Some of the most inspiring words in the entire Bible are found in the opening pages of Genesis. Here we are told that humans were created in God’s image and given a divine mandate to care for Creation (Gen. 1:26-31). Our vocation—our calling—is to partner with God in preserving and sustaining the earth with all the creatures and species that God has made. The word used in most translations is “dominion,” and the true meaning is what we would today call “stewardship.”
Unfortunately these passages have often been used and abused to advance countless agendas, often to the great detriment of the Earth and its inhabitants. The deep sense of stewardship implied by and inherent in these verses is ignored and the word “dominion” has been interpreted as domination—and a license to destroy. Such thinking is not just unfaithful to God; it is dangerous to all God’s creation and creatures.
The most recent example of this unfortunate mindset can be seen in the recent comments made by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) denying that human activity contributes to climate change. He claimed proposals attempting to address the troubling climate trends were problematic because they might hamper economic growth and lacked international buy-in. We certainly wouldn’t want something as insignificant as the sustainability of our planet to impinge on next quarter’s GDP, or worse yet, a potential candidate’s presidential campaign.
Much attention has been given to Rubio’s denial of climate science. After all, there is overwhelming evidence that climate change is real and humans are contributing to it in significant ways. But what’s potentially more harmful than his devaluing of the widespread scientific consensus is the utter lack of discussion about moral implications. This was in fact a political denial of the facts, for the sake of a voting base he desperately wants to cultivate; but worse, a cover up of both moral and theological imperatives.
And there are serious moral costs to our willful ignorance and political inaction on climate change.
It is time to acknowledge this as the sin of short-termism. By prioritizing the present—and at worst, current political calculations—at the expense of the future we are risking the health and prosperity of future generations. Our nation has long prided itself on leaving the next generation better off, but what sort of example are we now setting and what inheritance are we passing on? It is hard to answer these questions honestly because we are unwilling to admit the truth. Scientific denial is psychologically easier. For some of our elected leaders it is also politically convenient.
While its secular usage is increasing, the word “repentance” remains a deeply theological term. Biblically, it demands both an acknowledgment of the wrong that has been done and a commitment to act differently in the future. You cannot repent if you are unwilling to change. When it comes to climate change, we cannot just lament what has gone wrong. And we must do more than just point to the already alarming consequences of climate change and the catastrophic potentials which lie ahead. Instead, we must repent of the harm we’ve caused and commit ourselves to a new course of action.
In a recent speech, President Obama outlined an agenda for addressing climate change. He clearly named the goals which must be sought: first, a transformative investment in clean energy; second, a significant reduction of dirty energy; and third, a collective commitment in every part of our society to save energy. It’s really as simple as that. So why can’t we agree to the moral narrative that underlies these outlined solutions? The tremendous gains that can be achieved—for both the public and private sector—from increased energy efficiency and a renewed commitment to conservation is something good for our planet, our lifestyles, and our souls.
Here is the moral narrative. What will your grandchildren’s grandchildren ask about why we, and why you, did not do what was necessary for them? Why were we so selfish and short-sighted? Why didn’t we care enough about the future of our world and theirs, to take care of our descendants? And here is the biblical and spiritual narrative: does care for God’s creation really allow us to exploit the earth and its resources for short term economic self-interest? Is that good stewardship and the humble worship of God?
There is much to be commended in the President’s plan and what many scientists are pleading for, but unless we confront the underlying narratives that inhibit faithful progress even the most obvious policy solutions will remain out of reach because of our nation’s dysfunctional politics and short-term economics. The irony is that the moral course of action would bring new economic opportunities. There are more potential good jobs in the retrofitting of the nation to conserve energy, and the re-wiring of our energy grid for a cleaner future; but that would not be in the self-interest of the oil and gas companies that now control the country and its politics.
As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. so often quoted, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Of this I have no doubt. My only question is whether we’ll have the moral courage on climate change to bend it fast enough before catastrophe becomes unavoidable. For the sake of my grandchildren—for the sake of my grandchildren’s grandchildren—I hope we start taking our calling as stewards of God’s Creation a lot more seriously.
It’s time to stop denying science, denying our created instructions, and denying the sovereignty of God. Instead, let’s start acknowledging our moral responsibilities.
Jim Wallisis president of Sojourners. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.