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Politics of Scripture

Claiming Responsibility for a Different World

This biblical text—the “trial” and execution of Jesus—is a text that we who are Christians know so well we may be tempted to skim it. In the same way, we think we know and understand climate change—enough that we can skim the science.

11 Now Jesus stood before the governor; and the governor asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus said, “You say so.” 12 But when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he did not answer. 13 Then Pilate said to him, “Do you not hear how many accusations they make against you?” 14 But he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge, so that the governor was greatly amazed.

15 Now at the festival the governor was accustomed to release a prisoner for the crowd, anyone whom they wanted. 16 At that time they had a notorious prisoner, called Jesus Barabbas. 17 So after they had gathered, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release for you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Messiah?” 18 For he realized that it was out of jealousy that they had handed him over. 19 While he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, “Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him.” 20 Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus killed. 21 The governor again said to them, “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?” And they said, “Barabbas.” 22 Pilate said to them, “Then what should I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” All of them said, “Let him be crucified!” 23 Then he asked, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Let him be crucified!”

24 So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.” 25 Then the people as a whole answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!” 26 So he released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.

27 Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor’s headquarters, and they gathered the whole cohort around him. 28 They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, 29 and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on his head. They put a reed in his right hand and knelt before him and mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” 30 They spat on him, and took the reed and struck him on the head. 31 After mocking him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him.

32 As they went out, they came upon a man from Cyrene named Simon; they compelled this man to carry his cross. 33 And when they came to a place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull), 34 they offered him wine to drink, mixed with gall; but when he tasted it, he would not drink it. 35 And when they had crucified him, they divided his clothes among themselves by casting lots; 36 then they sat down there and kept watch over him. 37 Over his head they put the charge against him, which read, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.”

38 Then two bandits were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left. 39 Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads 40 and saying, “You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” 41 In the same way the chief priests also, along with the scribes and elders, were mocking him, saying, 42 “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. 43 He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, ‘I am God’s Son.’” 44 The bandits who were crucified with him also taunted him in the same way.

45 From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. 46 And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 47 When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “This man is calling for Elijah.” 48 At once one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink. 49 But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.” 50 Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. 51 At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. 52 The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. 53 After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many. 54 Now when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”

Matthew 27:11-54 (NRSV)

When we encounter something over and over again, we let the details of it wash over us, without us paying much attention to them. This is sometimes how I feel about my work in climate change. Immersed in the science and our faithful response to it, I can feel the tendency in me to ignore the details, assuming that I know the world that is being created by our human actions. Similarly, this biblical text—the “trial” and execution of Jesus—is a text that we who are Christians know so well we may be tempted to skim it. We think we know what it says. And perhaps we can retell the story to our friends and communities. In this season of Lent—a time to pause in our changing world—we have the opportunity to notice and claim our responsibility for the world we have had a hand in making. In doing so, we must turn into the details of familiar stories.

Here is Jesus: betrayed by one of his own, denied by the disciple who will eventually lead his church, abandoned by those who loved him. Jesus is called before the political power of his day because the religious leaders of his time are threatened by Jesus’ charisma, following, and power. (What a human thing, by the way, for the religious leaders to want to stop someone who might take their power. They are afraid and uncertain, and so they lash out, as most of us do when we feel those ways.)

Pilate, a governmental official, briefly tries to talk to Jesus, but he denies any responsibility toward him. Then he goes to the people, allows them to be riled up, but places the blame for the situation on them. The government refuses to take responsibility or action.

And so Jesus is taken away. He is mocked and stripped. He is crucified. He is killed. And in all his suffering, there are people looking on, watching passively without doing anything effective to help or resist. Their hearts are not broken. Their actions do not change. They are not moved.

In the same way, we think we know and understand climate change—enough that we can skim the science. Climate science is a unique specialization that requires an understanding of geology, geography, meteorology, hydrology, and requires the ability to study, gauge, and explain so many parts of how the earth’s systems interconnect. All parts of human life and the earth-system are affected by climate change. As those who believe in the creator of that earth-system and its climate, we who are Christians have a responsibility to speak out publicly about our ecological situation. As those who follow an incarnate God, we must respond to the incarnate world. Indeed our biblical tradition calls us to respond to climate change with faith in God and in our interconnectedness. Our creation stories remind us that we belong to the earth and to our God who loved us all into being. These commitments are rooted in the commands to build a world based on love for God, each other, and the earth itself. 

Scientists have known about our human impact on the world through climate change since 1896, when the Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius (a Nobel Prize winner) finished detailed calculations by hand (the kind now done by computers). He found that global warming was tied to the human consumption of fossil fuels, and would become noticeable within a few centuries, or sooner, depending on the rate of fossil fuel use. There are now over 25 “virtual earths,” scientific models that are testing all the factors known to affect climate. These factors include energy from the sun, volcanos, El Niño, clouds, trees/forests, and more. The effects of each of these variables are plotted on fine grids across these climate models. Models that include human actions, including the emission of greenhouse gases at the current rate, predict a climate that is hotter and more dangerous than the models without our emissions. Our impact on the climate system is much greater than natural variability. This impact is how we know that humans are causing climate change—that the huge change in global temperature is our fault. What scientists continue to find, however, is that their models are outstripped by reality. That is, climate change is getting worse faster than models anticipated because most climate models are inherently conservative. We cannot, as Pilate does in the death of Jesus, simply wash our hands of responsibility for this death.

