Sunday, July 16, 2006

Necessary Compassion, Inconvenient Truth: Christianity and the Global Climate Crisis

Compassion and truth have met together; justice and peace have kissed each other. Amen. Psalm 85:10

Holding together compassion and truth, justice and peace, is a fundamental obligation of Christian discipleship. It well may be a universal spiritual law, but that I am not competent to judge. What I do know is that Christian saints are people who manage to practice these values simultaneously, and who are willing to bear the cost of doing so for the sake of the healing of the world.

It isn’t always easy to practice compassion and truth, justice and peace. We are often tempted, both personally and politically, to sacrifice one for the sake of the other. We say that the truth is too hard to bear, so compassion becomes the better part of dishonesty. Our self-deception and lies are evidence of our goodness, or so we would like to believe. We desire peace, but we are unwilling to meet the demands of justice that provide the only sure foundation for a lasting peace. So we settle for “security” based on emotional, economic, and military forms of manipulation and coercion, and call it “peace.”

The truth is rarely convenient. If we are to embrace the truth, the truth that sets us free and provides the basis for sound judgment and right action, we must do so with compassion. Without compassion, the truth can become unbearable. Without truth, compassion becomes both useless and meaningless. Compassion cannot heal what it seeks to hide. Truth cannot liberate when it serves only to condemn. Compassion and truth must meet together. Only then are we capable of the sacrificial love in which justice and peace kiss.

The film, An Inconvenient Truth, powerfully demonstrates the necessity of compassion when faced with a truth as inconvenient as that of the climate crisis due to global warming. With humor, wisdom, and clarity, former Vice-President Al Gore jars us out of our ignorance and complacency regarding the fact of global climate change and its disastrous consequences for the earth and its inhabitants. It is a message that we ignore at our own peril.

The phenomenon of global warming is fairly simple.[1] Carbon dioxide and other gases warm the surface of the planet naturally by trapping solar heat in the atmosphere. This is a good thing because it keeps our planet habitable. However, by burning fossil fuels such as coal, gas and oil and clearing forests we have dramatically increased the amount of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere and temperatures are rising.

The vast majority of scientists agree that global warming is real, it’s already happening and that it is the result of our activities and not a natural occurrence. The evidence is overwhelming and undeniable.

We’re already seeing changes. Glaciers are melting, plants and animals are being forced from their habitat, and the number of severe storms and droughts is increasing. The number of category 4 & 5 hurricanes has almost doubled in the last thirty years as ocean temperatures rise, including a hurricane in the South Atlantic, which scientists previously thought was impossible.

Malaria has spread to higher altitudes in places like the Colombian Andes, 7,000 feet above sea level as frost lines recede. Climate change leads to habitat change, and as disease carriers such as mosquitoes and rats migrate, new vectors for the transmission of epidemics emerge. This climate change includes torrential rain and flooding in some areas, while other areas suffer extreme drought. Pressures on the global supply of food and water are increasing, with deadly results in places like the Sudan and sub-Saharan Africa.

If the warming continues, we can expect catastrophic consequences. Deaths from global warming will double in just 25 years – to 300,000 people a year – not including related deaths due to the exacerbation of global hunger and disease. Global sea levels could rise by more than 20 feet with the loss of shelf ice in Greenland and Antarctica, devastating coastal areas worldwide. Heat waves will be more frequent and more intense. Droughts and wildfires will occur more often. The Arctic Ocean could be ice free in summer by 2050, and more than a million species worldwide could be driven to extinction by then.

This is well beyond the natural range of temperature change and extinction rates that scientists have charted over the past 600,000 years. It is the result of industrial development and the choices that human beings have made. We have created this problem, and we must solve it if we wish to pass on a habitable planet to the generations after us.

There is no doubt we can and must solve this problem. We have a moral obligation to do so, as Vice-President Gore persuasively argues. The fact that 30% of world-wide CO2 emissions originate in the United States, means that it is particularly our responsibility as Christians and citizens of this nation to become part of the solution. Small changes to our daily routine can add up to big differences in helping to stop global warming. I will come back to that in a moment. First, though, I want to underscore that this is a spiritual as well as a moral problem.

Christians would do well to remember some basic Biblical truths that, however inconvenient, call us to question the dominant industrial policies and practices that destroy the earth. We must recall that the earth is the Lord’s, for God has made it. We are temporary guests and caretakers of the earth, with an obligation to tend it responsibly.

