A few weeks ago, someone asked me “regarding climate change, how would you like to see the church act differently?” Not a question I’m used to, unfortunately. Whatever words came out of my mouth were hardly an answer I felt satisfied with.
(A number of the things I post here are originally based off questions that I initially struggle to answer, but after mulling about it for a day or week or month or so I finally have a response I can excited about. But since by that time the conversation has been over for a day or week or month or so it’s usually too late to bring the point back up and so I figure I’ll just tell the whole world wide web. So, yeah, this is one of those posts.)
From Genesis 1 & 2, it is pretty clear that there is a biblical mandate to care for the planet. God created a whole lot of stuff, and saw that it was good. He then created humankind “in his image,” which means a lot of things but certainly implies that from the perspective of another mammal, bird, fish or perhaps even a plant, that those tall, mostly hairless, two-legged things walking around should resemble in action the Creator that gave them existence, cared for them, and saw that they were good.
Instead, humanity has destroyed the living things of the planet and overwhelmingly neglected their needs. Instead of seeing the created world as “good because God said so” it has been treated as a bank of natural resources that are “valuable to fulfill my own wants.” And the church has been largely complicit in this affair, preaching a theology of domination rather than a theology of stewardship, although that has thankfully been changing back for the better in recent years.
But why climate change? Is it not enough that this or that local church recycles and has a community garden in the backyard?
One reason could be because the church sees care for the poor as part of its mission. The ability to adapt to climate change (or any sort of change for that matter) is a privilege of those endowed with some savings or at least a decent credit rating. Many humanitarian aid organizations, secular and faith-based, are already realizing that they need to respond to climate issues. My hunch is that groups like World Vision and Bread for the World are no more than three years away from highly visible climate campaigns.
But instead of focusing on duty, I want to talk about potential. Because I think the church can afford to be ambitious. The church might actually be humanity’s best chance at overcoming the climate change crisis, simultaneously saving the planet while living more into a vision of redeemed humanity.
Let me explain.
The church is a global force.
Unlike most environmental issues (i.e., air pollution, deforestation, and invasive species), global warming is, well, a global force. It is not limited to specific localities of cause and effect, but instead has the ubiquitous power to change the entire world order. It takes a global force to counteract a global force.
While we talk a lot about living in a “globalized” world, the list of truly global forces is actually quite small. The Internet. Capitalism. The United Nations. None of these have made satisfactory progress towards halting climate change, and at least one of them has been a contributing culprit.
With 2.2 billion adherents, however, the church is a global force in its own right. No other religious group comes close in terms of size and geographic spread, and that number is essentially tied with the number of worldwide internet users. Setting aside theological considerations and speaking in strict sociological terms: if there is any group worldwide with the muscle to mobilize effectively around issues of climate, my money is on the church.
The church has the power to change hearts and renew minds.
Sometimes climate activists look against the hard, economic data and, despaired by the calculations, throw their hands up in the air in defeat.
Economic projections are usually based on expectations of human wants versus resource scarcity. While there is not much the church can feasibly do about scarcity, it certainly has and continues to be influential in shaping our desires. Whether hosting drug addiction treatment programs or inspiring charity in the human heart, we know of the church as a space for cultivating sensitivity to a higher yearning.
“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Romans 12:2.
As an oft-tossed around proverb amongst my close friends goes, “you just gotta want it.” For where there is a want, there is a will; where there is a will, there is a way.
The church has the voice to pastor in an era defined by climate change.
Environmentalism has a tendency to take on spiritual overtones (sentiments like “feeling one with nature,” for example). As global warming increasingly moves from hypothetical model to experienced reality, I would not be surprised if the response by the general public was of a zealous, religious, almost-panicked scale.
Think about it. An abstract, formless phenomenon has the power to change things around the entire world, rewarding humanity for obeying some sort of code, and punishing humanity when it does not, adding the promise-threat of impending apocalypse. This same category applies to “global warming” equally as it does to our Judeo-Christian concept of “God.”
The obvious problem is that “global warming” is limited in its ability to meet the human being in a holistic manner. Climate change’s ensuing call for action may wake us up in the morning, but it will not give us peace when we go to bed at night.
In this context, the church has an opportunity to proclaim a greater story; a story of love, yearning, sacrifice, redemption, forgiveness. The gospel story, if you will.
This is an opportunity for the church to be an effective witness. But it needs to position itself now in order to capitalize on this chance, by swiftly responding to the reality of global warming by demonstrating a sense of duty (yes, this is our responsibility), a confession of guilt (yes, we have screwed up), and an act of faith (yes, we can change this). If the church ignores the crisis of climate now, the church will deserve to be ignored in the midst of a crisis of meaning.
What does this look like? Maybe it starts with finding groups that can carpool to church. Pastors are always trying to create small groups within their congregations anyways. But ultimately what it will require is a confidence to engage in systemic change that comes from prophetic vision, holding accountable not just congregations but the leaders of politics and industry. And efforts are already underway, and it is super easy to get involved.
So, in response to the question I was asked a couple weeks ago – I would love it if the church, instead of being reluctantly dragged into faith-based coalitions against global warming, took more leadership on the issue and showed that it had some confidence in itself. If, in 2050, the church can say, instead of “we did our part” say “we did it!”, that would be just incredible. We just gotta want it.