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The Road To Emmaus

An Ecotheological reading

One of the themes for this summer’s Lambeth Conference is ecology. We have invited authors to reflect on what they hope the bishops will take to heart and keep in mind regarding this theme as they meet.

Read the original Spanish.

By Richard Acosta

Ecotheology, as a component of liberation theology, allows us to read the Bible theologically, not only from the perspective of social realities, but also environmental ones, which can exacerbate the former. It draws us nearer to a sensitive Jesus, who is close to and in solidarity with the least favored and the oppressed. The planet too and the life it contains, are exploited, slighted, and wounded. Jesus comes to the sick, the marginalized, and the excluded. And today, it is the Father’s creation which is attacked, critically ill, and beaten. Today, the Earth must be the subject of rights, advocated for in all fields, disciplines, and sciences, including theology. Through their reflections, religions must not not yield in their work to promote the transformation of our practices and the ways in which we relate to Mother Earth, from whose heart we were created.

The passage of the Road to Emmaus is emblematic of Jesus’ pedagogy, also at work in the “See, Judge, Act” method of liberation theology: See (know, understand, and analyze reality), Judge (illuminate reality according to the Word), and Act (commit oneself to the effort of transforming the reality of structural sin). Thereupon, a reading of this Lukan text from an ecotheological perspective is proposed, one which contributes to the pedagogy which the Church (or any religion) should implement to systematize its commitment to the tragic reality in which humanity strives for its own survival and that of millions of species.

SEE (Luke 24:13-24)

  1. We see creation and humanity in their reality (vv. 13-14).

The text begins by identifying a concrete reality — time, characters, places, and actions. We can also infer a reality not explicit in the text — the Roman Empire, the position of religious leaders, an economy, geography, culture, etc. The disciples walk amid that reality. Amid which context do the people of God walk today? What do we talk about while we walk? What we experience today has been amply diagnosed. What was exposed and shared at COP26 is just one example of the myriad of data and statistics available to humanity and its leaders. Therefore, it should not be difficult to answer the questions, “What is the environmental reality of the world today?” and “What is its impact among the poorest in society?” There is no doubt that this is a deadly reality. It is that of which “we have been talking about on the way” for 50 years. It is so overwhelming that even denialists have run out of arguments in the face of overwhelming studies.

As leaders and as a Church, we must understand that there is a context in which the people of God walk — a reality which makes the Earth groan and humanity cry out. These inherent realities must also be on the table, in our minds and hearts, and in our reflections and exhortations. If we do not know the figures, data, testimonies, and experiences, our speech will be empty and meaningless. It will be alienating and insignificant.

  1. Jesus goes out to meet them, he approaches, and he joins the walk (v. 15).

The disciples are heading in the wrong direction. They are escaping, even if they are not abandoned to their fate as a result. Jesus does not merely observe. He is not passive. He is all about action and movement. He takes the initiative and joins humans in their walk, with all the anguish it implies. He cares about path they have taken and begins to walk with them.

In recent decades, humanity “talks and discusses,” but continues to walk in the same direction —the wrong one. What do we do as a Church, as religious leaders, and as Christians? We cannot simply watch as humanity walks towards self-destruction. We must walk the walk, not stand by. We must draw near, be present in the day-to-day, because it is on that path and on this walk where must make our proclamation. It is there that the Church must be built — in the hope of rethinking the direction in which we are heading, toward the right course.

  1. But we are as if blind (v. 16).

The disciples do not recognize him. Theirs is a culture of blindness. What is it that prevents us from recognizing God as he is present on the road? For the disciples, it is possibly pessimism, the death of their leader, disappointment, the imposing force of the empire, and the inadequacy of their leaders. The master whom they love and have followed for years walks with them, but the reality is so bitter that they simply cannot recognize him.

But how can one see God amid so many signs of death? Why did God “abandon” creation to human stewardship? Global warming, droughts, hurricanes, deforestation, floods, extinction, hunger, pollution, etc. all cry, “God, where are you?” The struggle seems to go unnoticed and the cry unheard. Many simply succumb to their disappointment in humanity. Others walk “blind” because they are unable to recognize God while walking amid these signs of death and pain. Others walk as if “blind” because they shut their eyes to the overwhelming reality of destruction. Others prefer to remain “blind” at the lack of commitment of their leaders, the refusal of corporations to abandon their polluting practices, the absence of empathy for all forms of life, and the reign of consumerism. Many choose not to see, and simply “escape” reality rather than bear it.

