Will Christians stop the killing of Creation?
Have we become preoccupied with our own survival, while the web of life unravels? If you think that the Uniting Church is in trouble, then have a care for Creation.
During the past 40 years, the size of the world’s total animal population (except for humans) has halved. Over the same period, we humans have doubled our numbers, and increased our per capita consumption (real GDP) by 70 per cent (100 per cent in Australia).
Over half of the world’s rainforests have been cleared. Some 80 per cent of fish stocks are overfished, fully exploited or depleted. Freshwater and wetland ecosystems are among the most overexploited, degraded and polluted ecosystems in the world. We are either at, or close to, global peak oil. Other resources, such as phosphorus, will also peak in the coming decades.
And then there is the exacerbation all of this with climate change. Its effects are already manifest through greater weather extremes and sea level rise, and are already catastrophic for those who are least responsible. If the world’s known fossil fuel reserves are burned in their entirety, they will cook us all several times over.
Scientists now suggest that we are in the early stages of a sixth mass extinction event. The previous five wiped out 70 to 90 per cent of all species. But this time, living beings – humans – are responsible.
However, to blame this apocalyptic scenario on humanity as an undifferentiated mass– on something irredeemable that is inherent in us – would be unfair and dangerous. Some societies and cultures have lived respectfully and well, though not without impact. In the words of poet, farmer and activist Wendell Berry: “To live, we must daily break the body and shed the blood of Creation”. Many more sustainable cultures have paid dearly when others have come to take the land and its resources.
The fault lies not primarily with individuals nor with our species as a whole, but with structures and systems in which many of us are complicit. Systems which we have capacity to perpetuate, as well as to change. In our era, the 2009 Assembly Statement An Economy of Life named the values of the neoliberal (or neoclassical) economic system – materialism; individualism; greed for money and power; competition and unlimited growth– as well as the the mechanisms that perpetuate these values, such as the military-industrial complex and escalating consumerism.
Jesus’ sacrifice impacts everything
In his Easter message several years ago, then Moderator the Rev. Niall Reid said that climate change was “the inevitable outcome of unsustainable, unfettered and unthinking addiction to economic growth. This in a world where the powers that be are no more willing to contemplate a different way than they were when, for expediency’s sake, they sent Jesus to the cross and did everything in their power to cajole, scare off and divide his supporters.”
So the crucifixion of Jesus is echoed in the consumerist culture’s ongoing crucifixion of Creation. Jesus came proclaiming a Kingdom of love of neighbour and even enemies, a kingdom which was gained by losing everything, especially wealth and power over others. In response, “The Powers” and the mob crucified him. That message continues to be rejected today, and the cosmic Christ continues to suffer through what we are doing to the “least of these”: the poor and, indeed, all Creation.
The writers of the Uniting Church’s founding document, the Basis of Union, were convinced that the significance of Easter extends beyond humanity: “Jesus himself, in his life and death, made the response of humility, obedience and trust which God had long sought in vain. In raising him to live and reign, God confirmed and completed the witness which Jesus bore to God on earth, reasserted claim over the whole of Creation, pardoned sinners, and made in Jesus a representative beginning of a new order of righteousness and love.” Empowered by the Holy Spirit, the Church is the servant of “that coming reconciliation and renewal which is the end in view for the whole Creation” (Basis of Union, 3).
This understanding has been central over the decades to our Church’s work for ecological justice, for example: “God’s will for the Earth is not destruction by human beings, but reconciliation and renewal.” (For the Sake of the Planet and all its People, 2006)
Climate change activists are repeatedly told that focusing on the scale of environmental destruction is counterproductive. The threat to our way of life, the lives of our children and even our very species, elicits fear. In turn, this leads to the maladaptive responses of denial, inertia and inaction.
Every society is faced with the task of making meaning in the face of disappointment, disaster and death. It is not a task that the modern world does well – we largely respond to death by holding it at bay. Death is a fact of life, yet our culture is largely silent on it – until happenings like bushfires, violence, or the death of a young cricketer force their way into our public consciousness. We are chronically unable to talk about death, even with those closest to us. A recent survey by Palliative Care Australia found that the large majority of Australians haven’t talked with their loved ones about dying, including half of those who are 65 year olds or more.
Consumerism is part of our denial of death and limits. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, President George W. Bush famously responded by telling Americans to go out shopping. And fascinatingly, experimental studies show that increasing people’s awareness of their mortality tends to increase their materialistic tendencies. It seems, horrifyingly, that we are crucifying the Earth, in part, through deep denial of our own death.
A new community, a new way
It was devastating, and dangerous, to stay with Jesus at his crucifixion. Only a few faced up to this new and terrifying turn of events. Most of us Christians who enjoy historically unparalleled comforts find it equally difficult to behold the cross of Creation. It is not surprising. Insulated by our technologies, how are we to truly grasp the destruction that our way of life is wreaking?
Yet, psychologists and others open to their insights insist that we must deeply enter into and work through our fear, grief and anger if we are to sustain a meaningful response to the ecocide. Unless we have confronted death, we cannot understand resurrection.
The gospels give us four accounts of the resurrection, and Paul gives us a further metaphor: the body of Jesus the Christ has become the “body of Christ”, the resurrection community continuing God’s mission on Earth. If Creation is being crucified, what might its resurrection look like: where are the signs of new community and life?
We see the “prophets”, those who tear down and turn over tables. For example, the Christians who joined the Maules Creek Mine blockade in the Leard Forest. Speaking the love of neighbour and disrupting the worship of the God of Mammon, and facing the consequences.
We see the pastors, those who nurture and restore. Landcare, permaculture, transition towns, community-supported agriculture and community gardens. Australians’ embrace of rooftop solar. Advances in regulations that protect the environment. The marked transformation of ecosystems through rewilding.
Genuine hope guides genuine activism
Is this the resurrection of Creation? A swelling movement of reform, of reconciliation and renewal with repentant humans at its head? The body of Christ working for the whole Creation – which came into being through and for him (according to John 1:2-3 and Colossians 1:15-17)?
Or will the resurrection be even more radical? Is there only the hopelessness of apocalypse before us? Does Creation need to groan until this sixth extinction event is complete, and our species has wiped itself out, paving the way for the resurrection of completely new life forms, as happened after the previous mass extinctions?
As our President reminded us years ago, the Basis of Union does not hold to a “scorched earth” vision of the future. We know scientifically that life would go on without us, if we choose to embrace Mammon and accelerate our own extinction.
Staring this very real possibility in the face, however, frees us to “live life out of genuine hope, believing that transformation is possible. This is not a wild or shallow optimism that is satisfied to rest on the idea that all will be OK in the end, but a commitment to engage as active participants in the reconciliation of the world with God” (An Economy of Life, 2009).
To truly confront our own inevitable death rather than distract ourselves from it with endless consumerism, and to stay with Creation at its cross, will perhaps enable us to rise to the challenge of living its resurrection: transforming our society and way of life to embody Christ’s love, generosity and compassion for all Creation.
Miriam Pepper and Jason Johns
Uniting Earth Ministry is a project of Uniting Mission and Education, the Mid North Presbytery and the Uniting Eco Group. Uniting Earth Ministry works across church to explore how we might “confess the Lord in fresh words and deeds” (Basis of Union, 11) in light of our developing awareness of the place of humans in Creation. We invite you to join us. Visit our website to access resources, including worship materials, stories of hope of churches and community groups taking action, our coal and gas mining discussion guide for congregations, community gardens resources and more. Contact us to connect in with our courses and events, sign up to our e-bulletin, or join our new pastoral peer support network. www.unitingearthweb.org.au