God or Mammon? Hutterites and Creation Ethics

The following essay is a piece I originally wrote for a course on theological ethics at CMU. I’ve made some light edits and included the footnotes as hyperlinks. This piece develops many of the themes I have been working on in this blog and hopefully, future pieces on Coffee with Kierkegaard will continue to develop the work begun in this essay. The themes of praise and hearing the word are particularly salient here.

Introduction: Ecological Conversion 

In an apocryphal story, Jesus and his disciples are walking along a steep mountain path when they encounter a man viciously beating his donkey who has fallen under its heavy load. When Jesus confronts the man about his abuse of the animal, the man retorts: “What is that to you? I may beat it as much as I please, since it is my property, and I bought it for a good sum of money.” (Bauckham, 86) When the disciples voice their agreement, Jesus is dismayed: “Do you not see how it bleeds, do you not hear how it groans and cries out to the Creator in heaven for mercy?” (Paraphrase) This question, and the disciple’s uncomprehending response, “No, Lord, that it groans and cries out, we do not hear,” resounds in our time of ecological crisis. Like the man beating the donkey, we remain deaf and mute to the cries of creation, even as we numbly rain down the blows. Jesus’ language here of those who do not see or hear, echoes his statements in the gospels about the uncomprehending response to his parables. The inability to see God’s Word in Jesus Christ is mirrored by our inability to hear God’s Word coming to us through his creatures. Jesus’ unsympathetic listeners saw only a Galilean peasant, the man in the story sees only his private property, but those with faith are called to gaze at creation with the gracious eyes of the Creator and see that it is good. (Davis, 46-47) At the heart of the ecological crisis is a failure of proper attention and perception rooted in misdirected praise. Technocratic ‘solutions’ to the ecological crisis do not take into account the anti-doxologies, twisted perceptions and mammonistic valuations that a refusal to praise have already generated. What is required for right relations between humanity, God and creation, is repentance, right praise, and a conversion of the heart.  

A common biblical motif is of creation pouring forth speech, praising God, telling of God’s glory, and proclaiming his handiwork. (Psalm 19) All of creation is made to praise the Creator, and right praise is found in the freedom to be the creatures we were made to be. These contrasting images of creation’s speech—groaning or praising—point to creation as it should be, as opposed to creation ruined by human sin. Creation’s praise and humanity’s praise are inextricably interwoven: the central argument of this essay is that it is the human refusal to praise that ruptures creation’s praise and is then deaf to its cries for mercy. On the other hand, right human praise can hear, attend to, and join with the praise of creation.  

 The goal of this essay is to begin to develop a specifically Hutterite creation ethic. A few words on the relevance of this topic for Hutterites. While Hutterites have traditionally practiced an economy that combined aspects of artisanal and agrarian modes of production, in recent decades Hutterites have moved more aggressively in the direction of agribusiness and manufacturing. As economic expansion is pursued, largely unchecked by spiritual or ecological concerns, notions of efficiency, profit, and technological progress seem to have entirely colonized the Hutterite business imagination. These moves have not been uncontested and there have been ongoing internal critiques of the mindless Hutterite embrace of modern technology, capitalism and the bourgeois middle class standard of living. See for example. Lothar Korf, “Die Hutterer, Die Welt und die Welt” (1992), or Hans Decker, “Christum Gegen Kapitalismus in der Gemeine (sic),” (1985). While this essay is very much concurrent with these critiques, it is aiming in a slightly different direction: at the ethos of efficiency which is so dominant in Hutterite circles. This essay aims to both critique this dominant ethos and to put forward an alternative imaginative vision of the Hutterian relationship with creation.  

While I will be drawing on biblical scholarship and theological resources beyond the Hutterite tradition, the argument is intended to be continuous with and in conversation with Hutterite theology. The argument of this essay proceeds in three parts, each part building on what has come before. In the first section, I argue that Hutterite critiques of private property and ‘self-will’ can help critique destructive interpretations of the ‘Dominion’ mandate in Genisis 1 and help us think about what it means for humans to reflect the image of God. In the second section, drawing on the work of Brian Brock, I develop Hutterite spirituality that takes us into the heart of creation by hearing the Word. In the concluding section I argue that if Hutterite communities are to be communities of right praise, the Hutterite vision of community of goods should be extended to include harmonious relationships with creation. 

I: Living the Image 

No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.  

