Thoughts on Thanksgiving

            The celebration of Thanksgiving began, originally, as a way to give thanks to God for the year’s agricultural harvest.  At a time when far more of the human population had their hands in the soil, and when the success or failure of a crop had a major impact on the health or even survival of a small town through the winter, there was a deeper appreciation for the annual miracle of food growing out of the ground in large quantities.  Farming was hard work, but God had surrounded his people with an earth that could, if tended well, provide riches.

            Today, the American population is far less connected to the soil.  The overwhelming majority of us are not farmers, and we tend to take food for granted.  And yet the reality, whether we are aware of it or not, is that we are just as dependent on the abundance of the earth as we always have been.  Without a healthy planet, there cannot be a healthy harvest.

            This Thanksgiving, as we all cut into the turkey, pumpkin pie, and stuffing and enjoy the bounty that creation has provided us, there is overwhelming international scientific consensus that human CO2 emissions are filling up our atmosphere and changing it to such an extent that our planet as a whole is starting to retain more heat and slowly warm.  This increase in temperature is causing storms, droughts, floods, and wildfires to become more frequent and severe.  Arctic and Antarctic ice sheets are melting into the ocean, causing sea levels to begin to rise.  Oceanic pH levels are changing, resulting in problems for the shells of creatures at the base of the food chain – which impacts all creatures in the food chain.  Coral reefs are overheating and dying off.

            In short, because of human emissions, the beautiful and life giving balance of the planet that God has given us to care for and enjoy the bounty of – the planet that grew our pumpkins and raised our turkey – is beginning to unravel.  During the season of Thanksgiving, we give thanks for the bounty of life – for food, clothing, shelter, family, friends, experiences, joys, accomplishments, seasons of growth … and the list goes on and on.  But without the planet that God has given us, there can be none of this.  There is no life without the creation that sustains life.

            Carl Sagan, the late astrobiologist, spoke of a photo taken from the Voyager spacecraft when it was so far away from earth that it was nothing more than a pale blue dot in a vast, black void.  He said that all of human history – all wars, romances, artistic expressions, rises and falls of states and empires – had taken place on that tiny dot, floating out there in the expanse.  Our planet, which we take for granted, is a tiny, precious, vulnerable gift that our Creator has given us to nurture us, awaken our imaginations, and provide the stage for the entire human story up to this point.

            We should be thankful for it, and the life that it gives us.

            But thankfulness is not simply a matter of saying words – it is a way of life.  If my mother gives me a new bicycle for Christmas, I can say “thank you” and give her a big hug.  But if I leave my bike out in the rain to rust, or throw it on the concrete apathetically, or leave it unlocked in a public space for hours, or leave it in a corner and never ride it, my “thank you” becomes increasingly hollow.  Because I am not treating my gift with respect.  I’m not caring for it, maintaining it, doing my best to help it last, or even enjoying it.

            So it is with creation.

            Our planet as a whole is currently in crisis.  Currently.  The time to do everything in our power, as individuals and as nations, to curb our CO2 emissions and protect the balance of this overwhelmingly beautiful and essential gift of God, is now.  In fact, it was decades ago. 

             Our unwillingness to move more intentionally, collectively, and sacrificially on these issues has only made them worse for us.  Currently, scientific models show that if we continue to emit CO2 with a “business as usual” mindset, temperatures will increase by the end of this century (i.e. 83 years from now) to levels that are consistently described by climate scientists as “catastrophic” for human civilization.  Some models say that even that category could be exceeded and a new category could be entered that scientists have literally labeled “unknown” because it represents an average global temperature that has not been seen in our planet for over 20 million years.  Let me say this again: Unchecked, this could take place by the end of the current century – i.e. when my 10 and 8 year old daughters are in their 90s.  Our children could witness the implosion of the world’s environmental balance, with all the implosion of society and ensuing chaos that would go along with it.

            Climate change is, simply put, an existential crisis for the human family.  It is so well documented scientifically that literally every nation in the United Nations – with the glaring exception of the United States – has signed on to the Paris Agreement’s international collaboration to curb emissions. 

