The elephant in the room

The elephant in the room

How could they have got it so wrong?

That is the question I ask when I read of how Christians wholeheartedly espoused the jingoism of the First World War in 1914. The same applies to an earlier era in the American South, when many Christians stoutly defended the institution of slavery against the emancipation of slaves.

Likewise in apartheid South Africa, when the Dutch Reformed Church backed the apartheid regime; and, again, when the German church in the 1930s tolerated the Nazis.

Of course, there were vocal minorities; for example, Bonheoffer’s “Confessing Christians” in Germany. And Desmond Tutu and others in South Africa.

However, it seems the majority of churches, often quoting chapter and verse, backed the wrong theological horse completely. How did these Bible-believing Christians miss the elephant in their room?

The wisdom of hindsight of course is a wonderful thing, so I ask myself what is the elephant in the room of the early 21st century that we are missing?

I have no doubt future generations will say it was our involvement in runaway material consumption. It is what Clive Hamilton calls the “growth fetish”. This is the world’s fixation with economic growth in a finite world of limited resources.

Homo economicus is driving civilisation as we know it to an ecological precipice. Most of the mainline churches and para-church organisations like Wellspring and Eremos have been warning about this for years. Still, the environmental crisis deepens every year, as our greenhouse gas emissions go steadily upward.

Even the global financial crisis of 2008-09 hardly made a dent in upward material consumption. It seems to me that the majority of church members are going along with this, while making small adjustments to their lifestyles, like buying green energy or low-energy light bulbs.

I don’t belittle this but we still fly overseas in supersonic jets [see note below], buy the latest “must have” digital gadget, go on luxurious cruises, drive big petrol-guzzling four-wheel drives (how many SUVs do you see in church parking lots?) and join in the Christmas buying frenzy.

While a minority of Christians are opting out and adopting a radical discipleship green stance, they are too few to make a sizeable impact. In fact, in realising the enormity of the problem that the world is facing, all our puny efforts are like spitting in the wind. So the question becomes: what appropriate response can concerned Christians make? I believe our response can be two-fold: self-restraint and passive resistance.


German theologian Jurgen Moltmann makes the point that the environmental crisis stems from a crisis in human beings themselves. This crisis shows itself in humanity’s inability to curb its pursuit of affluence at the expense of the planet.

This is amply demonstrated in the growth-oriented lifestyle of rich nations and countries such as India and China over the past 30 years.

The Western church has been carried along in this tidal flood of excess consumption, with only a few abstaining. The latter are making an unpopular counter-cultural protest and are the prophets of our age. This consumer binge, fuelled by rampant capitalism, is fast bringing the whole planet to a crisis point. As well, the power of the military industrial complex, the booming population in the developing world, unfair trade patterns, and corrupt leadership, all play their part in aiding and abetting this crisis.

Some perceptive secular commentators look to religion to curb our appetites for material possessions, citing Buddhism as a religion that does not centre on the satisfaction of wants. But Christianity has even better credentials, if we follow the teaching and example of its founder. The simple lifestyle movement has been with us for decades but has been swamped in the consumer avalanche.

However a book by American theologian Sallie McFague, A New Climate for Theology: God, the World and Global Warming, has opened up a new line of thought. Put simply, the self-emptying of God in creation calls Western Christians to restrict their lifestyle in response to global warming.

It involves the theological notion of kenosis (a Greek word meaning self-emptying). It would be familiar to many, in regard to Christ emptying or restricting some divine attributes in order for the event of the incarnation to occur (Philippians 2:5-11).

In terms of the creation, McFague poses the idea that there is a self-limiting aspect to God in creation, allowing the universe, and all that it comprises, the freedom to exist. This does not imply that God is powerless, but affirms that self-restraint is one of the ways God exercises power.

Deborah Guess, a post-graduate student for the MCD University of Divinity, in an article in the Melbourne Anglican, October 2012, says, “the self-emptying of God in creation and in the event of the incarnation, and the limitation of self which is expressed in the life and death of Jesus Christ, is something which invites, perhaps compels, an ethic which is willing to consider intentionally restricting aspects of the western style of living, in order to respond to the challenge of climate change”.

