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Holy Week Reflections: What Do The Prophets Teach Us About Facing Climate Change?

Despair is unworthy of humanity. MLK and Rabbi Heschel drew on older traditions to show us a better way to confront impossible odds.
 
 
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The lessons of the Hebrew prophets can teach humanity how to respond to the catastrophe of global warming with strength and resilience. As we near Passover and Easter Sunday, it is a good time to reflect on their example.

The threat of global warming is almost unimaginable — sea level rise of metersswamping the world’s great cities, thedesertification of lands populated by billions, the extinction of thousands of species, the death of the oceans, the destruction of ice caps, droughts, floods, fires, and storms of Biblical proportions. Unchecked, global warming could actually make regions of the planet literally uninhabitable to humans — so hot a person would drop dead in minutes.

The cause of this growing calamity — with terrible devastation already and much more to come — is humanity itself, with the unchecked burning of the fossil fuels that power civilization, despite the increasingly desperate warnings of scientific observers.

Yet people are told that we can fight global warming easily. Anointed leaders retreat into denial or simply avoid the subject. Many who grasp the terrible stakes righteously batter the “failure” of imperfect, “ineffective” governmental efforts to tackle climate pollution.

In Pillar of Fire, the second of his three-part biography of Martin Luther King, Taylor Branch describes how the civil rights movement in 1963 faced a similar crisis of faith in trying to figure out how to fight entrenched, institutionalized, racism and segregation in what seemed at the time to be impossible odds and repeated failure.

At the January 1963 Chicago Conference on Religion and Race, one thousand delegates of assembled clergy from the various branches of the Judeo-Christian faith grappled with that question, which sent them careening from Pollyannish optimism to biting despair. As Branch relates, King found a fellow voice in Rabbi Abraham Heschel, the Hasidic scholar who escaped the Nazis and then fought the wave of atheistic nihilism that followed the Holocaust. King and Heschel found guidance in the “ideal of the Hebrew prophets” who faced destruction not merely with virtue but also the “remorseless unveiling of injustice and oppression”:

What brought King and Heschel together was a prescription for the dilemma that plagued the Chicago conference. Most of the delegates searched for ways to overcome a stubborn avoidance of race in religious discourse. To break such a barrier, nearly all the theologians felt the need for a calming approach that labeled racial prejudice a feeble anachronism, a holdover of premodern irrationality, but this very impulse to soothe and minimize opened them to charges of false engagement from realists such as Stringfellow and Campbell. Yet, the realists’ tinge of fatalism reminded Heschel of a ghostly legacy from the Jewish past — the defiant urge to abandon hope of any divine presence in the face of inexplicable calamity . . .

As proof that human beings could engage the most deadening crises without falling into either of the classic polar traps — nihilism or blandness — Heschel held up the ideal of the Hebrew prophets. While facing, even welcoming, the destruction of themselves and their own people, the prophets remained suffused with redemptive purpose. Far from soaring off in to saccharine self-persuasion, however, they made biting symbols out of daily pains and predicaments. “Moralists of all ages have been eloquent in singing the praises of virtue,” wrote Heschel. “The distinction of the prophets was in their remorseless unveiling of injustice and oppression…”

Man-made global warming is another “inexplicable calamity.” Blandness, sarcasm, and nihilism are tempting responses. But there is another path — that recognizes that suffering is inevitably found on the way to justice, that knowing sacrifice can lead to redemption. “God still has a way of wringing good out of evil,” King said in at the the funeral for the four girls killed in a Birmingham church bombing in 1963. “And history has proven over and over again that unmerited suffering is redemptive.”

King continued with words that speak directly to the challenge we now face:

Now I say to you in conclusion, life is hard, at times as hard as crucible steel. It has its bleak and difficult moments. Like the ever-flowing waters of the river, life has its moments of drought and its moments of flood. Like the ever-changing cycle of the seasons, life has the soothing warmth of its summers and the piercing chill of its winters. And if one will hold on, he will discover that God walks with him, and that God is able to lift you from the fatigue of despair to the buoyancy of hope, and transform dark and desolate valleys into sunlit paths of inner peace.

We have poisoned the very seasons, and people from New Orleans to Karachi have paid for that profligacy. The path to hope and redemption will not be easy or painless, but it can be found.

 
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