California Fires, Climate Change and The Kingdom of God

California Fires, Climate Change and The Kingdom of God November 13, 2018

As California faces the deadliest wildfires in its recorded history, with forty-two people confirmed dead,[1]  President Trump has taken the opportunity to attack “forest management policies” as the reason for the fires, the Los Angeles Times explained: “He said poor forest management policies caused the fires plaguing the state, even though the massive Woolsey fire didn’t occur in a forest.”[2] This, likewise, was said on purpose, so that Trump could threaten to cut off funding to California, as the Wall Street Journal indicated: “President Trump blamed the California wildfires on poor forest management, and threatened to cut off funding to the state unless stewardship of forests improved.” [3]

Trump, of course, has been unwilling or unable to state the real problem, which is that the effects of climate change are making more frequent and deadlier fires in California. Governor Jerry Brown, on the other hand, had no problems stating such at a press conference, as reported by the Sacramento Bee:

Brown said at a press conference that forest management alone would not spare California from the kind of expansive, deadly fires that are unfolding today. He connected the fires to man-made climate change, which is expected to yield longer droughts and extreme weather conditions in California. [4]

In the Pacific Standard, before the current fires, Kate Wheeling warned of the way climate change was going to affect California:

And California is only expected to get hotter and drier. New research shows that, as Arctic sea ice dwindles, precipitation in California could drop by as much as 15 percent over the coming decades. As such conditions become the new normal, California could become a perpetual tinderbox.[5]

We have been warned, time and time again, that we have been defiling the earth, showing no respect to the ecosystem, and as a result, we will face the consequences of our actions. Unless we change our course now, what we see in California today will be mild to what we see in California and other places around the world tomorrow. We need to take better care of the earth. We are to be good stewards, protecting it and its inhabitants from harm. Instead, humanity has been selfishly exploiting, indeed, destroying the earth.

Those who destroy the earth will be destroyed by their own actions. The Apocalypse reveals this as one of the truths which runs throughout history. There is a judgement of the nations of the earth which is ongoing throughout history, a judgment in which humanity faces the consequences of their actions. While some would like to separate the Kingdom of God from the earth, God reigns, and the kingdom of the world is revealed to be not other than the Kingdom of God, and the judgment of history is a part of the process by which the Kingdom of God is revealed:

Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, saying, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign for ever and ever.”  And the twenty-four elders who sit on their thrones before God fell on their faces and worshiped God,  saying, “We give thanks to thee, Lord God Almighty, who art and who wast, that thou hast taken thy great power and begun to reign.  The nations raged, but thy wrath came, and the time for the dead to be judged, for rewarding thy servants, the prophets and saints, and those who fear thy name, both small and great, and for destroying the destroyers of the earth” (Rev. 11:15-18 RSV).

God’s punishments include “destroying the destroyers of the earth.”   As Oecumenius in the earliest extant Greek commentary on the Apocalypse stated, “Their judgment, and the reward given to the saints who had been ill-treated by them, and the destruction by retributory punishment of those who had ruined the earth, and, as it were, had defiled it by their own sins.”[6]

The earth is sacred, a good creation of the good God; on it, the kingdom of God has been revealed. In the incarnation, God became man, the eschaton entered history, and the kingdom of God was revealed to be among us. It is not meant to be seen or understood as Gnostically separate from the world. It is in and with us revealing itself to us. The consequences of our sins are a representation of the judgment which is ongoing with history (and which will be fulfilled and come to an end at the last judgment). When we defile the land, when we destroy it, we face destruction ourselves. The raging wildfires in California are just a sign of the kingdom of God and its judgment of our sins.

Patriarch Bartholomew, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, has long been concerned with our responsibility to the earth. It is, to him, a matter of justice. We are called to show compassion and love to the whole of creation and such love, such self-sacrificial love, is where true justice is found:

One of the more fundamental problems that constitute the basis of the ecological crisis is the lack of justice prevailing in our world. By justice we mean not only the legal correspondence of giving and receiving, of transgressions and consequences, of offering and reward, but the more inclusive virtue that lies beyond the narrow fulfillment of obligation. The liturgical and patristic tradition of the Church considers as just that person who is compassionate and gives freely, using love as his or her sole criterion. Justice extends even beyond one’s follow human beings to the entire creation. The burning of forests, the criminal exploitation of natural resources, the gap between the wealthy “north” and the needy “south,” all of these constitute expressions of transgressing the virtue of justice.[7]

Likewise, Patriarch Bartholomew indicated, when we fail to protect the earth and take care of the environment, we also hurt fellow humanity:

This means that the protection of our fellow human beings from destructive floods, fires, storms, tempests and other such disasters is our binding duty. Consequently, our failure to assume appropriate measures for avoiding such phenomena is reckoned as an unpaid debt and constitute a crime of negligence, incurring a plethora of other crimes, and the destruction of cultural monuments and other property.[8]

We see, right before our eyes, the truth of Bartholomew’s warnings, with the wildfires in California. They are a warning of what is yet to come if we do not change our ways. There is still time. There is still hope. We can come together and work to prevent worse ecological disasters in the future, or we will face the wrath of the earth and the revelation of the judgment of God contained in that wrath. The kingdom of God is there with us, and in it God reigns with all his majesty. We have been warned:

Woe to you, destroyer, who yourself have not been destroyed; you treacherous one, with whom none has dealt treacherously! When you have ceased to destroy, you will be destroyed; and when you have made an end of dealing treacherously, you will be dealt with treacherously (Is. 33:1 RSV).


[IMG=Simi Valley Fire in California from 2003 by U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Master Sgt. Dennis W. Goff [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons]

[1] Countless animals have also been affected by the fires, as indicated by NBC News.

[2] Hector Becerra and Shelby Grad, “Trump’s Erroneous Claims About Cause of California’s Fires Don’t Add Up” in Los Angeles Times (11-10-2018).

[3][3] Jonathan Sapsford, “Trump Threatens Funding to California Over Wildfires”  in The Wall Street Journal (11-10-2018).

[4] Adam Ashton, “Brown Swings Back at Trump: Climate Change is Propelling California’s Fires, Governor says”in The Sacramento Bee (11-11-2018).

[5] Kate Wheeling, “How Climate Changes Fuels Wildfires in California” in Pacific Standard (12-6-2017).

[6] Oecumenius, Commentary on the Apocalypse. Trans. John N. Suggit (Washington, DC: CUA Press, 2006), 106.

[7]  Patriarch Bartholomew I, “Justice: Environmental and Human” in Cosmic Grace + Human Prayer: The Ecological Vision of the Green Patriarch Bartholomew. Ed. John Chryssavgis (Grand Rapids, MI: William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), 173.

[8] Patriarch Bartholomew I, “Message of September 1, 2002” in Cosmic Grace + Human Prayer: The Ecological Vision of the Green Patriarch Bartholomew. Ed. John Chryssavgis (Grand Rapids, MI: William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), 58.


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