The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


Environmental urgency

Changing the way we think, behave will be the hard part

Because it's hard." Those wise words were spoken in an evening gathering of teens, the generation inheriting the massive challenges of global climate change.

The gathering was ordinary. They were ordinary teens in an ordinary community in an ordinary ELCA congregation coming together for their regular Wednesday evening youth group meeting.

The conversation turned to reflection on how their faith impacts their response to global warming. The teens widely agreed that climate change is real. They agreed it's a challenge that requires action, certainly on the part of the large entities in the world: government (at every level), corporations, agribusiness, energy producers. And it requires action by individuals — everyone.

The squirming began when someone asked what they were doing to change their behavior. It quickly became clear there was a big disconnect between what they believe about climate change and how they behave. Someone asked, "Why?" And that's when Kevin blurted out, "Because it's hard!"

Popular culture in America hasn't reached the same level of consensus about climate change that was reflected in the teens' conversation. But the scientific community stands in near unanimous agreement that it is real and the entire global community has a short time to turn the tide. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stated: "Scientific evidence for the warming of the climate system is unequivocal."

While there have been climate changes throughout the history of the planet, evidence points to the fact that current changes are alarmingly rapid.

According to NASA:

• The global sea level rose almost 7 inches in the last 100 years, and most of that has happened in the last 10.

• Though warming has accelerated in the last century and a half, the 10 warmest years in that time period have been in the last 12 years.

• Between 2002 and 2006, Greenland lost between 36 and 60 cubic miles of ice.

• Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere had never been above 300 parts per million in the last 650,000 years; in 1950, they reached that point, and today are at 380 parts per million.

Accepting the reality of the rapid warming of the planet is only a first step toward the more difficult steps of changing the way we think and behave.

Changing thought and behavior patterns isn't only hard, it goes against some deeply ingrained cultural values. American culture carries a strong commitment to convenience, from the way we eat to the way we get around to the way we communicate. Taking on a little inconvenience for the sake of the larger, common good seems too much to handle in a frenzied, everything-to-the-margins kind of life.

Even when we know that spending a little more time to walk or ride a bike, or cutting down on packaged and prepared foods, or using washable dishes instead of throwaways is the better thing to do, our default position is convenience.

Add to convenience our insistence on the instantaneous. When we want it, we want it now. Communication now; shopping now; food now; destination now. Processed, packaged food means dinner is on the table in 15 minutes instead of 45 minutes. Sending a question by email in the morning means getting an answer by noon or concluding there's something wrong if there's no reply by 3 p.m.

The instantaneous becomes a necessity when the assumption stands that every moment has to be spent in getting something done and something accomplished. So if it takes 30 minutes to walk to the salon for a haircut and five minutes to drive, that's a waste of 25 minutes that could be used to accomplish something.

Finally — and this may be the most significant of these ingrained cultural values — is the emphasis on the autonomous individual. That's what it means to be strong in our culture. Individuals make their own lives because that's what good people do. Strong individuals try hard, work hard, and they win.

Because strong and successful individuals make their own life, they get to live the way they want. "I Did it My Way" is the anthem of a culture that has forgotten any notion of interconnectedness.

So let's start with the possibility of a new way of thinking, a way that acknowledges we aren't simply a collection of individuals. We are community, not only with other human beings but with the other creatures around us, and even with the inanimate created world, from the smallest microbes to the largest mammals, and even with the rocks and trees and mountains. The way we live has an impact on everyone and everything else in this community.

In Blessed Are the Consumers (Fortress Press, 2013), theologian Sallie McFague presents a way of thinking embedded in a theological model that she calls kenosis.

Kenosis is the Greek word that is usually translated with some form of the English word "empty." It's most well-known in the New Testament: "Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross" (Philippians 2:5-8).

According to McFague's thinking, in creation God emptied God's self in love, giving creation and all creatures space to flourish. In his great act of self-giving on the cross, Christ emptied himself for the sake of the whole world. As followers of Jesus, we give ourselves to simpler living and sustainable practices for the sake of giving others space and opportunity to flourish. That includes not only other people but other creatures and, indeed, the earth itself.

It also means recognizing ourselves as interconnected parts of the whole that God created.

This way of thinking marks a contrast to the traditional reasoning about the relationship between God and the world. Traditional theological models have suggested a disconnect between God and the world. God is completely other-than the created order. God created the world and continues to exert power over it, even if that power is benevolent and sustaining. Likewise, we humans were set up as caretakers over the world and still exercise power over it as an object.

When God's relationship with the world is an emptying, self-giving love, it leads to a different way of thinking, not only about what God has done but about the way God has called us to live. The abundant life isn't getting more and more stuff or creating a life for ourselves, but an intentional giving up of what's possible for the sake of the common good.

It's a countercultural way of thinking. McFague suggests that's exactly the church's role. Christians in the world are called to embrace a countercultural worldview that embraces emptying ourselves so others can flourish. That means living more simply and more intentionally for the sake of others.

Joan Chittester, who writes about spiritual practices, reminds us: "Everything that is possible is not necessary." Nor is it even beneficial. Here we find touchpoints with Martin Luther's reminder of the two dimensions of Christ's love. One part is the love Christ has for us, and the other is the love we owe our neighbor. Christ in us is the active agent, not just of our love for fellow human beings but for the entire good creation in which God has placed us.

Deciding to adopt practices that allow for the flourishing of others is especially important for Christians in the developed West. In the short-term people in the West can buy and consume their way out of the effects of climate change. But the poor in the developing world don't have the same option, and they disproportionately bear the effects of climate change.

For instance, in Bangladesh a rise of only 17 inches in sea level would put 6,000 square miles of land permanently underwater, land that is presently occupied by the poorest people in one of the poorest countries in the world. Hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, drought, deforestation are all interrelated. They stem from the increasingly rapid onset of climate change and they hit developing nations and the poorest people the hardest.

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