Reorienting Ourselves to the Earth
The accelerated pace of climate change deterioration in recent decades is highlighted in the report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that was released in December 2013. This report highlights the alarming rates of carbon emissions in recent years and the massive disruptions to the nature that occur as a result. It warns that the disruptions could affect all areas of life and endanger the world’s food supply itself. The worst is yet to come. All this might sound a bit apocalyptic.
Acts 2:14-32 posits a similar scenario. Luke’s Peter predicts the signs that will occur in the last days (vv. 19-20). The Sun will turn into darkness and the moon into blood. There will be blood and fire and smoky mist. Joel 3, Luke’s source text behind these verses, was intended as a warning about potential disturbances in the natural order. Joel posits such calamities as consequences of human wickedness and calls on the people to alter their ways. Peter warns that such last days are about to arrive. They will be marked by disturbances in the natural order and terrible signs that will precede the day of the Lord. Interestingly, people in Jerusalem have already witnessed such (un)natural phenomena during the death of Jesus (Luke 23:44-45).
Acts 2 parallels the account of disruptions in the nature with the account about the death of Jesus (2:19-24). The author employs similar Greek terminology (semeia and terata) to describe both events. There are further similarities between the stories of Christ and the nature. Luke holds the humans responsible for the death of Jesus, and there is human agency in the potential degradation of the environment. In Luke’s narrative, human participation in the death of Jesus is conceptually connected to their role in the violence caused to the nature. Luke talks about God raising Jesus from the dead. There is the assurance that those who call on the Lord’s name in the last days will be spared.
The text is simultaneously a warning about the fast approaching day of doom and an assurance about a possible day of salvation (Acts 4:21). Such day of salvation, however, is contingent upon people calling on the name of the Lord. Luke does not explicate what calling on the name of the Lord might entail but he envisions people prophesying in the last days. The Greek word for “prophesy” is not just about predicting future events but also about speaking God’s message forcefully and intelligibly.
Recent years have witnessed extreme weather patterns in recorded history in the global South and in the northern hemisphere. There is increased awareness and acknowledgement that things will never return to normal, prompting calls for urgent action in multiple quarters. As President Obama has pointed out recently, “failure to respond to climate change would betray our children and future generations. We are commanded by God to preserve the planet.”
Within the literary context of Acts 2, calling on the name of the Lord requires the believing communities to speak intelligibly about human agency in the environmental degradation and to facilitate an urgent response. Faith communities have a particular obligation to spearhead and model an effective response to climate change because, from a biblical perspective, they are entrusted with creation care. Failure to fulfill that responsibility is detrimental to our very existence since the human destiny is intrinsically tied to the destiny of the environment.
But the idea that we should act urgently to preserve the environment because failure to do so will be detrimental to future generations stems partly from the assumption that the creation exists purely for the benefit of humans. Such an assumption is dangerous because it has been at the very root of current environmental crisis. It offers a poor justification for exploitation of nature. Even as humans rely on the environment around them for survival, it is vital to recognize that the creation is its own entity and that it has the right to exist irrespective of humans. While the creation facilitates human survival it does not exist solely, or even primarily, to serve their needs. Such recognition is in the best interests of not just the environment but ours as well.
A theme that recurs in several parts of the Bible is that the creation is a manifestation of God’s glory. The nature manifests the divine glory just as the humans do. An active acknowledgment of this motif can facilitate respect for the sacredness of the nature. The idea that the nature is sacred that is central to the worldviews of religious traditions such as Hinduism has significant implications for how one relates to the earth. It offers a paradigm for a positive reorientation of our relationship with the nature. Accordingly, the nature becomes our partner in this journey rather than an entity that can be exploited or even an entity that needs to be preserved because our future is dependent on its wellbeing.
Acts 2 highlights the human role in the violence caused to Jesus and to the earth. It calls us to turn the day of doom into a day of deliverance. The task requires us to actively and intentionally reorient ourselves to the earth. Such reorientation assumes increased significance in our times because the preservation of both the nature and the human race is directly dependent on it.
Dr. Raj Nadella serves as Assistant Professor of New Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia.