December 16, 2013 / Theology
Recent attention to the body opens a discussion of bodily practices to which St. Paul contributes principles for Christian practice.
September 28, 2015
There is coming a day, Jesus said in the Gospel of Luke, when the sky, the earth, and the sea will be filled with signs of terror, anguish, and destruction, omens of an unbearable future. It is written that “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars,” “the heavens will be shaken,” and the peoples of the earth will look with terror “at the roaring sea and the waves” (Luke 21:25–26 NRSV).
I’ve been told that Jesus was talking about the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, a cataclysm with aftershocks reaching into the heavens. But I can’t help but read his words as a description of the signs I see in our sky and on our earth today, signs of an apocalyptic climate as the land convulses in response to fracking and drilling, as the sky becomes a toxic brew of methane and carbon dioxide, and as the sea level rises, swallowing coastal villages and cities.
To dramatize for the world the threat of the swelling ocean to his people, in 2009 president Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives convened a press conference underwater. President Nasheed wore a scuba suit and sat at a sunken desk as he signed a statement for a global reduction of carbon emissions. After he returned to the surface, a reporter asked what will happen if no one responds. “We are going to die,” Nasheed responded. “If the Maldives cannot be saved today, we do not feel that there is much of a chance for the rest of the world,” he added. Scientists at the 2009 International Climate Change Congress estimated that most, if not all, of the 1,200 islands that make up the Maldives would be submerged by the year 2100.
In 2005, half a million Bangladeshis became climate refugees when the ocean consumed Bhola Island. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that by 2050 twenty-two million people who live in Bangladesh will become homeless as the sea swallows the land. Political leaders in India recognize the future of their neighbor to the east, so the government is building a 2,500-mile fence on their border with Bangladesh to keep out climate refugees.
“People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming,” and there will be on the earth “distress among the nations” due to “the roaring of the sea and the waves” (Luke 21:25–26). This apocalypse is now. “Roughly two hundred million people globally live along coastlines less than five meters above today’s sea level,” observes Brian Fagan in his book The Attacking Ocean: The Past, Present, and Future of Rising Sea Levels. “By the end of the twenty-first century, this figure is projected to increase to four hundred million,” he continues. The rising seas will cause a political crisis in our century as multitudes are forced to migrate. Fagan predicts “a future of accelerating humanitarian crisis that may involve resettling millions of people in completely different rural and urban environments.” In his epilogue, Fagan hopes for intergovernmental partnership as Western nation-states prepare to welcome the expected flood of immigrants: “The answer lies in levels of international cooperation and funding to handle migration unheard of in today’s world.”
But Christian Parenti doesn’t see any reason to hope for wealthy countries to open their borders to the poor masses. In Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence, Parenti describes the effects of climate change on the “economically and politically battered post-colonial states girding the planet’s mid-latitudes,” between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Tropic of Cancer, the home of nearly three billion people. The looming climate crisis will unleash a flood of migrants from the Southern Hemisphere to the North, trying to escape, trying to survive—a global, political state of emergency. The US government has been preparing for it—preparing not to welcome these refugees but to keep the hordes at bay. To our government, these are not guests but invaders. “The Pentagon is planning for a world remade by climate change,” Parenti observes, “the Pentagon is planning for Armageddon.”
In a previously classified presentation to Congress, Thomas Fingar, the former deputy director of National Intelligence for Analysis, focused the legislators’ attention on the effects of climate change and global migration patterns. “Extreme weather events and growing evidence of inundation will motivate many [people] to move sooner rather than later,” Fingar explained. “The United States will need to anticipate and plan for growing immigration pressures.”