  1. Jesus poses questions about everyday life (vv. 17-19a).

It is surprising that the first words of Jesus have to do with everyday life. Jesus does not enter the scene giving theological or catechetical lectures. He begins by asking what the disciples are discussing as they walk — about sensitive plights and essential issues. For Jesus, it is more important to ask about what happens while walking. In other words, while living life.

Today it is the Church’s task to inquire first about essential plights — about the realities of hunger and death — because how can we offer the food of the Word where there is hunger for bread? In other words, how can a reality not known be illuminated? How can we challenge a context that is foreign to us? This not to say that the message of evangelism is not important. Of course it is! It is the reason for which we have been sent! We are indeed called to do it with meaning and relevance, but also with a certain impertinence. Because sometimes it is necessary to be disruptive, with a clear intention of offering a lifegiving word in a familiar context.

As the disciples rejected him whom they did not recognize, similar forms of rejections can be anticipated. And it is in the face of needs and anxieties of a primary, social, and environmental nature that we, like Jesus, must insist. As a Church, we have issued environmental resolutions for the past 40 years. We have created committees and reflection teams. We have implemented initiatives and made denunciations. But we must not give up when it seems our voices are unheard, and our efforts are unfruitful. This is about persevering, being creative, and adapting. It is the time to insist.

  1. The answer comes: sadness, disappointment, hopelessness, and failure (vv. 19b-24).

When Jesus insists, the answer is both inevitable and hopeless: the disciples have simply given up and abandoned the project — “they leave.” It is the disappointment that comes from seeing hope die and their efforts vanish. Even the voices that had announced the good news are not enough for them anymore.

Today, the response of Earth and humanity is one of pain. COP26 presented dramatic testimonies and statistics — anti-life (and therefore, anti-kingdom) realities: floods, fires, droughts, thaws, hunger, and many more. The consequences of such realities affect most directly those whose plight is already harsh — the poorest of the poor, as well as other species of this planet. In Colombia, where I live, large extra-activist projects are faced with the realities of hunger, poverty, displacement, and death. Field workers and people of Indigenous and African origin are hit the hardest in the name of developmentalism and so-called “progress.”

As in the gospel text, when catharsis is necessary, so is relief. Outside the COP26 assembly, we saw other demonstrations of unbelieving and dissatisfied voices. They were the “other” voices —the other demands. We must also pay attention to them because they are the desperate voices of those at the bottom, who hold no power or make decisions. God is speaking there too.

As with the disciples on the road to Emmaus, the facts are so dramatic that good news seems insufficient if the facts are not followed by experience but remain instead as distant messages that do not reach deep and fail to touch the heart.

JUDGE (Luke 24:25-31)

  1. He interprets the Scriptures (vv. 25-27).

Only after a reading of reality does Jesus teach its interpretation in light of the Word. It may be said that evangelization happens in a second moment, or rather, that the first moment involves understanding the context. Life is the word of God. It is sacrament. The first book through which God spoke to humanity is life itself — creation. This is how Jesus understood it. This is why he was always concerned with the vital needs of those around him — their physical, mental, and social health, as well as their dignity. It is only later he illuminates reality in light of the Scriptures.

If we believe that the Word is living and active (Heb. 4:12), it is because it impacts a concrete reality. Because it challenges the present day. It stirs and moves because it disrupts the most sensitive nerves of social structures of sin and death, pollution and devastation. The Word brings a profound, prophetic, and hopeful opportunity. In response, the work of the Church cannot take a different direction to that of the plights of our time. The revelation of God happens in the course of history — the day-to-day of humanity.

How does one communicate the Word in these times of environmental crisis? The opportunities are endless. The Church must strive to illuminate the times in light of the Scriptures through sermons, catechesis, academic output, Sunday schools, and training centers for new church leaders and seminarians. We must be able to reread passages such as the creation, Cain and Abel, the Flood, the Exodus, the Psalms, the Apocalypse, the epistles, the gospels, and others, with an environmental perspective. It is the task the Christian to unravel the God who speaks through and in the midst of the crisis we are experiencing. Today, Jesus tells us, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!” (NRSV).

