Monthly Archives: December 2015

Herod and Caesar, Then and Now

My pastor preached a great sermon yesterday morning from the Gospel according to Matthew, Chapter 2. It’s the story of the Magi, wise men who studied the heavens, finding a new star, and seeking the newborn King of the Jews. There was problem, of course. The Jews already had a king – Herod. “Herod the Great,” he was called. And he wasn’t amused at news of potential newborn rival kings.

We like to think of Herod as unusually brutal, and perhaps he was. There are all kinds of flawed rulers, governors and congresspersons who don’t resort to murdering their wives and children, as he did. Or to ordering the wholesale slaughter of baby boys in a district rumored to be harboring a new child-Messiah. But in fact, in ways subtle or brutal, kings and governors don’t get along at all well with the Messiah. To their credit, they understand the words of the apostle Paul: “The Kingdom of this world has become the Kingdom of our God and of his Christ.” As Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright puts it: “God is king, and the kingdoms of the world are thereby demoted.” And nobody wants to be demoted, especially kings.

Leon Cogniet, 1824, Musee des Beaux-Arts, Rennes, France

Leon Cogniet, 1824, Musee des Beaux-Arts, Rennes, France

This understanding was second nature to the early Christian church. Paul told the Corinthians that no one could affirm that “Jesus is Lord” without the Holy Spirit’s aid. Because in so doing, such a person was also affirming that Caesar is not Lord; that Mammon is not Lord; that he or she is not Lord. And each of these carries costs which can hardly be borne without the help of the Holy Spirit. Maybe it’s poverty; or humility; or injustice; or martyrdom.

How I wish for a renewal of this awareness in the church today! If Jesus is Lord, then Herod and Caesar are not Lord. And neither are progressives, or conservatives, or free marketeers, or Keynesians, or Republicans, or Democrats. Neither are oligarchs, or monarchs, or capitalists, or socialists. Neither is the Chamber of Commerce or MoveOn.org. Jesus is Lord, and the kings of this world aren’t happy about it one bit. None of them.

N.T. Wright again: “In almost every letter Paul demonstrates that Jesus is Lord, and that Caesar isn’t; that the ‘gospel’ of Jesus upstages the ‘gospel’ of Caesar; that the true salvation is achieved through Jesus, not Caesar; that the world needs God’s justice, not Roman justice; and with great irony, that the cross, a hated symbol of Roman rule, had been transformed into the life-giving symbol of God’s self-giving love.”

What have we lost in the church of our day? At least in part, it’s this: We’ve come to believe that our political and economic brands are, to a degree, endorsed by the Refugee of Bethlehem. We can choose “the package of the Right,” says Wright: “rigid social structures, hierarchy, law and order, a tough-minded work ethic and a strong view of national identity. Then there is the package of the Left: freedom and revolution, overthrowing hierarchies, blurring old lines, doing things in new ways. It is assumed that, with local variations, you are basically in one camp or the other, and that many other decisions are determined by it.”

Well then, do we argue that Christ-followers should withdraw from engagement with the power structures of our world? Hardly! What the gospel offers us, says Wright, is inaugurated eschatology: “Like the Israelites under their monarchy, chafing at its imperfections and looking for the fulfilment to come, the followers of Jesus are to live under the rulers of the world, believing them to be appointed by God but not believing that that makes them perfect or that they do not need to be reminded of their duty, however dangerous and uncomfortable a task that may be.”

In this time of the American election cycle, we can hardly escape the cacophony of Herods and Caesars demanding our allegiance to their lordship. But for some of us – for me, I hope – Jesus is Lord, and the rest are just governors, or senators, or billionaires, or the latest ideological fashion-mongers.

If Jesus is Lord, then I’m just beginning to fathom the list of all the things that are not. Caesar, Herod? You had your day, I suppose you top the list of the Demoted. But you’ve got plenty of company from our day.

Why I’ve Decided to Start Writing my Congressman

Causes everywhere ask us to write to politicians. If you’re like me, you seldom do. But unless we’ve all bought into the narrative of implacable political hostility and irredeemable polarization, then we’ll recognize that most people believe they’re doing the right thing, and at some level will be responsive to appeals and persuasion. Here’s my offering today, to my NJ congressional representative, Scott Garrett:

Dear Rep Garrett:

I am conscious that when writing to you, I am speaking to a person who sincerely shares my faith in Christ. Scripture says that makes us brothers in a real way, even in this world of bitter political divisions. As such, I hope to speak to you with optimism and hope, drawing on our shared vision for the rule of God on earth.

