Guys and Dolls
It’s BAAACK—global warming, of course, and with a vengeance. In early October the Washington, D.C., area was sweltering under 90- degree-plus weather—all-time highs and dry and hot like summer. The impeachment inquiry was under way, and “hot under the collar” took on a full double meaning. The U.S. president had unflattering things to say about a certain Nancy as well as a yet-to-be-revealed whistleblower. But for most people the hot conditions were an ongoing reminder of the wake-up call delivered by 16-year-old Greta Thunberg to the United Nations on September 23.
In reality Greta is part global whistleblower and part precocious scold. As she stood before the world’s leaders I wondered if she were not like the character of Alia in Frank Herbert’s all-time showstopping sci-fi work Dune. In that otherworldly tale, Alia’s brother Paul Atreides is revealed as the Promised One who will rejuvenate the desert planet of Arrakis—a planet whose “spice” is the stuff that makes the intergalactic empire possible. The mystic younger Alia stands forth before the emperor and the other leaders to proclaim the old order gone now to her brother. Greta had that Alia/Joan of Arc look as she admonished them world leaders. “How dare you,” she said with steely vehemence. “You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.”
Greta Thunberg is clearly more than a precocious teen. In barely a year she has mobilized millions to demand action on the global climate change emergency. Washington, D.C., traffic slowed that day as thousands demonstrated. Across the United States there were somewhere around 800 demonstrations. Worldwide 150 countries participated in a youth-led Global climate strike. Even in Islamabad, Pakistan, large crowds gathered, and government leaders promised action.
For some decades now scientists have been murmuring, then arguing, about a possible upward shift in global temperature that could bring weather cataclysm. Of late they have spoken, but still in scientific jargon, of looming catastrophe. Paris accords came and went, carbon credits made billions for someone, and the debate has sharpened. The ruling U.S. political party seems to deny there is any global warming—though to be fair I think the problem is they are reacting to the idea that it is a human-made problem. Maybe! But after a string of extreme weather events from Texas to Puerto Rico to the Bahamas, most people see reason to worry. Greta’s words to the World Economic Forum recently hit home: “I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic,” she told them. “I want you to feel the fear I feel every day,” she said. “And then I want you to act.”
I well remember Winston Churchill’s comment that one should never let a good crisis go to waste. Vice president Dick Cheney was reported to have made that same observation after September 11, leading to distinctly mixed results. The reality is that no matter how legitimate the emergency, someone will link it to their own agenda. The medieval Children’s Crusade comes to mind: thousand of idealistic youngsters were herded onto ships they thought would take them on to liberate Jerusalem, only to be sold into slavery.
Back in 2008, when the world faced economic apocalypse, Pope Benedict came out with a catchall document called Caritas in Veritate, in which he attempted to offer a solution to most of the world’s ills: capital and labor disputes, issues of sovereignty, social justice, environmental decay, and of course financial ruin. The pope gave a leather-bound copy to newly minted U.S. president Obama on his way to his first G-8 Summit. It was a great document: thoughtful and, as the title promised, charitable. However, there was an element that bothered me; and it was picked up by one secular magazine that reviewed it as a political document. Trouble is, wrote the reviewer, you accept this document, and the pope comes with it. My church/state separation ears twitched. Then I read Benedict’s call for a global body with “the power to act and to enforce.” Unfortunate language with history in mind and invoking passages in Revelation 13 that speak of religious powers united with political and business entities. United in compelling to a global order, as I read their import.
A few years later, in 2015, Benedict’s successor added his encyclical Laudato Si’, and a call to action much like that of Greta Thunberg’s to the world community. Greta has told the United Nations leaders, “We are at the beginning of a mass extinction. . . . How dare you . . . look away.” Did she come to this from scientific evidence alone, or was she echoing the encyclical?
I was moved by the opening posits of the document. The earth is personified as our sister, who is crying out in agony and may even be dying. This is biblical, to be sure—and he quotes Romans 8:22 in the voice of the apostle Paul speaking of the earth itself “groaning in travail” (RSV)* at the end of the age. But I might add that Paul’s point is that a new world is about to be birthed. God is coming to destroy those who would destroy the earth (Revelation 11:18): and to create “ a new heaven and a new earth” (Revelation 21:1). But so far as ecological degradation, the pope puts it as a matter of species survival, which is fair for civil society, occupied as it must be with ordering the here and now--even if it requires a little silence on the great eternal solution held out by Scripture.
The document then discusses the ecological crises from a distinct secular philosophy that holds much of modern life responsible for our present crisis. Capitalism is heavily critiqued and property ownership blamed as well—and buttressed by a questionable appeal to Scripture, which, the age of the apostles aside, has much to say about land matters, both personal and of national sovereignty. This element of the document was very much on display in Francis’ 2015 address to Congress, which took to task much of what the United States thinks it stands for.
As a Seventh-day Adventist I was glad to read a repeated emphasis on rediscovering the rhythms in creation. The document puts it this way: “The biblical tradition clearly shows that this renewal entails recovering and respecting the rhythms inscribed in nature by the hand of the Creator. We see this, for example, in the law of the Sabbath. On the seventh day, God rested from all His work. He commanded Israel to set aside each seventh say as a day of rest, a Sabbath” (paragraph 71). Naturally, the document later applies this command as fulfilled in the Eucharistic Sunday. Fair enough; it is a Roman Catholic document, after all, and they have a right to their views. I have no challenge either to what Pope John Paul wrote some years ago in Dies Domini: The early believers had no direct command from the Lord to change the day from Saturday, but they felt that they had the authority to do so. A very open admission of theology and assumed right. A matter for theology, but not for statecraft and civil society, I think.
Which brings me to my baseline concern about where this is heading. The influence of papal positions has resumed the importance of medieval times. Coincident with this great call for action is the papal advocacy of the family rest day as the ecological equivalent of daylight saving. It is heavily promoted to save energy, deindustrialize the world, and create harmony and renewal. Coupled with the Friday demonstrations favored by Greta and her increasingly motivated generation, I think we are about to see a synchrony that might unite the sensibilities of the Christian and Islamic worlds with the secular laws that must be used to deal with an emergency such as the ecological one that bears down on us and manifests itself in an increasing number of attention-getting disasters.
President Putin made, I think, a big mistake in dismissing Greta as “naive.” But of course, she is just that, to some degree, at 16. She is not to be dismissed, though. The question is Who will build the ships that carry her growing band of youth crusaders to their new world? And where will the forces at play take their initiative? As always, the newer generations take what has been given them and apply energy and optimism. It is the constant hope of humanity. But in this uniquely global pass-off I pray that we do not imagine the answer to be an imposed theology.
*Texts credited to RSV are from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1946, 1952, 1971, by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission.
Article Author: Lincoln E. Steed
Lincoln E. Steed is the editor of Liberty magazine, a 200,000 circulation religious liberty journal which is distributed to political leaders, judiciary, lawyers and other thought leaders in North America. He is additionally the host of the weekly 3ABN television show "The Liberty Insider," and the radio program "Lifequest Liberty."