Trump, Paris and the Christian response to climate change

Posted in: Comment
Date posted: 5 June 2017

With a number of saddening news stories erupting over the past few days, last week is one that many of us would sooner forget. At a local level, the UK saw its capital under attack once again on Saturday night; the second major terrorist attack in just a fortnight. Meanwhile, days earlier, millions looked on with anger and exasperation as it was announced that Donald Trump’s administration would be pulling the USA out of 2015’s Paris Climate Agreement.

The latter, perhaps, is a less obvious cause for upset. Yet for many of us, it appeared as a discouraging indicator of the future intentions of the world’s second-largest polluter; not to lead a global effort at reform, but rather to abdicate responsibility altogether. The social impact of such a retreat should not be understated.

‘God can handle it’

As in so many areas, US president Donald Trump has drawn plenty of criticism on his past displays of scepticism – or at best, indifference – towards climate change. Sadly, such attitudes echo the sentiments of many others, including many professing Christians. Shortly before Trump’s announcement on Thursday, TIME magazine reports one such case. At a small local meeting days before, Michigan Congressman Tim Walberg stated his ‘Christian’ position on the issue as follows:

‘I believe there’s climate change. I believe there’s been climate change since the beginning of time. Do I think man has some impact? Yeah, of course. Can man change the entire universe? No… Why do I believe that? Well, as a Christian, I believe that there is a creator in God who is much bigger than us. And I’m confident that, if there’s a real problem, he can take care of it.’

It’s easy to see a certain internal logic to Walberg’s claims. After all, if as Christians we believe in a God who ‘sits enthroned above the circle of the earth’ (Isaiah 40:22), why should we worry at our planet’s tremors?

Like so many outwardly ‘Christian’ perspectives, Walberg’s comments seem to display a certain amount of theological cherry-picking. After all, for Walberg’s fellow Christians, ‘trust in God Almighty’ and ‘responding to climate change’ are not mutually exclusive. If anything, the former necessitates the latter.

‘Therefore, go…’

Jesus promised our world would not be quickly rid of its problems. Yet for Jesus, as for us, these problems do nothing to negate God’s ‘almightiness’. Instead we pray – and act – anticipating his ‘kingdom come on earth’, and we wait for it eagerly. Such anticipation is no excuse for sitting on our hands. Rather it emboldens us to act more courageously. ‘The kingdom of heaven is in your midst,’ Jesus tells us. And down the centuries, the church has shone brightly when we take seriously the mandate he has given us. Just consider William Wilberforce’s tireless efforts to effect abolition of the slave trade, or the ministry of Mother Theresa’s Sisters of Charity in Calcutta.

The book of James (2:15-17) is no less plain in reminding us that ours is not a faith of passivity: ‘Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you tells him, “Go in peace; stay warm and well fed,” but does not provide for his physical needs, what good is that? So too, faith by itself, if it is not complemented by action, is dead.’

Clearly, the injunction is one that Tim Walberg, and many other Christians have embraced in the ‘political’ sphere, dedicating their energies (we assume) to pursue more just, stable and accountable government. That’s great, but it’s not the whole point.

‘Meanwhile, creation groans.’ The world around is us already creaking with the ecological and social consequences of climate change. Our brothers and sisters are already feeling its sting. But it’s up to us to put two and two together, and combine faith with action.

God is still Almighty. But as we are able, he calls us still to get off our hands and tend his garden.

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