Below is an essay that I sent to the Daily Pilot in hopes that they might publish it as an Op Ed last weekend. The people at the Pilot are usually very generous in publishing whatever I submit to them, but I think the events involving local students saluting a swastika ended up being a more immediate cause for their attention last weekend. So, I’m offering the essay to you, even though we are now a few days past Ash Wednesday.
In Christian communities, March 6 is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of Lent. Many people will dedicate this season to prayer, fasting, examination, and other disciplines intended to prepare us for celebrating the resurrection of Christ on Easter. But, to get resurrection, one must travel the road through crucifixion.
The story of Jesus’ death is very difficult and we can engage it from a number of angles. In 1943, H. Richard Niebuhr wrote a remarkable essay called, “War as Crucifixion,” using the death of Jesus as a “revelatory pattern” to understand what we now call the Second World War. I wonder if, 76 years later, it is possible to imagine “Climate Change as Crucifixion.” Can the story of Jesus provide a lens for interpreting our moment in the face of climate change? I think we can and here are some possibilities for doing so.
First, the crucifixion story is unrelenting in disclosing the lengths to which humanity will go in destroying life, as well as the ways that we try to justify our worst tendencies religiously and politically. Judas’ betrayal, Peter’s denial, the disciples’ abandonment, the religious authorities’ rejection, Pilate’s capitulation to the crowd, and Rome’s cruel way of dealing with sedition are stories of moral failure, blind ambition, and coercive power. Some of those actions might be seen as good intentions with unintended consequences, but the cumulative effect of those actions is death.
That is the first word that people of faith need to speak about climate change. While the science continues to unfold, while there are uncertainties about the future shape of climate change, and while the phenomenon is complex, the cumulative effect of our carbon footprint is simply destructive to our planet. While there may be some degree of unintended consequence involved, we know that our dependence on coal, oil, and gas are incredibly destructive, no matter the religious or political legitimations we can make for them.
Second, the crucifixion story demonstrates a cruel aspect of our execution of justice, because the suffering of the cross falls on an innocent scapegoat. Likewise, the cruel reality of climate change is that the innocent are suffering the most. It is not polluting cities or wealthy oil and gas producers that are experiencing the first effects of climate change. Small island communities are already seeing rising sea levels, agriculture-dependent poor countries are already experiencing record amounts of drought, and many species of animal and plant life have already been extinguished forever. If climate change is some kind of universal payback for our carbon footprint, it is a cruel and misdirected payback that will cause the most suffering on those who have exploited it the least, as well as future generations who have yet to do anything.
While Christians observe Lent with a view toward the resurrection story of Easter, resurrection is not a simplistic ‘do-over.’ The risen one in the story bears scars – ugly reminders that the crucifixion was real, the pain was intolerable, and the perpetrators guilty. The path to resurrection winds through crucifixion, as difficult as that story is to hear and accept.
Using the crucifixion as a “revelatory pattern” will not make climate change less controversial or create easy solutions. It might, however, give us a better way of understanding how to take responsibility for our actions and to attend to those who are most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. That would be a remarkable way to honor the Lenten season. Join us throughout the Lenten season as we attend to the theme, “Fragile Beauty of the Earth.”
Mark of St. Mark
Join us Sunday at 11:00am in the Fellowship Hall for a presentation on the relationship between climate change and drought by Jim Randerson, UCI professor of Earth System Science.