On the vanity of partisan politics

Today a friend shared this video on Facebook, in which a reporter from ReasonTV, a libertarian video channel, interviews delegates at the Democratic National Convention to find out just how pro-choice they really are.

For many, the video highlights a glaring inconsistency in the Democratic platform. Apparently, “it’s my body, my choice” applies when you’re terminating a pregnancy, but not when it comes to drinking excessive quantities of soda.

My guess is the libertarian producers of this video were more concerned with the regulation of sugary drinks and light bulbs than abortion. Though in fairness, many libertarians are pro-life, because in their view, one individual’s liberty ends where someone else’s personhood begins. Either way, the inconsistency highlighted by this video is real. And troubling.

But imagine if someone had turned the cameras on the other party during their convention and asked, “Just how pro-life are Republicans?” On the one hand, the Republican platform calls for a constitutional amendment to protect unborn children.

But how pro-life is it to oppose the EPA’s efforts to limit mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants — a rule designed to protect children born and unborn from the well-documented health effects of such pollutants?

How pro-life is it to lead the country into not one but two wars of questionable necessity (assuming you believe there’s ever such a thing as “justifiable necessity” when it comes to war)?

How pro-life is it to play politics with climate change when the risks of inaction far outweigh the risks of overreaction in the unlikely event the scientists are wrong? Many experts in the humanitarian sector (in which I used to work) will tell you that climate change is the single greatest threat to all the progress that’s been made combating poverty, hunger, and disease over the last few decades.

Now it’s not as if one party is more virtuous than the other. The truth is, hypocrisy runs deep on both sides of the political divide. Those of us who are Christians would do well to remember this as we engage in (or disengage from) the political process this year.
Politics is not just the art of governing; it’s also the pursuit of power. And in our increasingly polarized society, it seems to be more about the latter than the former. Hence our never-ending election cycle.

That’s why Christians should be wary of getting too cozy with either party. Because we are called to serve, not to become someone else’s pawn in their accumulation of power. We are called to speak truth to power but never to seek it for ourselves. Ever notice how the Old Testament prophets routinely confronted the kings of Israel without seeking their favor or patronage?

It’s not that there’s no place for Christian political engagement. I believe there is. But I also believe our role is to be a prophetic voice, and you can’t do that when you’re a mouthpiece for one party or the other.

So when Democrats talk about protecting the vulnerable in our midst, we can applaud while also pointing out the blind spot in their thinking when it comes to abortion. And when Republicans talk about the sanctity of life, we can say amen while also reminding them that life is just as sacred outside the womb as in it.

This may not be a strategy for electoral success, but as Christians, aren’t we called to believe in something bigger?

Change we need to believe in

It’s over 100 degrees outside my home in Michigan today.

Yet another heat wave in a year that’s seen three or four already — the first of which came in March. (Yes, March.) That one decimated Michigan’s cherry and apple crops. This one is baking roughly two-thirds of the country.

Last month, there were the Colorado wildfires, brought on by a severe drought affecting 98 percent of the state. In fact, according to the latest report from the National Drought Mitigation Center, 56 percent of the continental U.S. is experiencing some form of drought right now. That’s the highest measure since they started keeping track twelve years ago.

The month before that, we achieved yet another milestone: May 2012 was the 327th consecutive month with global temperatures above the 20th-century average. That’s 27-plus years of higher-than-normal temperatures.

We don’t have to wonder what global warming will look like anymore. We are seeing it now. And it’s unfolding more or less as climatologists have predicted for years.

Of course, it’s tempting to think back to the last severe cold snap or blizzard and dismiss such talk as alarmist. It would be comforting to see every record-breaking low temperature as proof that every heat wave is just another part of the cycle.

Come January, those of us in northern states will be muttering about how we could do with a little global warming right now.

There’s just one problem.

According to Kevin Tremberth, a climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, record lows aren’t keeping pace with the skyrocketing number of record highs.

In the 1950s, America experienced a fairly equal number of record-setting highs and lows. By the 2000s, we were setting two record high temperatures for every one record low.

So far this year, we’ve set ten record highs for every record low.

Natural variability does not account for the imbalance. In the same way, none of the culprits suggested by climate skeptics — El Niño, volcanic ash, solar activity, etc. — can satisfactorily explain the long-term increase in global temperatures.