—Matt. 6:24 NKJV  

Anyone seeking to reflect on Christianity’s relationship to the natural world must at some point confront the spectre of ‘dominion’. In the first creation account in Genesis, after creating humanity in his image, God blesses them: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” (Gen. 1:28) In an all-too-common Christian imagination, this is taken to mean that humanity is called to stand radically above and apart from ‘nature’, surveying an objective field of resources to be extracted and exploited for whatever ends they desire. This, to put it bluntly, is nonsense, and reveals a failure to think theologically. On second examination, this ‘theological’ anthropology is revealed to be a thin gloss over the radically individualist enlightenment subject, freed from all limits of tradition, place, and transcendent value, stamping his will and devouring reality with an infinitely expanding consumptive desire.  

By contrast, in the biblical account, Adam is formed from the adamah (ground), enlivened by the same divine breath as the rest of creation, and is created alongside the other land creatures on the sixth day: “This earthiness of humans signifies a kinship with the earth itself and with other earthly creatures, plants and animals. Human life is embedded in the physical world with all that that implies of dependence on the natural systems of life.” (Bauckham, 4) While the creation of human beings in God’s image does give them a unique role of ‘dominion’ over the rest of creation, this cannot be interpreted as giving license to exploitation. The birds, fish and land animals are, like humans, given the command to be “fruitful and multiply”, implying that human flourishing cannot be at the expense of the rest of creation. The real question then is this: What are humans created for? Answering this question will open up radical Hutterite theological critiques of exploitative anthropologies and point the way towards a more peaceful relationship with creation.  

In his Confession of Faith, Peter Riedemann gives us succinct answer: Human beings are created to reflect the image of God, and to give honour and glory to the creator. (Riedemann, 159) Whatever we mean by ‘dominion’ then, it must “give honour and glory to the Creator.” The creation account in the first volume of The Chronicle of the Hutterian Brethren makes this point clear. Humanity was placed over creation “as master,” but the writer continues, that “above all he was to honour his God and creator.” (Chronicle, 2) Presumably, this writer is encircling his account of humanity’s dominion with God’s demand on his creatures, because he is aware of humanity’s misuse of creation. In contemporary terms, the writer is challenging the exploitative anthropocentric vision of creation with a theocentric account. (Bauckham, 5) 

This notion of human beings being created to reflect God’s image and bring praise to him, needs to be unpacked further. For Riedemann, our creation in God’s image is not simply a static imprint, but rather a vocation in the world: “The whole of a person’s life should be reflection of the likeness of God.” (Riedemann, 89) Humans are created for communion, for life with God and with each other; there is abundance, enough for all in the triune life. Yet there can be a turning away from this, a retreat into carnality and untruth, a stance oriented away from the source of Life and into the meager egoism of the self. Riedemann sees this as a turning away from the likeness of God and into the likeness of the devil; lies, sin and injustice follow, as it “devours and consumes everything that is good and godly.” (Riedemann, 92) Importantly, this second ‘image’ is parasitic on the first, humanity is created to reflect God’s image, and it is our turning away from this vocation which leads to embodied patterns of sin.  

Riedemann’s account of praise is also informative. He writes, “God is honoured when what he has created remains as he created and ordained it and does not allow itself to be changed.” (Riedemann, 88) When human beings are the kind of creatures they were created to be, they bring honour and praise to God. Likewise, creation praises God by being creation, by being as it was made to be. Richard Bauckham makes this point well: “The creation worships God just by being itself, as God made it, existing for God’s glory. Only humans desist from worshipping God; other creatures, without having to think about it, do so all the time.” (Bauckham, 12) Riedemann draws the same contrast; while creation “remains in its right place,” humanity alone “has forsaken its place and left the order that was set.” (Riedemann, 89) Riedemann here assumes a certain integrity to the created world: creatures and environments fruitfully flourish if they remain the kinds of created things God made them to be. Human nature and creation is not infinitely pliable to human designs and desires. We must respect what Joel Salatin calls the “pigness of the pig” for the pig to properly fulfill its vocation to praise the creator. Here we can see a potential critique of modern factory farming, or industrial agriculture. These methods take an instrumental approach to the created order and rather than leaving creation, “as he created and ordained it,” remake the world in our own image. Creation exists not primarily for human use, but rather, for “God’s honour and glory.” (Riedemann, 62) 

Just as creation praises God by being the creation it was made to be, just so humanity praises God by being the creatures we were made to be. (Riedemann, 159) Humans are created to subsist in life-giving relation with God, and through this to enter into relation with others. (Riedemann, 119) But what prevents us from entering into this communion is our attachment to private property: “Men hang on to property like caterpillars to a cabbage leaf. Self-will and selfishness constantly stand in the way.” (Ehrenpreis, 12) It is this basic grasping, holding on to, accumulating of resources which separates us from God, leads to unjust dealings with our neighbours, and exploitative relationship with creation. It is a distorted relation which spirals out from the primordial grasping of the knowledge of good and evil and goes on to infect all of humanity’s dealings with creation. 

