Climate change as a spiritual crisis

Douglas Kaufman is a director of pastoral ecology at the Center for Sustainable Climate Solutions, Goshen College, and pastor of Benton Mennonite Church, who began creation care ministries in response to too much manure in the Elkhart River where they baptize. He is completing a Th.M. in ecology from the University of Toronto.

 

When Luke Gascho and Jennifer Schrock of Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center of Goshen College invited me to help lead efforts to engage Mennonite churches on climate change, it felt like a call from the Spirit. I felt prepared because I had been leading my congregation in creation care for 15 years and had just spent a sabbatical studying ecology and theology.

Yet, I must admit that I had not spoken a lot about climate change. My own interests focused on rivers, for good reason since our local river where we baptized sometimes had too much manure. But I am afraid that I was part of the silence many of us have experienced around climate change. Part of that silence may be from fears about climate deniers, a voice that the media has amplified. But the other problem with the climate crisis is that it is scary.

As our carbon emissions cause the atmosphere to warm, we experience more and stronger natural disasters such as droughts, heat waves, hurricanes, and flooding. Ironically and tragically, our actions are causing the creation to become less predictable and life-sustaining for us and more dangerous to us.

I was engaged in soft denial. “Literal or hard denial” refutes the facts and claims that nothing is happening. When that becomes unbelievable, “interpretive denial” admits that something is happening, but it is not what you think it is. For instance, one might claim the problem isn’t carbon emissions, but that it’s natural cycles or other explanations that have little basis in scientific observations.

But a broader and, in some ways, more difficult denial is “soft or implicatory denial.” We accept the facts, but we deny their social and moral implications. American sociologist Kari Norgaard first noticed this denial of climate change when she spent the warmest winter in 130 years in Norway. Though Norwegians believe climate science and love winter, they rarely spoke about climate change. It brought up too many uncomfortable and frightening emotions of helplessness, guilt and fear.

It is easy to feel hopeless about climate change. An individual cannot do a lot. It takes large-scale global, social and institutional efforts to make the necessary changes. And yet many of us—for good reason!—have trouble trusting these institutions to do the right thing. So it is easier to ignore it, like someone who is in denial about their problem with alcohol.

I find hope in the shift that is happening to see the climate crisis not just as a scientific crisis, but a spiritual and human one. Christian faith can help us confront our fears and despair and helplessness.

Unfortunately, too often the church has either ignored the climate crisis or even fostered denial by false assurances that God will take care of it. If anything, the God I encounter in the prophets, who often connected injustice with ecological disaster, is one who confronts human sin and injustice, not excusing it.

I am inspired by the Biblical vision of humanity in harmony with creation rather than conquering it. I am inspired by the good news that in the death and resurrection of Jesus, a new creation has begun. The Spirit can bring renewal in the midst of our climate suffering. This does not mean confronting the climate catastrophe will be easy or even that the outcome is assured; it is the greatest challenge of our time.

I am inspired by the social capital of congregations to address social issues, being places where we peer through our denial and acknowledge what is happening. I am inspired by our rituals of lament that allow us to truthfully confront harsh realities with hope and trust, strengthening our resolve to do something.

The failure of our politicians globally and nationally to address climate change is evident. So I am also inspired by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders who confronted the denial about racial injustice through nonviolent resistance. King’s famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” does not address outright racists, but white moderates whose implicatory denial kept them from seeing the need for immediate change. King saw that oppressors needed to be provoked to do justice.

While our churches and households need to reduce our carbon footprints, we also need to address our politicians and society, moving us towards no longer tolerating increasing carbon emissions.

We can join with others engaged in the best of nonviolent resistance to confront this injustice towards the most vulnerable, towards coming generations and towards other species.

Finally, I am inspired by the hundreds of Mennonites and others with whom I have discussed the climate crisis, and how many people simply desire to do the right thing. We are shifting and caring more about the climate, and every little and big thing we do helps!

 


This post is part of Mennonite Church USA’s Climate Justice: Learn, Pray, Join initiative

We invite you to:

Pray for those who are most vulnerable among us and who are most impacted by climate change, including those who have already been displaced.

Pray for the waters, the plants, all living creatures and the earth with gratitude, that we may recognize their sacredness and participate in their restoration.

Pray that we will find the motivation to respond to climate change in our own lives, congregations and communities.

Pray for local, community and business leaders to help make communities healthier and greener while centering those who are vulnerable. Pray that our political leaders and world leaders would become more active in reducing carbon emissions worldwide.

Pray for the youth and future generations, who will live with the growing consequences of climate change.

 

Find worship resources, a webinar, and ways to get involved in advocating for climate justice at mennoniteusa.org/climatejustice.