Climate Change and Setting the World on Fire
By Melissa Browning
It was Earth Day, 1988. I was in my fifth grade “Earth Science” class, a place where one might expect to talk about the importance of caring for the earth. But this was not what we were talking about that day. At least, we weren’t talking about it until one student asked our teacher about the hole in the ozone layer and whether or not she should stop using hairspray. Our science teacher replied by saying that hairspray wasn’t a problem because the end of the world was coming and the whole earth would be consumed by fire anyway.
While my science teacher did not speak for all people of faith, she also was not a lone voice in the crowd. Caring for the earth is not something Christian churches in the West have been particularly good at. We were late coming to the conversation and have been slow in mobilizing our efforts. This is ironic considering that the foundational stories of our faith, the first words in the book we call holy, commission us to be caretakers of every living thing. In a world where climate change is evidenced in super storms, wildfires, heat waves, droughts and floods, it is urgent that people of faith return to our first responsibility of being stewards of the world in which we live.
This past summer, when my family moved back to Chicago, I remembered my science teacher’s words about an earth on fire. As people who do not like the heat, we decided to leave Atlanta early in the summer so we could enjoy the relatively cooler temperatures we remembered from our previous years in the windy city. But the summer of 2012 was the hottest on record for the entire US, and the Midwest was the hardest hit. Crops were dying in the field due to extreme drought and heat. One crop biologist analyzing the situation said it was like “farming in hell.”
In the midst of those summer heat waves, we felt as if the world actually might be destroyed by fire. Perhaps that is why so many of us were eager for winter, for a good Chicago snow. But then there was another record – 290 days without any measurable snow. At one point in the winter, Dallas had more snow than Chicago. Perhaps another irony – in 2009, the Union of Concerned Scientists projected that unless significant action is taken to curb climate change, then the climate of Illinois would feel like East Texas by the end of the century.
Transforming the Earth
If climate change is going to end, an urgent transformation is needed. In this week’s lectionary texts, we’re reminded of the beauty of transformative places. That’s what Transfiguration Sunday symbolizes – a sacred space of connecting with God. In these texts, we find Moses meeting God on Mount Sinai (Exodus 34:29-35), and see Jesus on the mountaintop with Moses and Elijah (Luke 9:28-36). These are sacred spaces. These are spaces where heaven meets earth; where creation is transformed through an encounter with the creator.
But sacred spaces are not reserved for prophets and patriarchs. The eschatological hope of creating a sacred space here on earth is extended to all. “Since, then, we have such a hope, we act with great boldness” (2 Corinthians 3:12). Second Corinthians reminds us that we’re not the people who sit at the bottom of the mountain and wait for the prophet to arrive. We’re not even like Moses who had to wear a veil (2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2). Instead, we have some transformation work of our own to do.
“We have this boldness”
This leads us to ask an important question. What might this hope that causes us to act with “great boldness” mean in light of climate change? Can we possibly re-create the earth as sacred? Is there still time to work toward the flourishing of the earth and all who inhabit it?