A Climate Justice Advent Reflection

By Jennifer Henry

For what does the bell toll? Is it joy as of a wedding or a birth? Is it a summons or obligation, as to dinner or to church? Is it alarm, crisis–a warning of imminent danger?  Or is it a wake up call, a signal to pay attention, as at the time of the words of institution?  Silver bells, the bells of mourning, the bells that ring when an angels gets his wings.  Bells are ambiguous, multiple in meaning.

Vines grow through a thick layer of waste petroleum surrounding a waste water tailings pond in Ecuador’s Lago Agrio oil district. Photo: KAIROS/Sara Stratton

For what is advent? Is it joy as in Zephaniah, “God will rejoice over you with gladness,” and Paul’s letter “Rejoice in the Lord always and again I say rejoice!” Or is it repentance as in John the Baptist’s: “you brood of vipers”?  Is it apocalypse or hope, the beginning or the end?  The “now” of our pain and our hurt, or the “not yet” of God’s transformation? Advent is ambiguous, multiple in meanings.

Three years ago, we looked at the climate crisis facing our world with Advent eyes and invited churches across the country to ring their bells for climate justice.  Some will remember this powerful action as hundreds of churches rang their bells 350 times.  In doing so we linked with people around the world who also rang their bells at the height of the UN Conference on Climate Change in Copenhagen.  According to climate experts, 350 parts per million is the upper limit for carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration in our atmosphere. Until about 200 years ago, our atmosphere contained 275 ppm of CO2, but now the concentration stands at 390 ppm. Unless we are able to rapidly reduce to that 350 target, we risk irreversible impacts on all of Creation.

3 years later, what is our Advent reading of the climate crisis?  What bell might we ring today for climate justice?

Let’s turn for a moment to some of the climate change victims, and bring their stories into our circle. From a Guatemalan farmer: “Last season I lost my crops because there was too much rain, this season I lost them to drought.  We used to be able to distinguish between the seasons, and now we can’t.  The rains used to bring relief and life, now they bring more heat and disease.”

KAIROS partner CEIBA continues to work with farmers like this man.  When CEIBA met with them initially, they described climate change impacts as the sense that God was punishing them.  CEIBA worked to explain why these changes are taking place and who is responsible.  They invite the farmers to join together to become subjects in the struggle against climate change, building the Movement of Victims of and those affected by Climate Change (MOVIACC).

Or closer to home, from Inuit leader Sheila Watt-Cloutier: “In some areas of the circumpolar regions, during certain periods of the year, as travelling and hunting on the land becomes more dangerous, fewer continue the traditional subsistence way of life. This can mean less and less of our culture is passed down to our young people…climate change threatens to erase the memory of who we are, where we have come from, and all that we wish to be.”

The impact continues and awareness rises, particularly as extreme weather events become common place in places like North America.  However, there is still the sense that climate change is not a present, but a future, crisis.

Advent eyes on the climate crisis seem like pure apocalypse to me.  No multiple meanings here…no hope.  It is not a stretch to think of John the Baptist –locavore, hemp wearing, living off the land, eccentric– as a eco-prophet.  As Luke’s references to tax collectors and soldiers remind us, John the Baptist speaks his truth out of a brutal occupation–an activist from the underside of history who later becomes its political victim.  What if he strode onto the global stage in our day and time, an eccentric wilderness prophet with nothing much but truth on his side?  What would his message be? What bell would he ring?

Scholars have suggested that his message, despite its rather off-putting tone, is actually one of radical inclusivity.  While Jesus tends more to “you are all loved-you are all saved,” John’s message is you, we, are all sinners.”  “You brood of vipers!  Don’t start saying ‘Abraham is our ancestor.’”  Your pedigree won’t save you–your privilege won’t save you.  This is a key message as we face the climate crisis.  None of us are immune. The devastating implications of our Northern addiction to oil are already being felt in the loss of people, species and eco-systems in coastal, tropical and arctic communities.  But ultimately, climate change does and will affect us all. Whether it is the ravages of climate or wars that burst borders or whether it’s our alienation from Creation, ultimately Canadian citizenship, a savings account, or a New York address won’t save us.

