an economy that views accumulation (and consolidation of weath) as its end goal will extract whatever it needs to get there. Extractive industries seek deregulation because it allows them to accumulate wealth faster. And by “them” I mean primarily the top executives. Extractive industries like coal extract both from the planet and from the very lives of the people doing the work in a very real and visible way, but many industries are extractive in that they don’t pay their base workers a living wage and people are going without health care and mental health care trying to make ends meet.

In this, these industries are extracting their profits from the very lives of their base employees in order to create and consolidate wealth at the top. And people are trapped within this system because the alternative is starvation and homelessness.

With all this sitting in the back of my mind as I contemplate what economic justice looks like, it occured to me as I look at American Christianity, that the practices that allow people calling themselves followers of Jesus to come to some really bad conclusions are by nature extractive theology.*

Extractive theology allows pastors and congregations to take things not only out of context (proof-texting) and to come to Scripture with their own preconceptions wholly unexamined, looking for a “Biblical” rationale for their beliefs (eisegesis), but it allows them to marry those practices and create an entire pseudo-theological framework that looks on the whole very unlike the savior it claims to follow.

I’ve used this term a few times in tweets and in last week’s blog post, and I’m working on a loose series of posts, some of which are already scheduled. I want to explore both concepts around American Christianity (because this is my context, there are certainly other iterations of this in different places in the world) and my own story coming out of an American Christian background. I’m going to use the two words “American Christianity” together consistently to talk about this brand of Christianity because it crosses some denominational lines and isn’t exactly articulated anywhere, though there are certainly more explicit examples available, but it often lives in the negative space of what is articulated. But just as any large shadow is cast by a large object, sometimes looking at the shadow and where it comes from it absolutely vital.

And if you watch Doctor Who, you know to pay very close attention to the shadows, because if you don’t, the shadows will literally eat you (Silence in the Library).

*I came up with this term as you see above and I hadn’t seen it anywhere before but while I created the hashtag #extractivetheology, I did find a reference where it occurs in a book called Rooted and Grounded: Essays on Land and Christian Discipleship. I think I’ll have to pick that up because the google books preview is incomplete and I don’t know if they mean what I mean by the term, so it’ll be interesting to find out.

Life Verses and the End of Time

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As a teenager in the 90’s at a non-denominational, evangelical megachurch, I joined several prominent movements among the youth of that day. I signed a “purity pledge” to go be strung on a pole at some national event, I wore a “promise ring” and I had a life verse. Far from in depth studies of context in scripture, single verses or groups of verses formed the content of our Bible studies, our youth group talks, and the sermons we heard on Sunday mornings (and evenings for the very spiritual among us). I was hooked on church and the independence it gave me as it was one of the few places I went regularly without my parents (at least for Sunday evening service, Wednesday evening youth group, and Friday evening cell group meetings).

I felt like I’d discovered my life verse on my own while reading, but its prominent placement on merchandise in every Christian bookstore makes me think I probably didn’t. Depending on your background, you probably know the one I mean. Yes, it was Jeremiah 29:11, “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” (NIV). And yes, you read that right, I’d landed at one of those progressive mega churches. By progessive I mean they’d moved all the way from the New King James to the NIV.

And I wasn’t alone in this shared verse, like so many other approaches to individuality, we somehow had all ended up with something almost identical. And while we talked about the hope it gave us etc, I never remember talking about Jeremiah 29:10. You know, the one where Jeremiah is delivering the message to the nation of Israel that the exile they found themselves currently in was going to be seventy years long.

Yes, God has plans for your future. Some of those plans mean you might die in exile. The plans for the future are communal, sweeping, future-oriented and not necessarily interpreted as good news to those longing for a return to their homeland.

Putting this in our context today, it’s not that God doesn’t have plans to give you a future and to give you hope, it’s that some of our hope is eschatalogical. This means some of it involves understanding the hope that comes from knowing that in the end, God makes all things new. In the end, justice is served to everyone, and that justice is God’s merciful justice. In the end, relationships are restored between us and God, between each other, and between us and creation. All things are made new.

And we are in the midst of that in some ways, striving for shalom: for right relationships, striving towards renewal of creation, striving for justice and human thriving. But this work began long before us and will go on after us, only coming to completion in the new earth.

It’s not that plans to give you a future and a hope can’t be read on an individual level, it’s that as Bryan Stevenson put it, “We have no wholeness outside of our reciprocal humanity” (Just Mercy, p. 290). If you go back a couple more verses in chapter twenty-nine, you find instructions for the people to settle down, plant gardens, get married, and learn to thrive where they are, even though it’s not where they wanted to be. There are specific instructions to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jer. 29:7 NRSV).

So while comfort can be gained in the idea of God’s plan, the plan is an overarching one that involves all of humanity, and may involve times of learning to grow where we didn’t want to be planted. That and the knowledge that things can get really bad, but God will ultimately make all things new. I find peace and comfort in those thoughts in the midst of turbulent times and a sense of being part of a story that is bigger than myself, which is something I was missing as a teenager: clinging to this tiny sliver of Scripture, extracted from its context and therefore robbed of a much fuller and richer meaning that helps one navigate our complex world that is brutal and beautiful not even by turns, but all at the same time depending on where you look.