Encouraging scholarship, strengthening faith identity, and interpreting contemporary issues in Baptist life.
Has Anyone Seen
THE EMERYWOOD PULPIT
Has Anyone Seen Noah?
Genesis 1-3; Luke 16: 19-31
The images permeate the news channels over and over again: polar icecaps falling off into the ocean; floods ravaging coastal areas as oceanic levels increase; mega-storms such as Hurricane Katrina lashing our coastal cities with rain and unbelievable damage. This sounds like a remake of an old and familiar story, Noah II. If you have been anywhere but lost on a deserted island then you have heard the reports of global warming and its potential effect upon this planet we so delicately share. These studies portend a catastrophic future that reverberates fear throughout our human psyche, portending all manner of natural evil from the flood account in Genesis to the end of all time as foreshadowed in the book of Revelation.
If these predictions are accurate – and they are compiled from research by persons dedicated to accuracy – we are in for rollercoaster climate shifts. Due to global warming – a direct result of the dramatic increase in manmade greenhouse gases – our planet is in for some drastic change. From the data I have seen forecasters are predicting:
· Fewer cold days;
· Hotter nights;
· Killer heat waves;
· Floods and heavy rains;
· Devastating droughts;
· A dramatic increase in hurricane and tropical storm strength;
By the year 2100 the median temperature is expected to rise anywhere from 2 to 11.5 degrees Fahrenheit, the sea levels anywhere from 7 to 23 inches, and an additional 3.9 to 7.8 inches is possible if the surprising melting of the polar ice sheets continues.
The real life scenarios are much scarier than the numbers. Low lying islands and coastal plains will be flooded by rising sea levels, particularly if the rise is toward the larger end of the projected spectrum. Hurricanes such as Katrina of 2005 will be much more normative – and the economic and human life costs will skyrocket. Those in poorer countries such as Bangladesh and living in coastal areas will be particularly vulnerable to catastrophic disaster. To top it all off, then we hear the verdict that no matter what we do, we cannot change what will happen in this, the 21st century. All we can do is adapt to a “warmer and more volatile climate” and make changes so that the 22nd century will not be that much worse.[i]
As a resident of this planet I stop and ask, “Is this for real?” Have we really caused this much damage to the planet or is this fear-mongering by those who wish to change the very nature of our lifestyle? Regularly we hear voices proclaiming that we really do not know what is causing this, that we need more data than we have, and that this is overreaction of the worst sort. Yet, those protest voices are engulfed by a resounding litany of doom: “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”
Who knows what will happen as a result of these climate changes? I trust the scientists in measuring what they measure, but predicting the meteorological future is an iffy proposition at best. The hypotheses appear to be as factual as possible – what is the unknown is due to the paucity of evidence. We need hundreds of thousands of years of data to make accurate decisions and projections.
What I do know is that as a Christian, as one who has proclaimed faith in and allegiance to Jesus Christ, I am charged with stewardship of the earth’s resources. Genesis 1: 26-28 puts it like this:
“Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”
As a Christian I believe that this passage puts the responsibility of stewardship of the earth and its resources upon human beings. We are empowered to use, but not abuse, to develop but not destroy this earth. We see the earth as sacred, not as “Mother Earth” but as being created by Holy God who imparts holiness to all of creation. Seeing her as holy does not mean that we worship creation – we worship the Creator, not the creature. However, it does mean that we revere, value, and use creation wisely as those who have been empowered for and entrusted with her safekeeping. Creation is not disposable for it bears the imprimatur of Yahweh, and that which comes from his hand is holy indeed.
As far as human science knows our planet earth is quite unique. She is the only planet in ours or any other solar system of which we are aware which has the proper environment to support life as we know it. Scientists call this the “anthropic” principle and while it has both adherents and detractors among the scientific community, this principle does provide a perspective on the incredible uniqueness of our planet. As far as we can tell we are not “one among many,” but the one and only among millions of possibilities. Intelligent life as we know it does not exist anywhere else in all of creation.
If we accept as a given that our planet is uniquely created by God to support life in all its various and wonderful forms – what is to be our response to these projections? Given that we as humans have responsibility, and assuming that the worst case scenarios are true, what should we do? How should we respond to what appears to be impending climatological doom – or at best incredible climate change as a result of our human actions?