            The time is now for every human being to be proactive about reducing their own emissions.  Being passive about this is not an option.  Denying climate change is an active threat to our fellow human beings – it is like aiming a gun at a room full of our future grandchildren and their families and beginning to fire indiscriminately. 

            But all is not lost – if we act now.

            Let me speak to Christians in particular.

            Christians should be at the center of the movement to reduce our emissions, for many reasons.  We are people who believe in a God who created our world, calls it good, and has set human beings as stewards over it (Genesis 1).  We believe, with Psalm 19, that the creation around us declares the goodness, beauty, creativity, and power of God – nature is his artwork.  How many of us have experienced the presence of God in a unique way in the cathedral of a forest, or the infinity of a seascape, or the power of a storm?  We believe in a God who set up, in his laws, requirements that not only human beings receive rest, but that animals and land be given rest as well (Leviticus 25). Furthermore, the God of the Bible presents himself consistently as a being whose heart is specifically oriented towards the poor – this is everywhere in the Bible.  Climate change, as with all human struggles and disasters, will impact the poor most of all.  Finally, the Bible teaches that God’s ultimate goal for the human story is not the abandoning of his good creation, but the renewal of it – the joining of heaven and earth together in a new reality found in Revelation 21 that is called the “New Heavens and New Earth.”  Jesus’ resurrection and return not as a ghost but as a new kind of physical, flesh and blood human, is indicative of God’s concern for, and prioritization of, his physical creation.  God loves the creation that we are destroying.

            Some Christians, I know, will say something along the lines of, “God is going to bring his future about in whatever way he’s going to do it.  There’s nothing that we can do about it.  Maybe this is the end times – maybe it’s the end of the world and there’s no way around it.”  Sure – maybe.  But this is never a reason for Christians to remain passive in the face of what is evil – and certainly not to actively participate in evil.  Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery – and as a result Joseph ended up playing a crucial role in providing for Egypt, the surrounding nations, and his own family during a long and severe famine.  In Genesis 50, Joseph says to his brothers, “What you meant for evil, God meant for good.”  But of course what his brothers did was still evil.  The Apostle Paul says in Romans 6, speaking of God’s mercy and love for human beings, “Shall we go on sinning that grace may increase?  By no means!”  The fact that God can rework evil human choices to bring about good in our world is no basis for doing evil.

            And so however the end times may or may not play out in our world, this is irrelevant to the clear calling of Christians:  A creation in crisis should be at the center of the heart of a person who is seeking to follow the Creator God presented in the Christian story – indeed, it should lead him or her to action.

            And so, this Thanksgiving, if there is anything that we are thankful for – any part of life at all – let us remember that the foundation for all of this is the planet God has given us.  And just as it is with any gift, being thankful for creation is not merely a matter of saying “thank you” – it is a matter of orienting our lives towards the gift in a way that expresses thankfulness.  Which in turn leaves us with the following stark reality:

            We cannot be thankful for God’s creation without actively working to help it when it is in distress.  That would be like being “thankful” for your spouse, and yet walking by her while she’s bleeding on the side of the road.

            And so I am offering a challenge to all who identify as Christians – and to anyone else who is reading this post.  What changes in your life can you make this Thanksgiving to orient yourself in greater thankfulness towards the creation that God has given us to nurture us, inspire us, and give us life itself – but which we are steadily destroying through our CO2 emissions?  Essentially, this is a call to repentance – a call to turn away from one way of treating God’s creation and begin to treat it in a new way.  What are some practical ways that we can turn our lives around? 

            Here are a few thoughts:

            In most places these days, you can get clean electricity for prices very comparable to creation-damaging energy (what is commonly called “regular” energy).  And even if you have to pay a little bit more, remember that it’s ok to sacrifice.  Christians are called to take up their crosses daily to follow Christ – the one “through whom all things were made.”  At this point, unless there is severe financial strain or the blatant impossibility of getting household electricity from a clean and renewable source, no follower of the Creator God should be powering their home with fossil fuel energy when it is actively sinking creation in a time of crisis. 

