Gambling on a Climate Change Solution

A few months ago, I had the privilege of hearing from (and, later, speaking with) a reasonably well-known Australian economist. This economist, who happens to be a Christian, was speaking to a room full of Christian pastors/leaders about the importance of economics. This is something he tries to do on a regular basis, in the same way that he seeks to  speak to economists about the importance of the rest of life (suggesting that economics is not ‘everything’). I really appreciate this dual strategy, and that he would take the time out of his busy schedule to speak to us.

I did, however, find a number of problems with what he said and sought to challenge a few of the points he put forward. To cut a long story short, I felt that, whether he meant to or not, he seemed to only leave room for a pastoral response to the way our economic systems work, leaving not much room at all for any prophetic engagement. By that, I mean that he spent quite a bit of time outlining a ‘this is just how it is’ type scenario (at least, this is how I saw it). In discussing changes underway in the Australian economy, for example, his response in regards to the role of the Church was to get alongside those who wouldn’t necessarily do well out of these transitions. That’s fine, in one sense (and I think we definitely should be responding pastorally to these situations), but he seemed incapable of seeing the Church taking any sort of prophetic stance on speaking to the elements of our current system which lead inevitably to exploitation and the treatment of human beings as something more like automatons rather than people created in the image of the Creator. The way I see it, there is an opportunity to challenge some of these elements of our system at their source—pointing to the fact that they inevitably lead to people being used and abused—rather than just dealing with the fallout. I’m encouraged, therefore, by Pope Francis’ recent ‘apostolic exhortation’, calling unfettered capitalism a ‘new tyranny’ (see here).

What really troubled me, though, was my economist friend’s response to questions about climate change.

As he discussed the opportunities for the Australian economy in exporting natural gas for the next few decades (as part of the transition from the first stage of the mining boom), I began asking questions about environmental impact of such industry and the effect on climate change (noting both that the impact of coal seam gas extraction on our land and water supplies could be, potentially, devastating and that, in order to avoid catastrophic climate change, the large majority of fossil fuels must remain in the ground).

His response was really quite interesting.

In a nutshell, his response was that, in time, someone would come up with some sort of amazing new invention which would make all this worry about climate change seem quaint in years to come. He pointed to some examples from history as evidence for this assertion and, when pressed, seemed to indicate that the best way to proceed was, in fact, to do nothing, so that the sense of heightened urgency might speed up the process.

I have a few problems with this.

Firstly, it is, I would argue, totally reckless to go about business as usual and leave everything to chance. It’s a terribly high-risk gamble! I do understand that ‘necessity is the mother of invention’—I really do—but we already have ‘necessity’ in spades. To forget about trying to put any structure in place that helps move us towards a renewable energy future and to go all in on the off-chance that someone comes up with…who knows what(!) is not just ignorance, it’s criminal negligence. I grant that there have been times in history when there have been game-changing inventions or new ways of doing things, but that is no guarantee that it will happen the same way this time.

And this leads to the second point.

We’ve never had to deal with something as huge as this before. Quite simply, there has been no time previously in human history where the stakes have been so high. Sure, we’ve had things like ‘The Great Horse Manure Crisis of 1894’ but, with all due respect, trying to compare the two situations is, well, horse shit. What we are arguing about here is the possibility of catastrophic global climate change. I believe in human ingenuity, but I don’t believe that the free market (which, in truth, is anything but ‘free’) can be trusted to be left alone in this process while we wait patiently for a solution. Vested interests are just too powerful a force on these markets, and I fear that what we will see instead is future generations lumped with the burden of mopping up the damage left by the current generation’s greed.

And this leads into the third and final point.

All of this ignores the fact that changes in the climate affect the world’s poor in a disproportionate manner. It is the poorest, and most powerless, communities in the world who are already dealing with the impact of environmental changes, and they will continue to bear the brunt into the future. Part of the problem is that the powerful so often live their lives away from where the impact is already being felt, and thus fail to see the necessity of the situation already. Leaving action on climate change until it is acutely felt by the powerful will mean catastrophe for those voice is already being largely ignored in current negotiations. Let’s call this for what it is: a monumental moral failure.

As human beings, we have a responsibility to seek the best interests of one another; current systems prioritise self-interest over everything else. The deck is stacked against the poor, and therefore they will always lose most heavily from this sort of gamble.

