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Listening to the empty chairs

5.28. 2019 Written By: Eric Kurtz

This is a web-exclusive article on the theme “God so loved the whole world.” For more stories on this theme, see the May issue of The Mennonite.

Job seemingly isn’t a book of the Bible people would turn to when they are looking for spiritual guidance on creation care. Job was a man contending with the conventional wisdom of his day – a prosperity gospel that says, “Bad things don’t happen to good people.” His so-called friends spend 29 chapters repeating this tired theology, pounding it into him, while Job tries to defend his innocence and pleads with God to tell him why he is suffering.

Today many of us are surrounded by well-meaning, Christian friends and pundits who assure us that good people, blessed by God and a strong work ethic, deserve to consume. More, bigger, faster, stronger is better. As Bill McKibben points out in his book about Job, The Comforting Whirlwind, these beliefs “stem from the assumption that human beings are and should be at the center of everything.”

But that isn’t what God seems to be saying when delivering a long and rather sarcastic speech, infused with rich creation imagery, that puts Job in his place:

Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
… Who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together
and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?
Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth?
Declare, if you know all this.
-Job 38:4-7,18 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

The message seems to be, “Job. Get over yourself. You are not the center of the universe.” It feels like a rather harsh response to a guy who’s covered in boils and has just lost his family. But Job gets it.

It’s high time we got it too. Our climate is changing. I could throw a bunch of facts and graphs at you to try and convince you of this, but you’ve likely seen them. We don’t need more information. We need a change of heart and attitude.

To me, it comes down to this: The people whom Jesus called us to serve and walk with are the ones on the receiving end of disasters caused by a changing climate. The poor, the vulnerable, the people without a safety net, these are the folks who suffer when droughts happen, when sea levels rise and when mosquitoes carrying disease expand their range. And this crisis, unlike Job’s, is being caused by people – good people who claim an inalienable right to consume without considering the cost to others. It’s primarily caused by those who have the best ability to protect themselves from the impact of climate change.

We in the United States cannot ignore the fact that we produce 15% of the world’s carbon emissions, second only to China, while we have just 4% of the world’s population.

Karenna Gore, director of the Center for Earth Ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York, spoke last year at the Rooted and Grounded conference at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana. She said, “Any discussion about climate change should have three empty chairs in the room: One for future generations, one for … all nonhuman life, and one for the poor and marginalized… A moral framework for climate change must be consistently accountable to those three subjects.”

I agree with the last part about accountability, but my question is, “Why are those chairs empty?”

It might not be possible for nonhuman life to sit in a chair and speak to us humans. I’ll concede this chair might need an interpreter. But the poor and future generations can speak for themselves. And they’re doing it.

Last year Greta Thunberg, 15, skipped school to sit in front of the Swedish parliament, starting a movement of school strikes to try and get grown-ups to do something. She says, “The climate crisis has already been solved. We already have all the facts and solutions. All we have to do is to wake up and change.”

The poor and marginalized have a voice as well. Last year, the Center for Sustainable Climate Solutions — a collaborative initiative of Eastern Mennonite University of Harrisonburg, Virginia; Goshen (Indiana) College and Mennonite Central Committee — brought three international MCC partners and staff to speak to us about the challenges they face, as well as the ways their communities are responding.

Their stories represent what we observe and hear throughout MCC’s international program: more severe hurricanes, floods and droughts that cause people to migrate and fight over ever-more limited resources.

Durga Sunchiuri with MCC Nepal told how receding snowlines in the Himalayas have reduced clean water available to mountain communities. At the same time, floods have increased in the plains.

Zacarías Bernabé Martínez works with MCC partner Asociación Nuevo Amenecer (ANADES; New Dawn Association) in El Salvador to empower women to advocate with government officials for help to address climate change. Women, especially, experience the impact of climate change because they are often the ones who are trying to salvage food from their dry gardens to feed their families.

Sibo Ncube, with Zimbabwe’s Brethren in Christ Church Compassion and Development, brought many stories from her experience with conservation agriculture. MCC uses this farming practice throughout its agricultural programming to help farmers cope with decreasing and unpredictable rainy seasons. What I remember most from Sibo was this question: “Can it be God when some have so much and some have so little?”

The time has come for us, as Anabaptists, to recognize that a faithful response to our brothers and sisters around the world means addressing the root cause of our climate crisis.

We must connect the dots between climate change and our theology of peacemaking. Simply put, our lifestyles, and our addiction to fossil fuels, do violence to the most vulnerable and marginalized people around the globe.

We need to heed the message that God spoke to Job from the whirlwind – it’s not all about me, or us. It’s about our neighbors, it’s about those that God has called us to love as God has loved us.

Perhaps that means sacrificing our consumption for the good of others, paying more for green energy alternatives or advocating for our government’s commitment to reducing carbon emissions.

As is abundantly clear throughout the biblical narrative, God cares about all of creation, especially the most vulnerable among us. May we do the same.

Eric Kurtz is executive director of Mennonite Central Committee Great Lakes.

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