I suspect some of you may have just rolled your eyes at the title. Basically, it’s just not ‘Biblical,’ right? The Lord’s Prayer most certainly does not mention climate change, at least not in any version I know of. Nor does the rest of the Bible for that matter. So, enough with environmentalists trying to co-opt biblical texts. Let’s leave the distraction and get back to what the text is really about…
Obviously I, and many others like me, would consider this response less than helpful. But why? Disagreeing is one thing, but is there actually a fallacy in the argument? If so, where? Like most questions worth answering, this one is complex and requires a journey on our part. First, we need to take a closer look at the Reformation and the doctrine of Sola Scriptura that came from it; second, we need to spend some time thinking about life in first century rural Palestine. That done, it will be time to return to the issue at hand.
The doctrine of Sola Scriptura – by scripture alone – was one of the cornerstone beliefs of the Reformation. It remains a pillar of much of Protestant Christianity today, consciously or unconsciously. The doctrine basically meant that the Bible alone (rather than the Pope) was the final source of authority in the life of the Christian.
Building upon this doctrine was the idea of the ‘sufficiency’ of Scripture. For the reformers, Scripture, as the final arbiter of all matters of faith and conduct, was also ‘sufficient.’ What this meant was that no other authority source was needed. In its original context, this meant the Pope, but more generally it came to mean that the Bible itself was all the believer needed to move forward in their faith; the Bible was the only yardstick to which the Christian was to be held accountable.
This brings us back to the present topic. What of questions that are not directly answered by the Bible, such as ours, above? The answer commonly given to this problem is that the believer must seek general Biblical principles applicable to the situation. This is, of course, more complex than it might first seem. Doing it well requires navigating principles, ethical hierarchies (where ‘bad’ and ‘less bad’ choices are sometimes our only choices); it requires delving into the messy world of context, of hermeneutics, ancient languages, salvation history, and so on. In short, it is a task that is challenging for even the professional Bible scholar, let alone the lay believer. Perhaps because the task is so complex, its outcome is often unsatisfactory: a multiplicity of ‘expert’ views, often in conflict with one another, leaving the believer even more confused than before. And not only confused: also conflicted. Sola Scriptura says that the Bible is all I need, and yet here am I, still unsure. What to do?
Another way forward is needed at this point: a response that can remove the complexity, the need for expert help or long study; a response with clear and definite answers that provide real guidance, here and now. Such a solution is at hand. The logic is as follows. My question isn’t answered directly by the Bible. The Bible is, however, ‘sufficient.’ This leaves me with two possibilities: either there is a problem with the Bible (not a popular answer in contemporary Protestantism) or, and this is key, there is a problem with the question.
An example may help to illustrate at this point. Many years ago as a leader in a campus based ministry, I wrote Bible studies exploring a theology of the environment (among other things). The studies somehow never really gained traction. The problem, when I discussed it with my contemporaries, was simply that many of the Protestant Christians I was working with had theological priorities elsewhere – priorities informed by their straightforward reading of the biblical text. Jesus, Paul, John and the rest did not talk about an ‘environmental crisis.’ Neither then should we. Concern for ‘the environment’ is all well and good, but we must let the apostles be our template. The biblical text determines the scope of our interests and the ambit of legitimate enquiry.
A straightforward view of Sola Scriptura can thus result in the Bible being viewed as a collection of ‘proof texts’ from which we determine answers; however, we must also recognise that this approach to the Bible is equally determining the questions. If an issue is not directly addressed in the Biblical text, we can ignore the question altogether. Any hesitation we might have is assuaged by the fact that the apostles spilt no ink on it either, and that we are therefore justified in doing the same.
The final result of such an approach is, of course, a Christianity more in tune with the concerns of the first rather than the twenty first century. Such an approach, conscious or unconscious, is self-serving: it allows us to sidestep the difficult and complex task of applying biblical truth in novel contexts. We solve the problem by declaring that it is not, in fact, a problem – or, more accurately, not a problem that matters - and retreat back to the sure ground of personal holiness, evangelism, etc. The sad and unintended consequence of this approach is a parochial, irrelevant Christianity, unable to meaningfully interact with the broader culture in which it now finds itself. ‘Climate Justice and the Lord’s Prayer’? Such talk, rather than being taken seriously, is redefined as a distraction.
What then should our approach be in addressing a topic such as the present one? Climate change was an issue neither present nor imaginable to Jesus and his original audience. The ‘proof text’ approach to Scripture is therefore not going to help. If we reject the reductionist approach outlined above, and take the question seriously, what truth does biblical Christianity generally, and the Lord’s prayer in particular, have to offer us on this topic?
