Updated: Apr 11, 2020
Why People of Faith Should Support the Climate Movement
In the past week and in the one underway, the world’s largest cities have witnessed the Global Climate Strike — a world-wide movement led, among others, by a Swedish teenager by the name of Greta Thunberg. Be it students, scholars, activists, or concerned folks, the march has gathered more than four million people demanding a radical change in the economic and political systems that dictate our lives.
The stakes are well known. The scientific community has repeatedly given governments and corporations less than 10 years to drastically cut down fossil fuel emissions. Otherwise, the planet will surpass critical thresholds that would unleash a runaway climate breakdown of irreversible consequences. Beyond the unprecedented rate of species extinction (we have wipped out over 40% of vertebrates in the last five decades), the breakdown would imply greater floods, droughts, famines, and drastic weather events affecting the livelihood of us all.
And the stakes beg the question: In what ways should people of faith respond? — a question particularly relevant for those professing faith in the One who called his followers to be peacemakers.
Cleaning Up the Bible Blinkers
A popular answer so far — not least in many Christian circles — has been either to downplay, dismiss, or outright ignore the urgency of this issue.
“Environmentalism is a secular thing.”
“We'll soon find a technological solution.”
“Politics are worldly.”
“The earth is resilient and will heal itself.”
Tragically, such responses have often been misinformed by at least four verses from the Bible that are often misquoted by some Christians.
1. “The kingdom of God is not of this world...” (Jn 18)
The popular claim here is that we’re off to heaven soon — even if that’s only a half-truth. The New Testament does speak (very seldom) about an interim state between this life and death and the future life. But the interim state is only a short stop along the way, never the final destination. It was Socrates, Plato, Plotinus and other Greek philosophers who longed to escape this world to go into a supposedly blissful spiritual paradise.
Enjoying eternity with God in an immaterial bliss, however, has close to nothing to do with the vision of the authors of the scriptures. The kingdom of God is not of this world — in the sense that it is not born from this world, nor does it function as the kingdoms of this world. But God’s kingdom is for this world. For the Hebrew prophets and for the apostles, the first and ultimate goal of the Creation is life and peace on earth. Read Ezekiel, read Isaiah, read John’s Apocalypse: they all spoke of a rural-urban paradise renewed. Their visions of cosmic healing were symbolized by a radiant city infused with the pristine glory of the Garden of Eden.
2. “Our citizenship is in heaven...” (Phil 3)
On that line, Paul’s statement to the church in Philippi that Christ-followers are citizens of heaven have been similarly bent out of shape. The claim has been that given that Christians are citizens from elsewhere, they have little to do on earth. More worringly, the statement is often taken to mean that we can mimic or stand at ease with whatever happens in our culture simply because, at the end of the day, we have a sort of ‘fire insurance’ and thus ‘we’ll make it to heaven’ by sheer grace.
But historians like N.T. Wright and others tell us that Paul’s language is symbolic and it thus echoes that of an embassy in a colony. (In the first century, Phillipi was a colony of Rome.) Suppose a citizen of Bolivia is sent as a diplomat to Morocco. While she is a South-american living abroad in a land that might be strange to her, she is nevertheless called to represent her country in such land — and to stand for that which her nation stands for. She is called to be a citizen, not a tourist.
To have our citizenship in heaven implies just that: it’s a call to collaborate with the living God to embody and work out the peace and the goodness and the right-ordering of heaven here on earth.
3. “We are strangers and exiles on the earth...” (Heb 11)
A similar justification for not making a great deal of today's destruction of the earth is found in a small phrase in the Letter to the Hebrews: "we are strangers and exiles on the earth." But what goes unnoticed in claiming that one is a “stranger” (or a “sojourner”) is that it is us precisely who are described as such. The earth itself is not vanishing our sojourning anywhere.
Granted, the writer of the letter goes on to declare that, as strangers, people of faith are seeking a “homeland” and “a better country” — that is a “heavenly one” (vv. 14-15). But, in line with the broader witness of the biblical canon, this is to be taken in a temporal and metaphorical, and not in a spatial, sense: the “heavenly” country and homeland thus refers to the time when the “land” and the “earth” will be liberated and redeemed by the energies of heaven, if one may put it that way.