The destructive potential of human grasping and self-will is limited only by human finitude. With increasing technological power, the human power to “grasp,” “collect,” “accumulate,” and “control,” has reached staggering heights beyond what Riedemann could ever have imagined. In one particularly sobering passage Riedemann discusses the “created things which are too high for people to grasp and collect, such as the sun, the whole course of the heavens, day, air, and so forth.” (Riedemann, 120) If they were not out of reach, “since people had become so evil through wrongful acquisitions, they would also have wrongly taken possession of such things and made them their own.” (Riedemann, 120) While human ‘ingenuity’ has not yet managed to grasp hold of the sun, it has managed to fill the air with pollution, transform the seasons with climate change, and block out the light of day with smog.  

We are now in a position to see what it might mean for humans to ‘reflect the image of God’, to bring the Creator honour and praise, and to exercise ‘dominion’ over creation. The word ‘dominion’ has roots in Roman legal language and implies sovereignty and “full ownership;” (Quash, 316) yet if humans are to reflect the image of God, this cannot but take the form of abundant giving and kenotic self-emptying. Obviously, for Hutterites, ‘full ownership’ does not mean individual license to exploit, accumulate and hoard creation; but must be connected to the vision of community of goods. (See part 3 of this essay) The call to have dominion, and to subdue the earth, is then a call to extend God’s kingdom of shalom to all the ends of the earth.  

The role of ‘dominion’ is but a restatement of the human vocation to image God’s loving presence and abundant life in the world. It is only by renouncing self-will and our grasping after resources, that we can reflect God’s image and come into right-relation with creation. Dominion cannot mean the exploitation of creation for our own selfish ends—Riedemann would call this reflecting the image of the devil—but rather manifesting God’s will for his creation. Bauckham sees this kind of relationship reflected in the remarkable interactions between monks such as St. Francis and animals: “Because the hermits are exemplary righteous people, they relate to nature in the way that God originally intended human beings to do. Submitting themselves wholly to God’s will, they recover the human dominion over the rest of creation in its ideal form. In their relationships with wild nature, paradise is regained and the coming restoration of paradise in the kingdom of God is anticipated.” (Bauckham, 32) Only by becoming holy as God is holy, can we truly exercise ‘dominion’ in its proper kenotic form. This emptying of the impulse to dominate, control, grasp, shape to one’s own will, opens the possibility of “gentle space making”: allowing other creatures to live and thrive alongside human communities. This gentle space making is the true ‘dominion’ and ‘subduing’ of creation in the image of the triune God, allowing the full diversity of creation to raise up its song in praise. Creation groans for the revealing of the “children of God,” (Rom. 8:19) that is, not for those who enact dominion from egoistic self-will, but for those who empty themselves and take on the form of a servant.  

II: Hearing the Word  

Look at the birds of air… Consider the lilies of the field.

—Matt. 6: 26, 28 NRSV  

We have seen in the previous section how Hutterite theology gives us a stance towards the created world oriented by kenosis rather than grasping after resources. However, there is a tendency in early Hutterite writers to conflate the New Testament sense of the “world” and “flesh” with creation and human bodies. While this theology is not creation destroying, it can tend to be creation denying. Some of the most extreme examples of this negative view of creation are found in a traditional funeral sermon which speaks of human bodies as “disgusting,” the world as a “prison” to be escaped, and life on this earth as a “value of woe.” In its most extreme manifestations—with its spirituality of imprisonment and escape, its denial of the goodness of creation and God’s intention to restore it—such a position can border on Gnosticism. At the same time, as Thomas Finger has argued, this low view of matter is inconsistent with the Hutterite vision of transformed creation in Gütergemeinschaft. Discussing Riedemann’s anthropology, Finger notes that, “Apparently a conceptual ontological barrier between spirit and matter overrode a deep Hutterite intuition: spirit can express itself through and transform matter so genuinely that every aspect of ourselves and our lives must come into harmony with matter.” (Finger, 238) On this point, even the pessimistic funeral Lehr writer is concordant: “Oh if only this were…practiced…then the world would be for us a foretaste of heaven.” Riedemann agrees: “In those who have true faith, eternal life begins here and now, and continues into the future.” (Riedemann, 82)  

Drawing on these positive strands in the Hutterian writers and in conversation with Brian Brock in his work in Wondrously Wounded, I will be arguing for a Hutterite spirituality which takes us into the heart of creation, rather than escaping out of it. 