Our first step is to hear the text, as best as we possibly can, with first century ears; to understand the problems that it was addressing for its immediate audience; to comprehend the solutions offered to them; and so informed to attempt to apply the text to our own context. So, to the Lord’s prayer.
Matthew reads, ‘Forgive us our debts, as we have forgiven our debtors (6:12).’ A modern example is helpful here. In India today it is not unknown for farmers to commit suicide by drinking fertiliser. It is the most ready poison they have to hand. Such incidents are not simply examples of personal mental illness: they are responses to a social and economic situation perceived to be hopeless. The famer’s despair arises out of the nature of the agricultural enterprise. Farming is a fraught and unpredictable business. No amount of hard work can ensure the rains come when they should, or that disease will not blight a crop, etc. The result is that returns from farming fluctuate heavily and farmers must be able to weather these radical swings in productivity (income) to survive. Even in the developed world, with massive energy contributions from fossil fuels, such challenges are significant. In the developing as in the ancient world, the situation is more dire. All the same difficulties apply, but without recourse to technology.
Subsistence farmers must leave aside a portion of their crop each harvest as seed for the next year. If the return has been poor, the farmer will be forced to eat this seed reserve to sustain himself and his family, leaving him with nothing to sow and no hope of future income. Desperate, his only real alternative is to borrow a seed reserve. This places the farmer in a difficult position: not only must the next harvest provide a seed reserve for the following year, it must provide enough to pay back this year’s, with interest. Short of a record crop, this is unlikely. Instead, the farmer finds himself increasingly indebted; as the interest compounds, he reaches a point where there is simply no hope of ever paying off the loan. The result is foreclosure, loss of land and possibly loss of freedom; alternatively it may mean picking up whatever day labouring might be available to put bread on the table. No work means no food and a family reduced to beggary – a situation we see reflected in many of the parables of Jesus, and in the suicides of despairing, hopelessly indebted Indian farmers.
How does the Lord’s Prayer interact with this situation in the Palestine of Jesus’ day? For the overwhelming majority of Jesus’ audience, engaged in subsistence agriculture, indebtedness was the first step on the road to destitution. It was a fear that they had seen played out in the lives of others and a fear they held for themselves. It is into this context that Jesus teaches them to pray, ‘Forgive us our debts.’ Later piety, removed from the agricultural context of the original saying, interprets these words as metaphorical debt – sin. But the original and simplest meaning must not be forgotten. Jesus is teaching the people to cry out to God for liberation and salvation in the midst of precarious social situation, where their freedom, land and livelihoods are at stake and the outcome is beyond their control.
Jesus goes on, ‘…as we forgive those indebted to us.’ Another group is present amongst Jesus’ audience; for there to be borrowers, there must be lenders. Forgiving those indebted to us means forgiving, cancelling, debt. The result? The wealthy are to be the answer to the prayers of the poor. As the stronger party, they are called to be the means of liberation for the socially precarious. They are to break the cycle of indebtedness, to refuse an opportunity for investment; to instead offer social and economic salvation.
Climate change presents a clear parallel in the modern world. The brunt of the consequences will be felt by the poor. They are the least able to deal with extreme weather events, flooding, drought, food scarcity and so on. They are, in a word, vulnerable, in a way that we in the developed world are not. As nations in a position of strength, it falls to us to bear the brunt of the costs – even more as we are responsible for the bulk of the ‘carbon debt’ transmitted to the global ecosystem over the last 200 years.
Jesus commanded the wealthy to be the answer to the prayers of the poor. They were positioned such that they could be. The developed world must similarly be found willing to bear the brunt of the costs for reducing emissions, emissions that have human, social costs attached. Without question, as climate alters, human suffering will ensue. The impoverished will pray for rescue in the midst of miseries to come. Now, as then, it is we in the developed world – the strong, secure and well resourced - who must be the answer to those prayers.
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John Scott is an Associate Lecturer in Biblical Studies at Alphacrucis College in Sydney, where he has taught for many years. John has also been a long term lecturer at Hillsong International Leadership College in various subjects, including 'World Perspectives', where he was particularly respected for challenging staff and students alike to apply the Bible's teachings on issues (such as the one above) to the contemporary world and everyday living.
On Saturday 28th March many different groups across Australia will be hosting EARTH HOUR events (which basically means they are inviting their friends over, switching off the lights & music, lighting some candles and maybe getting a friend who plays on a guitar).
To register an Earth Hour Event (even a personal one) & to receive some great free resources that Common Grace has developed in partnership with the World Wildlife Fund, please click here: http://www.commongrace.org.au/earth_hour