            Household heating is a more complicated system, and more prohibitively costly to rework – but are there ways that it could be reduced for you?  Perhaps you could keep your heat lower during the winter and wear more layers.  If you have clean electricity, you could use space heaters to warm individual rooms, electric blankets to warm yourself, and an electric tea pot to warm your water – rather than a gas stove.  Home improvements like new windows or better insulation can also help – and save you money (if you have the capital to do them in the first place). 

            Solar panels on our roofs, if made more and more widespread, could solve so many of our electricity needs and reduce the need for fossil fuels.  I often look down from airplanes at all the empty space on roofs that could be used to power our buildings cleanly.  Solar panels are pricey to buy, but there are companies (like Solar City) that will install them for free and then just charge you for the electricity like a normal utility.

            How do you approach transportation?  If you’re like most car owners, your car spews emissions into the atmosphere whenever you run it.  How can you keep this to a minimum?  Do you have a habit of leaving your car on and idling when it’s parked? Perhaps that could stop.  Do you have a car that has good gas mileage, or bad gas mileage?  If it’s time to get a new car, maybe you could get one with good mileage – perhaps a hybrid.  Or if you can manage it, what about an electric car?  More and more are coming out these days.  Car purchase choices like this are prohibitive for many people, but for many others, those choices are available – and important, if they can be done.  And there is, of course, also public transportation, or biking - both of which are much better on the environment (and your overall health) than driving a gas-powered car.

            Are you investing or building your retirement through companies that are leaving a bad carbon footprint in our world?  There are plenty of investment funds that are socially responsible.  (Isn’t it strange that not all companies are required to be socially responsible?  In fact, most are not.)  Maybe you could divest from funds that support fossil fuels and reinvest in companies that are not contributing (or at least contributing less) to the destruction of creation.  There are many funds that are just as competitive in terms of returns – Parnassus is one that I like, personally.  But again, if caring for the creation that gives us life means sacrificing some of our returns, it’s ok to sacrifice.  Jesus has called us to take up our crosses daily.

            Are you currently supporting politicians who deny climate change and are doing nothing to address it?  Are you supporting politicians who are actively working to undermine efforts to curb emissions?  Or are you telling them through your words and your votes that these actions are not acceptable.  Furthermore (and more challenging, yet no less important) are you willing to speak out against politicians you support on other issues (and may have voted for) when they deny climate change or work to undermine efforts to curb emissions?  If not, it’s time.  Governmental policies are needed to curb emissions from power plants, manufacturers, and other companies.  Companies, in general, pursue their short term bottom lines above all else – and so if curbing emissions costs them and their stockholders revenue in the next 3 years, they will never do it, even if it means destroying our world in 100 years.  Companies have to be required by law to curb emissions or they never will – and so our voices with our lawmakers are very important.

            Finally, are you listening to conspiracy theorists who say that climate change is a hoax?  Christians should have no patience with such rubbish.  We are a people who are called to honor the truth and to respect creation.  Climate change denial intentionally stifles the truth and degrades creation in order to help companies continue to pursue short term profits while destroying our world at the expense of future generations, particularly those who are poor. 

 

            Those are my thoughts for this Thanksgiving holiday.  Thanksgiving celebrates the bounty of life that God has given human beings to experience.  At the heart of this bounty is God’s creation itself.  To be “thankful” for this bounty while at the same time actively destroying it – or passively allowing it to continue to be destroyed – or shutting our eyes and ears and pretending that it is not being destroyed - is a fundamental contradiction.  It makes our thanksgiving out to be a lie. 

            May this not continue to be so.  May we repent, face our sin against God’s creation, and embrace concrete steps, both individually and collectively, to treat it with the life orientation of thankfulness and care that it deserves.

A Mandate for Christian Environmentalism

Christians should be the first people to save the whales.  And hug the trees.  And be obsessive recyclers.  And power their houses with renewable energy.  And buy cleaner and more efficient cars (if they can afford them).  And intentionally reduce how much water and heating and energy they use in their homes.  And campaign against irresponsible business practices that pollute the earth. And support international efforts to reduce carbon emissions to fight the effects of climate change. Christians should be leading the charge in everything environmental because, simply put, the God of the Bible has given them a mandate.

Now the call to environmentalism is not one of the Ten Commandments - and there’s no specific place in the Bible where God says, “Thou shalt save the whales,” but the principles are all there.

