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Jesus wants me to care about global warming

Monday, 5 June 2017  | Mick Pope

Jesus Wants Me to Care about Global Warming

Mick Pope

There are theological issues we can beg to differ on, issues over which there is no consensus among scholars, or where there are textual difficulties, and so on. And then there is simply bad theology. Some ideas are simply destructive, doing real harm to people, and making the church look stupid in the process. We have seen conservative Christianity tie itself to Donald Trump’s Republican Party. The amount of self-justification for this, blatantly ignoring Trump’s many moral failings and apparent lack of suitability for the job, is a concern. This is not to baptise the Democrats, but the farce that is the Trump presidency is hard to ignore.

Now that Trump has pulled out of the Paris Accord, doing his best to set back climate change action, we see conservative Christians scrambling to justify this theologically. A conservative US pundit, Erick Erickson, recently tweeted that ‘I worship Jesus, not Mother Earth. He calls us all to be good stewards of the planet, but doesn't mean I have to care about global warming’. You can see how partial truths are wedded together with poor logic. He links worship of Jesus with stewardship. This is a fair thing to do, although scholars like Richard Bauckham question the value of the concept of stewardship, arguing that such an idea explicitly excludes the God who really is in charge, and therefore is an act of hubris or arrogance on our part. However, there is a rich variety of creation theology apart from the one on offer in Genesis 1, and Bauckham is quick to point out that we only ever really focus on this passage. It is fair to say that humans have a status and calling that means we have a unique responsibility to care for creation. However, Psalm 104 tells us that God cares for the rest of creation. The end of Job reminds us that God’s role as creator shows us to be of little regard apart from divine choice, as does Psalm 8.

But what Erickson does that is particularly flawed is linking worship of Mother Earth with caring about global warming, and separating stewardship of the planet from arresting the warming for which we are responsible. It is a wooden literalism that can only take action on explicit verses. I’m sure Erickson drives a car and doesn’t speed, but there’s no verses about that any more than there are about global warming. We apply biblical principles based upon our understanding of texts in their contexts, and where we are in the flow of biblical history. Making a distinction between stewardship and global warming would require one to not understand the science, either ignorantly or wilfully. Even if one takes a strictly economic and utilitarian view of stewardship, that it is managing the Earth for our own use, a warming planet is set to become more and more inhospitable to human economic activity.

But the linking of pagan worship to caring about global warming is a standard ad hominem of the far right. It is true that people who ascribe to the planet the title ‘Mother Earth’ are concerned about global warming. But this doesn’t mean the reverse, that to be concerned about global warming means that I must view the planet as ‘Mother Earth’. The fact that the Bible is at pains to talk about a future for the Earth (Romans 8) should be enough for me to care about any threats to its wellbeing. However, Romans 8 talks about creation groaning in birth pains. Kind of makes you think, doesn’t it?

Meanwhile, Republican congressman Tim Walberg assures us it is all natural cycles. Again, a complete failure to consult the evidence that shows a clear correlation between our greenhouse gas emissions and rising temperatures, and how this correlation means causation. But ignoring the facts is par for the course. Walberg also opines that ‘as a Christian, I believe that there is a creator in God who is much bigger than us. And I’m confident that, if there’s a real problem, he can take care of it’. Apart from his denial of a real problem, there are big missing links in his argument. If climate change is real (which it is), what is the problem that it suggests? And given that God is much bigger than us, will He take care of the problem, and if so how?

The book of Romans begins somewhat controversially for some in its statements on sexuality. But if we set the problems with this aside, the logic of the first chapter is clear: idolatry is our chief problem, and sin is a consequence of this. So if we are warming the planet, then this is not due to some virtuous behaviour, nor ignorant behaviour alone, but sinful behaviour. When Exxon does its own research, finds global warming to be real, and yet funds denialist think tanks, you can see clearly how the description of ‘sin’ can be invoked. If a person eating too much is gluttony, and we agree that is a sin, is eating into our children’s future by destroying the capacity for the Earth to feed them also a sin? We know not to steal, but global warming is stealing a stable climate and global economy from future generations. Sea level rise is stealing land from Pacific islanders, Torres Strait Islanders, Bangladeshis.

So we worship idols of mammon, believing a good economy will bring salvation, while ignoring that the economy is a whole owned subsidiary of a functioning ecology. Both ecology and economy derive from the Greek word for household, and who owns the house?

In Romans 8, Paul says that God subjected the planet to frustration in order that it might be saved. In a real sense, the present suffering is creation’s path to salvation, as is our suffering. But that doesn’t make suffering, or being the instruments of someone’s suffering, a virtue in and of itself. The message of the story of Joseph is that God brings good out of the evil actions of humans. Likewise, in Isaiah 7, God used the Assyrians to judge Israel, and yet also judged Assyria for enjoying their work too much and losing sight of their purpose. Don’t think that even if global warming is God’s prescriptive will, rather than just his permissive will, that you are doing anything good by passively doing nothing or actively hurrying it along. The story of Romans, it seems, is permissive will, placing creation under human mismanagement, so that it might be saved through the salvation of those in the Messiah.

So it may well be that God is big enough to overcome global warming, but how and when? While God saves both humans and the creation together at Christ’s return, might He not work through us to manage better than we do until His return? Paul himself says we shouldn’t go on sinning so that grace might abound, so why go on letting the planet warm due to our idolatry and sin, and not do our best to avoid the worst of the warming? What if doing that means calling many to repentance of materialism, covetousness, greed and so on, including those in the church? Sounds a lot like proclaiming a gospel of repentance. A Christian resistance to this message is not the sign of trying to avoid the risk of syncretism with non-Christian views on creation, but evidence that we already have a syncretistic faith of Christ and Mammon.

My call then is aimed at us all, to examine ourselves, our motivations and our affiliations. God is doing something about the problem, and part of that is for us to stop being a part of that problem, and instead become part of the solution.

Mick Pope is an aspiring ecotheologian and the Reviews Editor of Zadok Perspectives. He heads up the Ethos Environment think tank and is an adjunct lecturer at Eastern College in creation care and theology of science. He is also Professor of Environmental Mission at Missional University. Mick is the author, together with Claire Dawson, of Climate of Hope: Church and Mission in a Warming World (Melbourne, UNOH, 2014). His new book, A Climate of Justice: Loving Your Neighbour in a Warming World (Melbourne, Morning Star, 2017), will be launched in October.


Chris Dalton
June 10, 2017, 1:04PM
In response to Trump, President Macron said 'Lat's make our planet great again!' What a fundamentally Christian (and other faith) message this is, where no boundaries exist in prioritising our love and care for God's beloved creation - neither Jew nor Gentile, rich nor poor, slave nor free man, male nor female, western nor eastern, Christian nor Moslem, democracy nor dictatorship, communist nor free world, etc. Does God call us to put our own parochial interests first? No!

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