Thousands of years ago, an Israelite known for his wisdom penned the words, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the Sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9).
For the most part, he was right. Kingdoms rise and fall, seasons repeat, and every show eventually gets rebooted on Netflix. All that is has been before, and all that will be has already been. There’s comfort in the cycles of history, and many religious people find peace in knowing that God has been above and within it all, keeping the world a (generally) safe place for people to live.
That comfort, however, often breeds complacency, and that complacency has led many to dismiss the grave dangers of climate change. I’ve heard intelligent, thoughtful people say that climate change “is no different from any other problem humanity has faced. War, disease, natural disasters—there is always something threatening us, and God always brings us through.” Yes, history repeats itself, but that includes geologic history as well! We are hurtling toward carbon dioxide concentrations equal to the time of the dinosaurs—five times the C02 we have today—and will likely approach levels in 2019 that haven’t been seen in human history.
Despite the data, the experts’ analysis, and the potential for cataclysmic devastation, there are still millions of Americans who aren’t worried at all—or, worse yet, think the whole affair is a hoax. Since 1970, trust in science has decreased significantly among conservatives and regular churchgoers while remaining fairly consistent among other groups, and as a pastor and former evangelical, I have a vested interest in understanding why. We will not overcome this global crisis unless we are united, and until we understand one another, that is impossible.
The evangelical movement is not like other movements within Christianity. Its meteoric rise and influence are due in large part to how completely they created their own world within a world. I went to an evangelical school, and we regularly were encouraged to bring in our secular CDs to be destroyed—and to find a Christian equivalent to fill the gap. Christian bookstores even had guides to help you find the Christian version of your favorite secular artists. Our textbooks were published by evangelical universities that taught us why evolution was wrong, and most modern science was just a secular religion whose aim was to eradicate belief in God. My pastor once told me that the only reason to believe in evolution was if you thought that God wasn’t able to do it in six days like the Bible says.
I grew up immersed in evangelical culture, and not once did I question this system. I believed Christians were called to be in the world but not of the world. We believed that other branches of Christianity were only partially correct, other religions were adversaries, and secular institutions were not to be trusted they were liberal tools of influence. The Religious Right was so successful in creating this society within a society that we also adopted conservative politics along with our conservative theology. So as government science agencies like the EPA, FDA, and OSHA tried to curb industries to preserve human thriving, they became the enemy of conservative politicians, and by osmosis, evangelicals as well. This wasn’t an international conspiracy, concocted in some dark smoky room, to subvert democracy and take over the world. The convergence of conservative politics and conservative Christianity happened slowly enough, but has become a force that is now preventing real action on climate change, and, ironically, threatens creation itself.
Blinded by tribalism
Tribalism is a hell of a drug. Being a part of a group can blind even the most thoughtful person. A Yale University study tested this truism by asking students to evaluate two different welfare programs. One program was far more generous than anything currently available, and the other one was far more strict. Unsurprisingly, liberal students chose the generous program while conservative students chose the strict program. However, when students were told that the generous program was a Republican policy and the strict program was championed by Democrats, the results were switched. Yale graduate students were coerced into accepting programs that conflicted with their stated values when they believed that their “tribe” was behind it. (And before anyone thinks that this is just a conservative problem, a recent metastudy showed that tribal blindness is a universal human trait, no matter whose side you’re on.)
So what can be done to bridge this ever-widening chasm? First and foremost, before any discussion of policy can take place, we must fundamentally restructure our tribal identities. Before we are “liberal” or “conservative,” we must first be human. We must do away with the notion that we can be “in the world but not of it” with any shred of moral dignity. In our global society, we know that every decision we make affects someone else. My Appalachian hometown will not be immediately affected by rising sea levels, but make no mistake, the coal plants and crowded highways that are a hallmark of our modern way of life are directly implicated in the rapidly-disappearing Solomon Islands. We cannot feign ignorance in the information age. Knowing what we know about our global interconnectivity, we either choose to be a part of the solution or to tacitly support the disenfranchisement of our fellow humans.
The United States is the largest economic force in the world with the second highest rate of CO2 pollution. Our actions (or inaction) will either lead to global flourishing or global misery, and while we fight over the science, that decision is being made for us.
Climate skeptics will not be persuaded by charts and graphs any more than atheists will be converted by bumper sticker Bible verses. The only way to get through to each other is to get to know each other as fellow humans, to befriend someone who is fundamentally different than you. It is far more difficult to make a “straw man” out of a friend than a stranger.
Political identities become secondary when we are bound together in relationship, and, according to the studies mentioned earlier, it is only once we start on the same team that we can actually understand each other.
There is hope for humanity, but it has to start with you . . . and with me.
The Reverend Zack Jackson is the pastor of Community United Church of Christ in Reading, PA, as well as an adjunct professor of theology at Palmer Theological Seminary. He serves as the lead organizer for the UCC Science and Technology Network, conference representative on the UCC Council for Climate Justice, and is a Sinai and Synapses Fellow.