Anglican bishop N.T. Wright has given us a clear idea of how Christ-followers are to relate to their ruling officials: “Like the Israelites under their monarchy, chafing at its imperfections and looking for the fulfillment still to come, the followers of Jesus are to live under the rulers of the world, believing them to be appointed by God but not believing that that makes them perfect or that they do not need to be held accountable. On the contrary, because they are God’s servants they may well need to be reminded of their duty, however dangerous and uncomfortable a task that may be.”Picture1

So today, I hope to remind you of a duty, as a brother. I have just returned from two weeks in Paris, where I have joined with numerous Christians from around the world, praying for the success of the Paris summit, and for meaningful global action on climate. What I heard there was hopeful, but also deeply embarrassing to me as an American, and as an evangelical Christian. The narrative from virtually every quarter, including global Christians, is that only America, among all countries in the world, is prepared to sacrifice the interests of the poor to the ravages of climate pollution; and that only the GOP, of all the political parties in the world, is threatening to sabotage action that every country views as necessary to protect their people and their children; and finally, that only American evangelicals, of all the faith groups in the world, are devoted to a political “batch ideology” that lumps willful disregard for climate justice together with its more noble principles.

I know that this narrative oversimplifies the actual facts: that the National Association of Evangelicals has endorsed action on climate change as an outgrowth of care for the creation, a “core element” in the gospel; that 65 percent of American evangelicals now acknowledge the dangers of climate change; that more than half of Republican voters agree on the need for climate action. But all that means rather little if Republican lawmakers and candidates stand in the way of serious action on climate pollution.

And so I would ask you as a brother in our shared faith, to please consider that faith when your party’s leaders call for unified resistance to action so desperately needed by our world today, which are becoming increasingly undeniable with every passing year. Specifically, you could begin this by adding your name to the Gibson Resolution, whereby Republicans are making clear that they, too, recognize the crying need for climate action, on behalf of God’s suffering world and its people.

Thank you. I look forward to discussing this with you in the near future.

If you’d like to read N.T. Wright’s complete essay cited above, you can find it here. If you want to find your Congressional representative’s contact information, you can click here. For more help from Beloved Planet on writing, look here.

American Christians at Paris Climate Summit Respond to Doubters Back Home

Here at the global climate change summit in Paris, it seems Christians are everywhere. We have been leading prayer vigils, encouraging our national negotiators, and acting in concert with our brothers and sisters from all over the world. We share two things in common: a conviction that the earth and all its people belong to the Lord; and the understanding that the natural systems that all creatures depend on for survival are imperiled by runaway pollution from burning fossil fuels.

So you can imagine the surprise that we Americans felt when we were shown a article in the Fox News Online opinion pages signed by 383 people who identified themselves as Christians. The title made the message crystal clear: Far from addressing an acute threat perceived by every nation, the global effort here in Paris would “doom billions to live in extreme poverty.”

Delegates from every nation at the Paris Climate Summit

Delegates from every nation at the Paris Climate Summit, COP-21

My goodness! The whole world is gathered here working feverishly day and night; they all agree on the basic facts of climate science; they are supported by the leaders of virtually every Evangelical, Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox association in the world, plus leaders of virtually every other world religion.

And yet their efforts will doom billions to extreme poverty? Really?

Well, as you can imagine, the first thing we wanted to know was: Who are these people who seem to know what no one else does? Well, the Fox op-ed article listed seven theologians and academics, who called their fellow signatories “nearly 400 other climate scientists, physicists, mathematicians, economists, theologians, philosophers, and ethicists.” Now that’s impressive! 400 climate scientists and other scholarly types. But I figured it would be worthwhile scrolling through the names, just to see what popped out.

383 is a lot of names, so I settled on the names beginning with “S.” There were 43. Six of them listed no academic degree whatsoever; 10 boasted bachelor’s degrees; 11 had master’s degrees; and 16 held doctoral degrees in topics ranging from theology to engineering, history, biomedicine and economics.

