Climate Change, Moral Evil, and Hope

Last week I wrote a note to my congregation in our weekly newsletter about vision in the context of Isaiah 65:17-25.

I’ve been thinking a lot about apocalyptic texts, lately. Mostly about how the Christian community needs to recover the meaning of “apocalypse” from a cultural tradition that has so misaligned the term with destruction, chaos, and the end of the world. Christian culture is notorious for this – using the book of Revelation to create fear-based propaganda (for example, the Left Behind series), but so does popular/secular culture – think: The Walking Dead (Zombie Apocalypse = end of the world).

But, as least as far as faith is concerned, using apocalyptic language as fear-mongering is manipulation of the text.

Apocalypse refers to vision, or revelation, or disclosure. And very often, Scripture uses apocalyptic literature to disclose hope.

That’s what happens in Isaiah 65. The vision the prophet discloses is that of a hopeful future, a project the people of God are invited to co-create alongside the Creator.

The same is true in John’s Revelation: In Rev. 21 the dwelling place of God descends to earth – this is no escapist theology, this is the ultimate earth-affirming vision … in the hoped-for future, the very dwelling place of God is not in some far-off heaven, but on earth.

These apocalyptic visions are meant to carry us into the future – giving us eyes to see what is possible.

And yet, humanity often fails to live into a hoped-for future.

Typhoon Haiyan reminds me that once again, we’ve failed into our vocation as keepers and tenders of the earth.

The consequences of humanity’s greed and disregard for the planet is an old story. Consider Jeremiah 4:

For my people are foolish and do not know me; they are stupid children, they have no understanding. They are skilled in doing evil, but do not know how to do good. I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light. I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking, and all the hills moved to and fro. I looked, and lo, there was no one at all, and all the birds of the air had fled. I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert, and all the cities were laid in ruins …

The prophet makes a connection between the evil of humanity and the un-doing of Creation, the destruction of the earth. I resist reading this text metaphorically, because I don’t believe it is a metaphorical text. The biblical writers understood the interconnectedness of humanity and other-than-human Creation. They understood that human sin had the capacity to undo the world.

On the heels of Typhoon Haiyan, the theologian Dr. Susan Thistlethwaite wrote an article for The Washington Post linking Haiyan with moral evil.

She distinguishes between moral and natural evil (natural evil being the suffering and destruction inherent in nature) and moral evil being something that correlates to human sin.

Like the prophets before her, Dr. Thistlethwaite calls humanity to assess our responsibility for storms like Sandy and Haiyan. She writes,

“There is moral evil to be seen in these ‘superstorms,’ I believe, on two levels. First, there is the moral evil of continuing to pump fossil fuels into the atmosphere, producing global warming. Second, however, is the moral evil of climate change denial, that is, those who would continue to deny, in the face of mounting evidence, that violent climate change is upon us and it is accelerating.”

Maybe the language feels strong to you – but it seems right in line with Jeremiah warning the people of God that continuing to practice evil would result in consequence to the earth…not because ecological devastation is an act of God, but because ecological devastation is a natural reaction to humanity’s disregard for Creation.

Climate scientists continue to warn that superstorms are the consequence of climate change due to the burning of fossil fuels, and we continue to participate in a system that relies upon business as usual.

Our sacred stories call us to resist Babylon … to refuse to cooperate with a life-denying system. They even tell us HOW to make that movement. Thistlethwaite refers to the trinity of confession, repentance, and change. She calls humanity to confess in the reality of anthropogenic climate change; repent of our action (and inaction) in perpetuating the degradation of the planet; and to take responsibility for creating personal and public change.

The prophets call us to the same movements – confession, repentance, action. But, they offer us something that Thistlethwaite does not. They disclose hope. They provide us with visions and revelations: the New Jerusalem and the River of Life, the Holy living and moving among us, renewal and abundance. The biblical text does not fail to provide us with a vision of a future we can live into.  But such a vision is missing from these discussions. We cannot confess, repent, and move to action without a hopeful vision of what we’re moving toward.

Our modern day prophets (scientists, theologians, and faith leaders alike) are calling us to act on behalf of the planet. But who is disclosing hope? We cannot move into a hoped-for future if no vision of that future exists. Maybe faith communities have forgotten that part of their vocation – to recover the meaning of apocalypse, to announce vision, and to narrate the kind of future we have the capacity to co-create alongside each other and our Creator.

May we be roused from our amnesia, and create hopeful visions. There is no time to waste.

** you can join me and the Corvallis 350 group at the Benton County Courthouse at 6 pm tomorrow night (Friday, Nov 22) as we hold a candlelight vigil for the Philipines. Because vision must be accompanied by action.


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