In fact, some of these alternative suspects should’ve taken us in the opposite direction. The last 20 years of solar activity ought to have had a cooling effect, if anything. Which means the sun actually blunted the impact of all our greenhouse gas emissions.

We no longer have the luxury of skepticism. The earth is warming. We are causing it.

The science of global warming has been established for over a hundred years. Anyone can observe the basic principles of the greenhouse gas effect by leaving their car outside on a hot day, with the windows rolled up. (Won’t be too hard to do that in Michigan today.)

Yet there remains a reluctance to trust what nearly all climatologists are telling us, particularly among Christians like myself.

The church has long had an uneasy relationship with science, fearing that it will erode faith. But more often than not, the problem isn’t that science is hostile toward faith. It’s that some of us in the church have picked fights that aren’t worth fighting. Just ask Galileo. Or Copernicus.

And even if you won’t take the scientists’ word for it, listen to the scriptures.

The earth is the Lord’s. It is not ours to do with as we please. We are caretakers and tenants, not its owners. According to some scholars, the Genesis story goes even further, depicting the earth as God’s temple — a temple he is coming back to occupy once more.

We owe it to the God we serve — not to mention the future generations who will have to carve a home out of this rock — to treat it with care. Climate change is polluting God’s temple. We can no longer afford to stick our heads in the increasingly hot sand.


Related: For one of the best summaries of climate change and answers to common objections, see “Responses to Questions & Objections on Climate Change,” published by Climate Works Australia. SkepticalScience.com is another helpful resource.

Joel C. Rosenberg steps up to the mic…

Well, I was wrong.

Someone decided to play the judgment card.

As reported on Matthew Paul Turner’s blog today, Christian author and prophecy enthusiast Joel C. Rosenberg wrote that the Colorado wildfires were indeed sent by God to get our attention.

Here’s an excerpt from Rosenberg’s blog yesterday:

Is it possible God is using natural disasters to get our attention? Natural disasters continue unfolding one after another here at home and around the world as they always have. But have you stopped to notice that so many recently are described as ‘historic’ and ‘unprecedented?’ Eight of the ten most expensive hurricanes in American history have happened since 9/11…

The fact is that throughout the Bible and throughout history God has used natural disasters to shake families, cities, regions and entire nations. Why? To get the people’s attention. To warn people to stop drifting and/or rebelling from God and repent…

Thousands of years ago, God told the Hebrew prophet Haggai to write down these words: “For thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘Once more in a little while, I am going to shake the heavens and the earth, the sea also and the dry land. I will shake all the nations… I am going to shake the heavens and the earth. I will overthrow the thrones of kingdoms and destroy the power of the kingdoms of the nations’” (Haggai 2:6-7, 21-22). This is Bible prophecy. This is an intercept from the mind of the all-knowing, all-seeing God of the universe. It is a weather report from the future, if you will, a storm warning… God told us well in advance that he was going to “shake all the nations.” That certainly includes the United States.

Let us urgently begin praying 2 Chronicles 7:14 for our country… time is running short.

OK, first… let’s talk about this Haggai. His oracle was addressed to Jews in the 6th century BC who, on their return from exile, needed a good kick in the pants in order to get working on the new temple.

THAT was the point of the very passage Rosenberg quoted. Not that his readers would know, since he left out the part that doesn’t fit his theory:

This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘In a little while I will once more shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land. I will shake all nations, and what is desired by all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory.’

“This house.” As in, the second temple. The one built in the 6th century BC.

When King Solomon built the first temple four hundred years earlier, the glory of Yahweh descended on it (2 Chronicles 7:1-3). That same glory, God’s divine presence on earth, vacated the temple shortly before its destruction in 586 BC (Ezekiel 10).

In order to get construction of the second temple back on track, God promised Haggai that his presence would someday fill the new building, much as it had the old one. According to Christian tradition, this came to pass 500 years later. When Jesus Christ set foot in the finished building, God indeed filled “this house with glory” like never before. The aftershock of his advent reverberated across the nations, just as God had promised.

That’s what this prophecy is about. Not wildfires or earthquakes in 21st-century America. Haggai probably wasn’t even thinking about Colorado when he wrote this oracle.

It’s time we start respecting the Bible’s context — and stop treating it like a horoscope.

More importantly, let’s not take advantage of people’s pain and suffering in Colorado in order to score a few “oohs” and “ahs” from like-minded prophecy enthusiasts.