Hmm. So where were the “nearly 400 climate-scientist” types? Well, to be fair, I did find one. He was a meteorologist whose work is so controversial that the editor-in-chief of a peer-reviewed science journal resigned when the journal elected to publish his research. Later peer-reviewed research concluded that this scientist cherry-picked from less than half of his own data sets to support his conclusions.

Okay. So maybe the “nearly 400 climate scientists” look a little more like a gaggle of signers from scores of specialties, or perhaps no specialties at all, plus at least one climate scientist with a very controversial C.V. But an informed reader of the signatories list will also notice something remarkable: It’s who’s NOT there.

Not on the list are mission sending agencies, whose people are laboring among those already beset by climatic upheavals. Not on the list are Christian relief and development organizations – like World Vision, Tear Find and Christian Aid – who affirm that climate change is the greatest threat to all their progress to date. Not on the list are the representatives of the worldwide evangelical Christian church, like the Lausanne Movement, the World Evangelical Alliance, or even the U.S. National Association of Evangelicals.

Their absence speaks volumes. Those who live and work among the world’s poor haven’t touched this letter. Those who are committed to relieving poverty are nowhere to be seen. Those who unite the voices of Christians from every country have kept their distance.

But let’s not throw the whole thing out just yet. Why, exactly, were these writers arguing against the climate action supported in Paris by virtually every country in the world? Well, because they claim that the science is “uncertain.” The only reasons to fear, they write, are “computer climate models,” and those models are biased to make future global warming look worse than it will be.

Now from our perch here in Paris, this is a remarkable claim indeed. The best experts from every country in the world are here. They are debating, even today, whether global warming of 2.0 degrees Celsius should be the target limit, or whether the world should pull out all stops to limit climate change to 1.5 degrees. Island and low-lying nations like the Philippines and Bangladesh note that 2.0 degrees will doom their homelands to inundation beneath the rising seas. Comparatively safer countries reply that the earth has already warmed by 1.0 degrees, and substantial further warming is already “committed,” or baked in by our greenhouse gas emissions to date.

They would be surprised indeed to hear that the whole problem is nothing but a few biased climate models that overstate the problem. The writers who hold these assorted degrees (or none at all) should definitely catch the next plane to Paris, and relieve these exhausted negotiators of their worries.

Of course, we’re not actually here because of computer models at all, whether or not the Fox News op-ed criticism holds any water at all (which I suspect it does not). We’re here because all the critical data tells us that the world is even now heating dangerously. Consider:

  • Global heat records are being broken year after year, with 2015 expected to demolish the prior record set in 2014. In fact, 13 of the 15 years of this century have broken all prior heat records, with the only competition coming from 1997 and 1998.
  • Arctic sea ice coverage is declining at an alarming rate of 13.3 percent per decade.
  • Worldwide, glaciers are retreating at unprecedented rates, imperiling societies that depend on stable river flows.
  • The Antarctic Ice Sheet is losing 134 billion tons of ice per year, and Greenland is losing 287 billion tons per year.
  • Oceans have become 30 percent more acidic than a generation ago, as they soak up ever greater amounts of atmospheric carbon, imperiling coral reefs and plankton that form the base of the food chain.
  • Damage claims from extreme weather events are rising sharply. Even adjusted for inflation, billion-dollar weather events demonstrate a clear upward curve.
  • Sea level rise is now a clearly established fact, up 200 mm since the Industrial Revolution, and accelerating with ocean warming and ice sheet melting.
  • Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are now far above any levels observed in Antarctic and Greenland Ice cores from samples trapped in snow and ice over hundreds of thousands of years.
  • Atmospheric methane levels are similarly higher than any historically measured levels.
  • Ocean heat content is also rising fast, as the ocean absorbs greater surface heat.

And in the face of all this data recognized by the world gathered here in Paris, the Fox News authors tell us that we have no need to worry, because they have issues with a few computer models.

Of course, anyone can tell that these “nearly 400 climate scientists” – or whoever they are – evidently have something else in mind. It will sound familiar to those who observed the tobacco wars of the last generation, when Phillip Morris and others labored for decades to belittle and undermine the science that demonstrated the links between smoking and cancer, and the dangers of secondhand smoke.

