Faithful practices on a dying planet

How might the church survive or die faithfully amid catastrophic climate change?

September 25, 2019 | Feature | Volume 23 Issue 17
Gerald Ens | Special to Canadian Mennonite
‘Bring out your dead,’ by Edmund Evans, circa 1864. This coloured wood engraving pictures a medieval street scene with a town crier and a two-wheeled cart making the rounds and collecting the bodies of plague victims; a few people have gathered around a small fire for warmth. (wikimedia.org photo (public domain))

Over the last few months, the reality of the climate crisis we are in the midst of has started to strike me in a new and terrible way. As the best-case scenarios for our planet grow more dire and the possibility of achieving even these scenarios grows more remote, it has started to dawn on me that the church is not only faced with the task of working to stop the destruction of our planet.

We now must also confront the question of how we might live and die faithfully on a planet that is dying. As an attempt to do this myself, I tentatively offer four practices for the church that might get us to start thinking about, and living into, how we might continue to be the church on a horribly ravaged Earth.

Hospitality

To be the church, we are going to need to become well practised in an intimate sharing of our lives, resources and homes.

My wife comes from an evangelical church tradition, and one thing that strikes her in the Mennonite churches she’s been part of is the absence of foster children. Foster children were at the heart of the churches she grew up in, churches where there was not much talk about “justice.” 

In rightly calling for greater action on the part of government and institutions, have we forgotten that the call of Jesus incarnate in the “least of these” is a call to each of us to respond with flesh and heart? Has our numbing political culture tricked us into believing that having the right “take” on a news story is a meaningful or neighbourly response?

I think we need to start relearning how to practise radical hospitality by making our homes bigger and more crowded, and our nuclear families messier. This is an old practice for Christians, from the early church practice of Christian households keeping a bed and some bread ready for strangers, to the Christian practice of anonymously adopting abandoned children during the Middle Ages.

Are the relational bonds in our communities strong enough for parents to know that, if they die, their children will be taken care of? Are our habits of charity so well ingrained that, in times of desperate scarcity, we will know how to treat the wandering orphan? Hospitality is going to get personal. Are we ready to let God use us to display God’s great and most personal hospitality?

Befriending death

Burying the dead is one of the traditional Christian works of mercy. It was, for example, a task that the early Catholic Worker houses took very seriously before death in North America was institutionalized and hidden away. Famously, one of the charities Mother Theresa’s Sisters of Mercy performed was providing a dignified way for people to die. 

There is soon going to be a lot of dying, and, although I have a hard time truly imagining it, it is going to be terrible. We are going to need to remember that, for Christians, the work of loving the dead and dying is as important as, and sometimes more important than, the work of saving lives.

Part of this will mean more fully facing the significance of what it means to be mortal. This will, hopefully, help us to remember that we in the church do not simply serve the hungry, broken, fragile and weak; we ourselves are hungry, broken, fragile and weak. We will only be able to bear the suffering that is to come, and pour out our hearts and lives onto a suffering world and suffering humanity, if we can accept and love our own mortal weakness.

Lament

Before Jesus goes into Jerusalem to be crucified, he laments over the city. He will save the whole world from sin and death, but he knows he will not save Jerusalem from brutal military defeat at the hands of the Romans. On the cross, Jesus quotes the psalmist’s desperate cry: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

And before Jesus raises his friend Lazarus from the dead, having already proclaimed himself to be the resurrection and the life, he weeps for his friend and his loss. 

God’s call to us is to be bound to the world and each other by God’s great love for the world. This will often mean offering up our grieving laments to God.

Concrete acts of lament may be the most important thing that we can do, especially insofar as they might function as a political witness. If there ever was a time when individual action and responsibility might “save the planet,” then that time has passed; it is not household consumption—but a handful of the world’s largest corporations and militaries—that are responsible for the vast majority of emissions, to say nothing of the other ways that they wreck and abuse people and the Earth.

However, as a part of the work of lament, individual and community action can be incredibly important. Suffering through the summer heat because you refuse to turn on the AC will not do anything to prevent climate change, but, as a work of solidarity with, and grieving for, creation, it may be one way that we can continue to worship God on a dying planet.

Call for volunteers

After companies started strip mining the Amazonian rainforest, Brazilian friends of ours essentially stopped buying and using plastic. They are under no illusions that this will make any difference, but, to be true to their grief, they found that they simply could not use plastic any longer. 

This is one way to look at the many wonderful people who continue to work the land in sustainable and abundant ways. I fear that, as the planet becomes more unlivable, even these oases will die. The point of healthy land use may then be less about saving humanity and the planet, and more about the defiant work of lament and repentance—of grieving the loss of the world’s abundance by continuing to work the land abundantly for as long as this is possible.

We must guard against the heroic despair of declaring that, even if humanity seems likely to perish, at least the planet will survive. We must flee a kind of smug knowledge that seems almost triumphant in being “right” about the end of the world. We should turn, instead, to the work of lament, offering our active grief as prayer to God. This grief is too great for us alone, but we believe, as the song goes, that “nothing is lost on the breath of God.”

