Saturday, December 20, 2014

Truth and Hope

Two essays have spoken strongly to me this season as I've struggled in the midst of Advent to absorb new information and analysis about global warming and to think about recent political responses to climate change.

It’s the End of the World As We Know It  looks at some of the realities of climate change and concludes that “it's time to accept our impending demise” and let go of  “the charade that things might improve”. The author is Randy Malamud, Regents’ Professor of English at Georgia State University. 

Professor Malamud finds a bright spot in the opportunity to engage in the sort of self-reflection that has produced great literature as other civilizations declined. He writes:
As an English professor, I find it exciting to consider the possibilities for a new voice, a new style, a new writerly consciousness that may accompany and chronicle the winding down of our sound and fury.
For those who are spiritually grounded this Advent season and ready to take an honest look at the needs of the world, this essay is a wonderful help to processing some of the realities of climate change.

Naomi Klein’s December 12 essay for The Nation entitled Why #BlackLivesMatter Should Transform the Climate Debate  suggests that part of the reason we find ourselves in this sobering situation is that “thinly veiled notions of racial superiority have informed every aspect of the non-response to climate change so far.” The amount of warming found to be “acceptable” to wealthier nations is an amount that will cause great hardship for poorer nations. 

She shares this story about the way westerners tend to think about global warming:
I recently had occasion to meet a leading Belgian meteorologist who makes a point of speaking about climate change in her weather reports. But, she told me, her viewers remain unmoved. "People here think that with global warming, the weather in Brussels will be more like Bordeaux—and they are happy about that." On one level, that's understandable, particularly as temperatures drop in northern countries. But global warming won't just make Brussels more like Bordeaux, it will make Haiti more like Hades. And it's not possible to be cheerful about the former without, at the very least, being actively indifferent to the latter.

Naomi Klein’s hope in all of this is that the losses of people in the less developed parts of the world can “if we are willing to acknowledge them, willing to fully grieve them, have the power to help us grow a new and safer world. Indeed, they must.”

Conversations in the faith community around climate change caused by global warming often avoid meeting the issues raised in these two essays. We want to offer hope to people, and so we emphasize possible solutions and leave an impression that we can avoid catastrophic climate change by making some simple changes that won’t change our own lives much. We also tend to talk about leaving a better world for “our grandchildren”, ignoring both the children and adults whose lives have already been lost or made very difficult by our inaction, and also ignoring the risks many of us already alive and relatively unaffected by climate change right now will face in years ahead. 

We Christians believe the light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome the light. We are people of hope, believers in resurrection. But we are also followers of the truth. Genuine hope is grounded not in denial of reality, but in truth. 

The truth includes the scientific facts along with the experiences of people who have already suffered loss as a result of severe weather, drought, rising seas, and wildfires. 

There is hope that human beings will be our best selves as we face the reality of global warming. There is hope that we will hear the voices of people who have not been heard, will grieve the losses of our sisters and brothers, will be open to hearing and understanding the scientists, and will be willing to work together to mitigate as much as possible the global suffering caused by a global problem.

These essays suggest to me that part of our spiritual challenge now and in years ahead is to allow ourselves to experience discomfort in conversations, to be present with those who are beginning to absorb the truth of our situation, and to be so deeply grounded in our faith that we have the courage and grace to speak the truth even when we are surrounded by people who would rather not think about what is happening. 

We are in our present situation in part because of our failure to love our global neighbors as we love ourselves. Giving the needs of others as high a priority as our own needs would in the end benefit us as well. Either the desire to be better followers of Jesus’s great commandment or the desire to protect ourselves would be reason enough to pay more attention to global warming and its causes and effects and, most of all, to work diligently for a just and peaceful world.

But knowing that our present situation is worse than we are usually willing to acknowledge, we have even more reason to refuse to support violence and injustice and instead to join together to support one another and treat one another well. If we are entering a period of collapse or decline, we have the opportunity to choose to do that in a way that resonates with the best of humanity’s values instead of in way that results in chaos, violence, and even more suffering and ruin. We can live through this as followers of Christ or as unrepentant sinners concerned only with our own selfish mere existence.

This is the second in a four part series of posts about looking for hope in Advent 2014. The first, Advent: Where Is Hope, is some personal reflection on journeying through Advent against a background of climate-related news and events. The next post after this one will be some reflection on the COP20 conference in Lima along with recent news about Arctic ice, and the final post will be centered on the question: “How then should we live?” as followers of Jesus in this century.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Advent: Where Is Hope?

Advent has stunned me this year. The words of the prophets that we read during this season are more sobering than usual because they resonate so easily with what we are experiencing in our nation. News stories about the CIA’s use of torture and about the realities of racial injustice echo the most somber words of the prophets. Gun violence continues. A huge storm battered the San Francisco bay area, a big nor’easter hit the northeastern United States, and a “bombageddon” event pounded the northern part of the UK with high winds and high seas.