Regardless, is that not a call to behave as temporary guests in a world that is not of our own making? It seems fitting that we should leave this sacred planet in better shape than we found it, for it to continue to host and nurture life for those coming after us. Protecting the ecosystem from our take-and-waste consumerism requires us to safeguard its blessings for future generations — let alone to protect the the ecosystems and the only Home of the countless non-human species that are loved and brought into being by the Eternal One (Gen 6-9).
4. “But it’s all gonna be ‘burned up’ afterall...” (2 Pet 3)
Finally, there lingers as well a kind of thinking that’s quick to argue how the Bible is clear that the heavens and the earth will go through the fire.
“What’s the point of caring for a forest that’s going to be burned up anyway?” the arguing goes.
The belief is for the most part grounded in a misreading of a few sentences of the Second Letter of Peter, which affirms that “the present heavens and earth have been reserved for fire” (3:7a). As it turns out, however, such forms of teaching often fail to read the end of that very sentence, where the author made it clear that the fire was destined for the time of “the destruction of the godless.”
As elsewhere, here one needs some literary and cultural sensitivity. For the ancient prophets, for Jesus, for Paul, and for the rest of the writers of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, fire always was a metaphor for purification. By dissolving impurities, fire lays bare evil deeds while disclosing that which is pure and worthy and good.
Fire was also an image symbolizing the divine clean-up of everything and everyone that harms and pollutes the heavens and the earth — not unlike a business owner filing a lawsuit and “firing” workers who steal and who damage her property. The Second Letter of Peter does not say a single word about lighting up the Earth into extermination.
In contrast, the multiple voices in the biblical testimony know everything about the Eternal One taking pleasure in a cosmos that, from the get-go, the Eternal One declared “good” and “very good” multiple times.
The cancer lays elsewhere: Paul and other writers of the New Testament affirmed that the land and the living world are “groaning”, in the hope of being liberated from our human collaboration with the glittering forces of evil.
The Full Picture Beyond The Cherry Tree
Perhaps we can spot a tendency here: Phrases like these are cherry-picked from the biblical documents to then make them say whatever one wants, willy-nilly. In fact, such biblical cherry-picking both ignores and distorts the enormous thrust of the biblical library by embracing, instead, a mentality that is at odds with everything that Jesus, the apostles, and all the prophets ever stood for.
From cover to cover, the multifaceted documents of the Bible unfold a long and complex drama that is all about creation, liberation, and then new creation — about the living God undoing evil, and injustice, and greed, and everything that stands against life itself. In fact, the Bible could be summarized as the story of life vs. death.
To believe otherwise is to miss the point. And to behave otherwise is to miss the point even more. Standing at ease with greedy corporations, short-sighted governments, and mindless shopping malls that are degrading our planet and destroying the life of millions is to fend the flames of what American Christian writer Wendell Berry once decried: “What can be more wicked, or more mad?”
Only a small, crippled god would leave the world unchanged and sit at ease with people doing likewise.
In contrast, the authors of the scriptures envisioned a paradise renewed: an earthly world healed by the bliss of heaven, and liberated from greed, corruption and evil. The final scene of the Apocalypse portrays a purified, Eden-like city. With broad brushstrokes, John the Seer spoke of the Living One coming down to dwell among the entire Community of Life in an intoxicating feast of light and freedom (Rev 22; cf. Ps 148).
And, however imperfectly and painfully incomplete, in the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth and in the coming of the Spirit that vision has been inaugurated and that project has been already unleashed.
A Needed Response
Be it as volunteers in municipal initiatives, as songwriters, as responsible business owners, as funders for climate NGOs — or, indeed, as participants in the climate strike — we name it — those who profess a living faith in the God revealed in Jesus must stand at the forefront of the ecological struggle. We cannot do otherwise if we are to honor our calling to carry the cross and follow after the One whose name we claim to hold in the highest esteem.
One of the ancient oracles of Isaiah spoke of true religion as being one that resulted in working for the good of others. The true worship of God, said the prophet, must lead to breaking the bonds of injustice and undoing the straps of a yoke, letting the oppressed go free. Then, and only then, will light break forth like the dawn (Isa 58:6). Everything else is false religion — and against that, too, we should strike.
Edwardo Sasso is the author of A Climate of Desire - a book recovering the earthkeeping roots of Christianity to more fully enable us to respond to the challenges of climate change