Indulgences of the 21st Century Kind

I should say, first of all, that this is not a political post; I believe […]

JDK / 7.16.09

I should say, first of all, that this is not a political post; I believe that we should all Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. What this is about, however, is guilt and the new way (supposedly) to buy one’s way to a clear conscience: Carbon Offsets. For those of you not familiar with the concept, there is a way to measure how large your “Carbon Footprint” is–how much CO2 you help inject into the atmosphere–and Carbon Offsets place a monetary value on the size of that footprint and then allow you to invest in organizations and technologies that can offset your usage. For instance, on the website I calculated that I use 12,000 lbs of CO2 a year and for a mere $71.40 worth of Carbon Offsets, I can rest, nestled peacefully in the bosom of Mother Earth . . . sounds like a deal.

What is interesting about this concept is not the validity of or even necessity for reducing greenhouse gasses, but the way, for many, the Environment has taken the place of God in a worldwide search for absolution. Johann Tetzel’s (the friar most famous for selling indulgences in Luther’s Wittenberg) famous jingle, “Every time the coffer rings, a soul from Purgatory springs,” has been replaced with, “Every time you must fly in a plane, buy Carbon Offsets to ease your pain.” The irony of all this is perfectly summed up by one line from the Wikipedia entry which states, “Offsets may be cheaper or more convenient alternatives to reducing one’s own fossil-fuel consumption.” Indeed.

What we have here is a complete return to the Medieval penitential system where everyone knows that you can’t be perfect–in this case actually change your overseas travel plans, turn off your air conditioner, stop using Axe body spray, etc.–so, in light of “being human,” there are ways of getting around these facts of life while still sacrificing enough to get into, or in this case contribute to the idea of helping build, heaven. Of course, these are just the lowly, carnal people who take up on their $71.00 bribe, the real Enviromonks only eat out of trash cans (Freegans), look down on people who use hot water, plastic bags and, of course, pay homage to the Enviropope: Al Gore.

This is all a manifestation of the ways the Law continues to accuse and convict even those who refuse to acknowledge its source. The Law, through the continued reverberation of the voice of God to Adam in the Garden “Where are you?,” relentlessly forces a self-justifying, fearful answer out of each and every person who, as a result of Sin, lives in a tangled web of guilt, fear and shame. This is why we believe that there are no antinomians, nobody who is ala Habermas “religiously tone-deaf,” or “spiritual but not religious,” there are only people who are either directing the object of their worship and devotion and sacrifice to “things that by nature are not Gods,” or those who have, in the words of the end of St.John’s Gospel, “believe[d] that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” What we’re looking for is another 95 Thesis of a sort, but this time, of course, on recycled paper. Until then, this musical rendition of Johann Tetzel from “Luther: The Musical” has to be seen to be believed:

Read the follow-up post, “It’s Not Easy Being Green (or Totally Depraved)” here.