There is one thing Rosenberg was right about, though. We are seeing an increase in the frequency and intensity of certain natural disasters: droughts, fires, etc. Since 1975, the number of natural disasters has increased fivefold.

But instead of blaming God, let’s should look a bit closer to home. Climatologists have been telling us for years that global warming will have this effect. Maybe it’s time we listened. Maybe it’s time we started taking better care of the planet.

The earth is, after all, the Lord’s.

What’s the worst that could happen? (A cost-benefit analysis of climate change)

[Note: This is a followup to an earlier post on why I believe every Christian should care about the environment.]

The earth is God’s temple. A growing number of evangelicals accept the importance of “creation care.” So why don’t more of us care about climate change? According to one survey, only a third of Christians say climate change prevention is an important part of our responsibility to steward the earth (though a majority say it’s important for other reasons).

Put another way: Why are Christians, particularly evangelicals, more skeptical about climate change than the general population?

Humanitarian organizations like World Vision (my former employer) see climate change as one of the biggest threats to the poor and vulnerable in the developing world. Even the US military, hardly a haven for liberal thought, recognizes climate change as the most significant threat to our national security.

So why do we who are Christian have such a hard time seeing what they see?

For those who remain skeptical about the causes and implications of climate change, I’d like to pose a pair of questions that Rich Stearns shared with employees of World Vision when I was there:

1. What’s the worst that could happen if we respond aggressively to climate change, only to learn in hindsight that our concerns were overblown?

The answer: Collectively, we might wind up a few hundred billion dollars poorer. That’s the equivalent of 1-2% of ONE YEAR’S global GDP.

Some of that would be money well spent — even if climate change turned out to be more of a whimper than a roar. For example, with a finite supply fossil fuels (no matter how much we “drill, baby, drill”), do any of us really believe we shouldn’t invest in alternative energy sources?

2. What’s the worst that could happen if we do nothing, only to learn that human-induced climate change and its effects are real — and every bit as serious as we’ve been told?

Let’s start by putting it in crass economic terms. Failing to rein in greenhouse gases could cost up to 20% of global GDP. (And you thought the last recession was bad.)

More important is the human impact. No surprise, it’s the desperately poor — those who have contributed the least to climate change — who stand to suffer the most. In fact, they’re already feeling the effects of climate change. From the increasing frequency and intensity of droughts in parts of Africa, to rising sea levels already threatening to overwhelm an entire nation.

Two decades of progress combating extreme poverty could be wiped out if we fail address climate change.

That’s our choice: Spend a few hundred billion dollars now or lose trillions later — and jeopardize millions of lives.

Still, many doubt the science behind climate change, even though the underlying principle, the greenhouse effect, has been a proven scientific fact for well over a hundred years. But why? What’s the motivation for all this skepticism?

Could it be that those of us in the top 2% simply don’t want to give up the standard of living to which we’ve grown accustomed? Could it be that we’re happy to go on using the earth as we see fit and leave the mess for someone else to clean up?

As Christians, we will have a hard time reconciling this attitude with the biblical reality that the earth is not ours — that it is not first and foremost our dwelling, but God’s.

What will we say when the time comes to give an account for how we’ve tended God’s temple?

Ordo creatio (or, why every Christian should be a radical environmentalist)

Sunday’s Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary was Mark 1:9-15, the story of Jesus’ baptism and testing. Mark includes one detail about Jesus’ wilderness sojourn not found in the other Gospels: Jesus “was with the wild animals.”

Our priest made this the focus of his homily on Sunday. He argued it’s not (as widely assumed) a foreboding statement, as if to portray the animals as a threat to Jesus. Instead, it points to the whole-earth implications of Jesus’ redemptive mission. He didn’t come simply to “save souls.”

Jesus “dwells harmoniously with the wild animals,” signaling the restoration of our relationship not just with God, but with God’s creation. “There is no getting right with the world without getting right with God,” our priest said. “But there is also no getting right with God without getting right with the world he made.”

Tree hugger and proud

Environmentalists often meet their fiercest opposition within certain corners of the church, even when environmentalism is rebranded as “creation care.”