Moreover, as Wendell Berry notes, when we read Scripture we discover that “God found the world, as He made it, to be good, that He made it for His pleasure, and that He continues to love it and to find it worthy, despites its reduction and corruption by us. People who quote John 3:16 as an easy formula for getting to Heaven neglect to see the great difficulty implied in the statement that the advent of Christ was made possible by God’s love for the world – not God’s love for Heaven or for the world as it might be but for the world as it was and is. Belief in Christ is thus dependent on prior belief in the inherent goodness – the loveability – of the world.”

Berry goes on to argue “that for these reasons our destruction of nature is not just bad stewardship, or stupid economics, or a betrayal of family responsibility; it is the most horrid blasphemy. It is flinging God’s gifts into His face, as if they were of no worth beyond that assigned to them by our destruction of them . . . We have no entitlement from the Bible to exterminate or permanently destroy or hold in contempt anything on the earth or in the heavens above it or in the waters beneath it. We have the right to use the gifts of nature but not to ruin or waste them. We have the right to use what we need but no more, which is why the Bible forbids usury and great accumulations of property . . . The Bible leaves no doubt at all about the sanctity of the act of world-making, or of the world that was made, or of creaturely or bodily life in this world. We are holy creatures living among other holy creatures in a world that is holy.”[2]

The holiness of the world is an inconvenient truth. It requires us to practice compassion for the whole creation, to embrace its suffering and its beauty as being one with our own suffering and beauty. In Christ, we have been embraced by compassion just this deep and wide, and are invited to be swept up into God’s great project of healing the whole world. We are invited to let go of the smallness of self-preoccupation and self-protection, and abandon ourselves to the divine love that is making all things new.

When we are willing to practice this kind of wild abandon, we find a new freedom and a new capacity bear the cost of holding together compassion and truth, justice and peace. Like the prophets Amos and John the Baptist in today’s Scripture lessons, who refused to allow the co-opting of their religion by political authorities to legitimate injustice, we, too, are called to take risks for the sake of God’s mission of reconciliation and healing. The difference is that, today, the mission is truly global in scope.

We cannot know in advance what the cost ultimately will be for holding together compassion and truth, but we can trust that it is worth it. It is worth it because of the dignity, meaning, and hope that it restores to us and to the world right now, in this moment. There are some very simple, concrete steps that we can take toward the healing of the global climate crisis.[3]

Change a Light

Replacing one regular light bulb with a compact fluorescent light bulb will save 150 pounds of carbon dioxide a year.

Drive Less

Walk, bike, carpool or take mass transit more often. You'll save one pound of carbon dioxide for every mile you don't drive!

Recycle More

You can save 2,400 pounds of carbon dioxide per year by recycling just half of your household waste.

Check Your Tires

Keep your tires inflated properly can improve gas mileage by more than 3%. Every gallon of gasoline saved keeps 20 pounds of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

Use Less Hot Water

It takes a lot of energy to heat water. Use less hot water by installing a low flow showerhead (350 pounds of CO2 saved per year) and washing your clothes in cold or warm water (500 pounds saved per year).

Avoid Products with a Lot of Packaging

You can save 1,200 pounds of carbon dioxide if you cut down your garbage by 10%.

Adjust Your Thermostat

Moving your thermostat down just 2 degrees in winter and up 2 degrees in summer could save about 2,000 pounds of carbon dioxide a year.

Plant a Tree

A single tree will absorb one ton of carbon dioxide over its lifetime.

Turn Off Electronic Devices

Simply turning off your television, DVD player, stereo, and computer when you're not using them will save you thousands of pounds of carbon dioxide a year.

The great moral and spiritual challenge of our generation is whether or not we will be willing to bear the cost of holding together compassion and truth, justice and peace, for the sake of the healing of the world. While more may yet be required of us as households and as a congregation, surely we can begin with these simple steps to address global warming. Doing so is not just good stewardship or wise economics or exercising responsibility toward future generations; it also is honoring the holiness of God and of all that God has made. Surely the cost is worth the joy of being “holy creatures living among other holy creatures in a world that is holy.” Amen.

[1] The following description of global warming is found at
[2] Wendell Berry, “Christianity and the Survival of Creation” in Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community (San Francisco: Pantheon Books, 1993), pp. 96-99.
[3] These ten steps are found at

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hey Father! Don't be so modest - you could at least say that MAYBE your thoughts might reflect God!

Fr. Brian McHugh (Diocese of AZ)