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I think every church leader should listen to and contemplate episode 23 of Professor Debra Rienstra’s Refugia Faith podcast. It’s entitled “Purple Zone Refugia: Leah Schade on Creation Crisis Preaching, the Prophetic Church, and the Trickster Christ.”
Prophesy seems the watchword I am contemplating this week and it began with a strategic listening to episode 23 in my ear-buds, seeking only to distract myself from an afternoon run. I’ve now listened to it three times.
Sunday’s sermon was a reflection on the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. In the parable, the rich man, suffering in hades, pleads with Father Abraham to raise someone from the dead to go and warn his five brothers. Father Abraham replies twice that they had had Moses and the prophets and that they should have listened. Implying, I suppose, that their impending doom is their own fault.
And as I write, I am watching Hurricane Ian ramp up to a category 5 while it pounds Florida’s gulf coast. Per Katherine Heyhoe, Ian was predicted to make landfall as a category 1 storm. By this morning, it was upgraded from a category 4 as winds exceeded 158 miles per hour. The news cycle has already abandoned the devastating floods in Pakistan and the fires out west, the historic heatwaves in China and Europe and the bleaching event on the Great Barrier Reef. Context, as they say, is everything.
In Debra’s episode 23, she talks with Reverend Dr. Leah Schade about helping the church find its prophetic voice in the context of addressing the climate crisis.
This will surprise no one who reads my blog posts here, but I think that at this moment, addressing the climate crisis is humanity’s most urgent task and I think that that also makes it the church’s most urgent task.
The climate crisis is no longer (if it ever was) a technical problem to be solved with greater, more sophisticated science. Science describes for us the magnitude of the problem, its drivers, and what projections for the future likely are. But addressing and mitigating the climate crisis is a problem of owning our culpability in creating it and working to prevent further damage and correct the inherent deep injustices to poor people, our children, and non-human creation. Essentially, it’s a matter of loving our neighbor with sufficient conviction and agency. It’s the moral issue of our time – and that puts it squarely in religion’s wheelhouse.
The conversation with Rev. Dr. Schade covers substantial intellectual, moral, and theological territory and it’s necessarily difficult to see the fine details when you are traveling at a rapid pace. But, I was fed by the Gestalt, the emerging sense that her scholarship was deliberately probing the church’s role as a prophetic voice in a world where climate crisis is the context. Rev. Dr. Schade relates a survey of protestant pastors that she did in 2017 where she estimated that environmental issues were among the lowest priorities for sermons in the past year. In 2021 she repeated the survey and found that the percentage was about 50%. She celebrated the increasing trend (and I do too) but the magnitude, only 50% of preachers addressing environmental issues in the past 12 months is a scandal of modern western Christianity (assuming it’s representative).
Framing it as a climate crisis metaphor, I wonder where we wealthy Christians are in the parable. Likely, and maybe at best, we are the five brothers in peril of ignoring the prophecy. But is the church the prophet? Should it be? I think so, or at least I want to be.
And if that marriage between the parable and the climate crisis seems a little forced, Leah and Debra’s conversation moves into a discussion about creation itself being included in the crucifixion/resurrection narrative and that we model Christ when we practice a “self-emptying” (Greek: kenosis). Rev. Dr. Schade advocates a “…getting out of our own ego, our egocentrism, our, what I would call, anthropocentrism—so thinking of human beings as the center of everything, when in fact we are not. We are part of the larger web of life.”
In my reading that seems to be an emergent theme among people who approach the climate crisis from the perspective of religious faith and non-religious starting points. It’s worth noting that Rev. Dr. Schade notes that addressing the climate crisis will require cooperation across faiths and non-faith.
The task for the church is to integrate a theology of creation rooted in kenosis knowing how radical that is in a culture that idolizes the convenience and wealth supported by profligate use of fossil fuels and that seems blind to the injustices and damage that those idols are causing. The task is to move from simple consciousness-raising to calling for actions to a “discourse for long-term cultural and individual transformation (Rev. Dr. Schade).”
The climate crisis isn’t merely one among a list of discrete topics that Christians should consider and pray about and that pastors should address in a sermon from time to time. It’s the context of our 20th century North American faith. It’s the threat multiplier (Katherin Hayhoe) making problems of injustice and despair worse. Rev. Dr. Schade and Prof Rienstra wrestle with these questions with integrity on our behalf. It’s worth a listen.
Photo: Hurricane Ian is pictured from the International Space Station. NASA. Source: Hurricane Ian is pictured from the International Space Station | NASA