This past week we received a dire warning. That’s what the headlines screamed across the ditch. That should not have been too surprising, of course. We have become so used to extreme rhetoric of late where fake news and alternative facts trump common sense and diplomatic reserve. And across the Tasman we now seem to wake up each morning wondering who our Prime Minister is. It’s a great time to be a cartoonist. But these headlines had nothing to do with these constant companions.
This dire warning came to us from the most recent report of the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change – the IPCC. The panel had been meeting in Incheon in South Korea; it had been thinking through what would the world look like if the rise in the global temperature exceeded 1.5 degrees set by the Paris agreement in 2015. Brace yourself: it is not a good read. It almost feels like the time is right for the prophet Jeremiah to come in on cue and deliver one of his stinging series of woes. So much for the comfort of morning worship.
We are duly warned:
Ten million more people would be exposed to permanent inundation; several hundred million more to “climate-related risks and susceptible to poverty.” Malaria and dengue fever will be more widespread; crops like maize, rice, and wheat will have smaller and smaller yields—particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, and Central and South America. Security and economic growth will be that much more imperilled. With two degrees of warming, three times as many insects and twice as many plants and vertebrates will lose their geographic range.
Nearly all the coral reefs will be dead: go visit the Great Barrier Reef now-it’s on list: here we have an ecosystem some twenty-five million years old, which is visible from space and is already in severe decline. The global annual catch from marine fisheries will decrease by three million tons. The likelihood of a sea-ice-free Arctic summer will increase from once per century to once per decade.
On current trends the climate will be 1.5 degrees warmer when a toddler today begins high school. The New Yorker magazine described the report as a ‘selective scream’. That screaming sound is couched away in the language of statistics, technical jargon and ‘bureaucratese’.
This litany almost feels apocalyptic. Its tone, its contents, are enough to produce within us what the psychologist of Hiroshima and Nagasaki - Robert Jay Lifton – has described as ‘psychic numbing’: That particular condition occurs when we know there is a problem, but the problem is so large and we are so small – and so we do – nothing. We are numbed into business as usual and we practice forms of denial.
The panel - the IPCC - is, of course, not averse to giving dire warnings. They have done so in the past as one critical decade gave way to another. This was the panel’s 6th report - but now, it seems, they believe that we are in the throes of a step-change. The head of the panel, Debra Roberts, declared that the next few years are probably the most important in human history. And the new breed of Earth System scientists are inclined to agree.
There is, of course, an injustice in this whole situation. Those most at risk, those with these least resources to cope are those who are least responsible for the problem in the first place. Their release of carbon emissions has been miniscule. Some of those folk are our neighbours: Tuvalu, Kiribati,the Marshall islands, the Carterets.
Robert Jay Lifton of psychic numbing fame is now 93: last year he published what he reckoned would be his last book. He was writing in our here and now, he was writing today but with an eye for the future. He was writing for the sake of future generations. So many now, it seems, want to think through what this planet will be like for our grandchildren, and then their grandchildren. Will it be home in the same way that we have known?
Lifton’s book is called The Climate Swerve – and he is, it seems, a little bit more hopeful than some of those 91 panel members from 40 different countries. That reference to a swerve is designed to express his hope that confronted with this mounting body of evidence we will make a swerve – as a species – towards a way of living, towards an economy, that will soften the most extreme predictions now abounding, now escalating with every report. But, even in the midst of this potential swerve, even within this hope, Lifton realizes that the tipping point for some cultures, some places has already passed. And so he describes those tiny low-lying islands in the Pacific as these ‘Job-like nations’. These ‘Job-like nations’.
That naming should not come as too much of a surprise. Yes, it is true that the book of Job has nothing at all to do with climate change. It has no knowledge of these small island states. Its story line has to do with a wager between God and Satan over whether Job is a righteous man and can preserve the integrity of his faith in the face of innocent suffering.
It is true the story is rather grim.What do we do with a book in which 10 children are killed off in the first chapter, only to be replaced with 10 more in the last chapter (as if children are replaceable)? How do we respond to (or preach to) a book in which God answers Job’s anguish by seemingly browbeating him into submission at the end of the story?”
What are we to make of poor afflicted Job? There he sits in the ashes scraping his sores with a piece of broken pottery; there he is being told by his distressed wife to curse God and die; and there he is on the receiving end of his three friends, Bildad, Eliphaz, and Zophar: for seven days they had sat with Job in silence only to break it with counsel that will have them become known as Job’s false comforters.
In terms of our reading this morning Eliphaz the Temanite has just laboured the pointed: of what possible benefit is Job’s faithfulness to God. In a way which seems a little too close for comfort he asks Job “why is it that a flood of waters covers you?” Job’s complaint is bitter; he maintains his innocence; he knows the absence of God who cannot be found in the east, the west, the nor the south.
Job has nothing at all to do with climate change, rising sea levels and the plight of a people living on a faraway necklace of islands. And yet one of the leaders on Tuvalu has likened the plight of his people to the story of Job. And it is not difficult to see why. Have any of you been to Tuvalu?
There are no direct flights to Funafuti from here. You need to set off at dawn from Suva – it is a three hour flight into the deep expanse of the Pacific. From up on high you look down. One of the 8 islands come into view: it is so thin. You wonder how on earth can an aeroplane land there – where is the airport – it is hard to make it out - but the pilot works his miracle and you come to a halt on terra firma. There is no elevated land around you. There are no hills, no gentle rises. There is a reef to one side of the island and the open sea to the other. At times the two shores are so close to one another they nearly meet.
it does not take long before you are told that the freshwater has been compromised, that the saltwater bubbles up beneath the coral and you can no longer grow your pulaka. it does not take you long to hear that sometime before - during a king tide - the sea invaded the first floor of the hotel in which you are staying; you are glad that you have a room upstairs on the second floor.
