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The Christian church in North America has much to answer for. We know this. Fellow RJ writer Jim Schaap reminded us yesterday of the church’s collusion with nefarious ideas such as the Doctrine of Discover and Manifest Destiny—even while some Christian leaders sometimes acted mercifully and bravely. Tim Van Deelen urged us on Thursday to lay aside typical Christian apathy about current environmental injustices, an apathy abetted by our tendency to idolize corporate power so much that we don’t bother to hold big business accountable.

For sure, the church has also done many, many good things. What I want to ask today, though, is not What have we done? but What could we do? I would like your help with this question. I would like to consult the RJ “hive mind.”

As you know, I’ve been researching and writing at the intersection of faith and climate change for going on seven years now. You might expect that reading the climate news all the time is depressing, and sometimes it is. But I also find this work invigorating. So many amazing people are doing so much amazing work to help “transition” life on this planet away from truly devastating possibilities and toward a more just and sustainable future. We’ve made so much progress! There’s still so much to do!

People of all faiths, including North American Christians, are very much a part of these efforts. I could give you many, many examples. However, North American Christians have not, generally, been leaders in what Catholic “geologian” Thomas Berry called the “Great Work” of our day.[1] As Old Testament scholar Ellen Davis wrote in 2009, “It should concern us that ‘secular’ intellectuals and activists are on the whole ahead of religious leaders, including theologians, in articulating the dimensions of both our unprecedented situation and our urgent responsibility.”[2]

Davis’s assessment remains true, with notable exceptions. You may have read Pope Francis’s remarkable 2015 encyclical, Laudato si’, which I admire more every time I read it. In that document, and in its sequel exhortation, Laudate Deum, the pope is insistent that the crisis we face is at root a spiritual crisis: “A great cultural, spiritual and educational challenge stands before us, and it will demand that we set out on the long path of renewal.”[3]

He’s speaking to everyone on earth. Are the Christian faithful listening? In North America? Well, recent research demonstrates: not really. And White American Evangelicals in particular have not only not helped but actively resisted and denied. We could analyze why, and you could probably offer your own good guesses. But even for churches and faith groups who definitely want to help, sometimes there’s a further problem: we’re not sure what we have to offer.

Mitigating the climate crisis and adapting to already baked-in climate change requires many, many solutions across a huge range of fields: technology, engineering, governance, jurisprudence, land use, agriculture, and many more. None of those are the church’s specialties, though of course individual Christians and Christian organizations may indeed offer crucial expertise in those fields. But I believe that the church as a whole has a distinctive and crucial role to play, and we need to step up to it. So here’s my precise question, worded three ways: What distinctive gifts does the church bring to the table? What can we offer, right now, in this moment in history? What gifts of the church are suited well for what we need?

OK, I’ll get us started. Here are the traditional actions of the church. They all have Greek names (koinonia, diakonia, etc.) but let’s go with the English:

  • Proclamation
  • Sacraments
  • Worship
  • Training/teaching
  • Community
  • Upbuilding
  • Service
  • Healing
  • Mission/Evangelism
  • Witness/Testimony
  • Prophetic witness
  • Polity

Great. But which of these should we lean into right now, for the sake not only of the Christian faithful but for the sake of the world? And how might our usual ways of doing these things need to be adapted to address the current crises we face? For instance, could we think about healing not just as healing people but also as healing land and healing people’s connection to land?

Here are some further ideas.

Community. Congregations are supposed to be good at building supportive, diverse, intergenerational, long-haul communities. I say we’re supposed to be. Many churches actually are wonderfully good at this. How can we strengthen these gifts right now? What “works” and what doesn’t, or doesn’t anymore? Local community support (“mutual aid”) is crucial in times of upheaval, so we really, really need to strengthen and offer this gift. Healthy churches are also skilled at building relationships with community partners outside the church, and those social interwebbings are also crucial for resilience and will likely become more so.

Meaning-making. The church stewards the Word. Yes, but what is the Word? It’s the good news about Jesus, about salvation, it’s a set of stories that we know and love and that shape our life. It’s a big, overarching narrative that we fit our own small lives into. OK, but how does that Story address the immediate needs of people living with uncertainty, fear, even despair about our global near future, maybe people who have experienced climate disasters or climate-related migration for instance? It’s not enough to say “Jesus died for your sins” or “Don’t worry, God is going to create a happy ending to history.” For people both within and outside the faith, we can offer meaning and hope, but we have to translate our age-old Story in ways that address this moment in history.

Transcendence. We know (ideally) how to connect people with transcendent reality. To me, that’s the point of praising God, singing, prayer: we long to connect with something beyond ourselves, beyond material reality—in other words, God. How can we leverage our transcendence-connection skills to help everyone receive the reassurance of eternal perspective and to perceive the radiant wonder embedded in this world? Are we fulfilling our priestly role—praying for the world—in ways that acknowledge serious climate realities?  

Ritual and sacrament. The church stewards not only the Story but also the Symbols. Humans need rituals—especially communal rituals—to manage difficulty, confusion, threshold events, lots of things. We should be good at this! Ideally, we know how to ritualize repentance and forgiveness. We know how to ritualize suffering and death (question: do we know how to ritualize birth?). We know how to manage group rejoicing and group sorrow, how to lament and manage loss. Can we offer these skills to help with the particular repentances, joys, and griefs of our present moment? Moreover, Christian sacraments dignify the stuff of this world as means of grace—they are signs of God’s love not only for us but for the creation. How can we make our sacramental life more resonant with this divine love?  

Giving and service channeling. Giving and service these days is largely a niche affair—you, individually, respond according to your personal preferences to the many voices and causes clamoring for whatever time and money you can give. Churches, though, make giving and service a communal affair. This has numerous benefits: it’s more fun to work together, we combine our group efforts, and to some extent churches can (should) vet causes. We already have many good causes we typically support, but maybe we need to expand our scope a bit to include, say, migrant resettlement or local disaster support or energy justice.

Well, that’s a start. What would you add? What ideas does all this evoke for you?  

Thanks to Adalyn Pike, Calvin English 23-24 Vande Kopple Fellow, for help with brainstorming for this piece.

Image credit: Sean Rayford/Getty images/    

[1] Thomas Berry, The Great Work: Our Way into the Future (Three Rivers, 1999).

[2] Ellen Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible (Cambridge UP, 2009), p. 10. Davis is speaking most directly to the agricultural aspect of the biodiversity/climate crisis.

[3] Encyclical Letter Laudato si of Our Holy Father Francis on Care for Our Common Home (Vatican Press, 2015), par. 202.

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