In the face of the loss and upheaval ahead of us due to climate change, it would be quite easy to give up, or not respond at all. If things are inevitably going to be bad, there’s not much we can do. And it is bad. The likelihood of record-high global temperatures and rapidly melting ice caps, steadily-increasing numbers of climate refugees, and less access to clean drinking water does, and should, frighten us.
If we manage to resist apathy, a potential response could be to turn to individual action. We might start recycling, bicycling, being vegan, or giving up plastic bags … all good actions for one person to take on to care for creation.
But that will not be enough.
The truth is, individual action is utterly inadequate for global change. Individual action is important for changing our own hearts and for getting our own lives aligned with our faith, but the devastation of our planet has been a systemic process over the course of generations. Undoing it, or even mitigating it, is going to require communal action.
As ministers, when we talk about climate change, we find it difficult to avoid talking in terms of salvation. So as Christians, it’s important for us to begin to understand our salvation from climate sin as a communal one.
You, as an individual, will not be saved from climate destruction. Nor will I. We will be saved together. Or else we — all of us — are doomed.
When we look at the biblical tradition of the prophets — at the stories of Sodom and Gomorrah, the flood, and especially the Exodus narrative — again and again, God’s judgment and God’s redemption are portrayed as being for whole communities, not individuals. Joel warned that the “day of the Lord,” which was coming as a locust swarm, was in response to the faithlessness of the entire people and would devastate all of Israel. The only adequate response was to summon the entire community, from the elders to the infants, and to collectively plead for mercy (Joel 2:1-17).
Salvation cannot remain an individualized spiritualized concept. When the psalmists called out for salvation, they meant salvation from present suffering and danger. When the crowd shouted “Hosanna” at Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem, they weren’t referring to the afterlife. When we talk about salvation in the context of our warming climate, we mean deliverance from the most destructive force our species has ever faced. When it comes to climate change, we have to think about community and salvation in a global sense. We must start to recognize that our communities are mutually dependent upon each other.
One parable which animates many Christians who work for social justice is the story of the Judgment of the Nations. In this parable, Jesus describes a king dividing the righteous from the unrighteous and the criteria which he uses is a famous and moving litany of concern for the vulnerable and oppressed, “I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.” (Matthew 25:35-36 CEB) Because the English language does not have a satisfactory second person plural pronoun, we miss that Jesus is not speaking to individuals here - He is speaking to whole groups of people when he says “you.” The question in this story is not whether you or I as individuals have been compassionate but whether we have collectively worked to build societies that feed the hungry, welcome strangers, and care for the sick.
Matthew 25 is clear that part of our job as Christians is to care specifically for people who are vulnerable. The people who are on the front lines of climate change are just that — vulnerable. They’re often communities that are deeply impoverished or are in developing nations that have been exploited by the global North and West through centuries of colonialism and its attendant ideology of white supremacy. Those of us who have benefited from this exploitation therefore bear an extra burden of responsibility to address the crisis which will, if left unchecked, eventually condemn us all. It should be clear by now that our survival hinges upon recognition of this mutual interdependence.
Environmental advocate and author Bill McKibben reminds us that individual action will not change the course of the planet. He writes:
If individual action can't alter the momentum of global warming, movements may still do the trick. Movements are how people organize themselves to gain power — enough power, in this case, to perhaps overcome the financial might of the fossil fuel industry. Movements are what can put a price on carbon, force politicians to keep fossil fuel in the ground, demand subsidies so that solar panels go up on almost every roof, not just yours.
He’s not saying that it doesn’t matter if you drive a big car, eat meat, and waste electricity — those personal actions create an unsustainable lifestyle that ultimately affect policy and culture. What he is suggesting is changing individual lifestyles is not enough.
This is why we are marching on April 29 in the Chicago People’s Climate March. Our little voices on their own won’t make a difference. Combined, we can be heard. We will wear our clerical collars and join with people of faith from many different traditions to pray with our feet and call for communal action in response to climate change.
Our collars and our bodies will be symbols of our commitment to the global ecological community — a commitment rooted in a belief that God calls us to love creation and care for it.
It will be rooted in a belief that we are failing at loving creation and the people in it.
It will be rooted in a belief that God will judge the nations by how we feed the hungry, visit the lonely, care for the sick. Each of these vulnerable communities will be hit hardest with climate change.
It will be rooted in a belief that no matter how many lightbulbs we change in our individual houses, or how many hamburgers we eliminate from our diet, or how few miles we drive, none of it will make an external difference unless we change the conditions and systems and laws that perpetuate climate change. In doing so, we begin to work in God’s grace, marching toward a new nation that will be saved by God and each other together.