By Carol Robb
A 2011 survey by the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland and its affiliate, the Program on International Policy Attitudes, found a solid majority (65 percent) of those who said they “believe in God” see reducing global poverty and hunger as a spiritual obligation. However, only 15 percent of those same believers said they understand preventing climate change to be a spiritual obligation. It’s not that people do not see global climate change as a problem requiring action. Most respondents affirmed the reality and importance of climate change. However, they may not see the problem as a religious or spiritual matter.
As religious leaders and scholars, we must challenge this assumption. Each decision made by a religious community to use renewable energy sources has the effect of restraining harmful human impact on all our relations—plants, animals, the poor of every nation, including our own, and our extended families. In the same way, each environmentally responsible decision helps to strengthen the local community. Investment in renewable energy makes a larger contribution to the local and regional economy than an equivalent investment in corporate capital. It keeps more of the proceeds local and results in the hiring of more local people. As we shrink our carbon footprint, we grow our local social and economic capital. In this way, we show love and respect for the earth.
But local congregations tend to be smallish bodies, and the cosmos has been increasingly frustrated by the failure of significant players among the nations to agree to cooperate to mitigate the effects of climate change. Because CO2 stays in the atmosphere for as much as 200 years, the need for immediate cooperation is huge. Our earth needs us to stop putting any CO2 into the atmosphere, and to take more carbon out. To do so, we must not only change our individual lifestyles, but also advocate for change on a national and global level.
International negotiations are responsive to pressures at home. The United States is one of the largest energy exporters, so the incentive is to ship more coal, pump more oil, and pipe more natural gas. I call these pressures at home the “Kingdom of Oil.” Contrast the Kingdom of Oil with Jesus’ notion of the Kingdom of God. They are similar, in that both are historical and geographically rooted, though with permeable borders. They are, however, characterized by very different public policies.
The Kingdom of Oil is the context that affects us all, and with which we collude. Our retirement portfolios probably include fossil fuel companies or electrical generation facilities that use fossil fuels. Our transportation is likely still dependent on fossil fuels even when we try to cut back. While we enjoy many modern transportation conveniences, the consequences are passed on to those in future generations. The Kingdom of Oil offers many jobs, particularly in rural areas. In regions close to the centers of power, the population tends to identify with it, and its enforcement mechanisms are invisible. In regions further from centers of power, its unaccountable power alienates many of our relations, and enforcement tends to be more visible.
The Kingdom of God, by contrast, is theological language for “the common good,” the conditions for nourishing life on earth for all species. In the Kingdom of God, two-legged creatures have an important place, but not at the center, for biological systems are rich with biodiversity, and two-leggeds enjoy life but intentionally limit their impact so others may live. The Kingdom of God looks different from geographical context to geographical context, and it recognizes many different forms of social organization through which people participate as citizens and contribute to making policy. These citizens contribute to feedback loops as they learn what it means to live lightly on the earth in their particular contexts, and provide for the vulnerable among us.
As people of faith living in this world today, we have a foot in both kingdoms. In the 21st century, Christians look to the church to be a sign of the Kingdom of God. Sometimes the sign is covered with mud, but congregations shape the way we understand what is church. Christians participate in a network that spans the globe. In the church, some places more than others, we have become sensitized to the interconnected web of life to which we want to be accountable and act to make changes. Yet in light of the steady increase of atmospheric greenhouse gases, there is still much to be done.
When the Kingdom of Oil bears down and makes its will known in the halls of government and commerce, we have access to another power: the Spirit of Truth being born. We will be most aware of it when we work together to accomplish yet another action toward God’s kingdom. Let us dedicate the roofs of all our sanctuaries to God’s purposes in the world, to life space for all our relations, and to the hope for the earth to which the Spirit gives a new push.
Dr. Carol Robb is Professor of Christian Social Ethics at San Francisco Theological Seminary, and author of Wind, Sun, Soil, Spirit: Biblical Ethics and Climate Change (Fortress, 2010).