Tag Archives: intergenerational justice

The Hezekiah Syndrome: Why We Don’t Worry About the Kids

In the time of the prophet Isaiah, Judah’s King Hezekiah watched with alarm as his Hebrew kin in the Northern Kingdom were carried off into cultural genocide in Assyria. He managed to hold out in Jerusalem, however, and became widely regarded as one of the few “good guys” among Hebrew kings. But when Isaiah pronounced God’s judgment on Hezekiah, the strangest thing happened.

You remember the story, right? Hezekiah welcomed into his treasure vaults some ambassadors sent from another rising power – Babylon. He must have felt like a big shot parading out of all the gold and jewels he had amassed. This prompted Isaiah to deliver a terrifying verdict: All of your precious wealth will be carried off to Babylon. Worse yet, your sons will be led into captivity in chains. There, they will be castrated to serve as eunuchs and slaves of the king of Babylon.

Like a man under a terminal diagnosis, Hezekiah wanted to know how long he had left. The prophet’s good news – I suppose – was that the axe would fall only on the next generation, after his death. The king’s reaction – to me, at least — was stunning: Well, okay then! “Why not, if there will be peace and security in my days?” (2 Kings 20:19)

Picture4Parents everywhere swear that their overarching goal is to leave a better life for their children – or at least politicians love to tell us so. But the story of Hezekiah confronts us with an enormous challenge. Why doesn’t the Bible seem to condemn this betrayal of the kids? Why is it the scripture’s verdict that Hezekiah “did what was right in the eyes of the Lord?” And when was the last time we heard a sermon decrying Hezekiah as an intergenerational villain?

Creation care advocates see the “Hezekiah Syndrome” at work among us all the time. Sure, it’s starting to look very bad these days. Yes, global heat records are being broken year after year. And greenhouse gases are pouring into the atmosphere faster than ever. Sure, extreme weather is destroying crops and inundating coasts. And refugees are on the move en masse. The extinction of species is accelerating beyond anything seen by paleo-science in eons. And in just a few decades, the world’s oceans have become dangerously acidic, threatening much of the world’s food chain.

But whatever we see today, all the evidence tells us that this pales in comparison to what’s in store for those who will be living later in the century, and beyond. And this would lead us to expect that we would all spring into action, right? Since everyone’s got kids, grandkids or nieces, then surely they will take the climate challenge seriously. At least, they’ll read some actual research, from journals like Nature or Science, or from the National Academies or NASA.

But time after time, we’re disappointed. It would appear that we’re not all that concerned about what might be in store for the kids. If we’re looking to find motivation for responsible climate action, concern for the children simply is not very potent.

It’s not that we haven’t tried. One climate activist has asked us which question we’d rather hear in our old age: “What were you thinking? Didn’t you see the North Pole melting before your eyes?” or, more happily “How did you find the moral courage to solve the crisis?” But we’ve learned that appeals to intergenerational justice have curiously little power.

Now, British researcher George Marshall has given us some solid data about this phenomenon. Marshall cites studies by Haddock Research & Marketing in the US, Canada and the UK which demonstrates that people with children are actually less concerned about climate change than childless people. Really — less concerned. In Canada, “people with children were 60 percent more likely to say that climate change was not really happening than people without children,” says Marshall.

You’d think, wouldn’t you, that the opposite would be true? Parents will naturally sympathize with those whose diapers they changed, or so you’d think. But the Hezekiah Syndrome prevails for reasons that behavioral scientists have explored at some length.

Climate change is sometimes called a “wicked problem” – one that defies some of our most basic human responses. It’s not solvable by any individual acting alone; it lacks an obvious villain to mobilize against; its effects are felt most acutely by those far removed from us, by space, time, race or culture; it lacks a happy ending in human time-scale; and its narrative is mired in “research-speak,” replete with arcane statistics and carefully-worded probabilities.

If a bully is hitting your daughter on the playground, you don’t have to debate what to do. You’ll risk life and limb to protect her. BUT …

  • if it’s “very likely” that the average temperature of her world will be 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit warmer about 30 years from now;
  • if that proves to be a “threat multiplier” driving drought, flooding, hunger, political instability and resource conflicts in many places of her world, possibly her places;
  • if rising sea levels “probably” will force her to abandon Miami, New Orleans, or any of the beaches you enjoyed as a child;
  • if climate refugees will “likely” overrun many distant countries and fuel stronger calls to build border defenses in our own;
  • and if the solutions to these likelihoods seem expensive, uncertain and offensive to some of your friends …

… then maybe, the normal human response mechanisms will lead you to wonder whether all this stuff is just “alarmism.” You brought her into this world, didn’t you? Why would you subject her to all these risks?

