United Church of Christ

Grasshopper Theology: From Climate Disaster to the Promised Land

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Recently, as I undertook my daily devotional practice of reading a chapter from the Bible on my train ride into work, I came across a verse that placed a finger on what is perhaps the hardest continual spiritual challenge I face in my fulltime ministry of environmental justice. To understand the significance of this verse from the book of Numbers, I must first place it context. After years in the wilderness, the Israelites are finally on the doorstep of the Promised Land when they receive some despairing news. The spies that went ahead to scout out the Promised Land came back with a report that essentially said, “Yes, indeed, it is a land flowing with milk and honey, but there are giants who live there and they devour anyone else who attempts to reside there. Numbers 13:33 then reads, “To ourselves we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.”

In the work of environmental justice, I have discovered that it is easy to feel like a grasshopper confronting giants—whether those giants are corporations or governments. This essay focuses on the kind of grasshopper theology that I believe will become a necessity for churches in reimagining what it means to be the body of Christ as they confront a climate future that simultaneously evokes dystopian fears and utopian hopes, nightmares of unconquerable giants and dreams of a Promised Land.

These polar extremes are captured in Jim Antal’s recently published book Climate Church, Climate World. In this book which argues that churches must become fundamentally repurposed to confront climate change or face a threat to their long term survival. To provoke a reckoning of what the future may hold, Antal offers two fictional provocations: one dystopian and the other utopian. The dystopian provocation comes early in the book as he imagines a pastor writing a letter to her congregation on the very day that this 4-century-old church has closed its doors for good: Ash Wednesday in the year 2070. Amid a time when the global population has plummeted to less than a quarter of what it once was, the church faces a world with “frequent catastrophic weather events, the endless border wars, the hundreds of millions of refugees fleeing flooded cities, the permanent deployment of military to protect the interests of the rich, and billions of people dying from uncontrollable disease, drought, and starvation.”[1] The church closes because it can no longer survive continual floods and powerful hurricanes.

Under such circumstances, the pastor pens the letter to her congregation. She laments how the church utterly failed to act during the “time of greatest need.” As a result, she writes that “faith in God has become as extinct as the elephant, tiger, panda, and the other thousands of species whose extinction we have mourned each St. Francis Day.”[2] The pastor recounts how “the church would mostly stay silent on climate change because climate change was a ‘political issue.’” She is at a loss to understand how religious leaders failed to address climate change as “a moral conflict.”[3]

As a counter weight to this bleak dystopian vision of the world, Antal offers a utopian vision. The implication of this second narrative is that while the world still suffers substantially from climate change, it nevertheless emerges from the Good Friday of climate devastation to the Easter resurrection of hard-won struggle. The intellectual pivot that makes such a resurrection conceivable comes from a comment by Bill McKibben who once asserted that climate change is “an opportunity for which the church was born.”[4] Antal believes this to be true, and he believes that it can only be true if the church arrives at a new sense of calling and repurposes itself accordingly.   

It is this repurposed church that Antal has in mind when he presents in his epilogue an imagined speech from the year 2100. The occasion is a large gathering convened by the World Council of Churches. The first speaker is a teenage girl named Evergreen Suzuki whose great-great-grandmother addressed the 1992 Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit as a twelve-year-old. She recounts how the seeds of revolutionary change were planted by those who struggled in earlier years. One of those seeds is the lawsuit that has been brought by 21 children and youth against the federal government over climate change. The case initiated a national moment of reckoning as the Supreme Court ruled in their favor by recognizing the right of children “to grow up on an Earth not wrecked by grownups.” Suzuki declares, “These kids made America realize that our country had been sleeping through a revolution—as Martin Luther King Jr. warned—and that it was time to wake up.”[5]

Suzuki goes on to further recount how the church eventually became part of this great awakening near the end of the 21st century. Just as its numbers were dwindling toward extinction, a great shift occurred in the church. A series of transformations occurred within churches that spanned from changes in liturgy to acts of public witness. A strong desire to protect God’s creation compelled acts of civil disobedience as people of faith “put their bodies on the line.”[6] Emphasis was placed on building the Kingdom of God on earth with a spirit of generosity and gratitude rather than greed and narcissism. Over time, a “common crisis” brought people together for a common purpose as the moral arc of the universe bent toward justice.[7]