It does not take long before you hear the stories of mothers placing toddlers in eskies during such high tides because the eskies float. It does not take you long to realize that nearly everyone on these islands goes to church and that their carbon emissions are next to nothing. It does not take long before one of the ministers asks you: what shall I preach? You scratch your head and wonder what you should say.
This turn to Job on this ‘Job-like nation’ is more of a positive move than you might first imagine. It represents a better option than the conventional default turn to the story of Noah and the covenant God with makes with all creatures in the wake of the great flood. The promise is that never again will the waters cover the earth: that has been a comforting text. It has a certain appeal you can imagine for a people who know their Bible stories - but those who know the Earth system sciences know too much – and so too do those who watch the slow rise of sea levels and the loss of land.
The story of Job has an advantage: it does not gloss over the threats and the prospects of life overwhelmed. It does not do away with the suffering of the innocent’ nor does it assign a guilt and responsibility where it does not belong. The people of Tuvalu did not cause what is happening to their islands – and the story of Job helps them out in one other way. They have needed to be set free from another question that continues to haunt them: what did we do to make God angry that we should deserve this? Faced with the first effects of global climate change they had wondered why they had justified such punishment.
The book of Job proclaims their innocence ….. and after a while their speakers, their leaders, their representatives will look up and turn their eyes towards us in Australia, in New Zealand, in the United States and the United Nations and ask one simple question which they have every right to ask: “are we not your neighbours?” “Are we not your neighbours?”
That question is, of course, taken from the gospels – and, more particularly, from Luke rather than Mark. It is bound up with the parable of the good Samaritan where the lawyer follows up on the initial enquiry into what he must do to inherit eternal life. Not satisfied with the answer Jesus gives about loving God and loving one’s neighbour as himself he presses harder and asks who then my neighbour.
In Mark the story takes a rather different line: the lawyer is now a rich young man who calls Jesus good and then wonders what he must do to inherit eternal life. This time there is no parable but Jesus does a quick tour of the10 commandments. The man professes that he has done the right thing since he was a youth. Jesus turns to him, loves him and advises him to do the one thing that he lacks: go sell what you have, give to the poor and then come, follow me.
Are we not your neighbours? What is the good thing to do? What does it mean to follow Christ in these changing times, when dire warnings abound, where our neighbours look towards us, hoping against hope that – for Christ’s sake – we do not turn out to be the contemporary equivalent of one of Job’s false comforters?
For much of its history the Christian faith has not shown a lot of concern for the well-being of this earth, our home. Our hymns, our prayers have so often been otherworldly. They have not called us to touch the Earth lightly; they have called us to show much concern for a broken beauty.
We have suffered instead from what Norman Habel, a bible scholar from Adelaide, has called ‘heavenism’: we have looked upon this earth as somehow disposable – so much so that for a moment in time there were car bumper bar stickers that proclaimed “In the event of the rapture this car will be driverless”.
It is now just over 50 years ago that an American Episcopalian Lynn White Jr published an article in the Science magazine. He argued that the Judeao-Christian tradition “bore a huge burden of guilt” for creating a worldview which allowed for the exploitation of the earth and the ecological crisis. There is more than a grain of truth in White’s thesis; it is a claim that has haunted Christian thinking on the environment ever since but it is not the whole truth:
White himself recognized that there was a minority position within the Christian faith. There is another tradition that looks back Francis of Assisi and considers him to be its patron saint. It one which is known for cherishing the earth and its creatures. It is the same tradition in which stands Pope Francis encyclical, Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home. Do you know it? It’s on-line – just google away. It’s free. It’s worth a read. It is addressed to all people of good will of whatever faith or no faith.
It is a little dated now even though it was only released in 2015 but its call for us to live differently remains. Laudato Si’ brings together the concern for creation - God’s good creation, this creation which was established in, through and for Christ (so says the Colossians hymn). It brings together a concern for creation (in what the Pope calls a throwaway world) with a concern for the care and well-being of the poor, the vulnerable, those most disadvantaged through the changes to our Earth system. It is a little dated now (which I will explain in the coming few days) but it is timely nevertheless.
All the while, in the background, looms Lifton’s psychic numbing: we are so small, what can we do? In the background lie the dire warnings of the IPCC. And lying ahead of us lies what kind of world is possible for our grandchildren and their children and their children after that.
It is time to come to terms with how our world is being transformed. It is time for us to let our faith address those issues and not allow that climate change and environmental concern to be hived off into some separate mental and spiritual compartment. It is God’s good creation that is facing the risk of what one theologian has called the prospect ‘uncreation’ –then she adds, that is a heresy.
We may be numbed by scientific reports these days. But we cannot forget our neighbours in those Job-like nations: they are the poor of today in terms of our reading taken from Mark – and maybe Lifton’s idea of a swerve is right. Who knows? Some tipping points have passed – but we can do small things as households and as churches to foster ecological well-being and good practice: so many congregations around the world do that now.
And then we have our voices. Some commentators believe that the future may well be turn out to be rather ugly. If that is to be so, societies, individuals, countries can often become selfish, consider their own interests and forget their neighbour and what it means to be good. The politics of the time can become populist. It can be easy to follow the crowd and become a false comforter to those who may need some sort of good will, help, tempered with wisdom. Your voice, your prayers, your hopes matters – it matters for Christ’s sake.