Monthly Archives: January 2018

One Year In, UK Christian Environmental Leader Assesses Trump Impact on the Creation

How bad would a Trump presidency be for the natural world? One year ago, on the day of Trump’s inauguration, Dr. Martin John Hodson, the environmental biologist directing the John Ray Initiative in the UK made a number of predictions for the year ahead. One year later, he’s examined them in hindsight.

How damaging has Trump been? We’ll summarize Hodson’s points, but here’s his conclusion:

“Having considered all the evidence I think it is probable that Trump will be far worse for the United States than for rest of the world. On the climate change issue, the US was the leading nation in the world, but is now rapidly losing that position to China. Internally, pollution laws and regulations are being repealed meaning that Americans will be exposed to higher levels of a whole range of toxic substances. If Trump gets his way, public lands and the coasts around the US will be opened up for drilling and mining. These activities and the Mexican border wall will have many negative impacts on biodiversity. The US science base, particularly in the area of climate science, is already being eroded. I can see more scientists leaving.

“So with one proviso, Trump is likely to be worse for the US than for the world. Here is the exception. In my 2017 briefing I expressed worries about the potential for a nuclear war. A year of Trump’s leadership has not decreased those worries. Even a limited nuclear war would be disastrous not only for the many people killed, but for the wider environment.”

EPA’s Scott Pruitt (center) and Interior’s Ryan Zinke (right) applaud President Trump. Together, they have dismantled US environmental leadership at home and abroad.

Now, here, in the bare bones, are Dr. Hodson’s findings now that the year is in the books:

Will Trump moderate his “climate hoax” attitudes and actions? “Trump’s actions throughout the year have almost entirely followed a skeptic path,” and it’s likely to continue.

Will Trump pull the US out of the Paris Accord? Yes, he did, but no one else has followed him. Most have increased their commitments, and the two other non-signatories have now joined, leaving the US completely isolated. “A feeling emerged that it might be better if the United States were out of the Agreement at the moment to avoid Trump’s meddling in the whole process.”

Will Trump be able to reverse the decline of coal? Despite killing the Clean Power Plan, leasing Federal lands to coal companies and making it easier to dump coal mining toxins into streams, coal employment has hardly budged. “My conclusion is that Trump’s attempt to revive coal will fail.”

Will work begin again of the Keystone XL Pipeline? “The long fight over Keystone XL is likely to continue for some time, and whether it will ever be built is still uncertain.”

Will Trump dent the surge in the use of renewable energy sources? Globally, no. The world is racing ahead with renewable energy, led by China and India. In the US, yes. Trump is using tax and tariff policies to cripple renewables in favor of fossil fuels. But the US retrenchment is dwarfed by the global progress.

Will Trump succeed in selling off public lands? Large scale protests will break our everywhere, but Trump will try to eliminate Federal protections as he did at Bears Ears National Monument and with uranium mining in the Grand Canyon watershed.

Will cities and states be able to prevent the worst effects of the environmental assault? It’s too early to say. The Climate Mayors (68 of them representing 68 million Americans) and the United States Climate Alliance (15 states} have committed to the Paris Accord goals, despite the Trump pullout..

How far will California go to protect the environment against Trump’s policies? California has already entered agreements with Scotland and China, and is working with others to fill the Federal climate void. As the world’s sixth-largest economy, California is eclipsing the Federal government in climate leadership.

Will US climate science survive four years of Trump? He has acted to muzzle science; NASA may lose its climate mandate; earth science satellites may be canceled. But others are filling in: France has hired numerous US climate scientists, and New York is now funding the disbanded Federal Climate Advisory Committee, in exile at Columbia University. Despite these efforts, science will suffer.

What new things have arisen, not seen in last year’s outlook? “The wall” will affect more than 100 threatened species. Virtually the entire US continental shelf will be open for oil drilling. Smog will be worse with the withdrawal of the Clean Power Plan.

Will the Church in the US rise to the challenge to protect the creation? Mainline Protestant and Roman Catholics, yes. Evangelicals, no – some are even debating whether they still wish to be called evangelicals, despite the efforts of a small cadre of evangelical climate activists. “Outside of the United States very few Christians of any variety have time for Trump, and most Christian environmentalists are getting on with the job of caring for God’s creation.”

J. Elwood

Read or download Dr. Martin John Hodson’s full article here.

What Little People Can Do

I’ve been thinking.

