Getting Warmer: Thoughts on Climate Change

Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem by David Roberts

We’ve been here before.  No, we Christians haven’t been on our planet with the air and oceans as warm as they are now.  Nor have any of us alive seen such occurrences of heavy rain and drought as we currently have.  Neither have we Christians been on our earth with such high concentrations of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere.  These conditions are all unprecedented.  Where we Christians have been is in a “period of anguish in which there was no sense of an assured future,” as historian Barbara Tuchman put it.   And we’ve been there not just in the 14th century, about which Tuchman wrote, but in a much earlier time.   And for our Hebrew forbears in the faith, this time must have seemed the end of the world as they knew it.

Where we Christians have been is with our Hebrew forbears in the city of Jerusalem in the last days of the Kingdom of Judah, 589-587 BCE.  From the tenth month of 589 until the fifth month of 587 – well over a year (see 2 Kings 25) – Jerusalem was besieged by the Babylonian army.  Imagine what it was like to stand on the city walls and to look out at siege works manned by thousands of foreign soldiers.  Or imagine what it was like to live with dwindling stores of food and the specter of death – whether by starvation, or plague or sword – weighing over the city.  And imagine, too, what it must have been like to hear – as the inhabitants of Jerusalem likely heard (see 2 Kings 21) and as we now hear from scientists in regards to climate change – that it was too late, that their ancestors’ deeds had already set in motion a course of events that could not be reversed.

As I consider what it must have been like for those living in Jerusalem during the Babylonian siege, I imagine that, at best, the siege might have been a bonding experience.  There they all were, walled up in a moderately-sized hill-top city, commiserating about the scarcity of food, sharing trips to “Hezekiah’s well” for water (see 2 Kings 20:20 and 2 Chron 32:2-4), conjecturing about a possible Babylonian attack or withdrawal, wondering how the city leaders are going to respond, and trying to bolster each other with words of encouragement.  As I imagine the thousands of hostile soldiers encamped around Jerusalem, and the old and young beginning to die of starvation, I imagine that it would have been hard for the inhabitants of Jerusalem to see hope.

Likewise, when I read the recently-released National Climate Assessment, a report on climate change compiled by over 300 experts and put out the federal government, I find it hard to see hope.  (The report can be found online at http://nca2014.globalchange.gov/).  Besides noting the rising average temperatures around the country and the increasing frequency of extremely hot days, the report documents how the ocean is warming and becoming more acidic.  The report states how our changing climate will stress the nation’s sources of fresh water and our electrical grid.  It documents the lengthening seasons of wildfires, and the concomitant decrease in air quality and loss of thousands of acres of carbon dioxide-processing trees.  The report notes, too, how roads and railroads have been washed away by extreme weather events, how insurance costs have increased for structures in newly-expanded flood zones, and how the habitats of disease-bearing ticks is spreading.  The report predicts declines in livestock and crop productions and expresses concern for our future food security.   And the report surmises that the most vulnerable among us will likely be the most affected.

Where is hope, when we consider our planet?

Looking back to the situation of Jerusalem, the citizens found hope in a source so unlikely that many did not consider it to be hope at all – to surrender to the Babylonians(!).   In contrast to other prophets who predicted a miraculous victory for Jerusalem (e.g., Hananiah, in Jeremiah 28), the prophet Jeremiah urged the residents of Jerusalem to surrender:

Thus says the Lord, Those who stay in this city shall die by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence; but those who go out to the [Babylonians] shall live; they shall have their lives as a prize of war, and live. (Jeremiah 38:2)

Jeremiah Mourns the Destruction of Jerusalem by Rembrandt

Jeremiah Mourns the Destruction of Jerusalem by Rembrandt

As I consider Jeremiah’s counsel to Jerusalem, I wonder if it might be pertinent to us today.  Maybe – as it was too late for Jerusalem to repent for centuries of idol worship – so is it too late for us to remedy decades of pollution.  Maybe – as the citizens of Judah and Jerusalem were too complacent to turn away from their worship of idols – so are the citizens of our nation too complacent to alter our greenhouse gas-producing lifestyles.  Maybe – as the northern and southern kingdoms of Israel and Judah were too conflicted to unite effectively against the Babylonians – so is our government too polarized to unite effectively against climate change.  Indeed, some environmentalists – such as Paul Kingsnorth – are already advocating a Jeremiah-like surrender to climate change.   (See Kingsnorth’s “Dark Mountain Project:”  http://www.dark-mountain.net.)