Since Arrhenius’ time over a century ago, industrialized humans have indeed increased our burning of fossil fuels. In that time, the burning of fossil fuels, such as coal and oil, has increased the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2). When scientists review the records of the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, it has ranged between 200 and 300 ppm (parts per million), a range that is more conducive to life on Earth. Now we have hurtled past 400 ppm. There was a time when scientists thought rising temperature would self-correct by triggering some other change—perhaps cooling cloud cover would be produced by increasing moisture in the atmosphere. Instead, as Bill McKibben explains in his book, Falter, the clouds and the more dense atmosphere that climate change produces traps more heat and makes the world hotter. This feedback loop means that heat and atmosphere compound each other (much like the fear and anger of Pilate and the religious leaders of Jesus’ time).

Climate change is a global scientific phenomenon, though most individuals experience the effects on a local scale. Indeed, all of creation lives in two types of climate simultaneously: local and global. It is easier to talk about climate on a local scale, and easier to grasp the anecdotal evidence of everyday life for individuals, but the global temperature scale is our primary gauge for climate change and the state of the planet as a whole. These global temperature records are the most reliable indicators of climate change and measure the human impact on the growing climate crisis. 

The earth has a natural greenhouse effect, an atmosphere that keeps enough heat on our planet to keep us warm, but not so much that we would boil alive. About one-third of the sun’s rays are reflected back to space. The natural state of our atmosphere and the presence of our ocean keep our planet within a livable temperature range.  But when we burn fossil fuels through industry, agriculture, electricity, and transportation to the degree that more gasses are added to the atmosphere than can be absorbed by plants and trees, then we fall out of balance from this natural state. Plants, trees, and the ocean can all absorb carbon dioxide, but they cannot absorb it at the rate we are producing it, especially in contexts of deforestation (For more on the intersection of climate change science and faith communities, see Hayhoe and Farley’s book, A Climate for Change).

Meanwhile, the death of the planet—which has meant the suffering and death of many people around the world, has happened with the governments of the world, like Pontius Pilate, setting aside their responsibilities and blaming the people. Despite decades of international negotiations and the commitments to agreements like the Paris Accords, personal, institutional, and systemic behavior has not changed enough to stop the death of this planet we are called to love. We have not been willing to stop everything, to pay attention. Our political leaders have not been brave enough to pass and enforce legislation that would hold the fossil fuel industry accountable for their responsibility in making us dependent upon their products. 

Our hearts are not broken. Our actions do not change. We are not moved. We are careening towards our collective deaths, passively accepting the blame, denying and abandoning our beloved, trusting in political powers that do nothing but pass that blame and then disappear.

And yet.

Now we live in a different world.

I’m writing this at the end of March, when our world has already changed because of the novel coronavirus. I suspect when you read this, the world will have changed even more. 

And not just the human world.

The rest of the world too.

Air pollution in many of the most populated cities in the United States has gone down in these days of quarantine. Fish have returned to the canals in Venice, as tourists and traffic in the city plummet. The world has slowed down. The political powers have taken responsibility. The people have refused to let the details wash over them. 

Together, we are choosing a simpler life. For all.

With COVID-19, (most) world leaders have been willing to enact the political policies needed to protect humanity in a way that we haven’t seen in response to climate change. We are seeing that when leaders understand the depths of despair, they will act. How will we remember this ability when the world returns to “normal” and we must decide how we will respond to the abnormal speed of death in the world?

God has not forsaken us, though we have been quick to forsake and betray the biblical commandments to love God, one another, and the earth. Death has always had what seems like the final word—in this biblical passage, even, when we are left with the last words of Jesus and the earth itself shaking and splitting open. In the end of this passage, there is no life, only death.

But there will be an Easter. For us. For all creation.

The world continues to ache. So, wash your hands—not of responsibility for the suffering of others but of the germs that you may be carrying. Tell people you love that you love them. In Wendell Berry’s words, “Practice resurrection.”

2 thoughts on “Claiming Responsibility for a Different World

  1. Thank you Ms. Mohaupt for your good work and excellent thoughts. Keep up the good work. I see you as an optimist in the sense that you imagine that the change in the world has taken hold in the thoughts and actions of we humans. I love your comparison of the by-standers at the crucifixion and the event of climate change.
    With our attempts to save ourselves, there have been positive changes in local environments. I question if “we” have changed. Now there is empirical data that our actions can lead to a reversal of the devastation that we are wrecking on our home. I pray that there can be a will found by the people with power to help put us back on a safe course. Or perhaps a collective “we” can use our power to make positive changes. Yes, there will be resurrection! Thank you for sharing.

  2. We were given the gift of life. God made his presence in the beginning. We have been given truth from the start. We know the power and love God has for us. Truth, love,our spiritual being is part of our faith. We pray to God for direction. Guide our leaders to find the truth and care for the people. We can not always count on them to do what is right and just. When our leaders fail We know God will intervene at his time not ours. But faith is what directs us. Better to die in faith then to live with doubt, Without God. His will be done. Amen.

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