More recently, others will recall that in 1997, Exxon CEO Lee Raymond used the Fox News op-ed language almost verbatim. Contrary to the advice of his own Exxon scientists, Raymond said: “Forecasts of future warming come from computer models … which are notoriously inaccurate.” (Exxon’s scientists had acknowledged that this was nonsense more than a decade earlier, both publicly and in internal documents. And in the early 1990’s Mobil’s chief scientist affirmed that “the science of global warming is well established and cannot be refuted,” according to lawyers currently pursuing shareholder fraud actions against the company.)

So, to the nearly-400-climate-scientists-or-whatever, we Christians in Paris wish you were here. We wish you could hear the testimony of Filipino Bishop Efraim Tendero, who leads the World Evangelical Alliance with its 600 million members. We wish you could hear the leaders of Tuvalu, Kiribati and Seychelles, who are contemplating the disappearance of their homelands. We wish you could hear our English Lake District friends, or our Norwegian brothers and sisters, who are this week enduring the worst floods on record. Or those from the Maldives, also suffering record rain storms. Or even our own countrymen from Washington State, which just shattered its daily rainfall record in freak storms.

The problem is not computer models. The real problem was summed up by climate scientist Gus Speth in an address to religious leaders in 2009. “I used to think the top environmental problems facing the world were global warming, environmental degradation and eco-system collapse, and that we scientists could fix those problems with enough science,” said Speth. “But I was wrong. The real problem is not those three items, but greed, selfishness and apathy. And for that we need a spiritual and cultural transformation. And we scientists don’t know how to do that. We need your help.”

Please, Fox News writers, whoever you may be, please join us in extending a helping hand to the world’s nations gathered here in Paris. God’s creation is groaning for his children to rise to their calling.

Why I’m in Paris: Because We All Need Water

I’ve tried to capture stories over these last two weeks that explain why I came to Paris to the global climate summit called COP-21.  I’ve joined with countless Christians from all over the world, sharing our stories and hopes, praying for our fears, and proclaiming the lordship of God over a groaning world. This morning, I sang and prayed with Christians from Singapore and India, and their presence drew my thoughts to the people of Asia who have come to Paris desperate for solutions to the climatic upheaval besetting their world.

It’s clear why the countries of Asia are desperate for an agreement on climate pollution. The principal water source for countries from China to Pakistan is the frozen Tibetan Plateau — the “Third Pole” — and it’s melting fast in our warming world.

Dwindling Himalayan glaciers feed Asia's most important rivers, watering countries from China to Pakistan

Dwindling Himalayan glaciers feed Asia’s most important rivers, watering countries from China to Pakistan

Vanishing glaciers raise urgent concerns beyond Tibet and China. The 46,000 glaciers of the Third Pole region sustain 1.5 billion people in 10 countries — its waters flowing to places as distant as the tropical Mekong Delta of Vietnam, the hills of eastern Myanmar and the southern plains of Bangladesh. Scattered across nearly two million square miles, these glaciers are receding at an ever-quickening pace, producing a rise in levels of rivers and lakes in the short term and threatening Asia’s water supply in the long run.

I have written extensively in these pages about the plight of Pakistan’s 160 million souls, overwhelmingly reliant on the flow of one single source of life: the Indus River. Pakistan’s Indus – like India’s Ganges, Vietnam’s Mekong, China’s Yellow and Bangladesh’s Brahmaputra – is fed by Himalayan glaciers, which today are receding at an alarming pace, adding to floods that have displaced millions in the Sindhi breadbasket region and destroying its farms and crops. The World Bank warns that in coming decades, the mighty Indus – crippled by its dwindling glaciers – could become a seasonal stream, leaving Pakistan completely dry in the crucial summer growing season.

Worse yet, the Indus flows into Pakistan from Indian-controlled Kashmir. India and Pakistan, both armed with nuclear weapons and wounded by profound sectarian conflicts, could be left to debate whose thirst will be quenched by the Indus, and who will wither and starve. If you’re looking for the apocalypse, this may be the place to start.

Today’s Himalayan melting calls for compassionate and wise action. Deadly floods routinely beset the region, as the people of Chennai in south India are experiencing even today, as they bury more than 300 flood victims. But do we dare to imagine a world when 1-2 billion of God’s people have no water to grow food?

So Christians are in Paris to pray and act for a world where our Asian brothers and sisters can live peaceable and quiet lives in their own homes. Here we see clearly the blessing of Jesus pronounced at the final judgment: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father … for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink….”