In his discussion of the making of heaven and earth, Riedemann claims that “all of God’s creatures, whatever they may be, are given to teach and lead people to God.” (Riedemann, 62) What is striking here is the language of creation leading and teaching people. In this biblically saturated language, creation speaks. Indigenous theologian Adrian Jacobs observes what is just there in the biblical text: “Creation has a voice. Creation tells, declares, proclaims, and pours forth speech. Creation displays knowledge, and its voice goes out to the whole world.” (Jacobs, 1) The biblical title of the ‘Word’ takes on a new significance. Christ, the Son of God, is also the Word which comes from God: “Through him we all live and move and have our being, and without his strength no one can exist.” (Riedemann, 66) It is the Word which holds all things together, which brings God, creation, and humanity into relation and which speaks to us through creaturely mediation. For those with open hearts and eyes to see, in the ‘words’ of Creation, the Divine Word can be glimpsed. The stance is of attention directed to the particular life and being of the creatures we share the earth with, by noting the form that their praise takes. As Hopkins writes: “Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: / Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; / Selves—goes its self; myself it speaks and spells,/ Crying What I do is me: for that I came.” And precisely in this particularity: “Christ plays in ten thousand places, / Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his.”

Quoting Sirach, Riedeman makes the striking claim that Creation is for the benefit of the believers, but for the unbeliever it is “changed and transformed into evil.” (Riedemann, 62) Unbelief here denotes a stance of groping consumption, deafness, and stubborn sufficiency. We are harkened back to the Genesis story here which depicts a harmonious flourishing relationship between God, humanity, the land, and the animals. Human sin breaks relation, not just with God, but also with the land (Gen. 3:17-18) and the animals (Gen. 8:2): “…Violence spreads from the human realm to that of the animals. In the garden of Eden, the animals live peaceably with Adam and Eve and each other. After the flood, we are told, they dread them… Sin keeps us not from right relation to other people, but also from right relation with the whole created order.” (Soskice, 63-64) The fall continues with the story of Cain, who exemplifies this disordered relation to creation: “Cain refuses to receive repentantly and faithfully rely on the divine mercies that rain down on the creaturely realm. He thus lives life blind, careening disoriently through a disenchanted world.” (Brock, 47) For those who are deaf to God’s address through his creation, binding God, and creation into relation in the Word, creation becomes a desolate, disenchanted landscape. We become deaf, not just to the praise of creation, but also to its cries of agony when its right praise is broken. Creation becomes a standing reserve of resources to be extracted, exploited and used for our technological projects, economic growth, and scientific experiments. Becoming deaf to creation’s praise, Riedemann writes, leads to “unjust acquisition and use of Creation.” (Riedemann, 62-63) While Riedemann likely has economic exploitation and hoarding of wealth in mind here, it does not seem an unjust extension of his argument to add the exploitation of the creation to the consequences of a deafness to God’s Word. The antidote to this deaf unbelief is Faith which for Riedemann grows by “diligently listening to the preaching of God’s Word.” This Word is not the dead, literal word, but the “living Word that pierces soul and spirit, the Word put by God in the mouth of his messengers.” (Riedemann, 85) This living, spiritual Word, comes to us through preaching, but also if we attend with wonder and open hearts at God’s surprising speech through his creatures: “Precisely in what looks to unbelievers like natural elements… Christians hear the merciful address of God.” (Brock, 45) Real life and true freedom then, is not found by escaping from our creature-hood, but by recognizing that “real life is life with God.” (Brock, 152) Humans live not by bread alone, but by every Word that comes from the mouth of God: A Word that can only be heard by entering into creaturely life with a stance of wondrous reverence.  

III: Joining the Praise 

Therefore, do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear? For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed, your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.  

—Matt. 6:31-33 NRSV

As we have seen, it is this basic grasping after resources—what Ehrenpreis calls ‘self-will’—which transforms creation into a standing reserve. This stance represents a human rejection of the image of God and a refusal to praise, making us deaf to the praise of creation. This refusal to praise generates anti-doxologies, “living, articulate and institutionalized” (Brock, 78) embodiments of sin which silence the praise of creation in the pursuit of “money and ease.” (Berry, 73) Our false praise has generated, and our ritualistic sacrifice of creation upholds the technocratic, capitalistic machine in which we all live and move and have our being. Like the tower of Babel story, it is the human attempt to transcend our creaturely finitude and to grasp equality with God. It is a refusal to depend in faith on the gracious, sustaining gifts of God, but instead, to say with the rich fool: “I will pull down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, “Soul you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry!” (Luke 12:19) Like the rich fool, we are walking on the path of destruction. Our grasping after creation does not lead to abundance and freedom, but to scarcity and slavery. We become enslaved to the “elemental principles of this age” (Gal. 4:3) and wage war over ever dwindling resources. We become the “destroyers of the earth,” (Rev. 11:18) deaf to the cries of agony, and blind to the signs of the times telling of the coming destruction.  

