One Giant Leap for Evangelical Mankind (in the Climate Discourse)

An interesting document just came to my slow-moving attention: Loving the Least of These (2010), from the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE). It is an attempt by an evangelical pastor, an atmospheric scientist, an MBA, and a VP of the NAE to “start a conversation” about climate change, especially what is sometimes called “climate justice”—the view that there are moral and legal implications to the fact that climate change, although driven to date mostly by greenhouse-gas emissions from the world’s rich countries, is hurting poor countries (and the poor in relatively rich countries) even more than the rest of us.

Its message is simple, and one I affirm: “God calls us to care for those who are poor, vulnerable and oppressed.”  What’s surprising and encouraging about the mere existence of this document is that its authors accept what ~98% of scientists who publish in the climate field have acknowledged for many years, namely, that climate change is real and human-caused.  Yet if you bump into a random evangelical Christian on the street, chances are about 2 to 1 that they don’t accept the reality of anthropogenic climate change. In fact, white evangelical Christians are the most climate-disbelieving religious subgroup in the USA.

In light of these unfortunate facts, it’s positively amazing that Loving the Least of These not only exists but presents a decent review of basic climate science. It even correctly identifies the “Climategate” emails as a non-issue.

Yet this document does bear marks of its origin—marks that strike me as limits.  Note the conspicuously diplomatic absence of the word “Climate” from its title or cover.  Most importantly, it is a thoroughly “conservative” document in its personalism. That is, although it implicitly acknowledges that wealth is distributed with extreme inequity, and underlines the fact that with great poverty comes great vulnerability, as Stan Lee might have said but didn’t, it does not touch upon why wealth and vulnerability are so unequally distributed. Why are some countries, and some people in all countries, so screwed? Loving the Least of These omits any hint that there is a global system of wealth allocation (a.k.a. “the economy”), a system with a long and bloody history, and that as long as this system remains intact and in charge of our planet’s material affairs nothing will fundamentally change no matter how much money we donate to Save the Children or World Vision.  Which is not to deny that such groups’ work is urgently needed.

So when it comes to the section titled “What Should We Do,” it’s no surprise to find only the following recommendations: Pray for Wisdom, Make Lifestyle Changes, and Support Communities’ Efforts to Adapt. Not on the list: join or donate to organizations working to change laws governing corporate and consumer climate-impacting behaviors; agitate for a carbon tax or effective cap-and-trade program or both; pressure our elected officials to negotiate binding, enforceable, world-changing international climate treaties (rather than undermining them, as the US has historically done and continues to do under Obama, even post-election); by lobbying, marching, letter-writing, vote-casting, civil disobedience, and other means, push politicians to fund serious climate action (or indeed any climate action); and so forth. Pray, conserve, assist: no word about changing the economic system that has created severe wealth inequities to begin with. To be fair, this rather softly worded item about system-level change does appear under Make Lifestyle Changes:

Consider energy policy reforms. If we had to pay the full cost of the energy we use, we would certainly use it more wisely. Changes to our energy policy should be carefully studied and implemented in a way that rewards conservation and efficiency while cushioning the impact on those with limited means.

I’m totally down with pray, conserve, and assist (and would love to more than consider energy policy reforms)—and Loving the Least of These is, in fact, calmly eloquent on these points. Take lifestyle change: “People have long adapted their life habits and systems to the energy that is available to them. The challenge for us is to make changes voluntarily, for the sake of the poor and for the sake of God’s creation, before they are forced on us by world events.” Not to mention for the sake of our own sweet asses. The only problem here is that Loving the Least of These seems to assume that changing lifestyle is a matter entirely of sacrificial privation or asceticism, not of increased personal well-being and financial security.  In fact, it may involve both sacrifices and benefits.  But at least here we find some much-needed common ground between (some) evangelical thought, traditional cultural values, and liberal theologians writing about climate change such as Sallie McFague (A New Climate for Theology: God, the World, and Global Warming, 2008). All support the idea of personal responsibility exercised in the direction of thrift, enoughness, prudence, economy. In fact, everything except marketing-hypnotized consumerism supports it.

But if thinking that systems as well as individuals need to change if we are to seriously “love the least of these”—turn religious love into climate justice reality—is an inherently “left” position, why then paint me red and call me a commie.  McFague, though a plodding stylist, at least hits this one on the nose:

Sin is public and economic; it is not just private and sexual. Christians should, I believe, join with those NGOs claiming that a “different world is possible.” We, too, subscribe to this motto and need to work publically and politically to help bring it about. (A New Climate for Theology, p. 38)

  • http://www.facebook.com/billstauffer1 Bill Stauffer

    Your final quote strikes at the heart of my own concerns, namely the obsession of the evangelical with private, personal, tawdry sin, while ignoring economic injustice, not just imbalance. It follows that the state of world systems is of no consequence to the very personalized evangelical. How great is it, then, that in Jesus’ parable of the great banquet, where all of those on the side of might and wealth are too busy to attend, the marginalized and forgotten are welcomed to sit in the very seats of power at the table? If it is the Christian’s true calling to serve for the restoration, and ushering in, of the kingdom of God, then it is our calling to address inadequacy, imbalance, and injustice wherever it is found – first in our hearts, and then in our local and global world. Thanks for this response.