Category: Pondering Peace
“My soul proclaims your greatness, O God,
and my spirit rejoices in you, my Savior.
For you have looked with favor upon your lowly servant,
and from this day forward all generations will call me blessed…
Your mercy reaches from age to age
for those who fear you.
You have shown strength with your arm;
you have scattered the proud in their conceit;
you have deposed the mighty from their thrones
and raised the lowly to high places.
You have filled the hungry with good things,
while you have sent the rich away empty…”
(Luke 1:46-48, 50-53; The Inclusive Bible)
As we decorated our Christmas tree on Sunday evening, Christmas carols quietly played in the background. “Mary, did you know…” asked one that spoke of what Jesus would do and interpreted who he was. “Breath of Heaven, hold me together,” pleaded another song in Mary’s voice, expressing her lowliness and apprehension at being the one chosen to birth God’s son.
This latter song is one of my favorite, although its tone is wildly different from that of Mary’s song recorded for us in the Gospel of Luke. There Mary, still high with the graced sense of having been touched by God’s presence, is jubilant in expressing her praise of God and joy in God’s actions on behalf of the lowly. With thoughts similar to Hannah and the ancient Israelite prophets, Mary rejoiced in the radical reversals of God’s reign, in which the lowly, poor, hungry, and oppressed are raised up and freed from their deprivation and the proud, mighty, and rich oppressors are deposed and sent away with empty hands.
Many years later Jesus would define his mission and the reign of God in similar terms as he entered into public ministry. In Nazareth’s synagogue, he applied Isaiah’s words to himself, “The Spirit of our God is upon me: because the Most High has anointed me to bring good news to the poor….to let the oppressed go free” (Luke 4:18). And in his sermon on the plain, he starts out with blessing those who are poor, hungry, and weeping, while expressing woes on those who are rich, full, and laughing (Luke 6:20-21, 24-25).
Justice is a major theme in the Bible. Embedded in ancient Israel’s early legal codes and repeatedly expressed by later prophets is a requirement for fair judicial practices and the equitable distribution of resources so that all may have enough. Micah makes clear that what is good and required by God is “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). Amos thunders, “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24). Of repeated concern was how the rich gained their wealth at the expense of the poor and then used the power attached to wealth to further oppress. Wealthy landowners were increasingly taking over the land of poor indebted families and reducing them to hired servants. Early Christianity continued this radical critique of oppressive wealth under the Roman system. David Jobling writes regarding this, “A system that makes the few wealthy through the enslavement or impoverishment of the many stands under the imminent judgment of God.”* Rich people who did become Christians were to consider their wealth a community resource to be shared and used for the benefit of others.
Gaping inequities between the rich and the poor continue in our day, sustained by entrenched systemic injustice. Although the United States is the wealthiest nation on earth, 140 million poor and low-income people are barely making it paycheck to paycheck. Over 580,000 are homeless. Globally, the gap between the wealthy and poor is even more alarming. Unfortunately, an added dimension today is that climate change is disproportionately affecting those who are poor compared to those who are wealthy, thus adding to their suffering. When the waters of Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans, it was the poor, many of whom were people of color, who were left behind to languish. When heat waves hit our cities, it is the poor who do not have air conditioners and live in crowded urban centers that experience hotter temperatures. When weather disasters destroy homes, it is the poor who do not have the resources to rebuild. Climate change intensifies the injustices and suffering already being experienced by those who are poor. Climate action is therefore a justice issue of great importance, with particular concern for the most vulnerable.
The recent CP27 Summit in Egypt highlighted the stark differences of wealth at the global level and the increased suffering of the poor as climate change progresses. The 23 wealthier developed nations with just 12% of the world’s population are responsible for 50% of historical carbon emissions. The United States is the most affluent country, and in large part it has been built up and developed its wealth through the use of fossil fuels. Historically, it is the world’s largest CO2 emitter. With 4% of the world’s population, it has emitted nearly 25% of total greenhouse gases fueling the climate crisis.
In this country, we are feeling the effects of climate change, but much less so than those in developing nations, where poverty, underdevelopment, and lack of financial resources make countries and people especially vulnerable. For example, Pakistan has emitted less than 1% of historical carbon emissions but recently experienced a third of its land under water due to a monsoon rains intensified by climate change. The whole continent of Africa is responsible for only 4% of emissions, but African nations are some of the most vulnerable to climate change impacts, including an ongoing drought that is deepening poverty and hunger. These developing countries have often been the focus of American mission concern for human need, and that effort was the context of my childhood in Tanzania. But as the effects of global warming are increasing, charitable and mission enterprises cannot keep up with the need. Climate justice that emerges from compassion for this suffering is required.
It is painful to realize that just living our ordinary fossil-fuel dependent comfortable American lives has, perhaps unwittingly, embroiled us in the suffering of others. Such is the nature of structural sin. While the major polluters are fossil fuel companies and other large businesses, we have personally bought into, contributed to, and benefited from the use of fossil fuels, and extricating ourselves from them is complicated and difficult. So, what are we to do?
As Americans, climate justice requires at least a two-fold focus. As a nation, we need to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions to net zero largely by eliminating our use of fossil fuels. We have already used more than our fair share. Developed nations have attained their wealth through the use of fossil fuels, but it is the poorer still developing nations that are experiencing the most devastating effects of climate change. The prophets of old would have a lot to say about this, and the prophets of today do. Voices from developing countries are being raised in protest and demanding justice.
Climate justice would also involve wealthier nations paying compensation for loss and damage caused by climate change. Justice would require wealthier carbon emitting nations to contribute mightily to funding that helps developing nations recover from weather disasters, mitigate future events, and develop the clean energy needed for sustainable development.
In today’s world, if we recognize that the pursuit of justice is an essential expression of our faith, we need to be pursuing climate justice. We can do this by supporting local, state, and national efforts to reduce greenhouse gases, to develop regulations on pollution, to end fossil fuel use, and to transition to clean energy. We also need to work on transitioning our own personal lifestyle and homes from being fossil fuel dependent to a more just and sustainable way of living.
When this transition is complete, it may be that those companies and people who have gained great wealth through fossil fuel industries may lose out and those oppressed in the current system may be raised up to a better life. Then others can join Mary in singing her song of praise to God for the radical reversals of God’s reign.
Rev. Ruth Rosell, Ph.D.
Director of the Buttry Center for Peace and Nonviolence
Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology Emerita
*”Wealth” in The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 5, p. 828.