MAKING PEACE WITH THE EARTH: Action and Advocacy for Climate Change. Edited by Grace Ji-Sun Kim. Foreword by Guillermo Kerber. Geneva, Switzerland: World Council of Churches Publications, 2016. Xxiii + 274 pages.
The question as to whether the earth is experiencing climate change, and whether humanity is to blame, has become a major political hot potato. Even among those who accept that climate change is occurring, are not of one mind as to what should be done. Could we be past the point of no-return? Are the solutions too drastic, and thus unworkable? As for those who deny climate change, part of this may result from a lack of trust in science, as well as the lack of incentive to make the required changes. Indeed, at times it seems as if the only solutions require that we return to a pre-industrial agrarian society. After all, if you agree with the science, but aren’t able or ready to make the necessary changes in life-style, you may find yourself suffering from disagreeable guilt. We may want to be green, but too often our commitment to the cause is rather weak. We may recycle our garbage and turn down the thermostat, and even drive a more fuel efficient car, but is that enough?
We who are people of faith, what does our religious tradition say to us? What role might the church play in guiding our lives and helping us mitigate the dangers? Is there more to this than simply stronger activism?
In 2013 the World Council of Churches called for a “pilgrimage of justice and peace” (p. vii). This included climate justice. A WCC working group on climate justice meeting in 2014 met to respond to the challenge of climate change, and the essays in this book, edited by Grace Ji-Sun Kim, are the result. Those who gathered believe that the religious community must “embrace the climate change issue vigorously.” They affirmed the premise, according to Kim, that “environmental justice is intimately related to economic justice. The environment affects or economy, and people who live in poverty are the most affected” (p. xiii). These essays, which Grace Kim brought together, offer responses to this challenge. The consensus of the contributors is that we are dangerously close to the edge of an unsustainable future, and thus the churches must stand up and be counted, immediately. Therefore, as Grace Kim declares: "We need to advocate for the earth and be at peace with the earth (p. xiii).
This book is comprised of three parts, which are divided into eighteen chapters. Part One is titled "Churches Respond to Climate Change." This opening section is essentially a collection of reports from national churches, mostly northern European, with the one major exception being Simon Awad's look at eco-justice in Palestine. Awad is a Palestinian Lutheran theologian, and his report is quite interesting, for it addresses both the Israeli occupation and the lack of a Palestinian conception of ecology-- thus he offers some suggested direction. Key to this conversation is the role of water, along with the political import of trees. The Israeli's tend to uproot trees as a collective punishment, harming the land, while activists seek to plant trees to bolster the environment.
Part two is titled "Eco-Theology and Climate Justice." In these chapters, theology plays a greater role in the conversation, though the focus tends to be on ethics, but the conversation isn’t always rooted in theology. That is, the focus is on human responses and less on God’s role. Indeed, the focus is on action. Again there is a sense that we're reading reports of what is occurring in the environment and how the churches are responding, rather than theological reflection. I struggled with the conversation for a couple of reasons. First, while the contributors are Christian theologians, Christianity seems to be portrayed, at times, as a colonialist religion intent on destroying indigenous religious tradition. At times, there is much critique, but little redemption and forgiveness. Still, as Korean theologian Meehyun Chung reminds us: “Metanoia and repentance are among the strengths of Christianity. Metanoia makes space for new things by first emptying old spaces, despite their weakened position” (p. 180). There is the need for repentance, but there is also need for a word of forgiveness so we can move into a new realm of being. Critique is important, but so is hope.
Part three offers a look at "Interfaith initiatives and care for the Earth." These chapters seemed to offer the most hope, even as they continued the critique. Fletcher Harper's essay on Divestment and reinvestment was quite intriguing. Focusing on attempts at institutional disinvestment in fossil fuels, Harper explores the pros and cons of divestment, and then argues strongly that if disinvestment is undertaken, there needs to be equal reinvestment in sustainable and renewable energy production. Chapter seventeen was troubling in some ways, largely because I'm not fully informed about the current craze over eco-tourism, and why that could be problematic in Northeastern India. I’m left wondering how we might experience economic growth and progress in this context. I understand the challenges posed by globalization and modernization, but do some idealize a more pre-industrial vision? Is this an unrealistic celebration of agrarianism over urbanization? This particular chapter focuses on the challenges posed by development to Northeastern India. The final chapter in this section is one of the more interesting chapters. It's written by a Hindu activist from India, offering a Hindu perspective on these environmental challenges. Interestingly, this was one of the more hopeful chapters in the book.
The book comes to a close in the epilogue offered by Ernst Conradie. Conradie offers a set of reflections that summarizes the basic points of the book, as well as offering a critique that highlights both the positives and the negatives. On the positive side, we are introduced to the challenges and reminded that the church has an important role to play in the conversation. On the negative side Conradie notes the lack of theological reflection at points. Something I noticed as well. He notes that themes like redemption and forgiveness are largely absent. He also notes that heavy emphasis on the negative can lead to despair, and with despair comes a sense of futility, which leads to a lack of action. Thus, the church, which lifts up hope, needs to emphasize hope. We may be on the edge. It maybe that we have reached that stage where change is irreversible, but we can't give into despair. If Christianity offers anything, it is hope for redemption. Indeed, he writes that the "theme of joy (for some the highest of the theological virtues) is mentioned only once and then with reference to the Korean national anthem!" (p. 237).
What we have here is a status report. It’s a not altogether hopeful message. That seems to be the need going forward. How do we tell the truth without falling into further despair, for despair likely will lead people to give up? As Conradie suggests, Christianity at its base is a tradition of hope. It’s a tradition of redemption. We can build on this foundation. We may be on the edge of no-return but we needn’t give up hope. We can choose to do what is necessary so that justice might be present for all. We see the need for action, but perhaps we also need more theological reflection as a grounding for that action. The stakes are high. Those who deny the reality of climate change need to be converted (a truly Christian concept). The call to kingdom work is there before us!