1. Creation cannot be properly understood apart from Covenant.
From a Jewish or Christian perspective the Genesis creation passages teach us that creation cannot be viewed apart from covenant. Concurrent with the creation of this planet is the covenant God has established with human beings. We “live and move and have our being” not in regard to some abstract deity, but in relationship with and under the covenant of Yahweh God. Not only is this creation sacred, but so is the relationship which we have with her. We are bound to this planet neither by whim nor chance, but by covenant with Yahweh, the creator and Redeemer.
Note that the first sin, the eating of the forbidden fruit, results in both physical dislocation and a change in the human/creation relationship. No longer is that a symbiotic relationship which nurtures both parties, but now humanity is condemned to toil and labor in an attempt to extract nourishment from the ground. Sin always results in destruction of the human relationship with creation – it has from the first and is true today. When we live up to our original covenant with God, we nurture and are stewards of this earth. When we abandon that covenant, we not only do ourselves harm – we harm this planet and others around us. Creation is harmed and life is made more dangerous not by obedience to Yahweh, but by disobedience.
Why do we who claim to live in covenant relationship with God seem to be so much a part of the problem rather than the solution? Greed and ignorance have to be primary reasons most of us abandon this primary covenant with God. Just as the desire to know “good from evil” and “to be like God” drove Adam and Eve, so it drives us today. In Collapse: How Societies Choose to Succeed or Fail, Jared Diamond demonstrates the role greed plays in the destruction of planet earth. Whether it is Easter Island, Greenland, Mayan cultures, or the Bitterroot River Valley in Montana, the theme surfaces time and again: human shortsightedness and greed play a huge role in the destruction of their cultures. Particularly apropos to our discussion is the role that mining has played in the destruction of both the Montana environment as well as her economy. Diamond notes that mining companies exist to make money for their stockholders, and that cleanup is not a particularly money making endeavor. Therefore, after the mining is done in a given area, that particular mining company will either go out of business (small companies) or transfer ownership to a newer and less funded company, or, in the case of large corporations, they simply deny responsibility for the damage.
Greed not only comes into play with mining, it also does with farming methodology, logging and other industries which rely upon natural resources. Though companies are awakening to the reality that good stewardship is also good economics, this lesson has been slow in coming. Widespread clearing of land and plowing of fields for crops, etc., has resulted in salinization of the land so that it is unfruitful. [ii]
What would these industries look like if stockholders and owners felt as much a covenant responsibility to the earth as to the bottom line? This is not to disparage persons making a living or earning a profit – that is quite needed. What is needed as much is our having a strong sense of covenant with our Creator God as well as with those who are to follow regarding the type of planet they will inherit. To destroy the earth is to destroy the most basic of all covenants which God has made with us. To destroy the earth is to destroy the covenant we have with our children, our children’s children, and will all those who follow for generations to come.
2. Confession is good for all our souls.
The breaking of covenant is sin – and that always (or should always) leads to confession – personal and corporate. As I write this sermon I must confess that I am a sinner, not a saint. I drive an SUV and do so out of choice. Do I drive it unnecessarily? No – I plan my trips, pastoral and otherwise, so that I consume as little gas as possible. Honesty demands that I tell you that I practice conservation as much out of economic desire as from any stance of environmental proactivity. While I believe in conservation, the reality is that the less money I spend on consumption of resources the more I have to use on other matters – including giving back to my church and community.
I confess that I enjoy my life and the benefits of living in this country. I have traveled to Europe, Africa, South America and the Caribbean on both vacations and mission trips. Our ease of life and abundance for most is unmatched in any other country. Is my being a Western consumer sinful? Before I would have said “No,” but at this stage I am not sure. I must confess that I rarely think about how my consumption of natural resources affects others. However after reading Dr. Jared Diamond and others I am now aware that our standard of living is unsupportable for the 3rd World. Given the current and perceivable-future technology our planet simply cannot survive that many people living at this standard. Am I contributing to the impoverishment of others by my standard of living? I sure hope not, but at this stage I am not certain that I do not.
The truth is that what any of us does individually is unimportant. It is what we do collectively that matters – and what we do individually becomes what we do collectively. While my individual consumption of natural resources and production of greenhouse gases are of miniscule importance, our collective consumption and production obviously does matter – and in that way we are all sinners and myself chief among sinners. It behooves me and all Christians in the West to look and see how our consumption levels are affecting the lifestyles of others.