A new Jerusalem descends from heaven at the end of the vision in Revelation. Jesus’s cry of abandonment upon the cross comes from Psalm 22, which concludes by declaring that the poor will eat their fill, that the Earth will be abundant, and that all people will renounce their dominating ways and turn to the worship of the true God. After Jesus weeps for his friend, he summons him from the tomb with the power of resurrection. God’s love can hold all of love’s terrible anguish borne out in love’s stricken cries of lament.

Trust

When the city of Jerusalem is about to fall to the Babylonian army, the prophet Jeremiah buys a plot of land outside the city walls. The prophetic message is powerful in its simplicity: This land will again be prosperous. 

I’ve heard many of my peers wonder whether it’s irresponsible to have children today. I empathize deeply with this sentiment. It fills me with horror and sorrow to think that my three-year-old son may not live past 30, and that whatever years he has after 15 will probably be filled with a degree of suffering and loss that most of us in North America find hard to comprehend.

Jeremiah speaks to us, not to say that there will not be terrible suffering. What we can get instead from Jeremiah is that the work of love goes on, and that it is good work to do because the God who is love is also good. Our species appears likely to be nearing its end, but we can love while time remains, knowing and trusting that love is never vain.

Jesus names us “beloved” and then calls us to abide within his love, a love that is eternally true (John 15:9). To say this is to trust that nothing, not even death, can separate us from the love of God. The promise of resurrection is the promise that, in some deeply mysterious way, a life of love touches and is held safe within that which is eternal.

This is not the comfort of believing that loss and destruction do not really matter because of the life to come. It is the comfort of trusting that the Spirit will continue to summon us all to surrender our hearts to the love that endures, even as the world as we know it ends. 

Gerald Ens is doing a PhD in religious studies at McMaster University, Hamilton, Ont. After four years in Hamilton, where he attended Hamilton Mennonite Church, he recently returned to Manitoba with his wife Lisa and son Roger.

For discussion

1. Have you seen evidence in your community that the Earth’s climate is changing? What are the signs in the broader world? How fearful are you about an impending climate crisis? How will your community be affected as temperatures continue to rise?

2. Gerald Ens suggests that we “need to start relearning how to practise radical hospitality.” What does radical hospitality look like? What keeps us from welcoming others into our homes and our country?

3. Ens says that “the work of loving the dead and dying is as important as, and sometimes more important than, the work of saving lives.” Do you agree? Why is it important to befriend death? 

4. Lament and repentance are important, says Ens. Why is this a healthy response to the devastation of our ecosystem? What acts of lament can you and your church do to witness to the destruction of the Earth?

5. Do you find yourself in despair over the future of the world? Where do you find comfort and hope? How can we help those who struggle with fear of what the future will bring?

—By Barb Draper

Related stories:
Imperilled world, imperfect choices
Planting trees, nurturing a dream
Revolutionary hospitality
Reflections of creation
Moving beyong 'climate grief'

‘Bring out your dead,’ by Edmund Evans, circa 1864. This coloured wood engraving pictures a medieval street scene with a town crier and a two-wheeled cart making the rounds and collecting the bodies of plague victims; a few people have gathered around a small fire for warmth. (wikimedia.org photo (public domain))

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Comments

Thank you for this very pertinent article. I appreciated it very much.

I often experience the urge to find an elevated location from which to shout, "Enough!" The oft reiterated words "dying planet" are nothing more than a mantra which is used to shift the focus from the actual issue which we refuse to name or acknowledge.

To begin with, the planet is not dying any more than any other entity which has entered its middle age. During its beginning billions of years of existence this planet experienced scarcely imaginable cataclysms and yet it endured.

In the last hundred years, experiments such as detonating the first nuclear bomb and starting up a super collider were carried out with no certainty that either of them could be safe to do. So far we have done our best to destroy the planet, by "accident," without succeeding. The planet endures. In spite of all the junk we pour into the atmosphere, or into the ground, or into its waters, the planet endures. It is in no danger at all.

The current humanoid creatures which inhabit the planet are quite another matter. It's probably more accurate to use the word infest rather than inhabit as we are parasites of the first order, constantly taking and offering nothing useful in return. Thus it's not the planet which is in danger of dying, rather it's the human race.

Dinosaurs existed for about 165 million years, until one of those cataclysms. Humanoids have been around in some form or other for a few million years and give every indication of being completely self-destructive with a very limited future. When we manage to complete that task, guess what; the planet will endure.

However each of us chooses to read scripture, or relate to Creator, or pray to God, or interact with Nature/the Universe will influence our actions or inactions. If free will is one of the features of existence then there will be no divine suicide intervention.

I would find it difficult to respect or be in awe of a Creator who would put all her eggs in one basket and place that container on a planet with a medium-sized star on the periphery of one galaxy out of the billions of other galaxies which form the universe. Some faith concepts see we humans as the pinnacle of creation. What self-delusional nonsense.

By all means we have the ability to veer away from our present course. Do we have the desire to do so? Wishing and hoping only appear to be good intentions, desiring requires effort and much diligence and some sacrifice to make corrections to our path.

