Monday, December 17, 2012

The Wrath to Come

Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?[1] The “wrath” isn’t coming.  It already is here.

The last decade has witnessed an exceptional number of extreme heat waves around the world, increasing in frequency and intensity.  Some 55,000 deaths have been attributed to the heat wave in Russia in 2010, which destroyed about 25% of the annual crop yield, produced massive wild fires burning out more than 1 million hectares of land, and cost about $15 billion in economic losses.

This year’s drought in the United States affected about 80% of agricultural land, the largest drought since the 1950s.  2012 was the hottest year on record in the U.S., with forest fires ranging from Missouri to Colorado, the Mississippi River at a near-record low, and water systems taxed throughout the country.  We are witnessing a ten-fold increase in the surface area of the planet experiencing extreme heat since the 1950s.

Then there was Hurricane Sandy, the largest Atlantic hurricane on record in terms of diameter, with winds spanning 1,100 miles and effecting 24 states.  Preliminary estimates place the cost of damage at $65.6 billion, $63 billion worth in the United States.  More than 250 people died and thousands are homeless.  A 13 foot storm surge flooded much of lower Manhattan; probably not for the last time given the combination of rising sea level and increasing storm intensity.

In countries like Bangladesh, with low lying river delta regions barely above sea level, a new class of people is now appearing in the urban slums by the thousands: climate migrants fleeing homes lost to river erosion and sea level rise.   Bangladesh, by no means a rich country, has spent $10 billion to mitigate the affects of climate change there.  This is just the beginning of the largest mass migration in human history, with estimates of up to 1 billion people eventually being displaced by the effects of climate change.

Global mean temperature is on track to rise between 3.5 and 4 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, with an accompanying increase in sea level rise of between .5 and 1 meter.   That is IF governments adhere to the current climate conventions to which they have agreed.  Without further commitments and action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the following centuries would like experience 6 degree Celsius warming with several meters of sea-level rise.

While this may not seem large, consider that a global mean temperature increase of 4 degrees Celsius approaches the difference between temperatures today and during the last ice age, when much of central Europe and North America were covered with kilometers of ice.  And the magnitude of climate change we are experiencing – human induced – is occurring over a century, not a millennia.[2] 

We really don’t know how well the planet – much less human beings and human institutions – can adapt to such rapid change and the cascading effects it will have on weather patterns, biodiversity, sea levels and ocean acidity, crop failure, water scarcity, disease vectors, flooding, drought, collapse of infrastructure, economic instability, human migration, and political conflict.  We do know that the greatest suffering will be among the poorest and most vulnerable communities.

I’ll tell you who warned you to flee from the wrath to come:  the scientific community and such wild-eyed prophets of doom as Dr. Jim Yong Kim, the president of the World Bank.  Al Gore is our John the Baptist; and the unquenchable fire John threatened is beginning to look mild compared to the apocalyptic scenarios predicted by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. 

As Walter Wink has said, “We are living in an apocalyptic time disguised as normal, and that is why we have not responded appropriately.”[3]  Apocalyptic times call for apocalyptic prophets:  people who are willing to risk their reputations and even their lives to tell us the truth about our situation, however difficult it may be to acknowledge. We need the prophets’ capacity to shock us into recognizing reality, their uncanny ability to envision futures that we literally can’t imagine. 

The philosopher, Gunther Anders, writing at the height of the Cold War’s commitment to Mutually Assured Destruction, said, “Imagination is the sole organ capable of conveying a truth so overwhelming that we cannot take it in.”[4]  Global climate change, like nuclear war, is so overwhelming that we cannot take it in; but unlike a nuclear war, climate change already has begun.  We don’t have to imagine: we just have to pay attention.  Our prophets are not predicting; they are describing. 

As difficult as it is for us to pay attention to our prophets, thank God for them.  They paint such ghastly pictures for us precisely because they want us to avoid them.  Their urgency is in the service of our conversion because they believe we can change.  In the wager over the probability of the apocalypse, the prophets are betting on us.

That is the take away from John’s confrontation with the crowds who come out to hear him.  For all his indelicate language, notice his receptivity to their plea, “What shall we do?”  He is even open to the possibility that tax collectors and soldiers – the very people driving Israel toward its apocalyptic conflict with Rome – can change.  It is as if coal and oil industry executives gathered at the feet of Al Gore and said, “Teacher, what should we do?”  The Gospel stretches our imagination not only by envisioning an apocalyptic future, but also by envisioning the possibility that the apocalypse can be averted precisely by the people we are least likely to entrust with our future.  They, too, can repent and move into the future that God desires for us.

Conversion is possible.  We can change.  This is the good news of John the Baptizer.   The kingdom of God is near, and it is the anti-apocalyptic possibility that we can not only imagine, but also experience as God-with-us.
Thus far with John the Baptizer we can go.  But there is a problem with his vision; at least, the One who is coming to reveal God-with-us, Jesus, doesn’t comport to John’s image of him.  He sees Jesus coming to baptize us with the Holy Spirit AND with fire.  John’s Jesus is the source both of the sharing of God’s life with us that is the Holy Spirit, and of the wrath that is to come. 

The actual Jesus comes only to baptize us with the Holy Spirit.  Rather than dealing out divine wrath, he becomes the victim of purely human wrath.  Yet the Holy Spirit, the life of God within him overcomes that wrath, such that in the Resurrection he appears to those who betray and abandon him and breathes Holy Spirit over them saying, “Peace be with you.” 

It is we human beings who are the source of the wrath to come, the apocalyptic possibility that is a function of the structures of exploitation and violence that we create. It is not God who condemns us to the hell of a warming planet.  It is we who condemn ourselves.  

Like the crowds gathered around John the Baptizer, we are a people caught between two possible futures.  We are troubled by the words of the prophets, frightened, bewildered, and, yes, guilty as charged.  And we look into the face of the Apocalypse and ask, “What then should we do?” 

We can choose to change.  We can be converted to the future of God-with-us by recognizing and entrusting ourselves to the Compassionate Presence that is coming, is always coming, to renew the face of the earth.  That renewal begins with our acknowledgement that God has created and redeemed us for life, not for wrath.  The only fire that Jesus brings is the purifying fire of love. 

It is the fire of this love that will ignite our capacity to imagine a future that now seems impossible: a post-fossil fuel world.  “Nothing can save us that is possible,” says the poet, W. H. Auden, “We who must die demand a miracle.”[5]  The miracle we demand has already happened.  The One who is coming has already come, demonstrating that only love conquers death.  God so loved the world that he gave us his Son, his very life, God-with-us.  We must come to see ourselves, and our planet, as the objects of this undying love, and allow that love to become the touchstone of all our relationships.

The prophet’s frightening scenarios serve to wake us up to the truth.  But is this love, and not fear of the wrath to come, that will give us the energy to heal the world.  The prophets point beyond themselves, and their apocalyptic visions, to One who is coming to heal and forgive.  We do not want for technological and economic pathways to a better world.  What we lack is love, for if we truly loved the world, we would not destroy it.  In fact, we would make the sacrifices necessary to preserve it.  

For God so loved the world . . . We, too, must have the courage to love and to demand a miracle.

[1] John the baptizer to the crowd gathered to hear him speak.  Luke 3:7-18.
[2] Turn Down the Heat:  Why a 4˚ Warmer World Must Be Avoided (The World Bank, November 2012).  Information on Hurricane Sandy comes from coverage in the New York Times.
[3] Walter Wink, “Apocalypse Now,” The Christian Century, October 7, 2001, pp. 16-19.
[4] Quoted in Wink, ibid.
[5] Quoted in Wink, ibid.