Holy Week Reflections: What Can The Prophets Teach About Climate Change?

JR: Since Brad Johnson is leaving ThinkProgress, here’s another timely column of his.

The lessons of the Hebrew prophets can teach humanity how to respond to the catastrophe of global warming with strength and resilience. As we near Passover and Easter Sunday, it is a good time to reflect on their example.

The threat of global warming is almost unimaginable — sea level rise of metersswamping the world’s great cities, the desertification of lands populated by billions, the extinction of thousands of species, the death of the oceans, the destruction of ice caps, droughts, floods, fires, and storms of Biblical proportions. Unchecked, global warming could actually make regions of the planet literally uninhabitable to humans — so hot a person would drop dead in minutes.

The cause of this growing calamity — with terrible devastation already and much more to come — is humanity itself, with the unchecked burning of the fossil fuels that power civilization, despite the increasingly desperate warnings of scientific observers.

Yet people are told that we can fight global warming easily. Anointed leaders retreat into denialor simply avoid the subject. Many who grasp the terrible stakes righteously batter the “failure” of imperfect, “ineffective” governmental efforts to tackle climate pollution.

In Pillar of Fire, the second of his three-part biography of Martin Luther King, Taylor Branch describes how the civil rights movement in 1963 faced a similar crisis of faith in trying to figure out how to fight entrenched, institutionalized, racism and segregation in what seemed at the time to be impossible odds and repeated failure.

At the January 1963 Chicago Conference on Religion and Race, one thousand delegates of assembled clergy from the various branches of the Judeo-Christian faith grappled with that question, which sent them careening from Pollyannish optimism to biting despair. As Branch relates, King found a fellow voice in Rabbi Abraham Heschel, the Hasidic scholar who escaped the Nazis and then fought the wave of atheistic nihilism that followed the Holocaust. King and Heschel found guidance in the “ideal of the Hebrew prophets” who faced destruction not merely with virtue but also the “remorseless unveiling of injustice and oppression”:

What brought King and Heschel together was a prescription for the dilemma that plagued the Chicago conference. Most of the delegates searched for ways to overcome a stubborn avoidance of race in religious discourse. To break such a barrier, nearly all the theologians felt the need for a calming approach that labeled racial prejudice a feeble anachronism, a holdover of premodern irrationality, but this very impulse to soothe and minimize opened them to charges of false engagement from realists such as Stringfellow and Campbell. Yet, the realists’ tinge of fatalism reminded Heschel of a ghostly legacy from the Jewish past — the defiant urge to abandon hope of any divine presence in the face of inexplicable calamity . . .

As proof that human beings could engage the most deadening crises without falling into either of the classic polar traps — nihilism or blandness — Heschel held up the ideal of the Hebrew prohpets. While facing, even welcoming, the destruction of themselves and their own people, the prophets remained suffused with redemptive purpose. Far from soaring off in to saccharine self-persuasion, however, they made biting symbols out of daily pains and predicaments. “Moralists of all ages have been eloquent in singing the praises of virtue,” wrote Heschel. “The distinction of the prophets was in their remorseless unveiling of injustice and oppression…”

Man-made global warming is another “inexplicable calamity.” Blandness, sarcasm, and nihilism are tempting responses. But there is another path — that recognizes that suffering is inevitably found on the way to justice, that knowing sacrifice can lead to redemption. “God still has a way of wringing good out of evil,” King said in at the the funeral for the four girls killed in a Birmingham church bombing in 1963. “And history has proven over and over again that unmerited suffering is redemptive.”

King continued with words that speak directly to the challenge we now face:

Now I say to you in conclusion, life is hard, at times as hard as crucible steel. It has its bleak and difficult moments. Like the ever-flowing waters of the river, life has its moments of drought and its moments of flood. Like the ever-changing cycle of the seasons, life has the soothing warmth of its summers and the piercing chill of its winters. And if one will hold on, he will discover that God walks with him, and that God is able to lift you from the fatigue of despair to the buoyancy of hope, and transform dark and desolate valleys into sunlit paths of inner peace.

