I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Johannes Tetzel. Tetzel, you’ll likely recall from 10th-grade world history, was the one who allegedly set off the young monk-turned-professor Martin Luther into a theses-penning frenzy.

Tetzel’s crime? Offering a traveling reliquary to bilk the masses out of their meager earnings, allegedly to give that final layer of gold leaf to St. Peter’s. This is not to mention the dubious practice of indulgences, whereby souls could be restored from purgatory, “every time a coin into the coffer rings.”

I feel fairly well-haunted by the ghost of Tetzel. Most anyone who has at any point flirted with fundamentalism of any stripe knows this ghost. It whispers ways to make absolution in our ears – a way to assuage our guilty conscience for a small fee, be it in real dollars or self-flagellating obeisance.

More specifically I felt the eerie presence of Tetzel’s ghost while listening to a recent story regarding the installation of carbon-offset kiosks at San Francisco International Airport. The idea is deceptively simple. Air travel consumes massive quantities of fuel, resulting in the emission of all kinds of virulent greenhouse gases. The “kiosk” presents an opportunity for the eco-conscious traveler to take control of their own emissions – to put real dollars on the line in support of carbon offsets – funds that are typically invested in recovered forests where ancient trees are allowed to age and new oxygen-rich ones are planted.

I encountered the same kind of “carbon-offset” when attending a recent U2 concert in Atlanta. The stage for U2’s 360 tour is well documented as the largest steel structure ever created for concert. It takes 120 trucks to deliver each of the three stages to their respective destinations, a fact which many saw as great hypocrisy on the part of the socially conscious quartet. In response, the band touts from their home page their commitment to purchasing carbon offsets, leading guitarist the Edge to say, “We’d love to have some alternative to big trucks bringing the stuff around but there just isn’t one.”

Truth be told, it is quite difficult to know whether or not the efforts of U2 or travelers utilizing the new kiosks in San Francisco are, in fact, offsetting carbon emissions, at least in terms of actual emissions. Moreover, it is tempting, as with Tetzel, to dismiss out of hand these efforts as having more to do with perceived guilt than with environmental impact. But I’m not so sure.

In her book “Hope Lives,” Amber Van Schooneveld, a former worker with Compassion International, talks about how most people are motivated to give to an organization out of guilt. It always starts with guilt. The problem, according to Van Schooneveld, isn’t guilt. It’s not moving past guilt.

Any level of ethical living, any impetus for social justice, any effort to work to bring the kind of blessed community that we find envisioned in Scripture or the Kingdom that fell from Jesus’ own lips, all of these begin with some recognition of guilt and sin. We recognize our complicity in the horrors around us, even (and perhaps especially) if we were unaware of them.

The scandal of Tetzel is that many stayed there. The indulgence-hawking, relic-marketing religious machine propagates a system where souls can be saved by the checks they can write. This is not sinful as a starting place, but as individuals and congregations find themselves content to invest from afar the reign of Tetzel continues.

The God who calls us forth to follow Christ Jesus bids us to come and find the poor, to enter into the fullness of creation and learn about it, not to stroke checks and swipe cards in obeisance. The liberating power of the gospel has far more to say about restoration than it does about guilt.

Trey Lyon is associate pastor for faith development at Towne View Baptist Church in Kennesaw, Ga. This column appeared previously on his blog.

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