This is partly a reflection of an impoverished eschatology — the belief, fueled in part by the wildly popular Left Behind books, that God will dispose of this world in the end and evacuate the faithful to a spiritual realm. The world is going to burn someday, so why bother saving it? It’s funny how we’ve reimagined God to imitate our compulsive habit of throwing stuff away.

But it’s also reflective of an impoverished creation theology. It’s said we were made to “have dominion” over the earth — to “subdue” it. It’s said that in the order of creation, we are the apex — God’s final creative act in a story where the created elements are introduced in order of importance. We humans top the list.

Except that we don’t.

The problem is, we stop reading at the end of Genesis 1. But the first three verses of Genesis 2 are actually part of the story from the previous chapter. The very first chapter division in the Bible is a perfect example of why chapter and verse divisions are such a bad idea. The interrupt the story at random intervals.

When we read the first creation story in its entirety (Genesis 1:1 – 2:3), we see the making of humanity is not the apex of creation. God’s act of resting is the high point.

By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.

I mentioned in yesterday’s post that the first creation story envisions the cosmos as one giant temple. In ancient Near Eastern mythology, temples are where deities went to rest. The earth is God’s intended dwelling place.

We are not the apex of creation. We are not the point of it all. The earth is not ours to exploit and do with as we see fit. The earth is not first and foremost our dwelling place. “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.”

Because he’s a generous God, he invites us to share it with him, to dwell here with him. He invites us to rule on his behalf. That’s what it means to “have dominion” over the earth. We are tending it on behalf of God. We are caretakers. Tenants. Stewards.

Once we see our proper place in the creation story, there is no good reason why Christians shouldn’t be the most impassioned environmentalists of all.

Making our trash someone else’s problem

Kurt Willems has an interesting post about the Seattle City Council’s decision to ban single-use plastic bags.

In 2008, Seattle tried to impose a fee on plastic shopping bags, but voters overturned it after a petition drive funded by the plastics industry.

Kurt thinks the ban is a good idea, and I agree. But some of my libertarian friends raise an important point: they say while it’s good for individuals to make eco-friendly choices, governments have no business legislating something just because it happens to be a good idea.

Is this a cop-out? A feeble excuse from those with no real intention of making eco-friendly choices?

Not necessarily. One friend who made this very argument also puts his kids in cloth diapers. He uses reusable garbage bags. (I don’t even do that.) He’s walking the talk, as they say.

I happen to be skeptical of big government, without necessarily being anti-government. (I think government has a legitimate responsibility to regulate, within reason, a wide range of things.)

But I’m equally skeptical of big business, without being anti-business. The market plays a vital role in creating economic opportunity for billions. But what happens when a business becomes larger than some countries? Wal-Mart, for example, would be the world’s 25th largest economy if it were a country. Who holds them accountable? Individual consumers? Not likely.

Back to the point: should governments be deciding whether or not we can use disposable shopping bags? Has the Seattle City Council overstepped its bounds? Should environmental responsibility be a personal choice rather than a mandate?

The “personal choice” argument might work if no one else is affected by your behavior. In other words, if you’re the only one impacted by your decision to use a disposable shopping bag, then fine. You should be able to carry on, free from government interference.

But what if you’re not the only person affected by your behavior? Does government have a responsibility to intervene when your choices negatively impact others?

Consider that it takes around 500 years for a plastic bag to decompose. As I understand it, even biodegradable bags take a long time to break down, because decomposition requires air, and there’s not much of that to be found inside a heavily compacted landfill. (Thanks to Dan Martin for providing sharing this insight.)

Something from which we derive a few minutes’ use will spend centuries in a landfill.

So here’s my question. Do we have the moral right to make our trash someone else’s problem? We derive all the benefit; our children and grandchildren get to deal with our mess.

“It’s just a plastic bag,” someone might say. Except that it’s 500 billion plastic bags every year. One million every minute. And almost 90% of them wind up in landfills, where they will continue to be someone else’s problem, long after we’re gone.

Do we have that right?

Do Christians, for whom the second greatest commandment is “love your neighbor,” have that right?

Might our “neighbors” include those who inherit the earth after us?

And do governments have a moral obligation to protect others from the negative consequences of our bad behavior?

Some politicians in the US follow this line of reasoning when they protest the growing federal debt. They say it’s not right for us to spend money we don’t have and leave the bill for our kids and grandkids.

They have a point. But perhaps the same logic applies to the debate over plastic bags, nuclear energy, and other environmental issues.