  1. The interpretation of the Word motivates the welcome (vv. 28-29).

The teachings of Jesus and his interpretation of the Scriptures are so deep and powerful that they moved the disciples to welcome him, even when they still did not recognize him. The Word moves the heart and promotes fraternity/sorority.

The time we live in requires prophetic words that denounce, as well as some that bring hope for those who suffer. Is today’s apostle of Jesus fostering the welcome? The voice of religious leaders must be comforting to those who suffer and upsetting to governments, industrialists, and heavy polluters. It must be able to reach the most sensitive fibers and foment the union of an increasing number of voices. Today, we need to summon and to elicit energy. There are too many voices that, while doing good, are still scattered. We have studies, research, publications, and activism. But, how to unite? In this aspect, we must be more creative so that efforts are not lost or made invisible in the sea of ​​chaos.

In this edition of COP26, it was very meaningful to listen to “other” voices — young people, Indigenous people, and women, who have joined in significant numbers. These voices had been previously made obscure by the sole focus on those of major political and mediatic reach. These voices sensitized and moved. It was through them that God spoke and continues to speak. These words motivate welcome and solidarity.

  1. The Word and the welcome lead to communion and recognition (vv. 30-31).

After interpreting reality, illuminating it with the Word, and motivating the welcome, the optimal experience is expressed in Communion — in the Eucharist. The memorial of the Lord’s Supper is the culminating moment that drives the koinonia. It is the fulfillment of Jesus’ prayer, “I ask… that they all may be one” (John 17:21a). It is obvious that there is still much to be done. As those baptized, we are called to join forces with the different churches and with all human beings of good will. The ecumenical spirit must also bring us together around this vital issue.

Our theological and ministerial work must lead to the recognition and encounter of the risen one. But our Easter is also the Easter of the Earth and of creation. “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God. … We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now” (Rom. 8:18-25). We must understand that our existence is linked to that of creation. That if we subject creation to slavery and suffering, these will fall on the children of God. That liberation from human alienation and subjugation will lead to the liberation and redemption of creation. As the Most Rev. Michael Curry, Presiding Bishop and Primate of the Episcopal Church, exhorted his delegate team at COP26: Christ has become incarnate in the world because he loves it, and it was for the salvation of the world that he gave his life, “for God so loved to the world, that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16).

Finally, communion is also something that happens with the world. Today, the koinonia also happens with nature. When we speak about a “cosmic Church” we refer to our communion with Mother Earth. This communion will allow us to open our eyes and recognize the risen one there   — in the midst of this great Church.

ACT (Luke 24:32-35)

The experience of the risen one drives to action (vv. 32-35).

Only in that way will the necessary transformation become a reality. The experience of Jesus must move one to action. Otherwise, it is not an experience of Christ. What is the point of dwelling on the mystical if everything is crumbling down around us? The Reality-Word-Hospitality-Communion model inevitably moves us to praxis. The experience of life that Jesus Christ communicates causes us to face the “night” — that is, the fears, the difficulties, the destruction, and the signs of death. It strengthens us to act now! To do as the disciples who “that same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem.” If we believe that Christ is alive, then our hearts burn. And that burning should make us rise above our comfort and move us to walk intentionally by sharing the good news — to proclaim life amid destruction, prompted by our belief that life will prevail over death.

Our focus is on transforming praxis and the celebratory proclamation of life. The experience of the risen one moves to personal, social, and environmental resilience because it makes us change our course and face the reality in which work must be done. The life that Christ communicates, as the victor over death, moves us to announce a world that is viable for all, and which manifests the kingdom of God.

We must move, be shaken, and act. It is imperative that we substitute our practices with more responsible, conscious, and sustainable ones. This is what we are to announce today precisely where the drama takes place: on the road, where those who suffer both socially and environmentally are found — the empire of developmentalism and consumerism.

We must make our proclamation in places where leaders impose extractive policies, where industrialists exploit and pollute, where field workers and Indigenous people are displaced, and where jungles are ravaged and rivers polluted. It is important to announce that life can still prevail. That we can still respond to our calling to be stewards of creation and co-caregivers of the planet and of our most vulnerable brothers and sisters.

There are many settings in which to announce this truth and many opportunities. We must be creative, didactic, and prophetic.

The Rev. Dr. Richard Acosta is a priest in the Mission Saint Benedict of Nursia of The Episcopal Church, Diocese of Colombia. He is a writer, researcher, and university professor.


Translation by Ignacio Gama



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