Church leadership in the age of climate change

July 17th, 2019

Temperatures reached 115 degrees Fahrenheit in France this month, while a hailstorm covered some Mexican towns in more than three feet of ice, and Anchorage, Alaska set a new 90 degree record. In May, we learned that more than a million species are in danger of becoming extinct. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has stated the world has about a decade to take serious action on climate change. Climate change is real, and the church must ask itself what role it intends to play in the salvation of the world. 

This crisis should be the perfect opportunity for the church to shine: to proclaim the teaching of Jesus Christ and to talk about salvation not only in terms of the next life, but in terms of this one. It’s an opportunity for people of faith to join hands with science and literally save the world. As if to highlight the important role of people of faith, former dean of Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies Gus Speth uttered these prophetic words in 2013: 

“I used to think that top global environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that with 30 years of good science we could address these problems, but I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy, and to deal with these we need a spiritual and cultural transformation. And we scientists don’t know how to do that.” 

It sounds like a call for the church to step up, but to save the world, the church may have to die. Only 32% of white evangelicals believe that human-caused climate change is a problem. Mainline denominations don’t do much better at only 46%. But two-thirds of nonreligious people believe human-caused climate change is a problem. 

In June, the local body of my denomination, the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church, debated a resolution I’d written addressing climate change and calling on political and religious leaders to act. The votes seemed closely split. One pastor, arguing that unity is more important than divisive issues like climate change, moved to table the resolution, effectively killing it until next year. Faced with only a decade to do something at the local and international level about climate change, our conference voted to wait a year. 

Not only is our conference’s inaction illustrative that the biggest obstacle to action on climate change is spiritual in nature, it also shines a light on the ineffectiveness of our antiquated church structure to deal effectively with the modern world. While the issues of gay marriage and ordination are certainly important in the life of the United Methodist Church regardless of which side you fall on, it feels a bit like we’re on a sinking ship arguing over who gets to sit in first class and who needs to ride in the cargo hold. According to our Book of Discipline, the only social principle that has the force of church law, the only one a pastor can be punished for,  is officiating a gay marriage; but they can preach climate change denial and a theology only concerned about the next world as much as they want. 

Gus Speth was right: we need a spiritual transformation, and the place we need it most of all is in the church. The secular world, at least in polling, already believes that climate change is a serious problem. It’s the church that lags behind in recognizing the material effects of our spiritual poverty. 

But even if we could get all United Methodists, or even all Christians, traditionalist and progressive, American and global, Protestant and Catholic to agree that human-caused climate change is important, even if we could get behind specific policies to restructure our society and address the injustices that accelerate climate change, we face an even bigger obstacle: we can’t do it alone. In order to truly address this existential crisis that faces human civilization, Christians would have to join hands with Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Buddhists and non-religious people from all over the planet. We’d have to reach across divisions of sexual orientation, gender identity, race, ethnicity and nation. Not as Christians, but as a human species, we’d have to beat our spears into pruning hooks and devote the same energy we’ve put into war-making into planet-restoring. We’d have to address economic inequality and support water rights and food sovereignty for the poor, so that everyone could “sit underneath their own vine and fig tree” (Micah 4:4). We’d have to address the fact that a handful of billionaires own more wealth than everyone else, and look at a jubilee year of reparations — not merely redistribution. Heeding Ezekiel 34, we’d have to call our shepherds (our world leaders) to make sure the weak sheep (the poor) had as much access to clean food and water as the fat sheep (the rich). 

I want fervently to believe that people who follow Jesus could lead the way in realizing the dream God has for our world. I want to believe that Christians, who say that we are in the business of life transformation, could actually transform our church and our world, and say the words of hope that Isaiah and Micah and Amos offer. 

It’s an open question as to whether or not human civilization — and the church as we know it — will survive climate change. I suspect that to survive, the church is going to have to love the world like God does: so much that we are willing to die for it, that we are at least willing to sacrifice our institutions and our exclusivity and our grasp on political power. 

Maybe that’s what Jesus has had in mind all along.

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