What, then, is our hope?  Are we to continue to give ourselves wholeheartedly to work against climate change, which may be the most serious threat to human life our planet has yet faced?   Or are we, like Jeremiah, and like some environmentalists, to surrender, acknowledging that our actions have already undone us, putting ourselves in God’s hands?

I wonder if the best response is “Yes.” “Yes” to continuing to work against climate change, and “Yes” to surrendering to the inevitability of a changed climate.  Yes, I want to continue to work against climate change, to do my best to live a lifestyle that leaves little or no footprint and that does not degrade the environment.  To do otherwise seems somehow craven, a failure both to acknowledge the gravity of our situation, as well as a failure to strive for life and to till and keep this earth as God commanded (Genesis 2:15).   And, Yes, I want to leave the safety of this city and go surrender to the Babylonians.  The forces aligned against us are too great.  Generations’ worth of pollution, of idolatry of wealth, of selfish consumption of our natural resources, are finally now coming due.  The specters of heat waves, wildfires, drought, floods and food shortages surround us like a besieging army.  To remain in this city is to die “by the sword, by famine and by pestilence.”  I wonder, what it would be like to open the gate in the wall of our slim hope for climate stabilization, and to walk forth from our place of imagined safety into the arms of these hostile powers that have besieged us for so long?

As I imagine living into a dual “Yes,” I cannot help but think of Jesus.  During his time on earth Jesus worked tirelessly to “bring good news to the poor… to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19).   And at the same time,  like the citizens of Jerusalem leaving the safety of their walls to give themselves into the hands of the Babylonians, Jesus went forth “like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,” giving himself into the hands of his enemies to be crucified.

In a strange, grace-filled way, Jesus’ going forth to his death widened the reach of his ministry.  17th century Lutheran hymn writer Paul Gerhardt describes how Jesus’ going forth expanded Jesus’ ministry to all, offering to all the opportunity of freedom from fear of death:

A Lamb goes uncomplaining forth,
The guilt of all men bearing;
And laden with the sins of earth,
None else the burden sharing!…

“Go forth, My Son,” the Father saith,
“And free men from the fear of death,
From guilt and condemnation.
The wrath and stripes are hard to bear,
But by Thy Passion men shall share
The fruit of Thy salvation.”

Were we to live into a dual “Yes” of working against climate change while at the same time giving ourselves up to the new reality of a changed climate, I know Jesus would go with us.  He knows what it’s like, to work tirelessly and at the same time also to surrender.  Jesus would be right there with us.  Our tireless labor combined with our purposeful surrender is likely, paradoxically, to do more than we can imagine.  As our lives are aligned with Christ – his ministry, his teaching, his passion and death – our lives cannot but bear fruit.  We may not now be able to see this fruit – the inhabitants of Jerusalem could not fathom how surrender to the Babylonians could be a good thing – but the extent to which our lives are aligned with Christ is the extent to which we will participate in God’s reconciling of this world to himself, and the extent to which our lives will make a difference.

As our planet gets warmer, not only am I going to say “yes” to doing my part to help stabilize our climate, I am going to say “yes” to surrendering to the inevitability of a changed climate.  I am going to ask the Lord for the grace of walking alongside him in his work of reconciling this world to God’s self, even if that walk leads to the cross.  For if Jesus gives me the gift of accompanying him in all his works, I trust that my life – like his – will bear fruit far beyond what I can now imagine.

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