Jeremiah and climate change

Chagall Jeremiah

The Prophet Jeremiah by Marc Chagall

The prophet Jeremiah spoke out against the complacency and denial of his time, and was shown to be right. Unfortunately, complacency and denial still flourish, not least when dealing with climate change.

Recently, there have been a number of significant, prophetic, Christian responses to the increasing challenge of climate change. Pope Francis published his encyclical, Laudato Si’, which speaks of “the urgent challenge to protect our common home” and recognises that “the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all.” Concluding, Pope Francis writes of the need to

come together to take charge of this home which has been entrusted to us, knowing that all the good which exists here will be taken up into the heavenly feast.

Faith leaders in Britain signed up to the Lambeth declaration, which speaks of “the urgent need for action on climate change” and the urgent need to transition to a low carbon economy. It says:

The demands of justice as well as of creation require the nations of the world urgently to limit the global rise in average temperatures to a maximum of 2oC, as agreed by the United Nations in Cancun. We have a responsibility to act now, for ourselves, our neighbours and for future generations.

Emphasising this need, Archbishop Justin and Patriarch Bartholomew issued a joint statement. They write:

our response to climate change — both in terms of mitigation and adaptation — will reduce human suffering, while preserving the diversity and beauty of God’s creation for our children. God’s generous and plentiful creation, which we so often take for granted, is a gift to all living creatures and all living things. We must, therefore, ensure that the resources of our planet are — and continue to be — enough for all to live abundant lives.

The Bishops of The Episcopal Church issued a Pastoral Teaching on climate change in 2011, calling for a prayerful and practical response to the challenge, which began and ended by reflecting on the words of the prophet Jeremiah. Christian Aid’s theological reflection on climate change Song of the Prophets, written by Rev Dr Susan Durber (Nov 2014), is a challenging and hopeful call to hear the call of the poor and disadvantaged and act with prophetic hope in response to climate change.

There has been some criticism of Christian leaders getting involved in politics, which is a failure to understand both politics (seeking the common good) and Christianity. For example, Jeremiah condemns the rich and powerful (5:28):

Their evil deeds have no limit;they do not seek justice.They do not promote the case of the fatherless;they do not defend the just cause of the poor.

And gets rather heavily involved in politics (for example Jeremiah 27:12):

I gave the same message to Zedekiah king of Judah. I said, ‘Bow your neck under the yoke of the king of Babylon; serve him and his people, and you will live.

But, more worryingly there has been the same sort of complacency and denial that Jeremiah repeatedly condemned. Complacency and denial are discussed by Pope Francis, who comments (§14) that “Obstructionist attitudes, even on the part of believers, can range from denial of the problem to indifference.” They are also discussed by Durber, who also calls (p28) for theologians to

understand why it is so hard for us to hear prophetic voices and to act in response to them.

A start to this might be to recognise that this is the type of response that Jeremiah also faced. Jeremiah lived at a time when there was also a looming disaster, when there was instability and arguments over how and whether to react. As the quote from 27:12 shows, his concern was the growing power of the Babylonian Empire, but people’s reactions are similar.

This is most clearly shown when Jeremiah speaks out against the belief that Jerusalem would not fall because the Temple was there. So, Jeremiah preaches in the Temple (chapter 7), what Brueggemann calls the core of Jeremiah’s proclamation (A commentary on Jeremiah, 1998:78). Jeremiah’s Temple sermon seeks to sweep away the “dominant theology claimed that Jerusalem was inviolate because God had made unconditional promises” (Brueggemann 1998:77).

As Craigie notes on this chapter (Word commentary 2002:122):

A temple or shrine, in other words, which was the symbolic location of God’s presence among his people, provided no absolute security; God could be driven out of his temple by evil, and when that happened, sooner or later the place would collapse in ruin.

Why? Because this complacency and denial led to the oppression of the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow (Jeremiah 7:6). Instead, Jeremiah (7:8) tells his hearers:

you are trusting in deceptive words that are worthless.