As such, I respectfully suggest to my economist friend that his suggestion is hopelessly flawed. I also want to suggest that this is precisely the type of situation where the Church could—and should—have a prophetic voice. If we truly believe that God is creator, and that God’s creation is ‘good’, and if we truly believe that all human beings are created in the image of God and therefore invested with an inherent dignity, then we simply cannot leave it all to chance.

I am not an economist, or the son of an economist—that much is clear. But I don’t think one needs to be an economist to recognise that this is not an acceptable way forward.

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Standing With, Not Speaking For

A number of years ago, when I was just starting out in a career in theological education (a career path which I have, subsequently, abandoned), I was asked to deliver a lecture for an introductory theology class. The lecture was entitled ‘Redemptive Human Relationships’, and I was quite excited about delivering it due to the fact that it had been formative in my own thinking when I sat through a similar class under Dr Shane Clifton a few years earlier.

The class was basically about the new possibilities for human relationships that arise out of the life and ministry (and death and resurrection) of Jesus of Nazareth: relationships free from oppression or exploitation of the other; relationships defined by mutual submission and sacrificial love and which aim for full human flourishing.

I spent quite a bit of time preparing for the lecture, and couldn’t wait to get into it. I was especially interested in challenging what I (still) believe to be harmful notions of ‘male headship’ that float around certain areas of the Church.

The time came for me to deliver the lecture, and I gave it everything I had. I did my best to shine a light especially on the insidious nature of patriarchy and the possibility for relationships free from domination of the other. I’d expected some opposition (especially from a group of young men present who had displayed some fairly conservative tendencies to that point), but I’d also been hoping that it could be helpful for at least some of the women in the room.

All my efforts, however, did little to provoke any response whatsoever from those in attendance. A number of the young men sat stony-faced as I spoke (some visibly uncomfortable), others engaged here and there. Many of the women showed no response at all.

After the lecture, I approached a couple of the young women from the class and asked them about what had just happened. Indicating that they found the lecture reasonably helpful, I enquired as to why, therefore, they didn’t respond in any way to the lecture content.

They then proceeded to tell me about how arguments regarding male headship had been raging in the dorms for weeks prior, and how it had come to the point where anything the women said was rejected out of hand (and how even questioning the legitimacy of female subordination was to invite the label of being a ‘Jezebel’ onto oneself). Women who challenged such disgusting behaviour from the young men in the group were called ‘feminazis’, mocked and insulted.

It was horrible!

The young women in the group decided, therefore, that they would largely stay quite throughout this particular lecture, allowing space for these young men to hear from someone in a position of relative authority just how out-of-order their behaviour was. It had come to such a point that they felt their best strategy was to refrain from throwing any more fuel on the fire for this three hour’s worth of lectures and that, just maybe, it would open up new possibilities (and, either way, they’d pick up the fight again after the lecture).

I didn’t quite know how to reply. I felt sick that the young men had been acting this way. I felt even more sick that the women were being actively and aggressively denied their voice. And I felt thoroughly confused about my role in it all.

I couldn’t work out for the life of me if I’d made things worse or if it had been helpful.

I thought I knew that women didn’t need men to speak for them, but I was newly conflicted. Were there times when to do so was—dare I ponder the thought—a necessary evil? Were there times when it just wasn’t possible for a woman’s voice to be heard, and where, in the heat of those situations, a man needed to speak for women, at least initially; at least to create a bit of space for women to be able to speak for themselves?

After wrestling with this concept for some time (I’m ashamed to say it took longer than it should have), I was finally able to see the whole thing as the perverse temptation that it truly is. Though it’s an inherently alluring concept to the fallen male mind (to think that there is need to ride to the rescue, to valiantly protect the interests of ‘weaker’ others), to think this way is to fan the flames of patriarchy.

In the words of Admiral Ackbar (in Return of the Jedi), “It’s a trap!”

As a man, I began to see just how vulnerable I am to such a condescending notion. Then, like Alice, I began to see how deep the rabbit hole went.

As a rich (by world standards), white, Western male, I came to see just how vulnerable I was to this same insidious idea in so many areas: feeling a paternalistic ‘burden’ to speak for the poor, for the marginalised, for all those poor souls who just can’t speak for themselves(?!?!).

My inherent privilege on so many levels has the potential to run riot in every one of these areas and, left unchecked, that’s precisely what it will do (and does do). Fighting against—even being aware of(!)—this temptation is a constant battle, because I know that I can get my voice heard in most situations. I stand on a multi-layered, interconnected platform of privilege. To feel this [not so] noble calling to be ‘the voice of the voiceless’ carries with it, then, an almost magnetic attraction (as long as it’s wrapped in enough faux humility in regards to the ‘necessity’ of it all).