Drink, and food. For the billions sustained by the waters of the Tibetan Plateau, these precious gifts now hang in the balance. That’s why I’m here in Paris, praying and acting for the success of COP-21.

Christian Witness at the Paris Climate Summit

Note: Hundreds of Christian churches, denominations and ministries are present at the COP-21 Paris climate summit. The following story is from the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRCNA), The CRCNA has just updated their fellow congregants back home on the ups and downs in the Paris negotiations.

Here in Paris, it’s 3:00 AM. A group of hardy friends from the Christian Reformed Church are meeting electronically with 200 of their fellow congregants who have joined the Climate Witness Project in North America to review and pray for the Paris worldwide negotiations on climate change.

Michelle Nieviadomy, of the Cree First Nation in Saskatchewan, tells the gathered CRCNA that in the Dene First Nation language, there is no word for “climate change.” Instead, the word for “strange happenings” is used. Raccoons showing up in habitats that have never seen them before. Fish covered with cancers. Seasonal changes occurring out of sequence. The CRCNA represents many indigenous Christians. They lament that indigenous communities around the world are largely being shut out of the process, but efforts continue.

CRC delegates to the Paris COP-21 conduct internet confernce with the folks back home

CRC delegates to the Paris COP-21 conduct internet confernce with the folks back home

The CRCNA is bearing witness to the reality that God is here in Paris, that he loves his world, that the church is deeply concerned about God’s creation and his people. Negotiators are surprised and encouraged to find that Christian denominations, churches and organizations are such a strong presence in these negotiations. The churches of Paris, from Notre Dame de Paris, to St. Michaels Anglican, to L’Eglise Baptiste are alive with Christians meeting to pray, worship and plan.

151 national presidents from around the world spoke to the Paris COP-21, expressing support for the negotiations and the global effort to rein in greenhouse gases to keep worldwide warming to within 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Presidents of island nations Kiribati and Maldives spoke of it being too late, and that their islands will have to be abandoned — their people permanent exiles from the rising seas.

Major questions remain about finance for the Green Climate Fund to finance clean energy and adaptation in poor nations. The US has offered $3.0 billion, funding for which US Congress leaders have sworn to oppose. Comparatively tiny Canada has nearly matched the US ambition, offering $2.7 billion, with no recalcitrant legislature to prevent them. Rich countries, which have prospered while polluting the world’s atmosphere with greenhouse gases, are facing worldwide calls to recognize the cost being borne by the world’s poorest countries, who have done little to cause it.

Thanks to the CRCNA for your excellent work here in Paris, and your faithful witness to God’s love for his creation.

Why I’m in Paris: Climate Justice

“He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Micah 6:8

Bishop Ephraim Tendero addressing the Paris climate summit

Bishop Ephraim Tendero addressing paties at the  Paris climate summit

Today, we at the Paris climate summit were privileged to hear from Bishop Efraim Tendero, Pesident of the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA). In addition to leading the 600-million-member WEA, Bishop “Eff” serves as the presiding Bishop of the Philippines. And so his lecture, titled “Climate Justice,” rings with special authority, as the nation of the Philippines leads a bloc of nations that claim to be the most harmed by climate change. That bloc, called the V20, is demanding justice from polluting countries that are causing them harm.

Indeed, it has long been recognized that poorer countries are most vulnerable to climate change, without having contributed meaningfully to its causes. Bishop Eff noted that China and the US account for 42% of global greenhouse gas emissions. By contrast, the low-lying Philippines account for only 0.28% of those pollutants. And while the big polluters will indeed suffer in a world of climate disruption, it is the Philippines which are already being devastated by monster storms like Typhoon Haiyan.

The leader of the WEA isn’t the only one telling this story, either. The Global Climate Risk Index, maintained by GermanWatch, ranks countries by the harm they have suffered from climate change. In the last 20 years, the Philippines has ranked fifth in the world in climate damage, behind Honduras, Burma, Haiti and Nicaragua. In fact, of the ten most affected countries, nine were developing countries in the low-income group. The red circles on the map below highlight the hotspots, with Bangladesh, Vietnam, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, and Pakistan rounding out the ten countries with the dubious honor of paying most heavily for the cost of our oil and coal binge in China and the US.

The Christian witness at this global gathering is meaningful and visible. And with the voice of leaders like Bishop Tendero, the evangelical world is now demanding justice for the poor, in an increasingly inhospitable world.