Parenti documents the reports and analyses, like Fingar’s, which have been shaping the conversation about climate change among leaders in Washington, D.C. A 2004 report commissioned by the Pentagon—“An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario and Its Implications for United States National Security”—paints an ominous picture of the future, “as famine, disease, and weather-related disasters strike due to the abrupt climate change.” The report continues: “Nations with the resources to do so may build virtual fortresses around their countries, preserving resources for themselves.” According to Parenti, “national security intellectuals, in and out of government, have started to imagine a militarized geography of social breakdown on a global scale.” Parenti names this grand plan for the emerging global migration crisis “climate fascism”: a politics of “exclusion, segregation, and repression” and a strategy of “walls, guns, barbed wire, armed aerial drones, [and] permanently deployed mercenaries.” The wealthy and powerful nation-states, like the United States, are preparing themselves to be an “armed lifeboat,” a kind of Noah’s ark, but one that deploys drones in the sky instead of doves.
Noah’s ark, outfitted as an armed lifeboat, seems like an appropriate image for the United States, an appropriate image for how our society understands itself as climate disasters threaten human life on the earth. Climate change may destroy the world, so our thinking goes, but we’re smart enough and strong enough to survive; history has chosen us to escape the floods. Yet another assumption flowing from the logic of American exceptionalism.
During his visit to the United States in the 1830s, the French diplomat Alexis de Tocqueville noticed the penchant of our leaders to imagine their society as the destiny of humanity—the United States as prolepsis—and therefore entrusted with deciding what’s best for the earth. “There is not a country in the world where man more confidently seizes the future,” wrote Tocqueville in Democracy in America, “where he so proudly feels that his intelligence makes him master of the universe, that he can fashion it to his liking.” With militarized border fences patrolled by drones, leaders in the United States are still fashioning a future world to their liking. They are fashioning a country to rise above the waves of the huddled masses at our border, to rise beyond the reach of those people forced to leave their homes due to a global environmental disaster North Americans helped create. This is the “slow violence” of the powerful nation-states of the global North against the peoples of the Southern hemisphere, as Rob Nixon describes in his book Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Our environmental degradation of the earth is “a violence of delayed destruction,” writes Nixon, “as we turn soil, air, and water into slow weapons of mass destruction.”
“People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world,” Jesus said of the apocalypse, signs of which appear in our skies and oceans, a warning of what is to come, soon, given the rising sea (Luke 21:26). “Be alert at all times,” Jesus warned, “praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place” (Luke 21:36).
Political leaders have been alerted; military strategists have begun preparations. In our armed lifeboat, our Noah’s ark, our society is set up to escape the devastation that the disempowered of the world will undergo. Yet Jesus’s exhortation to escape is addressed to the people who our politics of exclusion have predestined for destruction. Jesus’s words are for the climate refugees, the victims of our slow violence. They will need “strength to escape” the world we’ve created.
To those of us in North America, for you and me, with our militarized politics and violent economics, with our immigration police who guard our jobs and community gardens, Jesus has other words. “Woe to you,” he says, “who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep” (Luke 6:25).
 “Maldives Cabinet Makes a Splash,” BBC online, October 17, 2009, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8311838.stm; “Climate Refugees in Pacific Flee Rising Sea,” Washington Times, April 19, 2009, http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2009/apr/19/rising-sea-levels-in-pacific-create-wave-of-migran/?page=all.
 “Climate Refugees in Pacific Flee Rising Sea,” Washington Times, April 19, 2009, http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2009/apr/19/rising-sea-levels-in-pacific-create-wave-of-migran/.
 Brian Fagan, The Attacking Ocean: The Past, Present, and Future of Rising Sea Levels (New York, NY: Bloomsbury Press, 2013), 226–227, 236, and 237.
 Parenti, Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence (New York, NY: Nation Books, 2012), 9 and 13.
 Fingar, the Pentagon report, and Parenti quoted in Parenti, Tropic of Chaos, 13, 15, 18, 11, and 226.
 Tocqueville, Democracy in America, quoted in Sheldon S. Wolin, Tocqueville Between Two Worlds: The Making of a Political and Theoretical Life (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001), 148; Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), 2 and 231.
Isaac S. Villegas
Isaac S. Villegas is the pastor of Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship in North Carolina. He serves on the executive board of Mennonite Church USA and on the governing council of the North Carolina Council of Churches.