Check that: We’ve been thinking. I’ve learned that I actually don’t think very well on my own. In fact, I can’t perform the even most basic bodily functions on my own. I can’t digest a meal, or circulate my blood, or process a thought by myself. I’m not – and you’re not – wired that way. But the Creator has given me some helpers. Billions and billions of them. In fact, ten percent of my body weight is made up of the creatures living in me as life partners. They may be small, but they outnumber my “human” cells ten-to-one. They feed in me, and with me, and even on me. Without them, my body’s functions would shut down within hours.

So, whatever happened to the rugged individualist? The top-of-the-food-chain alpha guy?  It turns out there are trillions of us working together in the body we call “Me.”

So what have we been thinking? We’ve been thinking about how amazing the “little people” are – the unseen biome that makes up most of the Creation. Take this little guy: symbion pandora. Actually, pandora is only a guy sometimes; other times, he’s a she. And other times, she’s neither one. The same creature. Pandora lives one place in the world: On the lips of Norway lobsters. (I bet Haitian lobsters have some incredible little helpers too!)

Symbion pandora can change from asexual, to male, to female. Amazing!

You wondered if lobsters had lips, eh? Well they do, and Pandora attaches himself/herself/itself there, dining on the crumbs that fall from the lobster’s table.

Pandora, with her one-sex-fits-all rotation is so unusual, they had to give her a special phylum (taxonomic category just below kingdom) all her own. (“Cycliophora.” Write it down. Impress your bowling buddies!) But her discovery twenty years ago rocked the biosciences, and showed us a whole new way of being a living species.

So we’re really excited to share with you about symbion pandora and show you her picture. Pretty pretty, huh? And handsome! The trillions of little people in here think it’s high time we’ve written something about their kind. And for the proud human individualist out there, I have a trillion voices telling you to wake up to the facts – Your little people outnumber the rest of you big time. Show them some respect, okay?

J. Elwood

Everything is Connected

I have been hearing three voices to challenge and shape my prayers and desires in recent days:

  1. A week of silence and spiritual routine at the Abbey of the Genesee, reawakening my connections with wind, ice, earth, sky, river, heartbeat, non-human creatures, and Spirit.
  1. Rereading of Pope Francis’ encyclical letter Laudato Si’, reawakening my sense of the connectedness of all things: “St. Francis would call creatures, no matter how small, by the name of ‘brother’ or ‘sister’. Such a conviction cannot be written off as naïve romanticism. For it affects the choices which determine our behavior. If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters unable to set limits on their immediate needs. By contrast, if we feel intimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously. The poverty and austerity of St. Francis were no mere veneer of asceticism, but something much more radical: a refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled.”
  1. And then, religious ethicist Larry Rasmussen sharpens the Pope’s “connectedness” reasoning even further: “While there is a deep human longing to belong to the same order that threw the galaxies across the universe and the planets into orbit, most of the cosmological and biological processes that gave us birth do not register in our sense of ourselves…. Modernity’s prized bubble – the built environment as our true habitat – leads to “apartheid” consciousness at the species level. Like whites in apartheid South Africa, we think that “our kind” can develop separately. Human beings collectively become the center and focus, drawing upon all the rest as needed. We do not regard ourselves internally related as kin to the rest of a shared and indispensable community that also lives embedded in the earth and cosmos. This constricted and alienated sense of ourselves is the species counterpart of self-absorption…. And while, as biosocial creatures by nature, we might acknowledge that our deepest human need is for social bonds and committed relationships – the opposite of self-absorption – we for some reason do not extend these bonds and commitments to other-than-human life. The outcome is the kind of anthropocentrism that smothers the cosmophelia (love of the cosmos) and biophelia (love of life) native to the kind of creature we are. Biophelia, the yearning for contact with other-than-human life, and cosmophelia, the yearning to belong to the same order as the stars, then languish, and we forget we are human beings tethered marrow and bone to evolutionary cosmic processes” (Earth-Honoring Faith).

For years, my friends have heard me throwing around references to the gospel as finding its source in “God so loved the cosmos” (Gr. “kosmon”) and its consummation in “the reconciliation of all things” (Gr. “ta panta”)  and its final word as “Behold, I am making all things new!”

And yet my own life hardly reflects this unity and community with the wider world of God’s creation. On the contrary, I see in myself heart-deep patterns that resist all of these redemptive connections: frenzied commitments to career, neglect of time in nature, a false sense of superiority arising from the unexamined references to the “image of God,” and tribal instincts that extend to nation, ethnicity, social class and religious tradition. And I recognize those same traits writ large in our nation as we retreat into exceptionalism, militarism, ethnocentricity, xenophobia, wanton disregard for ecosystems, expulsion of foreigners, and elimination of systems to care for the needy. We are not connected; we will build walls; we will arm ourselves with guns; we will sink or swim; we have a bigger button. We are not connected to anything beyond individual choice.

