Monday, September 22, 2014

Marching to Nineveh

In churches where yesterday’s Old Testament lesson was the last part of the Book of Jonah (Jonah 3:10-4:11), we heard about Jonah’s anger at God’s mercy to the Ninevites, who had listened to the message Jonah brought them from God and had repented. Jonah gets angry all over again when a bush God sent to give Jonah some shade dies after a day. God points out to Jonah that he is concerned about a single bush and yet begrudges God’s mercy to the people of Nineveh: “And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and went thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” 

Yesterday was also the day of the huge People’s Climate March in New York City. Smaller marches and rallies gathered around the world in support. The People’s Climate March was timed to occur as participants began gathering for a UN Climate Summit, and a theme of the estimated 400,000 marchers was that inaction on climate change is unacceptable. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called world leaders to gather this week in order to build momentum toward a significant agreement at next year’s climate conference in Paris.

While the first part of the story of Jonah — his running away from God that results in his spending three days in the belly of a whale — is perhaps the most well-known part of the story, what happens when Jonah obeys God and goes to Nineveh to proclaim, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (Jonah 3:4) is a classic story about human nature. As I heard this read yesterday morning with the People’s Climate March and my many friends taking part in it on my mind and in my heart, I became aware of some places where the story of Jonah and the story of the climate march intersect. These intersections can help us as Christians formulate our response to climate change.

Proclaiming the truth

Many of the people marching yesterday have been speaking and writing about climate change for years. No matter how long they have been at it, though, a principal purpose of bringing together a large and diverse crowd of people around the issue was to raise awareness of climate change and its effects on people. The march had an environmental justice focus that brought together people from a variety of sectors — indigenous people, people of faith, union members, people who work for affordable housing, people from island nations, Appalachia, and our own Nebraska sandhills — who brought their own messages about the harmful effects of climate change on particular groups of people.

Jonah resisted telling the truth, and we as a society have been slow to tell the truth about climate change. Media Matters reported that the “Sunday news shows on NBC, ABC, CBS, CNN and Fox failed to cover the People's Climate March”; coverage of climate change in general has been dismal in the mainstream American press. Unlike too many news reporters and political leaders, the people marching yesterday were there to proclaim the truth; they were there to be heard.

Repentance and reconciliation

When the Ninevites hear Jonah’s message and repent, Jonah is angry because he doesn’t think they deserve God’s grace. Given that God’s grace got Jonah out of the belly of the whale, his resentment of the Ninevites seems especially petty.

Last Friday, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori along with the heads for the Anglican Church of Canada, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and the  Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, issued a pastoral message on climate change. In it, the Bishops encourage us to leave behind our tendency to divide into factions and point fingers at one another, and instead to work toward reconciliation: 
Moreover, we need not surrender to political ideologies and other modern mythologies that would divide us into partisan factions — deserving and undeserving, powerless victims and godless oppressors. In Christ we have the promise of a life where God has reconciled the human community. In Christ God sets us free from the captivity of blaming and shaming. God liberates us for shared endeavors where we find each other at our best.
Encouraging reconciliation, and especially rejoicing as more and more people repent of our contributions to climate change and try to change our ways, is one of the gifts we Christians can offer the world at this time. Healing ourselves and learning to love one another is an essential piece of healing the planet. Politics as usual will not get us where we need to go.

Divestment and reinvestment

Divestment from the fossil fuel industry and reinvestment in clean energy would give the church an opportunity to practice repentance for our contributions to climate change and to lead the way to a better future for all living things. This weekend we learned that the Rockefeller Brothers Foundation — the philanthropic foundation for a family whose wealth originated with oil — is joining the divestment movement.

Resolutions will be introduced at several diocesan annual councils this fall calling on the Episcopal Church Pension Fund and the Episcopal Church Endowment Fund to divest from the fossil fuel industry. These resolutions lay the groundwork for an effort to bring the issue to General Convention in 2015. (I’ve proposed a divestment and reinvestment resolution for consideration at the Diocese of Nebraska’s Annual Council.)

God told Jonah that his concern about the death of one plant should extend to the entire population of Nineveh, both people and animals. When we Christians respond to climate change through truth-telling and acts of repentance and reconciliation, we will help save the lives of people and all other living things all over the world.