“Wicked” problems are tricky that way. Instead of pulling out all stops to address them, maybe it’s understandable why so many parents hardly dare to think about solutions. After all, Marshall says, we can always immerse ourselves “in the daily routine of tears, laughter, and the hunt for the missing shoe, and put climate change into that category of tricky, challenging things we would prefer not to talk about.”

For parents – and indeed for all of us – climate change is a wicked problem. And the response to wicked problems bears all the marks of the Hezekiah Syndrome. Perhaps our reply to Isaiah is not that much different from Hezekiah’s. Oh well, who knows what God and his world will do several decades from now? At least I have peace in my time.

Can we bear to ask whether this might be what we’re saying?

Why Good Dads Need to Hear About Climate from Their Kids

I was always puzzled at the historical acclaim given among Jews and Christians to Hezekiah, King of Judah in the time of the prophet Isaiah. The Bible tells us that “he did what was right in the eyes of the Lord” and that “he was highly regarded by all nations.” I doubt my dad could have claimed as much. How about yours?

But even such a good man was willing, as hard as this may be to believe, to subject his children to misery, so long as it happened after his lifetime. When Isaiah foretold the coming ruin of his nation, and the slavery of his children in Babylon, Hezekiah accepted it without a whimper. “Why not,” he said, “if there will be peace and security in my days?”

Genocide, ethnic cleansing, slavery and exile are nasty things. But if they happen after I’m gone, maybe I can somehow make my peace with that.

Now, if you ask me whether such a thought could possibly lurk in some corner of my heart, I would take great offense. So would every parent I know. But, in fact, we older people seem to have some difficulty mustering up concern about future generations. Note for example, how older people view climate change: 49% of all Americans below the age of 50 agree that humans are changing the global climate, according to the Pew Research Center. But if you ask the 50-plus crowd, that percentage takes a 9-point drop to only 40%.

Now age alone can’t explain such a huge shift in views of science. Could it be that we older folks just have less of a future to worry about? Good King Hezekiah wasn’t immune to this temptation. Are we?

One person who’s willing to ask the question is Evangelical climate activist Anna Jane Joyner. Her father is a leading Christian pastor, and highly respected in many countries. But Ms. Joyner took the risk of taking their inter-generational conversation into the public sphere, in an open letter published last week in the Huffington Post. Maybe this will trigger some useful discussions with your parents, or anyone who is older than you. I pray that it will.

An Open Letter to My Daddy Who Doesn’t Accept Climate Change

This poignant letter is to my father, who is among the most powerful evangelical ministers in the world. Pastor Rick Joyner heads MorningStar Ministries, a global group with over 100 churches and partners in dozens of countries. My father won’t accept that climate change is human-caused. In this Sunday night’s episode of Years of Living Dangerously, Showtime at 10 p.m., I take him to meet scientists and see the situation on the ground. I wrote this open appeal to him. Anna Jane Joyner

Dear Daddy,

As you know, combating climate change is my life’s work. I believe it is the greatest challenge of our time. I feel a deep duty, to both my faith and my generation, to spread this message. We are the first generation that knows how serious the stakes are, as well as the last to be able to do something about it in time.

Anna Jane Joyner and father at recent film opening

Anna Jane Joyner and father, Rev. Rick Joyner, at recent film opening

I learned from you that we are called on to protect God’s creation and to love our neighbors. I write you today because we need your leadership to achieve a bright future for all of us – and our children.

Fossil fuels have brought the world many wonderful things, but now we know they come with a high price – an unimaginably high price if we don’t act soon to start transitioning off of them. We need to create a world where our energy needs are met without depending on fossil fuels that make us sick and heat up our planet. We can only do this together.

Daddy, I know you are someone who takes stewardship of creation as a moral mandate. I believe ignoring climate change is inconsistent with our faith. The risks are massive, and the science is clear. If we do nothing, our planet will face severe impacts, and billions of people will be hurt, most of whom contributed little or nothing to the problem. How is that just? How is that loving our neighbors?

Many people are already being negatively impacted, such as our friends, the oystermen, in Apalachicola, along with people from Texas to Bangladesh, from Syria to Staten Island — whose powerful stories are told in the Showtime series you and I appear in, “Years of Living Dangerously.”

It’s not just livelihoods at stake; it is our lives, God’s greatest gift to us. Daddy, will you use your voice to be a part of the solution? Christians are believers in resurrection, renewal, and salvation – even against all odds. We can help bring much needed light and healing to this situation, or we can allow misinformation and myopia to continue to be a hurdle to hope.

You are right, we do need truth. And now, more than ever, we also need action. I hope you’ll join me in working to overcome this great challenge, maybe the greatest our planet has ever faced. You and I both know our faith has risen to the occasion before and overcome great injustice and incredible obstacles. I hope we can come together, and do it now. For our planet and for each other.

Love you,

Anna Jane

Reprinted by permission of the author.