I see that the main title (which the editors gave to this piece, btw - I saw it for the first time when it was published) upset you. Did you happen to read anything else in the piece? Much of your comment appears to be directed to ideas foreign to what I wrote (the guiding – and explicitly stated! – premise throughout is the likely extinction of the human species, eg).

There do, at the same time, appear to be some fundamental disagreements between us, though they’re a bit difficult to make out. Perhaps most significantly, my claims that “we must guard ourselves against a heroic Stoicism, which grimly declares that even if humanity seems likely to perish in the near future, at least the planet will survive in some form. We must flee from the kind of puffed up knowledge that surveys humanity from a distance, seeming to be almost triumphant in the “rightness” of what it knows” [I’ve quoted from the original, longer version] appear to be directed precisely against the tone and content of much of your comment. If you’d like to continue this conversation let me suggest that we start there and dispense with seeing which of us knows more information about past mass extinction events.

And God, of course, has no eggs at all in the basket of the cosmos; none whatsoever. That’s why we can call creation a gift. That’s part of what (hopefully) makes my arguments about the eternity of love even remotely intelligible. And that’s why the self-serving (and idolatrous) delusion is to dismiss the imminent death of a child with distancing rationalizations about how this is only one child among billions of one species among billions (if we include all the species of the past) among billions, etc. For we live and breathe and have our being in the endlessly giving love that we name God.

Indeed, the online version of things is the only one readily available to me and thus some of the points you make in your reply were omitted from the piece. I too have experienced the scourge of editors whose headline writing have caused me to say, "Huh? How on earth did he/she get that from what I wrote?"

I have come to the point in my faith journey where I firmly maintain that the only one-way conversation with Creator/God is to offer thanks. We humanoids are so capable that we have the potential to transcend our current ills should we choose to do so and be willing to put forth the necessary effort.

I have often shared across pulpits and in other group settings a prayer I first came across in "When Bad Things Happen to Good People."

Likrat Shabbat (adapted) “What to Pray For” by Rabbi Jack Reimer:

We cannot merely pray to you, O God, to end war;
For we know that You have made the world in a way
That we must find our own path to peace
Within ourselves and with our neighbours.
We cannot merely pray to You, O God, to end starvation;l
For You have already given us the resources
With which to feed the entire world,
If we would only use them wisely.
We cannot merely pray to You, O God, to root out prejudice;
For You have already given us eyes
With which to see the good in all people,
If we would only use them rightly.
We cannot merely pray to You, O God, to end despair,
For You have already given us the power
To clear away slums and to give hope,
If we would only use our power justly.
We cannot merely pray to You, O God, to end disease;
For You have already given us great minds
With which to search out cures and healing,
If we would only use them constructively.
Therefore we pray to You instead, O God,
For strength, determination, and will power,
To do instead of just pray,
To become instead of merely to wish.

Though Reimer seems to suggest prayer seeking "strength, determination, and will power," I see it as a prayer of focus rather than one seeking any sort of intercession.

I agree that at its heart my dispute was with the title rather than with the content of the essay. It's one of the unfortunate signs of our times that we people in general scan headlines looking for triggers which validate our prejudices rather than those which challenge our "thinking."

My lament is in someone coining the catchphrase "dying planet" which is as misleading as is "global warming" relative to "climate change."

I will return to your essay, and seek the longer version as well as I continue to work at getting my head around some of your points.

Hi John. Please be advised that the version of Gerald Ens' article that appears on Canadian Mennonite's website is the exact version that appeared in the Sept. 30 print issue. When Gerald refers to "the orginal, longer version," he is referring to an earlier draft of his article.

Aaron Epp
Online Media Manger, Canadian Mennonite

Thanks for the generous and vulnerable reply, John. I agree that the beginning and end of our conversation with God must be praise/thanks. I also think that lament and trust are manifestations of such thanksgiving/praise.

Sorry if my words about the "original version" were misleading. I should also say that, with the exception of adding the current main title, the Canadian Mennonite published my words exactly as I sent them (after I'd edited the first draft for length). I don't think that I lost any core substance in reducing the length, but if you'd like I can send you my original version.

I am a hunter. I use every bit of what I harvest down to making wild bone broth. As part of my hunting routine I carry acorns and plum pits into the wild and step them into the soil. When I hunt a "burn," I leave behind acorns, sometimes started oak trees, sometimes started cherry pits. My pastor once asked, "Why do you do that?" My only response: "It pleasures me to know that long after I have left this mortal veil, there shall be squirrels and grouse, deer and bear that feed in the wild from trees I have planted." I too was inspired by Jean Giono.

“A planet that is dying.” “A dying planet.” That sounds pretty dire. There is a hysteria building up on this subject and many wonder—is Earth really on a collision course with death because of eco practises? Or is the Earth going through yet another natural climate cycle?

I’d like to offer a word of hope. One thing we can count on is the prophetic words of Scripture that take us right to the end of this Earth age and beyond, according to God’s plan. When Jesus comes again, there will be many people on an earth that has survived to that day:

“Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” (Matthew 24:30).

Yes, there will be tribes of people on Earth who will see Jesus come again for the second time. That certainly is an indication that the earth will remain alive with living people until that day. Studying the end times is a huge undertaking, but I encourage it. You will be blessed.

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