In 1982 I was 28, Ronald Reagan was president and we hated Exxon. While we were doing theology the other night, I learned another reason why.
In 1982 Exxon confirmed the consensus among scientists about global heating with in-House climate models. The company chairman later mocked climate models as unreliable while he campaigned to stop global action to reduce fossil fuel emissions.
The CEO of Exxon at the time was Lee Raymond (who was succeeded in 2005 by Rex Tillerson, recently Trump’s Secretary of State). Raymond was one of the most outspoken executives in the nation against regulation to confront the climate crisis. Speaking out against the Kyoto initiatives in a 1997 speech in China, he said that costly regulations and restrictions are a bad idea, especially when “their need has yet to be proven, their total impact undefined, and when nations are not prepared to act in concert.” He also questioned the science behind global warming and said the greenhouse effect comes in part from natural sources.
I suppose it is cliché to note that Jesus was sold out for 30 pieces of silver. Exxon sold us all out for $21 billion in earnings in 2018.
What should we do for the climate?
Although we were mainly learning to do theology together around a stimulating topic last Monday, we could not help but wonder what the church should do about the impending disaster — to a great degree foisted upon us by massive corporations who care more about immediate profits than the environment. The disaster may be stoppable or it may not be, but Jesus followers never rely on effectiveness before they express their goodness. So we couldn’t help but get practical.
As it turns out, we have lots of ideas about what to do. Jeremy Avellino gave us an overview of the issue and fellow members of the Watershed Discipleship Team began leaking their list of ways we can turn ourselves into a reputable alternative to carbon-spewing Americans.
For instance, Jeremy is an architect building homes that are more than sustainable, they can a actually hope to replenish the earth — so people can do that! Many of us can influence our workplaces to do good to the earth. We can influence the government to pass and enforce laws and rejoin international treaties. We can vote for the best leaders to deal with the crisis. Our friend Shane Claiborne reportedly uses Trip it to measure his carbon footprint since he travels so much.
More relevant, probably, is we could start or join boycotts of some of the greatest menaces to the planet. For instance, Jeff Bezos recently pledged $10 billion of his vast fortune to address climate change. The money, which will fund the “Bezos Earth Fund,” will then be granted to scientists, experts, and organizations working on various issues, both small and large. That’s not bad. But Amazon has been one of the slowest of the U.S. tech giants to go green, and its business, by its nature, is a pollutant. In the face of giant corporations, we could boycott, buy local, or buy less.
Apart from what millions of individuals must do, we focused more on what the church can do. The Watershed Discipleship Team will unveil their suggestions for the church, soon. Maybe we should bring our own plates to the next feast after disposables are banned. Maybe we should contribute to the solar fund in order to transform our buildings into a benefit, not a drain on the planet — 40% of global heating issues stems from how we make and inhabit our buildings. From small things to large we could add up actions to make a difference. And even if we thought they did not make enough difference we would still be doing good just to do it, and that makes us different.
But will people do what we should do?
I’ve been on an environmental bandwagon since I first learned to hate Exxon. Nevertheless, people still keep “discovering” the evil being done to the planet — and they are in my own church! Why are most of us relatively ignorant and mildly engaged in one of the most disastrous possibilities ever to face humankind? And I will extend that question to include Judas again. How did he come to know the Savior face-to-face and then turn around and betray him so he would be killed? How could he collaborate with the evil powers? How can we?
I don’t think we are all bad. We should not underestimate just how hard it is to be an actual Jesus-follower in this era. We are fighting hard in our little slice of the Kingdom, but we are not winning the battle. People are more distracted, anxious and traumatized right now than they were last year. And they are not all learning to turn to Jesus, they are mostly turning inward and finding some small sense of security in curating a shelf full of attributes they choose to make up their shallow selves. If we want to do big things we’ll need to be deeper people. If we want to make a difference, we’ll need a community with a culture different from the world that protects Exxon’s capacity to kill us.
Here are three things a lot of us will need to do if we want to grow a big, influential group of Jesus-followers who make a big difference – and even if they don’t make a difference will still like doing the right thing.
Get out of your pod
Charles Taylor coined the term “buffered self” to refer to the way present-day people imagine themselves as insulated from forces outside their rational mind, particularly supernatural or transcendent forces. More and more, we decorate the inside of our pods – our individuality and the identity group we choose. Philosophically, the buffered self is one result of living in a closed, physical universe, what Taylor calls the “immanent frame.” Within that mental construct everything supposedly has a natural/scientific explanation. Nearly all contemporary Western people, including Christians, use this frame to interpret the world.
If we don’t get out of this frame, we are not going to change the world. Jeremy called it the ocean we swim in, the warming, acidifying ocean. But when we try to breathe new ways, it feels like dying — and it is dying to our old selves.
Our frenetic and flattened culture is not conducive to wrestling with thick ideas, ideas with depth, complexity and personal implications. We were doing it rather well the other night as we did some theology. But it was not easy, and we hardly had the whole church doing it with us. More and more people live in a culture of immediacy, simple emotions, snap judgments, optics, and identity formation. In such a world is it any wonder that Christians so often speak past their listeners? [See the first half of Disruptive Witness by Alan Noble for further description, but skip his application].
As we were talking about what to do about the climate crisis, I felt a protest emerge. Who are we going to get to do these things? Past models of discussing faith have almost all assumed a dialogue partner who is active, attentive, and aware of the costs of changing – a conversant whose world is thick, not thinned out by constant distraction. I thought we were talking out of that past model when we were getting practical. But people can’t even take the time to read and write emails! How are they going to apply a big, new thought?
As we move deeper into an age when people sleep with their phones, we can no longer make the assumption they can pay attention like they used to. Who is going to take themselves seriously enough to trust God and develop the depth to be a serious player in the climate crisis? We all need to do something together, but can we get six hundred people to all take out their headphones and listen to the proposal – much more effect it? If we go with love more than truth we will probably move more people. If our leaders create an environment where we can soak in what is good rather than just hear about it, we might end up with deeper people. But just producing a good idea might go nowhere.
Be a chosen one
All beliefs are a matter of argument, these days, and who wants to argue? Contested belief points us inward, rather than outward, in our search for some ground of being. If the external world appears to be an endless series of options, from deodorant brands to philosophies, our temptation is to withdraw to a safe, seemingly stable world – the inner world of ourselves. Our identity and our ability to choose its features becomes the basis for our being in the world, rather than some outside authority. So even when we believe in God’s existence and choose to follow Jesus, we may do so because of an inner conversation we have with ourselves (our buffered selves!) not with the living God or God’s people.
Our immersion in diversion and consumerism makes it easier to ignore contradictions and flaws in our basic beliefs. It makes us less likely to devote time to contemplation. And it makes conversations about faith seem like more exercises in superficial identity formation. Distractedness enables us to believe the myth that meaning comes from inside us. As a result, religious labels—whether None, Baptist, or Buddhist—become not much more than a form of self-expression on the level of a favorite store, a college choice, or our musical preference.
All our proverbs and practices lead somewhere else than this sad look at humanity. We know an alternative way. But will we take it together? If we hope to form a lively response to the climate crisis we can’t just be against Jeff Bezos or for him, we need to be the chosen and beloved people of God, who have our own way through the troubles of the world and provide solutions and hope from our endless resources of grace.