But will this new line of biblical reasoning have any impact on the lifestyle of the average pew sitter in Western churches? In my opinion, probably not. As Deborah Guess postulates, there is a real unresolved tension in the capitalist system between ecology and economics. Ecology tells us that the Earth has a finite amount of resources, space and finite ability to deal with carbon and methane emissions. Yet our economic system demands continual growth. Something has to give!

Passive resistance

What will it take to rattle the cage and bring the urgency of global warming to the forefront of our leaders’ thinking? I once believed that when people started to die from the effects of global warming, the politicians would sit up and take notice. That is now happening with extreme weather events. But the politicians are still using the issue as political football.

The great majority of the population, it seems to me, are still in a state of practical denial, especially when measure hit the hip pocket nerve. But this will soon change, as extreme weather events around the globe continue to worsen.

Many people, both in the church and outside it, are starting to realise that market fundamentalism or laissez-faire economics, is pushing this consumer binge, which in turn is driving the planet towards the ecological cliff. Hence, many are now calling for a peoples’ movement to rein in the excesses of rampant capitalism and the power of the ultra-rich.

Leading environmental columnist of the Guardian, George Monbiot, now believes this political fight will mean putting the survival of people and the living world above the survival of a few favoured industries (in Australia, the powerful coal industry).

Columnist of the American Christian magazine, Sojourners Bill McKibben, agrees. He is very forthright: “My sense is that the time has come to take on the fossil fuel industry itself — not the members of the Congress that they buy in droves each election season, but the real powers. Ignoring the damage they’ve already caused, these people spend hundreds of millions of dollars each day looking for new fossil fuels and they spend hundreds of millions each year making sure no government stops them. They’re like the tobacco industry at this point, except that instead of going after your lungs, they are going after the lungs of the planet” (Sojourners, January 2013).

He says that as these massive corporations only care about money, we should threaten a little of theirs by consumer boycotts, peaceful protests at shareholders’ meetings and a divestment campaign; that is, passive resistance.

He admits this is a David and Goliath struggle, but passion, creativity and a youthful idealism and energy is on our side.

There are signs of hope. Community resistance to coal seam gas extraction is growing, as the energy companies try to mine good farming country. In my part of the world, the Southern Riverina of New South Wales, a Landcare awareness campaign led to an energy company withdrawing its claim.

Such a struggle is contending with scripture’s “principalities and powers” (Ephesians 6:12) that Walter Wink writes about in his books. Hence such passive resistance needs to be surrounded in prayer and in no way resort to violence, thus following the tradition of Ghandi and Martin Luther King.

Unless Christians and the Church can lead the way in self-restraint and passive resistance to the brutal domination of the planet by rampant capitalism, the future for our children and grandchildren, and all life on this planet, will be grim.

That is the elephant in the room in this generation. Will we wake up in time?

David Sloane, Corowa, NSW.

Note on air travel: A return flight from London to NY generates from 1.5 tonnes of CO2 per passenger. High altitude delivery of nitrogen oxides enhances the effects of CO2 by a factor of three [Stern Review, box 15.6]. Likewise, a return flight to Australia to London represents 87% of a typical single person’s household annual greenhouse gas emissions in a year. If a couple fly, that is 102% of their annual carbon footprint!


2 thoughts on “The elephant in the room”

  1. Thanks David, great article.
    Though I lack the personality for it usually, the other tradition I’d love to see the church remembering is that of Jesus and his table turning. Forcibly driving out those who’se greed was a stumbling block to people’s spiritual growth.
    I agree with Justin on “passive” resistance. It probably does describe what middle class churches usually engage in, but not the path Jesus followed.

  2. As christians we are claled to be good stewards, but I believe you go too far – you seem to be crossing over from christainity to earth based paganism in an attempt to express your environmental concerns.

    If people believe God built the planet, then He will make sure it survives. Not being wasteful and using our resources wisely is fine, crossing over into envirnmentalism and making ita false idol is another story.

    Be careful.

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