Under present circumstances, provocations like those offered by Antal are needed. They provoke critical thinking about future possibilities and present trajectories for churches and our world. They compel one to reimagine the body of Christ. If churches are to be repurposed for a new climate age, then how shall we theologically navigate the territory that comes before our dystopian or utopian future, before the land of giants or the land flowing with milk and honey?  How shall we find ourselves within a larger story of divine accompaniment on an odyssey that bears upon the church and encompasses the world? To evoke Joseph Campbell’s stages in the hero’s journey, this larger story is one of struggle and transformation through multiple stages before a final destination is reached.[8]

In considering the larger exodus story, we realize that it begins with a call: a call to repurpose one’s life as Moses discovers what God would have him do. With the burning bush, it can be tempting to focus on the interior experience of being called, but it is also important to focus on the burning bush itself. When it comes to climate change, what is our burning bush? How exactly is it that God is awakening us to new purposes? In her essay “The Transformative Power of Truth,” Margaret Klein Salamon suggests to me that the burning bush is truth.[9] Salamon discusses the role that truth plays for both individuals and entire social movements. While difficult truths are sometimes repressed, denied, or ignored, when people finally accept the truth it can become liberating and energizing. It can become a driving force in one’s life. Climate change is a difficult truth. It is difficult to hear about entire island nations in the ocean going extinct. It is difficult to come to terms with the pervasive and far reaching impact of droughts, floods, and severe weather. It is difficult to fathom the racial and economic injustice that defines the destruction that is occurring. Yet, Salamon argues that wrestling with the truth ultimately makes us healthier and more resilient. It also helps us grow. She quotes psychologist and climate activist Mary Pipher who puts it this way:

We cannot solve a problem that we will not face. With awareness, everything is possible. Once we stop denying the hard truths of our environmental collapse, we can embark on a journey of transformation that begins with the initial trauma—the 'oh shit' moment—and can end with transcendence. In fact, despair is often a crucible for growth. When our problems seem too big for us to tackle, there's really only one solution, which is: We must grow bigger.[10]

Once one has an awakening before the burning bush, then one becomes open to receiving the call. For a deep and profound repurposing of churches, such a call can only be rooted in love, a love that can take different forms. For some, it might be a love of creation that calls upon them to care about deforestation, oil spills, and growing extinction rates. The threats to creation spur transformative action, because one protects what one loves. For others, their sense of call might be rooted in a love of neighbor—both near and far away. One cares about those suffering from the destructive forces of a hurricane. One cares about those suffering from the devastation wrought by a flood. One cares about those suffering from the loss of farmable land. That love again can also spur transformative action. Finally, there is an additional sense of call that is rooted in a love of children. For many involved in the work of confronting climate change, the matter is as immediate and personal as the children who live in their homes or the grandchildren who they adore. They are concerned about the world that the children they hold dear are in the process of inheriting. In the end, such forms of love are what inspire and compel churches to act. They are what enable grasshoppers to hop.

For the repurposing of churches, the moment of being called to confront climate change can be seen as the first of many moments of discernment that connect with the story of exodus. Another moment of discernment comes at the Red Sea. It involves seeing a path forward where once no path was seen. If one is honest about the kind of despair that climate change induces when fully confronted, then one will confess that there are times when one feels like one has come up against the Red Sea. There would seem to be no way to the other side that will get humanity there as fast as we need to get there. In those moments, it helps to catch glimpses of the water receding and creating a path forward. As city after city in the United States commits itself to transitioning to a 100% renewable future, one can catch such glimpses.[11] As the nation shifts away from one coal plant after another, one can catch glimpses.[12] As more and more faith communities divest from fossil fuels and join in marches calling upon the government to act, one can catch glimpses.[13] Such glimpses prevent the paralysis of fear and despair. They give grasshoppers courage in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, so that they can continue on their journey, a journey that takes them into wilderness.

While dystopian stories jar us from our slumbers and while utopian stories inspire us toward our dreams, wilderness stories place us in discernment. In the midst of struggle, sometimes those moments of discernment lead to questioning the very foundations of one’s faith. In the repurposing of churches for a new climate age, questions and doubts become inevitable. In the wilderness, the Israelites faced drought conditions that shook their faith and caused them to quarrel amongst themselves. When Moses strikes the rock and the water comes out, the point of the story is not so much about miracles as it is about God’s presence. Exodus 17:7 sums up the key issue among the Israelites in one question: “Is the Lord among us or not?”