Here in Nebraska, we are just now returning to more normal December weather after breaking some records for high low temperatures, making it feel more like early spring than like December. There is little doubt that 2014 will go on record as the warmest year globally in recorded history.

But what has stunned me has not been the grim news reports nor the out-of-sync weather. What has stunned me is experiencing all of this against the backdrop of current climate news and analysis that at best might deepen our awareness of the need to repent of our blindness to injustice and cruelty along with plain old selfishness, and at worst might tempt us to a level of despair that keeps us from seeing the light that shines in the darkness and is never overcome.

I’ve not been blogging during Advent, and that has at least as much to do with the task of processing all of these things that have happened since Thanksgiving as much as it does with the busyness of the season or other duties. Where the events of this Advent have taken me so far is not easy for me to share, and I have wanted time to think things through and pray about them before beginning to write.

The Plan

Along with today’s post, the plan is to share this Advent reflection in three more posts:

The next post discusses two excellent essays and how they have clarified and nudged my own thinking: It’s the End of the World As We Know It by Randy Malamud, and Why #BlackLivesMatter Should Transform the Climate Debate from Naomi Klein writing in The Nation.

A post about some of the results from last week’s UN climate talks in Lima, along with today’s news that current models may have significantly underestimated the risk to Greenland’s ice sheet as global warming continues follows. The urgency of the latter underscores the disappointment in the former.

Finally, a look at the question: “How, then, should we live?” as followers of Jesus in this century brings us to speculation about where true hope lies for those of us who believe that the light shines in the darkness and will not be overcome.

An Unusual Disconnect from the Winter Holiday

An intentional observation of Advent is important to me. I love the quiet, the anticipation, the reflections on Christ’s coming that brings past, present, and future together in an eternal now, our custom of lighting special candles in the darkness of December, and Advent music. However, I also have a love of the winter holiday aspect of this time of year that goes back to childhood, when I was blessed to live in a snowy climate in an era when children had time and permission to go out and play in the snow. Snowball fights and snow forts, sledding, skating, and creating snowmen made the gray winter days in northeast Ohio fun. Despite despising driving in the snow, winter still  equals fun in my mind. The joys of a beautiful snowfall, coming indoors to warmth and maybe some cookies and hot chocolate, and many of the secular Christmas songs  that revolve around a winter solstice festival delight me. While I observe Advent and anticipate the holy wonder of the Feast of the Incarnation, I also enjoy the fun we bring into these dark weeks to warm us and make things seem brighter.

I was surprised, then, a couple of weeks ago as Bing Crosby sang White Christmas in the background and I stood at my kitchen window watching birds and animals on our bare lawn to feel a deep sadness instead of joy. I’ve celebrated Christmas without any hints of snow before, as our family lived in New Zealand in the early 1980’s, so this wasn’t just missing the experience of typical midwestern wintry weather in December. It was an awareness that there’s a good chance that whatever future Christmases I have in Nebraska are as likely to be green and above freezing as they are white with snow. I was glimpsing and pre-grieving the loss of the world as I have known and experienced it. Something I have loved is disappearing.

This Sunday, I started out driving to church on a foggy, rainy morning with temperatures warm enough that people were using the word “muggy” to describe the weather in Omaha. I was happy to know that the temperature was well above freezing and there was no worry about possibly icy streets. But I also had the UN climate talks on my mind. I had followed news of the talks until they ended at a late bedtime, and woke up remembering that it seemed as if another opportunity to take significant action on global warming had been squandered. Still, I was surprised at my reaction when I turned on the car radio and heard Leroy Anderson’s Sleigh Ride. Driving along on a muggy December day in Omaha with the music bringing back memories of more typical winter days made our greater loss seem more real. Sleigh Ride isn’t the sort of song that brings tears to our eyes, but it did just that to me Sunday morning.

This evening the north wind is howling, and parts of Nebraska had snow today. We may settle into some more typical winter weather for a bit, or we may end up with a warmer than normal winter. We are, after all, only a small part of the world, and global warming can bring changes in weather patterns that could bring us some exceptionally large snowfalls in coming weeks. (Buffalo, New York, got a good dose of that a few weeks ago.) But we know where we are headed, that some changes are here to stay, and that a certain amount of global warming not only has already occurred but also is going to continue.

Next post we consider two essays that speak to our situation this Advent: one is an honest and clear-eyed look at our situation and its implications, and one looks at why those of us who are white people living in the United States or Europe and are deeply concerned about global warming seem to be outnumbered by people around us who don’t give it much thought.

Boston Pops: Sleigh Ride