We have poisoned the very seasons, and people from New Orleans to Karachi have paid for that profligacy. The path to hope and redemption will not be easy or painless, but it can be found.


7 Responses to Holy Week Reflections: What Can The Prophets Teach About Climate Change?

  1. King and Heschel found guidance in the “ideal of the Hebrew prophets” who faced destruction not merely with virtue but also the “remorseless unveiling of injustice and oppression”

    There are ways to turn this into real, concrete actions in the context of climate change, but I get the feeling that one can’t speak of them during election season.

    — frank

  2. David Goldstein says:

    I agree in many ways-though the use of ‘redemption’ is a tricky one to me; it almost feels too grandiose. If the relatively small handful of us who are educated and active in the AGW arena keep pushing and, eventually, as things worsen, pick up more folks and, eventually, as things worsen even more (face it-it’s going to take a whole lot of worsening)until our governments and citizenry finally enact necessary policies….well- what losses shall we have incurred? And what losses will still be in the ‘pipeline’? For myself-I like to look at the Prophets as folks who thought, “God, we are a beautiful, magnificent AND really fu#*@# up species. We’re gonna keep being magnificent and we’re gonna keep fu*#@#ing up. Bring it on!” In this manner, maybe, I can bear the heart-break along the way. ‘God’ by any name one wants to consider him/her/it is ‘never not here’ (to me)- but we sure do like to play hide-and-seek along the way.

  3. Joan Savage says:

    How about a success story of prophecy-heeding?

    In Genesis 41, Joseph’s interpretation of the Pharaoh’s two dreams led to a food policy that saved many lives. One key to Joseph’s success was that the Pharaoh was already subliminally aware.

  4. Mike Roddy says:

    This is a beautiful Easter message, Brad, thanks.

  5. Dick Smith says:

    Pure nonsense.

  6. Jay Alt says:

    Ancient people often understood not to take more from their land than it could provide. In North America hunters thanked the Great Spirit for game. Societies everywhere asked pardon for prey, which they killed in order to survive. These societies had physical and emotional connections to their world.
    Today’s neoliberal, globalistic system gives no gratitude for God’s gifts. It works to deny and break down many human connections (including those to Creation) in the name of Efficiency and Profit. All is subordinate to Economics. The beauty of the world exists merely to commodify and consume.
    Such hollow activities bring little satisfaction. Fears of hard times or disaster are ancient and justified. But today these aren’t buffered with trust that God will provide. Instead, practicioners of the new Baalism are told to consume & acquire – endlessly. Greed is the new ‘good.’
    Old Testament Israel strayed from the judge system. The people wanted Kings and got them. The Kings wanted palaces, courts, tribute, robes, armor, flocks, gold, wine, wives, temples, chariots, ships, standing armies and many other things. The Kings raised taxes to pay for those things. The fragile, arid land soon wore out from the efforts of peasants to pay for it all. The farmers suffered, the poor suffered and the lands of Israel and Judah suffered too.
    The prophets had warned the kings, but few listened.

    Jeremiah 9:10-14
    10). For the mountains will I take up a weeping and wailing, and for the habitations of the wilderness a lamentation, because they are burned up, so that none can pass through them; neither can men hear the voice of the cattle; both the fowl of the heavens and the beast are fled; they are gone.

    11). And I will make Jerusalem heaps, and a den of dragons; and I will make the cities of Judah desolate, without an inhabitant.

    12). Who is the wise man, that may understand this? and who is he to whom the mouth of the LORD hath spoken, that he may declare it, for what the land perisheth and is burned up like a wilderness, that none passeth through?

    13). And the LORD saith, Because they have forsaken my law which I set before them, and have not obeyed my voice, neither walked therein;

    14). But have walked after the imagination of their own heart, and after Baalim, which their fathers taught them

  7. Eduardo Vargas says:

    I am more optimistic than you David, on this topic, and I think that even as we as humans make dumb decisions in our lives, we also have the capacity to transcend ourselves and redeem ourselves. And while it doesn’t always happen, when we have a challenge like this, we can bring that forward. Right now is one of those times.

    Beautiful piece. One of the best I have read so far on hope and climate change.