In the beginning, God created everything on this earth - all animal and plant life and ecosystems - and he called everything, invariably, good.  Then he set up mankind to have unique dominion over the earth - to rule over it, develop it, and care for it as God’s stewards.  This is what Christians call the “cultural mandate.”

Now in the world of rulers, there are good rulers and bad rulers.  There are those who exploit their people and use them for their own pleasure - and those who invest themselves in the flourishing of those under their care.  Both are rulers, but one feels no responsibility for the well being of his people, while the other sees that as her primary responsibility.

Well if God has set people up to be rulers over creation - what sort of rulers did he call us to be?  Did he call us to be tyrants who exploit his cherished creation until it’s all burned out … or caretakers who use it responsibly in ways that enable it and human life to flourish together?

The answer is obvious.  Our call is to rule not as exploiters and destroyers, but as creators and life givers (which is, not surprisingly, in keeping with the nature of the one who gave us this job).  It is, therefore, a simple and clear mandate - and one that is ultimately one of our most basic identities as human beings - stewards over our created home.

But there’s even more to the Christian environmental mandate than this.

Because who, in the end, is always most negatively impacted by poor stewardship?  The poor.  The people who can’t afford to live anywhere but near the municipal dump.  The people who don’t have the money to hire a lawyer when their water wells are filled with natural gas due to fracking leaks.  The sea coast cities in impoverished nations who simply don’t have the money to build the infrastructure necessary to deal with the upcoming changes of global warming such as rising sea levels and bigger and more frequent storms.  The people who, when increasing droughts cause food prices to rise, simply will not be able to afford enough food to live on.

The consequences of poor environmental stewardship will always be borne, most heavily, on the backs of the poor.  And the great irony is that the poor, because they have so few resources, are always the ones who contribute the least to the worldwide problems of waste and carbon emissions.  It is the rich who are pouring the gases into the atmosphere that are fueling sea level rise, and increasing droughts and storms.  It’s powerful industries that are finding legal loopholes that enable them to pollute more (which is easier and cheaper in the short term).  And yet it is the poor that will be punished for all of this.

Well this should be a major concern for Christians, because you don’t have to read very long in the Bible to discover that the God who made the earth has a very unique concern the poor.  The Torah in the Old Testament is full of laws to enact justice for the poor, the widow, and the orphan.  Some of the most common criticisms against Israel by the Biblical prophets (Amos and Isaiah are some particularly good examples of this) are particularly for their failure to uphold justice for the poor.  And when Jesus comes on the scene, he not only spends most of his time walking with and caring for the poor - he actually chooses to embrace a life of poverty himself, even to the point of bearing an unjust trial, condemnation, and execution - the kind of thing that the poor have born at the hands of the powerful throughout the ages.

God’s identification with the poor, therefore, would be hard to overemphasize.  They are precious to him, and the Bible says that God’s ears are tuned in to their cries in a special way.

So if God has set human beings up to be stewards over a creation that he cherishes and calls good, and if that stewardship is inseparably bound up with maintaining justice for the poor (whom God has a special concern for), then environmental stewardship must be a major concern for Christians.

I recently saw a bumper sticker that said something like, “Global Warming?  How about Global Prayer!”  The point (I think) was to say, “Why are we blabbing about issues of climate change when people aren’t praying in this world?”  Well I agree, without a doubt, that this world needs more prayer - and Christians should be pursuing this change in their daily lives.  But how should this in any way cause us to neglect our responsibilities, as stewards over God’s creation, to actively combat the practices that are destroying our world and making it particularly inhospitable for the poor?  It shouldn’t.  It mustn’t.  Both must be our concern.

So if you call yourself a Christian - if you call yourself a follower of a God who loves his creation and who loves the poor - then you must be concerned with the issues of environmental stewardship and act accordingly in your daily life.  This isn’t all you are called to, certainly - but it’s an awfully enormous thing to overlook.

And if you are not a Christian, but you care about the natural world and the issues of the poor matter to you … wake your Christian friends up!  They have a very powerful mandate in the Bible they are trying to root their lives in.  But they may need your help to see what is already there.