Most of my blog posts begin life as columns for my local paper. This one was no exception. Because of the preponderance of conservative Christian thought in the area where I live, in this particular column I had two goals ~ to counter the bad theology that one hears used in support of climate change denial, and to give those Christians of good will who want to be good stewards of earth the faith language they need to justify moving forward. I recognize that these goals will be of less relevance to some blog readers than to others. I simply ask that readers recognize the context in which this was written. This is not an end; these are the baby steps of beginning to address the terrible threat of anthropogenic climate change from a faith perspective.
The gospel reading for September 22 (the 18th Sunday after Pentecost) for churches that follow the common lectionary was the Parable of the Shrewd Manager (also titled the Parable of the Dishonest Servant), as recorded in Luke 16:1-13. Our pastors always provide a short introduction to be read by the scripture reader to set the stage. So at Lititz Moravian we heard, “The parable of the shrewd manager can be interpreted in many ways. At its simplest, it reminds us that we have a Master who doesn’t want us to squander the Master’s property. What if the Master were to say to you, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management.’”
We could have stopped right there and had plenty to chew on and pray about for the coming week. It’s a challenge which has occupied a considerable part of my consciousness in recent years. My faith teaches me that the Master is God the Creator, and that all the universe is God’s property. On the bit of the cosmos known to us as planet earth, human beings have emerged as the dominant species. So in the language of faith, humans are the designated managers of our portion of creation.
What could we say if we were called to account for our management? If we are honest, we would have to say that we are not doing a very good job of it. In fact, in recent centuries we have been doing a spectacularly bad job of it. As our capacity to manipulate our environment has increased, we have failed to achieve the balance and mutual respect that is necessary for life as we know it to be sustained for the indefinite future. While scientists have been warning with ever increasing urgency of the potential devastation we face if we continue on our present course, they have thus far been met with grossly inadequate responses.
So what is a Christian, and especially a Christian living in the United States, supposed to do? I would suggest that the first thing we have to do is examine our theology. From some we hear, “God won’t let us mess up the planet too badly. All the warnings are alarmist babblings by those who don’t have enough faith.” And indeed, Jesus taught his followers that it was possible to have “faith that moves mountains.” (Matthew 17:20) But is this the appropriate teaching to apply to our stewardship of earth? When Satan tempted Jesus to prove that he was the Son of God by throwing himself off of the highest point of the temple, Jesus reminded the tempter that we are not to put God to the test. (Luke 4:9-12, quoting Deuteronomy 6:16) Aren’t we “putting God to the test” when we think that we can pollute and destroy our home in whatever way we like, expecting that God will rescue us from our deliberate mismanagement?
Others gleefully embrace each new warning, declaring that it is one more sign that the End Times are drawing near. According to this way of thinking, anything that increases turmoil and chaos is welcome, because it means that Jesus will soon return. The obvious answer to such speculation is Jesus’ own words, “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” (Matthew 24:36; Mark 13:28) And beyond that, he also taught that the second greatest commandment is “Love your neighbor as yourself.” How can we claim to follow Christ’s command to love our neighbors and then greet with joy the potential of great suffering for millions?
Working hand in hand with misguided theology that would lead us to downplay or ignore the evidence of our mismanagement is a corporate-political movement with a vested interest in denying the reality of climate change and maintaining the status quo. Examining the driving force behind this movement takes us back to the final verse of the gospel reading with which we began. “No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” (Luke 16:15)
In the ranking of the largest world corporations by gross annual revenue, oil and gas companies hold spots two through seven (Wal-Mart is number one), and an electric utility, the State Grid Corporation of China, is number nine. On the complete list of 61 companies with gross annual revenue in excess of $100 billion, fourteen more oil and gas corporations join the top six, making the extractive industries nearly one-third of the total. With so much wealth concentrated in enterprises that are demonstrably harmful to our planet’s ecosystem, it is quite appropriate to ask what power they have to drive international policy, and what means Christians who choose to serve God rather than wealth have to stand against them.
Using the same tactics, and in some instances the very same ad agencies, that the tobacco industry used to deny medical research and sow doubt in the minds of the public about the terrible toll in illness and premature death that tobacco use was causing, the fossil fuel industry generates enough disinformation to successfully block efforts to establish a unified and effective strategy of mitigation and restructuring in the face of our rapidly changing climate. They are using the vast wealth at their disposal to maintain a system in which they accumulate even more wealth while the homes and livelihood of several billion humans, and untold numbers of other species, lie under ever-increasing threat.
So what is a Christian to do? With the help of the gospel, we can resist the lies that we are being told. When we hear that substantive steps to eliminate dependence on fossil fuels cannot be enacted because taxes must be reduced for the rich, we can remind ourselves and others that “from everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required.” (Luke 12:48) When we are fed the myth of rugged individualism and urged to be suspicious of any collective action or mutual responsibility, we can recall that “we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.” (Romans 12:5) Most of all, when any action is urged upon us, we can inquire closely as to who benefits, and who will be harmed. Are we being good stewards of creation? Who is being served – God, or wealth?