The Hutterite vision of community of goods I have been arguing for, by contrast, takes a kenotic form. In the pattern of Christ relinquishing his power and taking on the form of a slave, the communitarian gives up all her material goods and embraces poverty. In his humility, Christ is then exalted to the right hand of the Father, and the communitarian, in her poverty, receives abundance from the kenosis of the other. In the manner of Christ, this is a life lived transparently for the other, emptied, only to be filled and sustained by the gifts of the body of Christ. Reflecting the kenotic abundance of the Triune God, (Riedemann, 80) community of goods is enacted worship and praise of the Creator. This posture of openness to receive gifts, rather than grasping for resources, is the posture of the creature receiving her sustenance from the Creator. This posture makes it possible to hear and perceive the praise of creation and to receive the gifts of creation with reverence and patience rather than with impatient extraction. With this posture, the right ‘use’ of creation is possible, like the manna economy in the wilderness; we take what we need, no more, no less. In this, we are freed to be creatures, existing in harmonious relationships with God, each other, and creation. Humanity’s praise is joined with creation’s praise and together, God is praised.  

Although Hutterites have not always been attentive to this, our life in common has always included life in common with birds, animals, and the land. The Hutterite story, until recently, has mostly been an agrarian one. When the Chronicle recounts raids to communities, lists of injured, captured or killed Hutterites are given alongside lists of the number of horses stolen. Hutterite lives have, for centuries, been intertwined with the rhythms of the seasons, the liturgies of tilling, planting, harvesting, and the prayers for rain or good weather. There is a deep significance to the land. It can never simply be a resource to be extracted from (although Hutterites have been enthusiastic embracers of modern farming practices) but instead it is the soil out of which community life grows and in which its roots are planted.  

In the early Hutterite apologetic work, Die Fünf Artikel, the author gives a defense of key Hutterite practices and doctrines through a commentary on the relevant scriptural passages. His defense of community of goods is particularly fascinating, as he connects it with the biblical motifs of Sabbath Rest, Jubilee, the Messianic age, alongside the giving of the manna in the wilderness, the teachings of Jesus and the feeding of the five thousand. The Hutterite conviction is that community of goods is a witness, “foretaste,” and participation in the eschatological kingdom of God in which God, humanity, and creation are restored to right relation.

Although I do not have the space to develop this, I am trying to suggest that Hutterite life is enacted worship, a liturgical pattern that is intended to shape believers into conformity with Christ. The dichotomy between worship and ethics breaks down almost completely in Hutterite life; compare with Hauerwas and Wells’ description of worship. “In worship Christians meet God in time-honoured ways. Worship is where people are conformed to Christ, join in his work, are accepted back into his fellowship, and dance to the beat of his drum. Worship anticipates heaven, where all these things are gloriously fulfilled. But worship is also a training for discipleship on earth. It is the time when Christians learn how to be God’s friends by eating with him.”(Hauerwas and Wells, 25)

Hutterites have always been attentive to the restoration of human relationships, as embodied in economic sharing, but have not always recognized that in the biblical vision, this includes all of Creation. The author of the Fünf Artikel cites the Jubilee passages in Deuteronomy and Leviticus which he summarizes as: “What the land bore in the seventh year belonged to everyone, to the head of the household, the… servants… the household members, and strangers, the cattle and the beasts.” (Chronicle, 266) These Jubilee, Sabbath rest passages point to an Edenic restoration of peace and harmony between humanity and creation: “The wolf shall lie down with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf, the lion, the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.” (Is. 11:6) While this passage from Isaiah is not one Hutterites can literally apply to their own communities, what would it mean to extend our imagination of community of goods to include harmonious existence with the rest of creation? How might we show that the fruits of the land belong not just to humankind, but also to the “cattle and the beasts”? In other words, how can Hutterites become communities of right praise? Part of the answer would be a more intentional resistance against the technocratic, capitalist machine, as well as repentance from our own participation in the anti-doxologies that sustain it. For Hutterites to form communities of right praise, this cannot but mean that they are communities that allow the praise of creation to rise up and be heard. In this, we will be pointing forward to the vision in Revelation: “Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing, “To the one who is seated on the throne and to the Lamb, be blessing and honour and glory and might forever and ever!” (Rev. 5:13) 

The featured image is called “The Kingdom Amongst Us” by Grace Waldner



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