For instance, it is a fact that the greatest threat to our planet is the emission of carbon dioxide. The greatest factors in the increase in this gas are automobile and truck emissions, carbon fuels used to produce electricity for heating & cooling of industry and private homes, as well as deforestation. Approximately 43.5% of the CO2 emissions come from these sources, with the largest single source being deforestation. The greater harm to the earth comes not necessarily from my automobile, but may come from my purchasing products made from trees![iii]
What would happen if we all confessed our complexity in the sin of changing the environment if not destroying the earth? What could we do if the universal church decided that it would get serious about matters of global warming and greenhouse gases?
3. Ecology issues are justice issues as well.
Jesus is no help on the environment – or so it seems at first glance. After all, he told us to get ready for the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God and to pray that we would be spared the destruction that was coming. However, it does not take long in examining ecology issues to come upon a point of intersection with Jesus: justice and love. It was in Reinhold Niebuhr that I first encountered the truth that love on a societal scale involves justice for all. I cannot “love” everyone – that is impossible. However, I can seek justice for all my neighbors – whether next door, in the next state, or around the world. As a Christian, when I seek to apply the command to “love my neighbor as myself” I must do so in seeking justice.
When I read Jesus’ parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus I am reminded that I am not Lazarus laying at the door, begging for food and table scraps. I am the Rich Man in this world – whether I like it or not or whether I perceive it or not. And no – no one is coming back from the dead to warn me either for I have the prophets just as did they.
Ultimately ecology issues become justice issues, for the persons who will be harmed the worst are those who are most helpless, who are on the bottom rung of the socio-economic ladder. Predictions of flooding due to the rise in the oceanic levels indicates that persons in countries such as Bangladesh, Indonesia and the Philippines as well as the poor coastal areas of India and Africa will suffer much greater harm than wealthier countries. Millions will be dislocated either through the increased severity of storms or the rise in the water levels. Where will they go? Who will take care of them? How will they survive with families intact and with any sense of hope for the future?
Or, in the case of predicted severe droughts and famine, sub-Saharan Africa is already targeted as the probable area of worst case scenario. This continent is currently reeling under the effects of the HIV/AIDS epidemic – and if drought and famine comes as predicted, then it will have the potential to devastate the continent for decades if not centuries! Africa possesses the potential to be consumed by all out warfare if issues of basic existence become preeminent. She teeters on the edge of stability as it is – and a continent-wide drought would sure push her over. Does the church of Jesus Christ have a responsibility to speak up and try to prevent such a cataclysmic nightmare?
Justice issues quickly become issues of anthropology and ecclesiology. Are we really our brothers’/sisters’ keepers? Do we bear any responsibility to other human beings – and what is the level of that responsibility? Are all persons made in the image of God and so sacred and holy to God and to us? Are some of us more sacred and holier than others? Does God truly love all persons – and call upon us to do as well? I came across a quote the other day that shook me up: “If the God you worship hates the same people you hate, then you can be certain that you have created God in your own image.”[iv] Has a faulty anthropology led us into idolatry?
What about our ecclesiology – our understanding of the church? Are we only to be concerned about our local congregation and her survival? Does the church have a responsibility to reach out beyond its doors to try to prevent human destruction before it comes to pass? Are our churches mere lifestyle enclaves in which we gather to sing and worship the God of our own image? Will the church allow her preachers to regain the prophetic voice lost in the midst of the Western cultural captivity known as “The Church Growth Movement?” Or, are we condemned to the vain attempt to meet the perceived needs of people whose lives are so comfortable already?
I pastor a well-educated, successful but aging congregation which is not in the growth corridor of our city or county. Our membership has a lot of interest in how we can attract new members so that our church will be a viable institution 15-20 years down the road. There is nothing wrong with that – I am interested in that as well. However, what is interesting are the questions that do not get asked. What I do not have – and no one else does of whom I am aware – is people asking me how we can make a difference in the lives of people around the world. Oh to be sure we do our share and more of social ministries – even to supporting a ministry to victims of HIV/AIDS in South Africa. Our people are involved either directly or through sister organizations as well as our church in helping touch human need. We are better at this than most of the churches of which I am aware – or at least we do enough to feel good. However, we get caught (preacher included) in the trap trying to do that which attracts folk like us rather than doing that which is of God.