Climate-related disasters such as hurricanes and droughts raise theological questions borne of suffering and anguish. When faith communities repurpose themselves and seek to actively address climate issues, the question originally posed by the Israelites becomes easier for people to readily answer in the affirmative, because one can see God’s spirit moving in the actions of the community. Herein lies the affirmation that grasshoppers need the most: that God is amidst them, that God’s love can empower them in even the most difficult of times.

A final moment of discernment to consider occurs in approaching the Jordan River. It comes when Moses generation and Joshua generation discern how they need each other to reach the Promised Land. While it is true that the older generations largely caused our present climate situation, and while it is true that the younger generations as a whole tend to care more about our climate, the solution is not to count solely on the children, youth, and young adults of today when it comes to curtailing climate disaster. Too much suffering would transpire in waiting for the younger generation to assume the necessary positions of power within and beyond churches. For churches, the prospect of older and younger generations working together on a matter of high importance to the younger generation would seem like a tremendous opportunity. Pope Francis’s high popularity among the younger generations should be a sign for the promise that is found when churches address the issues that matter most to them.[14] Just as the exodus story is not simply the story of a solitary individual but of a people who cross into the Promised Land, the strength of grasshoppers is to be found when they hop together and not as individual grasshoppers.

In the theology of grasshoppers, the accompaniment of God through the deeply felt struggles and transformations of individuals is not lost but the focus is also upon the God of social movements, because ultimately it is when thousands upon thousands of grasshoppers are jumping with a purpose that entire ecosystems change. Grasshopper theology strikes a balance between “the big picture” view of society and the daily grind of experience. On the one hand, there is a definite need to envision a revolutionized landscape that is free of giants. On the other hand, there is also a need for the day-to-day theology of those close to the ground. Those who are struggling to feel a sense of power and efficacy against odds that can easily seem overwhelming. In contrast to the motives of giants, the motives of greed and dominance, grasshoppers endure and even fly because of the love that gives them purpose. For this reason, the bright future of the church is to be found where the grasshoppers hop.            

 

The final, definitive version of this paper has been published in Review & Expositor, Vol/Issue, Month/Year by SAGE Publications Ltd, All rights reserved. © Brooks Berndt

Endnotes

[1] Jim Antal, Climate Church, Climate World: How People of Faith Must Work for Change, (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018), 42.

[2] Ibid., 43.

[3] Ibid., 44.

[4] Ibid., 49.

[5] Ibid., 172.

[6] Ibid., 173.

[7] Ibid., 175.

[8] Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, (New York: MJF Books, 1949).

[9] Margaret Klein Salamon, “The Transformative Power of Climate Truth,” Common Dreams, https://www.commondreams.org/views/2015/04/27/transformative-power-climate-truth (March 27, 2018).

[10] https://www.commondreams.org/views/2015/04/27/transformative-power-climate-truth

[11] “100% Commitments in Cities, Counties, & States,” Sierra Club, https://www.sierraclub.org/ready-for-100/commitments (March 27, 2018).

[12] “How Many Dirty Coal-Burning Plants Have We Retired Since 2010?,” Sierra Club, https://content.sierraclub.org/coal/victories; Benjamin Storrow, “GOP Is Trying to Prop up Coal, but Plants Keep Closing,” E&E News, March 15, 2018, https://www.eenews.net/stories/1060076419.

[13] “Divest and Reinvest Central: A Listing of Known Religious Divest and Reinvest Efforts,” GreenFaith, http://www.greenfaith.org/programs/divest-and-reinvest/listing-of-known-religious-divestment-efforts (March 27, 2018).

[14] Claire Giangravè, “The Latest ‘Rolling Stone’ Cover Captures Francis’s Appeal to Millenials,” Crux, March 10, 2017, https://cruxnow.com/global-church/2017/03/10/latest-rolling-stone-cover-captures-franciss-appeal-millenials; Rick Hampson, “Youth Puts Its Faith in Francis,” USA Today, August 29, 2016, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2016/08/29/youth-puts-its-faith-francis/89510264.

 


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