I decry these trends in our nation. But let me start by addressing disconnectedness in my own heart. And look, I’m running late for my walk in the woods…

J. Elwood

Can American Evangelicalism Survive?

Rev. Timothy Keller was my pastor, at New York’s famous Redeemer Presbyterian Church. I have for years listened to his sermons, both in person and from a distance – first on those ancient cassette tapes, and more recently on podcasts. I have read most of his books, and discussed them in small groups at my church.

So I was naturally delighted to see that one of my favorite magazines, The New Yorker, published an article of his under the title “Can Evangelicalism Survive Donald Trump and Roy Moore?” I hope you will follow the link and read it for yourself. But because of my familiarity with and respect for the author, I wanted to offer my own reactions.

Rev. Keller’s answer to the question begins with real promise – unflinching acknowledgement of the present-day shame of the white American evangelical label:

“People who once called themselves the ‘Moral Majority’ are now seemingly willing to vote for anyone, however immoral, who supports their political positions…. Many younger believers and Christians of color, who had previously identified with evangelicalism, have also declared their abandonment of the label. ‘Evangelical’ used to denote people who claimed the high moral ground; now, in popular usage, the word is nearly synonymous with ‘hypocrite.’ When I used the word to describe myself in the nineteen-seventies, it meant I was not a fundamentalist. If I use the name today, however, it means to hearers that I am.”

Wow. What a start! I read on, eager for the thoughtful analysis to come. And sure enough, there’s good stuff in here. Keller points to the chasm dividing the typical American “white evangelical” – a tiny minority in worldwide Christianity by any measurement – from the robust growth of Christianity in the non-European global South. He points to the vibrancy of multi-ethnic urban churches in America planted among immigrant communities by non-Western missionaries. And he finds racial justice and care for the poor prominent in the lives of such churches.

‘Evangelical’ used to denote people who claimed the high moral ground; now, in popular usage, the word is nearly synonymous with ‘hypocrite.’ — Rev. Tim Keller (Source: Both photo and caption from The New Yorker)

As Pastor Keller describes it, there is a vibrant movement in the American church – aided by immigrants and missionaries from abroad – that addresses one of the fundamental flaws of Christianity in this country. That flaw is summarized well by Robert Phillips Russo of Christians for the Mountains:

“Most of the church is split into two camps – either focused on personal salvation and holiness, or focused on social holiness and social justice. While we can say that we all care about both personal and societal well-being, many of us fall into one of these two camps.”

I think Russo has got it just about right. And if it’s true for the personal beliefs of individuals, it’s all the more so for church communities. Our churches tend to opt primarily for one of these choices or the other. Personal salvation. Societal justice. Seldom both with anything approaching equal fervor.

But what if Rev. Keller is right? What if American Christianity is being transformed by multi-ethnic “small-e evangelical” churches with a new-found passion for social justice? As Keller tells it, the media stereotype of evangelicals misses this movement entirely. Those “big-E Evangelicals” you see on TV or read about in polling data are not what you find in our churches. Young people are not abandoning the urban “small-e evangelical” churches like ours. We are adopting a full-orbed commitment to gospel justice in ways that defy both political poles.

Well, I hope so. But I’m in those churches, and I’m not so sure. For the most part, I find that while we concern ourselves with personal salvation, we don’t dare to seriously address thorny societal issues beyond the traditional causes of the Christian Right. Coming out of the closet (as a Democrat or progressive) is still really awkward. Young people ARE leaving us due to our complacency about societal injustice. And efforts to address structural injustice (as opposed to alleviating its consequences) are still generally too hot to handle.

And I’m afraid that Rev. Keller’s own words would seem to reveal a pretty clear choice on his own part in the divide described by Russo. “Jesus didn’t come primarily to solve the economic, political, and social problems of the world,” wrote Keller in a recent Tweet. “He came to forgive our sins.”

Well, okay. But does our gospel force us to make this choice? Do we have to choose between the personal and the societal? It looks to me like this good man has chosen the personal – not the societal – redemption offered in the Christian gospel.

 

To be fair, Rev. Keller did qualify his choice with the word “primarily.” But there is still a choice to be made, isn’t there? Primarily, God did not love the “cosmos” so much that he gave his only begotten Son; rather, he loved the individual sinner. He loved me. He saved me. Personally. That’s the primary message of this particular gospel narrative, isn’t it?

But as I read them, the Gospels don’t force us to choose. To begin with, they tell us that “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son…” (John 3:16). The world. He loved the world. The gospel writer could have used the word “anthropos” – meaning the human world, individual people and mankind. And that’s the way my religious tribe usually presents the message. It’s human; it’s personal; it’s about God’s love for me – at least for starters.

