Two recent articles have taken my understanding of the climate change debate and made it much more personal to both my discipleship as a Christian and our call for action for the Church universal.
Uncreating God’s Creation
For Christians, there’s a deeply theological lens for our role in climate change. One of my favorite evangelical blogs is Christ and Cascadia which focuses on evangelism in the pacific northwest–my ministry context. Their recent blog post linking climate change with discipleship was a helpful one to articulate the thecological (theology + ecology) issue at hand:
According to Genesis 2:15, the human creature, even before being called to love, was placed in God’s garden Earth to serve (abad) and preserve (shamar) it. Thus, the call to love neighbor presupposes that, in doing so, we also are to serve and preserve garden Earth. I am haunted by the contradiction between this reason for being – to love as God loves and care for Earth – and the deadly ecological and social consequences of our collective lives, consequences well hidden from our awareness if we are not suffering directly from them…
Fundamental to Christian faith is the claim that when God created the Earth, God saw that is was tov (good) (Genesis 1). The Hebrew tov, while often translated as “good,” also implies “life-furthering.” God said time and again that this creation was tov – a good that is life-furthering.
Here we arrive at a gut-wrenching theological problem. God’s primal act is not merely to create a magnificent world. God creates a magnificently life-furthering world. The scandalous point is this: With climate change, we are undoing that very “tov,” Earth’s life-generating capacity. We – or rather, some of us – have become “uncreators.”
In the Genesis account, humanity is charged with being stewards of Creation. With regard to global climate change and the human cause of it, we have become not bad managers, but rather saboteurs of all that God has created. We have thrown our shoes into the wheels of divine creation. It is one thing to fall short for a time and turn from our ways. It is another to allow humanity to actively undo the life-generating capacity of the earth. While the earth will go on and over millennia create new life after we’re gone, I have no desire to speed up this process.
Telling Nike to stop selling shoes
So what are we to do? As a reflection of Christian discipleship, the most direct and effective form of advocacy in this arena is simple but not easy:
- Divest from the polluters who are causing climate change.
- Reinvest in clean(er) energy sources.
I know what you are thinking: There are many movements to divest in social justice circles, often from products made in occupied Palestine or corporations with anti-gay CEOs. The common counter-argument to these efforts is that if we remove our voice of dissent from these corporations, they will never change their practices from the inside-out.
However, I recently found a new appreciation of how divestment from fossil fuels is different in this context from other justice movements.
Rev. Jenny Phillips leads Fossil Free UMC, a movement of United Methodists who want fossil fuels added to their denomination’s investment screens (ie. added to the list of companies that we will not invest in, like porn, gambling, prisons, etc).
In a recent speech Rev. Phillips gave to the UMC’s pension agency, she articulated a point about divestment that I hadn’t considered before:
Here’s the problem. Staying at the table with these companies isn’t going to move us toward the immediate solutions we desperately need to solve the climate crisis. These companies share prices are based on their fossil fuel reserves in the ground. But the consensus of the scientific community is that we can only burn a fraction of those reserves and still sustain a livable planet.
The task at hand isn’t like asking Nike to stop making shoes in sweatshops. It’s like asking Nike to stop making shoes.
This industry’s profits, and our profits, depend on the continued production of fossil fuels, and that’s a fact we can’t change by staying at the table. As a denomination, we can’t continue to say we’re against climate change while saying we’re for fossil fuel profits.
That argument is convicting to me. We can change labor practices by staying at the table. We can change many environmental practices by staying at the table. But can we fundamentally change the essence of what a company is by staying at the table? Only when it is too late.
The Church Can Change the Game
I believe the Church holds the power to kick-start the entire world towards change. We can stop throwing shoes into the divine wheels and start throwing them into the wheels of harm.
The United Methodist Church holds the largest American pension fund of any church and currently holds about $700 million in investments in coal, petroleum, and natural gas industries. That is no small number! If you add in the Lutherans, Episcopalians, and Presbyterians, you are surely over $1 billion and perhaps closer to $1.5 billion. And the Catholics? Could they potentially double it with their investments to $3 billion? What a tremendous powerhouse of money that could overnight change the game by divesting worldwide from the petroleum industry and reinvesting in sustainable clean energy sources. There would be financial upheaval, there would be difficulty, but after the transition decades, historians might point to this moment as the turning point when the Church took the lead and chose to be a headlight rather than a taillight.
The Church holds investments not forever-and-ever but to further mission and ministry opportunities. As more and more skeptics are convinced that climate change is the justice issue of our time, what are we waiting for? What better witness could there be? To an increasingly secular world, we could show that the Church is not just about the world to come, but is about our common world now. Imagine what transformation that might have!
This is a hard multi-layered process. But as Christ and Cascadia concludes:
Religious institutions do tremendous good with their investment earnings and are rightly hesitant to endanger them. This presents us with the moral opportunity of our era! It is to employ our creative genius to develop re-investment strategies that serve God by serving and preserving Earth’s garden, while also maintaining the financial resources necessary to our missions. Such is the defining moral challenge of our day.
May we meet this moral challenge with clear heads, open hearts, and discerning souls as we seek to be the Church that is kenotic–self-emptying–of its fossil fuel investments and truly lives into the self-emptying (and yet, ultimately fulfilling) image of Christ.