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.

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?

Redeeming My Roots

For almost a decade now, I’ve been thinking about the concept of ‘redeeming my roots’.

Please let me explain what I mean.

Before I became a Christian, I was a reasonably open-minded individual. Working from the foundation of a basic liberal worldview, I was an advocate for freedom and equality and the necessity of a good classical liberal arts education as the corner stone of a strong society. From that foundation, the framework of my political and philosophical outlook on life was built around a fairly strong suspicion of authority, taking the shape of anarchism.

ratm-ratmRage Against The Machine’s self-titled debut album became the soundtrack of my political journey. This worldview was predominantly furnished in the style of libertinism, with a few somewhat awkward hints of humanitarianism thrown in the mix.

I may not have been able to explain how all of this fit together, but I was only about 17 or 18 at the time.

Now, obviously, not all of this was good.

My relentless pursuit of pleasure meant that I spent most of my time drunk, about to get drunk, or thinking about getting drunk, and my inclination towards anti-authoritarianism was polluted by my own pain and anger in regards to my then lost relationship with my father. This was made manifest in some less than helpful ways.

The problem, though, is that the whole construct was pretty much swept away by a certain fundamentalism when I became a Christian.

Please let me be clear: the people who walked beside me in my formative years as a Christian were (and are) some truly wonderful people. I remember clearly the love that was shown to me in the small country town church that I started to attend on Sunday mornings after spending the previous night out on the town. With little or no sleep, and either very badly hungover or still drunk, I would walk into this small congregation – reeking of Jim Beam – only to be hugged warmly on arrival by a woman who must have been about 135 years old and who needed to stand on a chair to reach me.

The problem was not at all the people themselves. They were very well meaning, dear people. The problem was, rather, that the predominant theological influences on me at this time were all pretty much fundamentalist.

Under the guise of ‘submitting to authority’ (and being warned more times than I care to remember that “rebellion is witchcraft”), I moved strongly, yet always uncomfortably, towards authoritarianism and anti-intellectualism. The pinnacle of this sort of anti-intellectualism, I recall, was trying to have a conversation with a really good highschool friend about 6-Day Creationism. I remember seeing the alarmed look in her eyes that moved from astonishment to pity through the duration of the conversation. I (sadly) read Left Behind, and somehow became convinced that ‘good’ Christians never questioned support for Israel and were uncompromisingly conservative in political affiliation. I began to believe that homosexuality was somehow like a toxic gas that corrupted everything it touched and was the arch-enemy of ‘decent’ family values.

I threw away all my formerly-favourite CDs, including Rage Against The Machine.

Worst of all, I began moving towards a position that regarded my former humanitarian inclinations as some kind of bankrupt emotional drivel. ‘The Gospel’, I was told, was about ‘getting people saved’. What good would feeding the hungry be if they were destined for (a literal) hell, after all?

Now, not all of this was bad.

Before I became a Christian I guess I was a bit of a no-hoper. I remember my friends’ parents (who often randomly found me passed out on their floors on a Saturday morning) rebuking my friends when they laughed at me for getting a part-time job as a night-fill worker at Woolworths. Their argument, it seems, was that this would probably be the high point of my life and I should be affirmed in reaching my fullest potential.

When I became a Christian, I started getting my act together. I finally found direction in my life and started working hard and saving for theological college. I had goals. I had purpose. I found some discipline.

The problem was that I quickly began to lose much of what made me me. I started conforming to some kind of cookie-cutter Christianity that wasn’t so much concerned with me as an individual but was rather more focused on spitting out good little conservative automatons who wouldn’t question what they were told and would become engaged in the valiant work of defending the Truth against all manner of immorality and heresy, with fingers firmly implanted in ears so as not to be polluted by such things.

And thus, since about 2004, I have been on a quest of working through all of this and [re]discovering what it actually means for Josh “Jack” Dowton to be a Christian.

This journey was, in part, kicked off by my theological studies where I was fortunate enough to be guided by some extraordinarily intelligent and faithful individuals who encouraged me to think again. I was also helped by the work of N.T. Wright (who showed me that ‘the Gospel’ is much broader, and much better news, than is often portrayed by conservative Evangelicals), and by groups such as the Micah Challenge. I remember in 2004 putting up a Micah Challenge poster in the room that the church youth group I ran met in, which spoke of the Millennium Development Goals and the need for Christians to be involved in this cause. I remember also copping a bit of flack for it, but nevertheless remaining convinced that this sort of thing was central to being Christian, even if I wasn’t exactly sure how it all fit together.

What I’ve been trying to work out, then, is what needs to be ‘redeemed’ from this former me, and what needs to be thrown away (both from the ‘old’ [pre-Christian] me, and from the ‘mindless conservative Christian’ me).

It has been, and still is, an interesting journey.

While I am still very much convinced that a certain transformation must take place in the process of becoming a follower of Jesus of Nazareth, I am nevertheless convinced that this transformation takes into consideration what truly makes someone themselves and is not about simply producing clones. While I am convinced that, for the Christian, there needs to be a process of ‘dying to oneself’, I am nevertheless convinced that this does not mean a total disfiguring of one’s identity, but is rather about putting off the selfishness that plagues humanity and embracing self-sacrificial love that is best illustrated in the life and teaching of Jesus.

This is a difficult process, but I think it is also a rewarding one.

As such, I have entered into this process over the last 9-or-so years, and I think the process still has a fair way to go. In some ways, it’s almost like a second ‘conversion’ experience, though it has taken a lot longer than the first one. I have realised that some of my pre-Christian impulses were very good ones and have, for example, ‘redeemed’ my humanitarian tendencies through the belief that all of humanity somehow bears the ‘image of God’ and each individual is thus deserving of respect and dignity. I am convinced that poverty causes this dignity to be diminished, and that where this image is disfigured in one we are all implicated. I have re-embraced my inclination towards freedom through the lens of the prophetic impulse that weaves throughout the scriptures and which strives towards liberty and fullness of life. I have even allowed myself to listen to RATM again, even though my philosophy these days can more more accurately be described as grace against the machine.

I am sure, though, that many people would simply suggest that it is a slow move to theological ‘liberalism’. Perhaps it is. Perhaps, though, there is far more to this Christianity thing than being worried about the labels ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’.