Climate change as a spiritual crisis

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Earth Day Reflection

March 11, 2020 | Opinion | Volume 24 Issue 6
Douglas Kaufman | Special to Canadian Mennonite
A group of young Mennonites pictured at the climate strike in Winnipeg on Sept. 27, 2019. 'We are shifting and caring more about the climate, and every little and big thing we do helps,' Douglas Kaufman writes. (Canadian Mennonite file photo by Nicolien Klassen-Wiebe)

When Luke Gascho and Jennifer Schrock of Goshen College’s Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center invited me to help lead efforts to engage Mennonite churches on climate change, it felt like a call from the Spirit. I felt prepared because I had been leading Benton Mennonite Church in Goshen, Ind., in creation care for 15 years and had just spent a sabbatical studying ecology and theology.

My own interests focused on rivers—for good reason—since our local river where we baptized people sometimes had too much manure in it. 

But I’m afraid that I was part of the silence many of us have experienced around climate change. Part of that may be from fears about climate deniers, a voice that the media has amplified. But the other problem with the climate crisis is that it is scary.

As our carbon emissions cause the atmosphere to warm, we experience more and stronger natural disasters, such as droughts, heat waves, hurricanes and flooding.

I was engaged in “soft denial.”

“Literal or hard denial” refutes the facts and claims that nothing is happening. When that becomes unbelievable, “interpretive denial” admits that something is happening, but it is not what you think it is. For instance, one might claim the problem isn’t carbon emissions, but that it’s natural cycles or other explanations that have little basis in scientific observations.

But a broader and, in some ways, more difficult denial is “soft or implicatory denial.” We accept the facts, but we deny their social and moral implications. American sociologist Kari Norgaard first noticed this denial of climate change when she spent the warmest winter in Norway in 130 years. Although Norwegians believe climate science and love winter, they rarely spoke about climate change. It brought up too many uncomfortable and frightening emotions of helplessness, guilt and fear.

It is easy to feel hopeless about climate change. An individual cannot do a lot. It takes large-scale global, social and institutional efforts to make the necessary changes. And yet many of us—for good reason—have trouble trusting these institutions to do the right thing. So it is easier to ignore it, like someone who is in denial about their problem with alcohol.

I find hope in the shift that is happening to see the climate crisis not just as a scientific crisis, but as spiritual and human ones as well. Christian faith can help us confront our fears, despair and helplessness.

Unfortunately, too often the church has either ignored the climate crisis or even fostered denial by false assurances that God will take care of it. If anything, the God I encounter in the prophets, who often connected injustice with ecological disaster, is one who confronts human sin and injustice, not excusing it.

I am inspired by the biblical vision of humanity in harmony with creation rather than conquering it. I am inspired by the good news that, in the death and resurrection of Jesus, a new creation has begun. The Spirit can bring renewal in the midst of our climate suffering. This does not mean confronting the climate catastrophe will be easy or even that the outcome is assured.

I am inspired by the social capital of congregations to address social issues, being places where we peer through our denial and acknowledge what is happening. I am inspired by our rituals of lament that allow us to truthfully confront harsh realities with hope and trust, strengthening our resolve to do something.

The failure of our politicians globally and nationally to address climate change is evident. So I am also inspired by Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders who confronted the denial about racial injustice through nonviolent resistance. King’s famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” does not address outright racists, but white moderates whose soft denial kept them from seeing the need for immediate change. King saw that oppressors needed to be provoked to do justice.

While our churches and households need to reduce our carbon footprints, we also need to address our politicians and society, moving us towards no longer tolerating increasing carbon emissions.

We can join with others engaged in the best of nonviolent resistance to confront this injustice towards the most vulnerable, towards coming generations and towards other species.

Finally, I am inspired by the hundreds of Mennonites and others with whom I have discussed the climate crisis, and how many people simply desire to do the right thing. We are shifting and caring more about the climate, and every little and big thing we do helps! 

Douglas Kaufman is a director of pastoral ecology at the Center for Sustainable Climate Solutions, Goshen College, and pastor of Benton Mennonite Church, in Goshen, Ind. He is completing a master of theology degree in ecology from the University of Toronto. Originally posted on MC U.S.A.’s website on Feb. 13, at

A group of young Mennonites pictured at the climate strike in Winnipeg on Sept. 27, 2019. 'We are shifting and caring more about the climate, and every little and big thing we do helps,' Douglas Kaufman writes. (Canadian Mennonite file photo by Nicolien Klassen-Wiebe)

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