The Peripatetic Preacher: Climate Change and the Bible (1)

The Peripatetic Preacher: Climate Change and the Bible (1) April 23, 2019

In the exceedingly odd biblical book of Ezekiel, the prophet receives two separate calls from YHWH. The first occurs in the midst of the weird visions of the chariot and the scroll (Ez.1-2), while the second is the far more direct call in Ez.33. In the latter calling Ezekiel is warned that if “the sentinel (or “watcher”) sees the sword coming upon the land and blows the trumpet and warns the people,” it is then up to the people to act as a result of the warning. In that case the prophet has done the required work, and if the people do not act according to the prophet’s warning, “their blood shall be on their own head” (Ez.33:5). But if the prophet does not sound a warning, though she/he sees the sword coming, then it is the prophet’s problem. If all that has relevance for any one claiming the mantle of prophet in our own time, then I see clearly the sword coming on the land. That sword is climate change, and it is crucial that I, along with a host of others, loudly sound the warning. Climate change is all too real and all too terrible in its impact and implications.

Let us once and for all cease any discussion of whether climate change is in fact occurring; there is no actual or implied “scientific debate.” The results of rising temperatures are all around us and cannot be denied, despite the orange-headed one in the White House, and his ignorant minions whom he has selected to head the Environmental Protection Agency, from the appallingly corrupt Scott Pruitt to the current occupant who spent his working years lobbying for the coal industry. These climate deniers display varying levels of ridiculous ostrich-like behavior, tossing snow balls into the well of the Senate as proof of no global warming to simple talk of “liberal hoaxes” by way of “argument” against what is as plain as one’s nose. Donald Trump went so far as to deny, quite directly and publically, the work of his own climate panel by saying “I just don’t believe it,” without a shred of evidence to substantiate his words. If he read anything at all, or listened to any current evidence beyond his addiction to his favorite Fox “News,” he might learn that his denial is fatuous in the extreme. It is past time to call such denial merely ignorant and foolish; it is precisely evil to continue to deny that climate change is real and happening now.

I use the word “evil” advisedly. A continued refusal to accept the overwhelming evidence of reputable scientists will doom millions of earth’s citizens to increasingly wet, hot, and hungry deaths unimaginable in scope and unbelievable in horror. The massive drought in Syria, coupled with the unspeakable civil war, over the past seven years, has already led over one million Syrians to seek life elsewhere. This is only a preview of what the next few decades may hold. Imagine if you can the scene of the nearly 200 million people of Bangladesh, when the rising sea engulfs their homes, seeking new places to live in an India already choked with 1.2 billion inhabitants. What will the Middle East resemble as wars for shrinking supplies of water break out? On a small scale, we already see sub-Saharan cattle raisers begin to encroach on more well-watered farm land near the slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro. Both farmers and herders there have relied on the glaciers at the top of the grand mountain for their water, but those glaciers have nearly disappeared and their water along with them.

Bill McKibben, who for over 30 years has sounded the trumpet about this desperate issue, has written a new book that is grim in its prospects. Falter is perhaps not McKibben’s finest work, but it does reiterate what his classic The End of Nature said long ago; climate change is the most important threat that humanity faces, and it must be faced now. We are already too late in certain respects; the temperatures are rising faster than we feared, the coral reefs are bleaching much faster than we dared predict, the oceans are rising along with their temperatures, the permafrost is melting, along with the glaciers, thus adding immeasurably to the CO2 content of the warming atmosphere, and on and on in a litany of dreaded facts.

What is a non-scientist theologian to do? I must sound the trumpet and add my tiny voice to a growing chorus of those who refuse to throw in the human towel, jump in our private pools, and down another martini, awaiting the inevitable doom of the planet we love. Christians simply do not have the luxury of sitting it out; we are called to sound the trumpet and urge those who hear to follow through with actions that address the problem rather than wait for God to solve it all, or like Trump and his crew continue to deny its reality.

And the Bible tells us so. Genesis 2:15 may now be among the most important texts in the entire scripture. Here is how I think it must be read: “So YHWH placed the ‘adam in the garden of Eden to serve it and protect it.” The common translation, hallowed by the KJV, that Adam was put in the garden to “till it” will no longer do. For tilling implies mastery and control over, a kind of commentary on the much more famous Gen.1:26-28 where the human beings are directly given mastery and control over all that God has made. That reading has led us, in part at least, to the terrible dilemma we now are in. Our attempts at mastery, even if we have called it stewardship, have failed miserably. Until we see that we are the “servants” of our earth, the usual meaning of the verb used, we will continue to imagine that we can do what we wish with God’s planet, and the Devil take whatever is left. In fact, the Devil is us, and we have despoiled and fouled and dirtied and sullied nearly every part of God’s gift, because we have thought that we could in order to satisfy our whims, to make our lives easy and comfortable. But our attempts to protect ourselves from discomfort and heat and cold and all manner of natural forces have led us instead to imminent disaster. If we do not learn to serve our planet, rather than to exploit it as some sort of limitless warehouse of toys for our pleasure, we will reap a whirlwind of horrors, some of which, as I have tried to suggest above, are already happening.

“The earth is YHWH’s, and everything in it,” proclaims the psalmist, but we humans have rarely taken that claim with any seriousness, especially when Gen.1 offered us mastery, rulership, over everything. We know all we need to know to realize that we humans are in deep trouble when it comes to the climate of our earth, the envelope in which we have lived for all the years since the rise of humanity from the ooze of life. The earth is indeed God’s, and we are but servants of it, created by God to find our rightful place within its wonders, not in the center of it all as some sort of monarchs, but as partners and servants, searching for the flourishing of all the creatures and plants that God has made. In the coming weeks, I hope to sound the trumpet loudly, using the Bible as my source, to convince you to sound that same trumpet and to proclaim that the sword is falling on the land, and that we must act quickly to provide for our children and grandchildren a world where they may live and flourish, too.

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