Giving Voice to the Groanings—Romans 8:22-27

Lectionary, The Politics of Scripture

Giving voice and hope to groaning and suffering creatures is the political task that we can take up for the oppressed creation in imitation of the Spirit, who advocates for us to our true Sovereign for the hope of our bodily redemption.

22We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; 23and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

26Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. 27And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

In Dr Seuss’s lament against corporate greed and environmental destruction, the Lorax speaks up for the trees:

“I am the Lorax! I speak for the trees.
I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues.”

Trees have no voice and nor do they have rights. From an anthropocentric perspective, nature is mute and has no political standing. Politics has tended to ignore trees, animals, rivers, and seas.

Who or what matters politically depends on their voice. Who speaks for the trees, rivers, and ocean? The Lorax did. And Christians are commanded to speak up for the politically silent, based on Proverbs 31:8: “Open thy mouth for the dumb in the cause of all such as are appointed to destruction” (KJV). This is why Christians should advocate moves to give nature a voice and give a voice to nature.

An example of this comes from Aotearoa in New Zealand, which in 2017 granted the Whanganui River legal personhood, a title already granted to corporations and other legal entities. This action gives those Maori who speak for the river a stronger voice.

Before speaking for Creation, we need to listen to it. As Paul notes here in Romans 8, Creation makes inarticulate groans. That creatures groan and mourn is also seen in the prophets (Jeremiah 9:10, Joel 1:18, Hosea 4:3). Such groans reach the ears of God the Creator.

Can we also hear and interpret these groans, as the Lorax did? We may, if we pay attention, and hear the quieter forest with fewer birds, or lament the reduced chirping of insects, or witness the splashing of ice shearing off warming glaciers. Creation’s suffering is being communicated and we can choose to pay attention to its voice and groaning.

Why is creation groaning? Saint Ambrose (in Hexameron, 4.8.31) wrote about the moon’s servitude to human sin. Luther continued this theme in sermons on Romans 8, writing that creation suffers because of the service they provide to the unjust and the wicked (Martin Luther, “Fourth Sunday After Trinity: Second Sermon. Romans 8:18-22.” In The Precious and Sacred Writings of Martin Luther, Volume 9: Luther’s Epistle Sermons, Trinity Sunday to Advent, translated by John Nicholas Lenker [Minneapolis: the Luther Press, 1909], 109).

Using the sun as an example, Luther suggests that this “noble and admirable work of creation” is “fit to serve only God, angels and pious Christians, who thank God for it.” “But”, he continued, “it must serve those who blaspheme and dishonor God and who are guilty of all wickedness and lawlessness” (Luther 1909, 109).

Enduring all sorts of injustices, Luther called creatures martyrs (Luther 1909, 110). Creation serves God obediently, even though it suffers the indignity of serving the Devil and the wicked. In this way, Creation is corrupted and it awaits God’s future redemption, as we do.

If we look backward to verse 21, we see that Creation is in bondage to decay. As a metaphor this is disturbing imagery. Creation is in bondage and is then in labour pains. How does Creation go from bondage to being pregnant?

In moving immediately from the metaphor of bondage to the metaphor of labour pains, can we ignore the troubling and questionable metaphor of the rape of the Mother Earth? As eco-feminists have pointed out, there is a good case that patriarchal technological capitalism is in the process of raping Mother Earth. How so? Deep Sea mining appears to be the most recent example, where the violation of Mother Earth by diggers and scrapers happens under the cover of the oceans, out of public view.

Given these and other violations of Mother Earth, is it any wonder that Creation cries out against the human (Job 31:38-40). Yet Creation’s labour pains signal that Creation is about to give birth to something new. This is typically understood eschatologically as Creation about to give birth the New Heavens and the New Earth which we anticipate (Isaiah 65:17, 66:22; 2 Peter 3:13; Revelation 21:1).

Humanity groans along with Creation. We are groaning inwardly and do not have a voice, not knowing what to pray. Even in the most private prayer we cannot utter what we wish to communicate to our God.

Does this imply that we also do not know what to say publicly or politically about our own suffering? Political speech might be more easily made than speech articulating something about our inward suffering and need for forgiveness and redemption.

Christians and churches can be very articulate in speaking up for the poor and issues of peace and justice. They jump on bandwagons of secular politicians and make eloquent statements in support of this or that cause. Eloquent politicians who articulate the needs of the people are seductive, but in the end their speech will be shown to be a superficial simulacrum of the true speech that can barely articulated.

In contrast to this, we remain silent on the things that matter most, our inward groaning, which is often best articulated in poetry or literature, rather than in political discourse. Thankfully, the Holy Spirit intercedes for us, giving expression to the King of Kings of our deepest yearnings when we have fallen silent and can only groan. Even when we don’t know what to pray, the Spirit advocates for us with “sighs too deep for words.”

By contrast, much political speech is so shallow that words are easily found. The political nature of this is not only found in the concept of the Spirit as an advocate; it also appears in the notion of the Spirit speaking through us, as seen in Matthew 10:19-20, where the Spirit becomes a legal advocate for the Jesus’s civically disobedient apostles: “When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you” (NRSV).

This reminds us of God giving political utterance to the ineloquent Moses, the great liberator of the slaves of Egypt (Exodus 4). By following the Spirit we may find the necessary words to intercede for others, linking our intercessory prayers to the politics of advocacy (Bernd Wannenwetsch, Political Worship: Ethics for Christian Citizens [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004], 341).

Our groans are for the “the redemption of our bodies,” a statement of the value of materiality or embodiment of life. This embodiment or enfleshment not only values the bodily nature of the human and the worldliness of our lives on Earth, it demands as a political response that our bodies are freed and not just our souls.

Like the sun and moon, which must serve the good and the wicked alike, we too are caught in structural violence and systems which cause us to serve the violent ends of the state and capital. There is little escape from paying taxes to fund war and there is little escape from causing greenhouse gases and plastic pollution in going about everyday lives.

We are caught in systems of biopolitics and economics by virtue of our embodiment, which we need not escape, but which need to be redeemed. In other words, we are in bondage to corporations and states through biopolitical manipulation. Internally we might be free, but our bodies are enslaved. Even humans “groan inwardly”, which signifies an inability to express outwardly our feelings of alienation.

Paul himself may have experience this sense when he lamented in Romans 7:15, 19: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate … For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (NRSV).

Against this era of environmental degradation, political confusion, and personal alienation, the Christian has hope. Hope is not optional, it is a central Christian virtue. We give utterance to our hope in prayer, for example in praying the Lord’s Prayer for the unseen, yet hoped for, Kingdom of God.

Pope Benedict XVI wrote in Spe Salvi (2007) that, “Prayer is a school of hope.” It is hopeful to pray to God, for as Benedict wrote: “When no one listens to me any more, God still listens to me. When I can no longer talk to anyone or call upon anyone, I can always talk to God.”

We may infer that when politicians turn a deaf ear, God listens. When politicians are distant, God is close. When politicians seem indifferent, God cares. With God we even have the Spirit to take our prayers and hopes into God. The Spirit is our advocate, taking our hopes to God.

Giving voice and hope to groaning and suffering creatures is the political task that we can take up for the oppressed creation in imitation of the Spirit, who advocates for us to our true Sovereign for the hope of our bodily redemption.

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