To illustrate his point, Jeremiah invites his hearers to think about the former shrine to the Lord at Shiloh (Jeremiah 7:12):

Go now to the place in Shiloh where I first made a dwelling for my Name, and see what I did to it because of the wickedness of my people Israel.

Reflecting on this, Craigie writes (p122):

Jeremiah drew upon the resources of contemporary “archaeology” to drive home his point; the stones and ruins of Shiloh, only a few miles north of Jerusalem and known no doubt to the prophet’s audience, had a story to tell.

The Babylonian Empire took over power from the Assyrian Empire, which recent research suggests probably collapsed due to climate change and overpopulation. The researchers conclude:

The Assyrians can be ‘excused’ to some extent for focusing on short-term economic or political goals which increased their risk of being negatively impacted by climate change, given their technological capacity and their level of scientific understanding about how the natural world works. We, however, have no such excuses, and we also possess the additional benefit of hindsight, which allows us to piece together from the past what can go wrong if we choose not to enact policies that promote longer-term sustainability.

‘Go now to Shiloh’, “change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly” (Jeremiah 7:5). Denial and complacency need to be challenged.

People’s reaction to climate change have been similar. There has been a range of complacent responses, including arguments that some degree of warming may be beneficial, as well as the denial and cover-up that, for example, Exxon Mobil is accused of. This complacency is also revealed by the UN’s assessment of national plans to limit climate change, which will still cause the global temperature to rise by an average of 2.7 °C

This was powerfully investigated by Jolyon Jenkins in a BBC radio programme several years ago, who explored why people go into denial. The programme argues that fear and guilt cause people to react negatively and go into denial. It also argues that most of the ways in which people seek to raise awareness either makes it feel too big a problem (and therefore too big to tackle – denial), or too small a problem, by suggesting minor lifestyle changes (and therefore not worth tackling – complacency).

A recent, particularly worrying example is in the recent speech by Amber Rudd, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change. Rudd’s speech has been welcomed for being the first country in the world to phase out coal-fired power stations. Al Gore has called this an “excellent and inspiring precedent”. However, the lack of support for renewables and the subsidised gas and nuclear power stations have been heavily criticised. Friends of the Earth criticised the approach as taking UK energy policy “backwards to the 20th century.” This was echoed by Damian Carrington who wrote

Just days before the Paris climate summit aims to accelerate towards the clean energy system of the next century, the UK is harking back to the energy system of the last.

Again, this links into Jeremiah’s prophetic call to recognise past mistakes and to change, rather than repeat the mistakes of the past. Jeremiah called people to repentance and to change their ways and was ignored. The same fate, with the same outcome, is a very real possibility with climate change. However, it is not necessarily the case. Pope Francis writes (§200):

Believers themselves must constantly feel challenged to live in a way consonant with their faith and not to contradict it by their actions. They need to be encouraged to be ever open to God’s grace and to draw constantly from their deepest convictions about love, justice and peace.

The Christian Aid report calls for an inspiring, subversive, prophetic hope. The book of Jeremiah ends with Zedekiah in captivity to the Babylonians (chapter 52). But, in-amongst the warnings and calls to repentance there is hope (50:4-5):

‘In those days, at that time,’
declares the Lord,
‘the people of Israel and the people of Judah together
will go in tears to seek the Lord their God.
They will ask the way to Zion
and turn their faces towards it.
They will come and bind themselves to the Lord
in an everlasting covenant
that will not be forgotten

Pope Francis finishes with a prayer:

God of love, show us our place in this world
as channels of your love
for all the creatures of this earth,
for not one of them is forgotten in your sight.
Enlighten those who possess power and money
that we may avoid the sin of indifference,
that we may love the common good, advance the weak,
and care for this world in which we live.
The poor and the earth are crying out.
O Lord, seize us with your power and light,
help us to protect all life,
to prepare for a better future,
for the coming of your Kingdom
of justice, peace, love and beauty.
Praise be to you!
Amen.

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