Sunday, March 24, 2019

Compassion and Climate Chaos

Lent 3C: Suffering and Blame

In a post at the beginning of Lent, I shared my plan to read David Wallace-Wells’s book The Uninhabitable Earth alongside our daily lectionary readings and Lenten prayers. This being the Lenten wilderness, I didn’t know what I might encounter along the way since by definition the wilderness has no set paths to follow and no guarantees of what we might find. Along with other Nebraskans, not long into Lent I found myself in unfamiliar territory.

On Thursday, March 14 in Nebraska, blizzard conditions followed heavy rains as air pressure dropped in a “bomb cyclone” event. With the ground still frozen hard and more snowpack than usual melting, rivers and creeks flooded and huge chunks of ice got pushed into areas near waterways, resulting in great destruction in both rural areas and towns. Roads and bridges were badly damaged or destroyed, making areas already cut off by floodwaters even more isolated from aid. 

In the days since, we Nebraskans have greatly appreciated the assurance of prayers from people in other places, just as we have appreciated all sorts of practical help, such as money to help with flood relief, farmers from other states bringing hay to feed Nebraska livestock, and skilled volunteers simply showing up to help. And Nebraskans have been helping their neighbors and encouraging each other as communities begin the process of clean-up and rebuilding. Among the shock and sorrow at the losses resulting from the floods, the compassion people have given to other people and to animals has been a bright light showing the way forward and drawing us together. 

However, compassion has not been a universal reaction to our suffering. In this Sunday’s Gospel reading (Luke 13:1-9), 
Jesus is asked whether people who died in terrible ways were worse sinners than others; in other words, Jesus is asked whether people who experience unusual suffering somehow especially deserve their suffering. Today we might ask, do bad things really happen to good people? (Yes, they do.) Yet even if we know perfectly well that terrible things can happen to people who personify faith and kindness and moral goodness, we still in our culture — perhaps especially in our recent history — have a tendency to look for someone to blame when things go wrong. When we assume someone is to blame, and especially when we make an assumption, conscious or unconscious, that the someone who is to blame is probably the very person who is suffering, compassion dwindles. 

Jesus’s answer to this question about sinners getting what they deserve is basically that we are all sinners, all in need of repentance. If bad things happen only to people who have sinned, we are all in trouble. 

We know that the more our planet warms, the more extreme weather events we will have as a result of climate chaos. Spring flooding is not atypical in this part of the United States, but floods of this magnitude are atypical. (See, for example, the article Climate change’s fingerprints are on U.S. Midwest floods: scientist from Reuters.)   It is fair to say, then, that our failure to stop climate change when we could have done so or our failure to mitigate climate change now that it is upon us contributed to this disaster. If we are invested in the blame game more than we are invested in Jesus’s Way of Love, it’s an easy step to go from acknowledging our collective failure to looking for specific people to blame for that failure and hoping to see them suffer.

Those of us who made the mistake of reading the comments on articles about the destruction here in Nebraska learned that while many people in other places had a compassionate response to our suffering, many others had no compassion for Nebraskans because we have elected political leaders who refuse to do anything to address climate change. The general tenor of these comments was that the writer didn’t feel sorry for us at all because we had brought this all on ourselves by electing the wrong sorts of people, that we got just what we deserved. (On top of being mean-spirited, these comments seemed to me especially ill-conceived given the obvious contribution of Nebraskans to stopping the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.)

Our world needs people whose first impulse is compassion rather than placing blame; as we experience more and more of the results of climate chaos, our world needs Jesus’s Way of Love perhaps more than ever before. The basic foundations of human civilization are endangered by climate instability. Such a critical point of history requires us to demonstrate the best human values and to resist the temptation to divide further into warring factions. Hope for our world in an era of environmental collapse depends on compassion for one another. That compassion, that ability to care, will, I think, yield our best outcome in generating the political will to act to mitigate climate change as well the best outcome in responding to what David Wallace-Wells calls the “cascades” of challenges and disasters resulting from climate chaos. 

Do we need to elect leaders who make addressing global warming a high priority? Yes, we do. Should people and animals who live in places that don’t elect such leaders — and right now that would be most of the United States since it’s pretty obvious from looking at legislative records and listening to campaign rhetoric that few of our leaders of either major party see climate change as a top priority or have any grasp of the size of the challenge before us — be left to suffer on their own when floods, tornadoes, droughts, or wildfires happen? No. For Christians, such a lack of compassion would simply be against everything that Jesus taught. We don’t require a moral litmus test in order for people to access basic necessities. 

And for anyone, even those who live by an “eye for an eye” blame game ethics, the ethics of blame and self-righteousness makes no sense since we don’t (at least at the moment) live in a country in which the red people all live in one place and the blue people all live in another place — not that political affiliation really tells you anything about any given individual’s concern about climate change.  

Jesus answered a question about why he made a practice of sitting down to eat with known sinners by saying, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’” (Matthew 9:13) Now in this era of climate chaos we still need to learn what it means to show mercy to people in need rather than demanding moral purity. 

The Diocese of Nebraska has published a suggested list of links to agencies accepting monetary donations for flood relief along with thanksgiving for your prayers: