Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Fire Next Time (2)

First Sunday in Lent, Year B
Part II

In the story of Noah, it’s clear that we make our moral choices in the context of the web of relationships among God, humans, and all of creation. The rainbow set in the clouds as a sign of the covenant between God and all the creatures of earth has become for us a sign of God’s promise and a sign of hope.

Christians live in hope, and hope is one of the gifts we bring to discussions of the climate crisis.  Hope that discounts reality is not hope; it is self-deception or denial. To live in Christian hope does not mean living in denial with some vague idea that God will somehow keep us from the consequences of our actions. (To the contrary, a reading of the Hebrew prophets will remind us that God, like a good parent, allows us to experience the consequences of our actions, both good and bad.)

Our hope is that no matter what else, ultimately all will be well. Our faithfulness to God and God’s promises will not be in vain. As the global warming situation grows more dire and signs of climate change become less subtle, hope requires a deeper faith to sustain it.

In Nebraska, the threat to our land and water has made us aware of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline and, to a lesser extent, aware of the mining of the tar sands and the environmental problems associated with it. Bill McKibben published a piece on Friday called Beyond Keystone that puts the issues around the mining of the tar sands within the perspective of fossil fuels in general:

If you burned all the tarsands we know about now, you'd raise the planet's temperature more than half a degree -- i.e., half again as much as the global warming we've already seen, which has been enough to make the seas 30% more acid and cut Arctic sea ice 40%. But if you burned all the coal we know about it, the temperature would go up 15 degrees. 
At a certain point, I suppose, it doesn't matter -- most scientists think anything more than two degrees Celsius puts us into a zone of extreme danger, and we're already halfway there. Fifteen degrees would be just gilding the lily.
 Fighting the pipeline has required a lot of time, energy, and resources from many Nebraskans. Fighting the environmental hazards of expanded coal projects, like the “truly massive new coal port in Washington State that would take eight mile-long coal trains a day from the Powder River Basin of Montana and Wyoming and ship them straight to China” described in McKibben’s article, is a huge task.

Our hope is that there is some sense in trying, some sense in being Davids standing up to the Goliath of powers that would extract and burn as much coal and oil and tar sands as possible from the earth. While the idea of hope might seem impractical, even foolish, real hope is very practical; hope can keep us doing what needs to be done. It makes the best of the slimmest of possibilities, maximizes the odds of reaching a good outcome, and gives us our lives meaning and dignity no matter what the outcome.

The February 22 issue of Christian Century quotes Vaclav Havel’s differentiation between hope and optimism (p. 8). Hope, he said, is “an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed…[Hope] is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”

Being in good relationship with God, one another, and all of creation makes sense, regardless of how it turns out. “God gave Noah the rainbow sign; ‘no more water, the fire next time.’” Even if this turns out to be “the fire next time”, God still gives us the rainbow sign.

The Fire Next Time

First Sunday in Lent, Year B
Part I

God gave Noah the rainbow sign; no more water, the fire next time. (O Mary, Don’t You Weep)

The reading from Genesis (Genesis 9:8-17) today tells about the covenant between God and “every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth”. God promises that never again will there be flood to destroy the earth.

The spiritual O Mary, Don’t You Weep is for the most part about hope; just as the waters drowned Pharoah’s army, ensuring the escape from slavery of the Hebrew people, so “there’ll be good times by and by” for others suffering oppression. One puzzling verse is the one about Noah: while the rest of the song celebrates God’s use of water to drown the oppressors, this verse remembers God’s promise not to send another flood that covers the earth, but then says “Next time it will be fire!” It suggests that we not take the promise of this covenant to mean that nothing can harm the earth. In the context of giving hope to oppressed people, it suggests that we remain aware of dangers and not get lulled into false security.

Here's Bruce Springsteen's version of O Mary, Don't You Weep:

Others have discussed “the fire next time” in light of the climate crisis. A piece by The Rev. Peter G. Kreitler, The Spirituality of Global Warming, talks about both the severity of the global warming crisis and the place of hope in the response of people of faith to the crisis. He writes:

The fire this time, our warming fragile island home, is our religious and moral wakeup call; Noah's generation heard and felt the fury of rising waters. Today the heat on the earth is bending the established rules of nature and the winds and the waves are compromising the integrity of creation; yet the arc of the rainbow can still be seen to offer us hope amidst the fury of nature's wrath.

The fire next time isnow: Environmental historian Angus Wright’s call for a planetary patriotism is Robert Jensen’s interview with Angus Wright. Jensen says that in a conversation with other environmentalists about what words to use to convey the urgency of the crisis while making the ideas accessible, Wright suggested this as a slogan: “No more water, the fire next time.”  

Jensen’s interview with Wright ends with a discussion of hope. Jensen asks if we are facing “the fire next time” and whether there is “a way out of the trap we’ve set ourselves.” Wright says, “I don’t know if there is a way out, but we have to try.” He says we have to try if we want to maintain our self-respect, then says: “I maintain a certain faith that many people are going to make the right choices, and we can hope that is enough.”

God made a covenant not only with humankind, but with all the creatures of the earth. In doing so, God shows us that the web of relationships among God, humans, and all of creation is the context in which we make our moral choices. Our hope is that as remembering who we are in relation to God and God’s creation, and we will choose wisely.