I understand the need to increase membership and maintain a viable institution. I have not made it 31 years in the pastorate without understanding such. However, it seems to me that we are asking the wrong question. What we need to ask is how we can, as a local congregation, make a difference in this world on an issue that is of prime importance to every person on this planet – whether they are aware of it or not? Could it be that as the church we are trying to save our life – and losing it? Could it be that if we would really lose our life in helping others to understand and be involved in redeeming and reclaiming “our Creator’s world” that we would gain the whole world?
4. Soulfulness & Creation
This matter of ecology is not just a matter of what happens to this planet and our lifestyle. It is even more a matter of our “soulfulness.” We live and die by our soul either being “full” of the Spirit of God or void of God’s presence. When we treat people as things and God’s creation as expendable we develop a hardness of soul and spirit that makes it virtually impossible for the Spirit to penetrate our being. We encase our heart and soul in a shell that is impervious to the presence of Christ. In so doing we cut ourselves off from the main source of spiritual nourishment and set ourselves up to wither and die from the inside out.
I have never known a mean-spirited person whose hobby was growing flowers or a garden. I have never known a person who got their hands dirty in the soil and tried to be a caretaker to God’s creation who was continually harsh and unkind to others. There is something about living in the soil and taking care of God’s creation that enriches our soul and allows our hearts to beat in rhythm with the heartbeat of the universe. From earth our bodies come and through the earth our souls are nurtured – and to miss this is to condemn ourselves to empty and joyless living. Have you noticed that when people want to “get away from it all” they tend to go to the mountains or the beach and commune with nature? Our souls know from whence they come and what they need to replenish themselves. Maybe, just maybe, we need to pay more attention to the inner cries of our soul.
In answer to his question as to why societies make disastrous decisions, Dr. Diamond notes a definite failure to anticipate the consequences of our actions as well as failure to perceive that there is even a problem with our actions. Dr. Diamond has a great question that comes as he challenges us to see where we may be missing the obvious. In speaking of Easter Island he asks: “What did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree say while he was doing it?”[v]
So, I ask us – what did that person think? Did they realize that they were the final nail in the coffin of a once fertile and viable civilization? Did they have any idea to think about what the future held for a civilization, dependent upon forestation and fertile soil, that now would be without either?
So, what then should we do?
1. Work to educate through our churches as many people as possible as to the probable impending climatological crisis.
2. Set the tone as churches by working to conserve energy and resources as much as possible.
3. Empower our ministers and leaders to challenge us from the pulpit as to our responsibility as stewards of God’s creation.
4. Enable our communities of faith to call each other to accountability in our actions.
5. Speak out to the public and to our legislators, confessing both our involvement in the sins of the past and our desire to see our society go in a different direction.
Our greatest enemy is ignorance. It is alleged that someone once asked Alfred North Whitehead what the greatest evil was, suggesting that it was ignorance. His reply? “No, it is not not knowing – it is not knowing that you don’t know.” [vi] Unconscious ignorance and incompetence possesses the power to destroy us all. I believe that people, when seeing the issue in its fullness and proper perspective, will respond as we should. However, we do not have a lot of time. If we do not make changes and reduce carbon output immediately we will change this planet as we have known it – and that cannot be what God has intended. If not, our children may be looking for Noah – and that will not be a good thing.
Lord, save us from ourselves, from our ignorance and willful disregard of your will and your way. Teach us to understand the delicate balance of this planet and to be the stewards, not the destroyers, of that which you have made. Empower your people to strength and action in protecting the environment of this, your world.
Robert U. Ferguson, Jr., Ph.D.
Emerywood Baptist Church
1300 Country Club Drive
High Point, North Carolina
[i] “Global Warming Real, Like to get Worse, Scientists Say,” Cnn.Com., Ap report of 2-2-07.
[ii] Dr. Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Penguin Books, 2006.
[iii] World Resource Institute, Navigating the Numbers: Greenhouse Gas Data and International Climate Policy, December 2005.
[iv] I cannot discover the exact source and this is a paraphrase.
[v] Diamond, op. cit., page 114.
[vi] I do not have the source for this quote.
The Center for Baptist Studies, Mercer University, 1400 Coleman Avenue, Macon, GA 31207 Phone (478) 301-5467