But the apostle instead chose a different word for the world God loved: “kosmon.” God so loved the kosmon, from which we get the word “cosmos.” God loved the cosmos – the world of all things. Jesus uses the same word when he asks “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world (kosmon) and loses his soul?” It would seem that “the world” that God loves excludes nothing at all. God loves the world of “all things” without limit, whether people, or societal relationships, or ecosystems. And we learn from scripture that God sent his Son to reconcile “all things” to himself; and that at the culmination of history, he will make “all things” new. The entire cosmos. Everything.

So, is our gospel primarily personal? Or is it societal? Or is it ecological? Or do we really have to decide?  If God’s love for the cosmos undergirds the gospel, maybe we don’t have to.

And yet we evangelicals (or whatever we now call ourselves) have indeed decided, I’m afraid. The personal, individual message has it hands down. And if we mention societal holiness at all, it’s generally in broad, non-specific terms. We’re fine with God’s love for the poor. But the Medicaid that keeps them alive? Well, that may be too delicate for us to act on.

As a case in point, my wife Barbara and I traveled to Charlottesville, Virginia last August, at the same time that white supremacists and neo-Nazis were descending on the college town for a brazen show of gun-toting, torch-bearing racial intimidation. Mainline-denomination and African American Christians were everywhere, mobilizing opposition, operating church sanctuaries for those in danger, organizing transportation networks to evacuate the injured, and confronting the armed rally-goers with scripture, songs and prayers.

We began with planning in an Episcopal Church; we greeted the sunrise with prayer at an African-American church; the Methodists provided a sanctuary space for us all. These were people of many faith traditions. And, yes, we even saw one white evangelical church joining in the effort, led by their pastor.

But Virginia is teeming with evangelical churches. Where were they? Evangelical pastors from my own denomination (and Keller’s) had, by chance, congregated in Charlottesville at that very moment to deal with routine issues of church governance. But they stayed indoors, far away from the messy business of racism and ethnic hatred. Meanwhile, out on the streets, the white evangelicals such as ourselves were nearly invisible in a sea of diverse people congregating in mainline churches, acting in defense of Jews, African Americans, and general decency. Personal salvation, or societal reconciliation? In Charlottesville, the evangelicals appeared to choose the personal.

I don’t think this experience is isolated. In my experience, wherever action to address structural injustice is found, American evangelicalism is most notable by its absence, by its silence. Surely Pastor Keller must see some cases where evangelical churches genuinely relate their faith to the urgent social issues of the day. But to me, he’s arguing more from the exception rather than the rule.

More than anything, I wish Pastor Keller would address this question: Let’s assume that the worst of the bigotry voiced under the “big-E Evangelical” banner is in fact emanating from those without true faith and consistent religious practice. Even so, why is it that the remaining white evangelical church is generally silent or complicit in the face of rampant economic, ethnic, racial, gender and ecological injustice? We are born again, for goodness sake! Unless that’s just a get-in-free pass to Heaven, it has to mean something on Earth, doesn’t it?

(Warning: A response of “Christians-aren’t-perfect” simply will not do. If you are indwelt by the Spirit of God, you actually live somewhat more like Jesus did. And in his own words, Jesus came bearing good news and practical aid to the poor, the oppressed, the prisoner and the blind.)

Pastor Keller ends his article by siding with those who think the name “evangelical” will likely be abandoned or demoted. Personally, I think that’s a courageous prediction for a leading pastor in a conservative denomination. But beyond that, he predicts no change in belief among those in the movement. That’s where I think he would do well to explore a bit further. Current or former evangelicals will – indeed they must – ask themselves: What have we believed, or failed to believe, that has made us feel so comfortable with our place in a religious tribe which is so little devoted to the justice and mercy that defined our Savior’s life and mission? How could “God’s elect,” those indwelt by the Holy Spirit, have actively supported or silently acquiesced in some of the darkest societal ills seen in our generation? And how could we do so in greater numbers than those we regard as lost?

In the meantime, my thanks to Pastor Keller for making a good start. He has acknowledged the shame we feel. He has highlighted the role of world Christianity in shaping a more just mission for the Christian church. He has pointed us to examples of redemptive church life in our own country. But I pray that he won’t stop there. We are still forced to make choices that are foreign to the life and teaching of our Lord. We’ve got to look with brutal honesty at where we have lost our way. Because if Jesus came bringing hope and help to the poor and the powerless, then we’ve simply got to figure out why it’s so hard for us to follow him there.

To read Rev. Keller’s article, please follow this link.