There it was, in my inbox, the cautionary and age-old question from a fellow veteran in the war against climate-change denial: Should evangelicals promoting the scientific consensus favor diplomatic gentility or prophetic indignation? Do we follow John the Baptist (“You brood of vipers!”) or Titus 3:2 (“be peaceable and considerate, and always to be gentle toward everyone”)? Compare and contrast Paul and Barnabas and Luther and Erasmus. Whose voice do we prefer?
Personally, I crave the bridge builder’s role, not the shrill prophet’s. Prophets drape themselves in camel’s hair and protest beside muddy rivers and eat locusts and see bizarre visions and curry no favor from kings and queens. And they can be whiners and self-appointed faultfinders. And their heads thud on platters. Give me the script of the sage, mollifying old man. It’s quickly becoming age-appropriate.
But what if intimidators have muscled in and imprisoned the wise? What if the very instruments of wisdom — reason, prudence, judiciousness, facts, and time-honored tradition — are viewed as weaknesses? The cowed sages still counsel conciliation from behind their bars, barely aware that warped wisdom pummels true wisdom and stabs it with a victory flag. The aim of argument is now conquest, not discernment of the truth.
Such, I fear, is the plight of many evangelical denominations. Their acquiescence is palpable when the clarions should sound: President Obama issued executive orders designed to wean America from fossil fuel dependence. Debate over the plan’s specifics is laudable, but we should at least commend his aims, especially in the wake of yet another United Nations study showing how this century’s first decade was the hottest in 160 years. Perhaps we can model our response on The Evangelical Environmental Network’s Jim Ball, who commends Obama for a crucial first step, then adds: “But the president’s plan will only prove to be significant if our country develops the moral and then the political will to take even bolder actions in the future. For changes this momentous, the moral will must precede, undergird, and empower the political will.”
Key in on the all-important word, “moral.” Ball is staking classic evangelical territory. Our creeds and heritage call for more sacrifice, less materialism, and less self-centeredness. We’re back-to-the-Bible people, and the language of Genesis 1 strongly suggests that God was creating a temple when he made the Earth; we’re his appointed “idols” (another translation of the Hebrew word for “image”), which means our first mission was to tend God’s sanctuary. Surely the burden of proof rests on those who would ignore escalating CO2 levels, especially since climate change clobbers the poor worst of all. What’s more, we lure mockery on our pro-life and pro-family arguments unless we insist on the biblical calls for compassion, justice, and environmental care. We’re ripe for the ever-favored accusation, “hypocrisy.”
Perhaps it’s time I snip out coupons for smelly camel garments.
Ball’s thinking is hardly radical among international evangelicals. The Lausanne Movement teamed up with the World Evangelical Alliance and published a 2012 statement that renders Obama’s speech docile: “We are faced with a crisis that is pressing, urgent, and that must be solved in our generation …” We’re devastating nature with “violence,” and, “We can no longer afford complacency and endless debate. Love for God, our neighbors and the wider creation, as well as our passion for justice, compel us to ‘urgent and prophetic ecological responsibility.'” Enlightened American organizations include Ball’s EEN, the Young Evangelicals for Climate Action, the National Association of Evangelicals, and the New Evangelicals for the Common Good – along with denominations such as the Christian Reformed Church, the Evangelical Covenant Church, and the Wesleyans. The unofficial “Southern Baptist Declaration on the Environment and Climate Change” is especially valuable — and we can throw in a recent letter from 200 self-identified evangelical scientists for good measure. They call for action.
But many American evangelical institutions waffle or remain silent. Some paragraphs in the Southern Baptist Convention’s official statement read like a denier’s publicity brochure. The websites for the Free Methodists and Nazarenes are blank on climate change, as is one of my favorites, the Vineyard Christian Fellowship. The Evangelical Free Church is hushed and the Lutherans of the Missouri Synod say nothing. Several Reformed denominations — including the Orthodox Presbyterians, the Evangelical Presbyterians, and the Presbyterian Church in America — are quiet despite their tradition’s heritage of civic and social engagement. One of my two ordaining organizations, the warm and welcoming Conservative Congregational Christian Conference, displays statements on racial reconciliation, homosexuality, abortion, euthanasia and assisted suicide, pornography and obscenity — but nothing about creation care.
I know many in these denominations. They’re good people. I maintain my CCCC ordination — although I’m more involved with my other ordaining body, the American Baptists — partly because of their kindness. But I wonder: Are they cowed? Are they intimidated by the guilt-by-association tactics of the misnamed Cornwall Alliance For The Stewardship of Creation (pantheistic environmentalism taints all favoring the scientific consensus)? Arguments for climate-change activism often meet deflection: let’s focus on spirituality and discipleship and evangelism; let’s avoid “politics.”
So abortion isn’t political? Have all these good people mistaken conflict avoidance for resolution? Are we deaf to the wisdom of Deborah Fikes, who argues that responsibility on climate change dovetails with holistic evangelism to our youth? Perhaps we should remember Martin Luther King: “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people,” and, “A nation or civilization [or church] that continues to produce soft-minded (people) purchases its own spiritual death on an installment plan.” Hear King again: “I must confess that I am not afraid of the word ‘tension.’ I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but… we must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help [people] rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood…”
I think of Jesus, who deliberately ignited controversy under the authorities’ grim gaze. He ratcheted the tension. Christ wanted true peace — shalom — which is more than mere tranquility. He demonstrated that non-violent tension is often a step toward reconciliation.
My friend has waged the battle far longer than I, so I would be arrogant if I dismissed his email. But, at the same time, I’ve seen how some will feign offense and co-opt the language of reconciliation while supposed “peace-makers” (who are unknowingly conflict-avoiders) attempt mediation. The strong, prophetic voice is silenced: John the Baptist is compelled to apologize while the vipers slither away.
There is no escaping the fact: Many in the evangelical movement have turned a blind eye to a scandal of the highest order. Many “good people” sit in silence as the name of Christ is defamed. I must remember the Prophet Nathan amid my admiration of the reconciler. He saw King David’s sin and proclaimed, “You are the man.”