But there is one thing I am convinced of. In the words of Arundhati Roy:

There is really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.

To fall into the trap of trying to speak for those who are perfectly able to speak for themselves is nothing more than a sinister invitation to lend support to walls of alienation which must surely be brought down.

My task is firstly, and most importantly, to listen. If you share any or all of my layers of privilege, I invite you to do so too.

Then, when I have truly been able to hear the voices of those that people just like me—people such as me—go to such great lengths to silence, my task is simply to stand alongside them.

Returning to the story with which this post started, my task was, in retrospect, really quite simple. The women in the class did not need me to speak for them; my responsibility was to listen to them and stand with them. And, together, our task was (and is) to model the sorts of redeemed human relationships that I was supposed to be talking about in the first place.

Defining Justice

How do us Christians define ‘justice’? How is it defined in our churches (whether explicitly or implicitly)? How, in turn, are our actions defined by our understanding?

It seems to me that many Christians use the word ‘justice’ without necessarily understanding what (biblical/Christian) justice is all about. I sometimes hear Christians talk about justice in a way that makes it sound tangential to the gospel message at best, downright distracting at worst. Others speak of justice like it’s another passing fad, soon to be left behind by ‘the next big thing’. Others situate justice as a kind of subset of the Good News, or something that Christians might be involved with as a kind of add-on to the more core elements of their faith (or, perhaps, just give lip service to).

I don’t think that any of these options will suffice, and here’s why.

1) The ‘Justice’ of God refers to nothing less than God’s wise rule in action.

In the biblical material, justice is integrally linked to God’s righteousness and wise judgment. God, the truly righteous one, has set forth a plan for seeing creation operating at its full potential. This plan, or these judgments, cover every facet of our lives: our relationship with the creator, our relationships with each other, and our relationship with the rest of creation. Justice, then, is what flows from God’s wise rule being put into action. It is relationships (as defined above) set right, and operating in a way that sees life and wholeness flourish.

Through the testimony of those who have encountered God throughout salvation history we have a record of the way in which the people of God should work towards living out God’s wise rule in their communities and in our world. God has made it clear what these communities should look like. They are to be places where those who are not able to protect themselves are protected, where the vulnerable are cared for. Indeed, this has always been one of the defining features of the people of God! These are communities where the powerful are boldly confronted for ever daring to exploit or oppress others. These communities are also to care deeply for God’s good creation, recognizing humanity’s integral connection to the rest of creation. We are not, therefore, working towards something that is unclear or not yet defined; God’s plan is not hidden!

And this is most evident in the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus. It is in Jesus that we see what God’s wise rule truly looks like. Through Jesus’ life and work, the kingdom of God (which is nothing other than the place/s where the wise rule of God is acknowledged) has broken powerfully into the present, and by the Spirit of God we are empowered to continue the same work. Our goal is quite simple: to model our own lives on the life of Jesus and to see God’s wise rule worked out through the whole of creation. This is what justice looks like.

This is certainly not, therefore, a subsection of the Good News of God in salvation history; it is the fullness of God’s wise rule being worked out in the whole of creation. Justice is what the kingdom of God looks like. It is shalom being achieved.

And this leads directly to the second point.

2) Justice must be demonstrated.

The concept of justice means nothing unless it is embodied or incarnated or demonstrated. Discussing of theory of justice will not do; for justice to be justice it must be worked out in concrete examples in our communities.

Where the vulnerable are being exploited or oppressed, it means standing in solidarity with them and challenging the oppressors. It sometimes means confronting and seeking to overturn significant ‘structures of sin’.

Where the dignity of those who are made in the image of God is denied, it calls for rebuke.

Where God’s good creation is used and abused for greedy gain and without thought for future generations, it means standing up for creation care and changing unhelpful habits.

It means challenging racism and classism and sexism and all the other walls of hostility that divide us up into warring tribes. It means feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, and asking how it is possible that there are those who are hungry and naked in our world in the first place.

Basically, it means embodying the values of the coming kingdom in the present, living out an alternative way of being that holds at its very core the flourishing of the whole of creation.

But it means nothing unless it is demonstrated. It remains a fading dream unless it is embodied.

This, I would suggest, is a more helpful definition of justice. The question is, will we let our lives be defined by it?