By Andrew Thompson
Increasing temperatures and shifting climate systems create widespread chaos in the world today. Droughts cause hunger and food insecurity, and climate-induced migration stirs up violent conflicts over scarce resources. Feeding the hungry and peacemaking are at the heart of the Church’s mission and many Christians decry the deep injustice of the crisis, as those who suffer most bear little responsibility for the problem. Others emphasize that climate change is a matter of faithful stewardship, caring responsibly for the God’s good gift of creation.
But there a deeper theological issue at stake. Christ is Lord of all creation, and climate change is the product of forces that array themselves against that sovereignty.
Climate change is not just an unfortunate atmospheric phenomenon; it emerges out of a fallen global system that distorts creaturely life and alienates humans from one another and creation. Climate change is an expression of political and economic forces that hold humans in thrall, even as they result from human actions. These forces are meant to serve us; instead they work to our detriment and destroy of the ecosystems on which we depend. We are seemingly unable to control them or escape their grasp. The Bible calls these kinds of forces powers and principalities, and they are ultimately subject to Christ’s sovereignty and judgment.
Long before climate change became a public concern, lay Episcopal theologian William Stringfellow, in An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land, wrote about these forces, describing them as created by God but fallen, and devoted to death. “The gravest effort of the principalities,” he says, “is the capture of humans in their service, which is to say, in idolatry of death.” He names nations, ideologies, economic systems, and corporations as examples of principalities that declare their independence from God and subjugate human beings in the idolatry of death. This idolatry is manifested in systems that dehumanize, deceive, and brutalize human beings – especially persons of color and other marginalized groups.
The Bible is clear that Christ is the Lord of all creation, including the powers and principalities. In their fallen state, they reject this sovereignty, but they are subject to his judgment, the judgment of the cross. The Church proclaims the lordship of Christ crucified, denying the power of death “while affirming the aspiration for new life.” It affirms God’s sovereignty by speaking the truth about the principalities: in spite of their devotion to death, they are created and, like all creatures, are called to serve God and God’s creation.
Climate change is a manifestation of the fallen economic and political systems that hold us in thrall. They alienate us from one another, such that even the most well-intentioned acts are never innocent of ecological harm to our fellow creatures. Rather than serve God, they idolize death by sacrificing the poor, the integrity of creation, and future generations for the sake of limitless growth. Climate change emerges from these distorted systems, but there are other consequences as well, including the gross inequalities revealed by COVID-19.
Many of us are familiar with individual changes of behavior meant to mitigate climate change: conserving energy, driving less, perhaps even reducing the impact of our travel through a carbon offset program. But resisting fallen powers requires more directly political measures. Against economic forces that idolize death, the church can proclaim life by divesting its funds from fossil fuels and investing in more sustainable, regenerative industries. It can support environmental justice movements that seek to build more creative, life-giving economies and communities, on a local and a global level. In these ways, as process theologian Catherine Keller suggests, the church can adopt a politic of solidarity in struggle, joining with the most marginalized in “the self-assembling of an insistent public at the edge of chaos” (Political Theology of the Earth).
“Resistance to death is the only way to live humanly in the midst of the fall,” says Stringfellow. “Engagement in specific and incessant struggle against death’s rule renders us human.” The fact that Christ is Lord over the powers is consolation and good news: “death is already undone and is in no way whatever to be feared and worshipped.” By resisting the political and economic forces of climate change, the Church lives in anticipation of the consummation this reality. Such a life requires creativity, discernment, and prophetic courage. Yet the Spirit imparts to the community the gifts it needs to confront the powers and celebrate Christ’s sovereignty in the face of these forces.
By speaking the truth in the face of climate change, by seeking creative, life-giving ways of being in creation, the Church affirms the Lord of life over the idolatry of death. It affirms Christ’s sovereignty over all fallen principalities and powers. This is a matter of justice, of course, and of stewardship and of compassion. But more fundamentally, it is a matter of our identity as the community who proclaims Christ as the Lord of all Creation.
Dr. Andrew R. H. Thompson is assistant professor of Theological Ethics and director of the Alternative Clergy Training at Sewanee (ACTS) program and the Sewanee Ministry Collaborative at the School of Theology of the University of the South.