Monday, February 24, 2020

Climate Change Conservatism

Over the course of the last year, I've been working on a manuscript that discusses the Christian moral response to the climate crisis. 

My assumption, grounded in the hard reality we don't want to hear: catastrophic climate change cannot be avoided.  That horse has left the shed.  That Elvis has left the building.

Climate change will place new, intense and particular moral demands on Jesus folk, ones that will press us to live deeply into some of the core virtues of the Way.  We'll need to turn away from our endless cycle of consumerism and manufactured greed.  Thrift, after all, is a virtue.  I mean, it is, right?

The manuscript lays out that  in terms of Christian moral virtue.  We all need to feel a sense of personal responsibility, and act on our duty to protect the well being of future generations.  We'll need to slow down and take more sabbath in our lives.  We'll need to reconnect with the earth, the soil, and the goodness of God's creation.  We'll need to be less tribal, and more compassionate to the stranger in need.  We'll need to have hope, even in the face of unprecedented trial.

As I've thought about it, the most gracious responses all have deep roots in our faith...so deep that one could even call them "conservative."

And yet I find myself struggling mightily to see how to share this with conservative American Christians, with whom I would love to share this hopeful, can-do message.

That manuscript was recently turned down by an excellent and reputable conservative publisher, because, well, I'm straightforward about my liberality in it.  But the rejection came with details, which were both thoughtful and presented in a Christlike way.  I was...well...amazed at how gracious they were.  So I asked, hey, can we talk about this?  And in something close to a miracle, the editor who'd turned it down said, sure.  Yes. 

I then had a wonderful phone conversation with that graciously-souled editor.  He suggested that I look for places of commonality, places where my admittedly liberal commitment to Jesus can harmonize with his readers.  There is so much possible scriptural and theological common ground, and so much that we share on this precious world of ours.  Surely, surely, there must some way we can talk to one another.

It was good advice, and so I went out and looked for possible conversation partners.

For that, I looked to the writings of the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, an evangelical organization that discusses climate change.  Here, I thought, may be evangelicals who might share some common understanding.  I spent several days reading through their materials, seeking places of connection.

First, I looked for where the organization stood on climate change.  When speaking to someone, it helps to know where they stand, so you can endeavor to honor their integrity and speak so that you are heard. 

The position: climate change is not real. 
Or if it is real, it's not caused by humans. 
Or if it's caused by humans, it's trivial and will cause no noticeable change. 
Or if it isn't trivial, those radical changes to the global climate will actually prove beneficial. 
Although it may also not be happening. 

Every single one of these positions was expressed. 

There were articles by evangelical scientists which challenged the idea of consensus around climate change. There were other arguments that the existence of consensus around climate change was meaningless secular herd behavior.  I honestly had trouble finding purchase, because what I found was a dissonant, atonal chorus of every possible objection.  I could find no coherence beyond a spirit of opposition.

What about the relationship with those who disagree?  Were there already places of fruitful connection and hopeful pursuit of common ground?  I pored through their materials again.  There were attacks on the integrity of climate activists, who are all hypocrites because they use fossil fuels...or, in one instance, because they had been observed at a restaurant with people who were eating hamburgers.  Where those activists were both Christian and assiduously avoided air travel, the attacks were on the integrity of their faith and the legitimacy of their belief.  Where they were scientists and Christian, their standing in their field and their faith were attacked.  Ad hominem assumptions about those who present variant perspectives do not generally provide a good foundation for conversation.  They are, in point of fact, intended to shut conversation down.

There's the apolitical nature of climate change, because when a storm rises, ideology doesn't matter.  This is not a political issue, I could say.  The rain falls on the righteous and the unrighteous alike, after all.  I speak as a concerned soul.  Let's talk about this as something greater than our politics.  Yet there, again, I was stymied, as the Alliance shared praise and hagiography for America's current president, whose choices it describes as brave and bold and noble.  It makes it clear where allegiance lies, and casts the struggle in clear and political terms that clearly align faith with unswerving, absolute loyalty to a leader.

I looked for shared language, like the words "creation stewardship."  I believe in that.  Where creation stewardship is defined by the folks at Cornwall, it appears to mean: the continued and expanded use of "affordable, abundant, reliable fossil fuels."  That phrase is repeated in most of their position pieces.  Renewable energy sources are dismissed as poor stewardship, being too expensive, too "elite," inherently corrupt, and harmful to the development of less-privileged economies.

Well, what about the things that are affirmed, the positive declarations of how one should live?  Following Jesus is an affirmative path.  There are things Jesus asks us to do, and laying out a Way that honors the Gospel is a core part of the purpose of the faith.  What does  it look like, if we are to hew more closely to God's intent for our use of creation?  I could find nothing affirmative, no "here is what this looks like."  There is no telling of a real and gracious story, no sharing of what the reality of their vision of "creation stewardship" looks like when you define your life by it.

In negation, everything was granular and particular, down to micro-level detail.  In affirmation...vague, misty, platitudinous.  There were no practical suggestions, no examples, no stories of what good stewardship looks like.  Now, they may have been there somewhere. 

I just couldn't find them after a couple of days of looking.

But what about scripture and theology?  Surely there were places of connection there, I thought, perhaps unreasonably.  What about the pro-life idea, the need to care for future generations?  Choose life, that you and your descendants may live, cries Torah.  A pro-life ethos can easily be understood to encompass all moral choices, right?  One could say, well, out of concern for the well being of my children and yours, I'd like us to begin the transition away from fossil fuels in a reasonable, measured way before we reach the point of scarcity and crisis.  That's pro-life, right?  Yet there, in answer, was an essay declaring that the only thing pro-life can ever mean is anti-abortion.  Pro life, or so declares the Cornwall Alliance, means nothing but anti abortion.  Nothing more, nothing less, and efforts to expand that meaning (as the Catholic Church has) are Trojan Horses.  That's not exactly the sort of rhetoric that leaves room for conversation.

Every door I tried, locked and barred.  Every effort, frustrated.

And with that frustration, a challenge for my soul.  For from frustration can rise anger, and from anger invective.  I could allow the spirit of the Adversary to rise in me, and to see only evil, assuming the worst of motives and the darkest of intents.  What's their funding stream, and why is it intentionally hidden?  What's the real audience and intent?  I could make assumptions about their inner hearts, and carefully construct a dark narrative of opposition.

Or I could, in the face of a message of complacency, distraction and denial, tap down deep into the tradition of Scripture, and let the Lord speak my anger for me.  I'm not sure that helps, either.

Ultimately, the wise counsel of that evangelical editor still sang in my ear.   Don't argue.  Don't come up with reason to condemn and lines of attack.  Don't berate.  Don't allow yourself to fall into Satan's method of relentless accusation.

None of these things are fruitful, and harsh words only harden hearts, even if they are not my own.  You have to tell your story. 

It's better and more gracious to name the reality you see, affirm what can be done about it, and tell the good story of how that can be made real.  In all of that, ground it in Christ, and present that to as many souls as have ears to hear it.