John’s next message is somewhat less bleak.  In response to the question “then what should we do?” his answer is practical, quite clear and direct: “you should change.”  Redistribute wealth: if you have two coats, then share; if you have more food, then do likewise.  Redistribute and act justly: “no intimidation, no false charges.”  He makes it sound do-able.  Luke’s next line, “the people were full of expectation” leaves a sense that the crowd was reassured by his words.

Around the world movements for climate justice are bringing a clear and direct message: change.  And they, we, are willing, even longing to see our whole way of living, including our unjust economic system, transformed.  If we really face the climate crisis, we will transform not only our environment ministries but our whole way of being in the world – with each other, with species, with nature. If we truly transform the world –redistribute power and wealth, bring economic justice, dignity, rights, peace– we will end the climate crisis. If what continues to emerge out from governments and international processes is only a market based approach to this problem, then we will make more victims.

Communities, like those in Guatemala, will be in the words of CEIBA’s Naty Atz Sunuc, “victims of the actual impacts of climate change and victims of the ‘solutions’ of climate change.”   These false solutions include massive hydro-electric dams, the use of vast amounts of land for agro-fuels and huge mono-crop plantations of trees that are supposed to act as carbon sinks for all the green house gases produced in the North. They are false solutions because they allow for the perpetuation of an unsustainable development model.

The dilemma is that many are not reassured by the message of “change.”  Some want to hold on tightly to the privilege of humanity’s great subsidy: fossil fuel.  ”We have Abraham for our ancestor.”  Some wage the perilous battle of the oil profiteers in our name, or in the name of our lifestyles.

For others inaction, in international fora or in our everyday lives, is more about fear.  Fear of an unknown world that is not so dependent on fossil fuels.  Can we still have quality of life? What will it mean to live so dramatically differently from how we have learned over years of oil over dependence?  It is like any addiction, desperately hard to break.  And so we are afraid.

For myself, I struggle with making the leap from head to heart on this issue, giving myself the courage (coeur) to act differently.  My own changes are so partial, and when tested, I slip back so easily.  In any high stress time, I overuse my car.  It just seems like a faster way to meet the many pressing engagements in that high intensity moment.

In announcing the Messiah still to come, John almost acknowledges that his way of change –anger and judgement– is not, alone, how real transformation happens. Admonitions and fear can motivate, but they will not sustain deep change.  This great change will happen, and it must happen, in the way that transformative change always happens, with hope.   That hope is the advent joy of this climate story. Where can we see that hope?

-In the words “climate debt” making their way onto the world stage.

-In the local food movement.

-In the creative “Earth” tent revival held in Winnipeg on Earth Day 2012, where older ways of motivating and inspiring were used to stimulate a faith-filled commitment to carbon reduction.

– In the offer, from Innu leader Sheila Watt Cloutier, after all we have done to her people, to teach us a “peaceful, cooperative, sustainable management approach” as a model for the globe.

– In the commitment of more than a thousand Canadian youth and young adults who gathered at Powershift 2012 in Ottawa to build a future based on climate justice.

Hope, even tenuous and small, is what will fuel this transformation.  Community and movements will magnify that hope.  Together we will give each other the courage to act – not simply to know in our heads what climate justice means, but to live it in our lives, ever more boldly.  It is the creation of community, across borders, with those who are already not just victims, but the leaders of the movements for climate justice.  It is our connection with them that will generate hope and transformation.  Hope is how we hold on to what we believe.  It is the way we rehearse what we believe God to be.

And it is a communal practice.  We make the cradle for peace and the shelter for hope into which the Christ Child is born. I want to leave you with a word from friend and theologian Ched Myers about insomniac theology.  His bell is a very loud alarm clock:

Above all we must not imagine that we can sleep though our ecological crisis. Our unsustainable, addictive compulsive civilization is perhaps best exemplified by the unconscionable tar sands extraction in northern Alberta, turning vast lush boreal forest into a barren industrial landscape of open pit mines and toxic tailing ponds…Such policies are driving us into a dark future…we have our backs turned, as we continue to live in Denial of the consequences of our ecological holocaust. Such a historical moment of crisis calls for nothing less than apocalyptic faith. We must awaken to hope, resisting the temptation to despair that history cannot be any different, that another world is not in fact possible…. Apocalyptic faith stays awake to the hope that is generated by all forms of faithful resistance, by all experiments with new ways of living, by all social advances that humanize life—none too small to celebrate, none too large for the dream of God.

Filed in: Ecological Justice, Spirited Reflections


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