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I am sitting in a hotel in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and I just read Jim Wallis’ recent post about global warming, responding to the recent letter written by several leaders of the Religious Right. The version of Christianity represented in that Bauer/Dobson/et al. letter indeed seems far away and rather odd in relation to the conference I was part of today, an energetic and diverse group of vibrant, (mostly) young Malaysian and Singaporean Christians – evangelicals, pentecostals, mainline Protestants, and Roman Catholics. Their passion for the environment was palpable, and deeply rooted in their Christian commitment.
My experience here in Asia matches what I’ve heard around the world over the last year, in 21 countries in all. Again and again, chagrined Christians ask me, “Is it true that some Christians in the U.S. still oppose taking care of creation? Is it true some of them still deny the threat of human-induced climate change? Is it true there’s a pro-Hummer, pro-SUV mentality among American Christians?” I try to explain that some very famous and powerful people feel this way, but that many of us ignore them and pursue our passion to positively call people to care for God’s beautiful world in every way we can. Then I often tell them of the courageous and important work of Christian leaders like Richard Cizik, Cal DeWitt, Matthew Sleeth, Peter Illyn, Melanie Griffin, Lyndsay Moseley, and many others … and organizations like A Rocha, Florista, and Evangelical Environmental Network (EEN). My friends around the world are always encouraged to hear this, because it brings them no little embarrassment when their brothers and sisters in the U.S. declare, as they did in this letter, that there are only two or three moral issues Christians (or evangelicals, anyway) are allowed to speak out on, global climate change NOT being one of them.
But looking on the positive side, the Bauer/Dobson/et al. letter will single out one courageous leader who deserves our support; their villainizing of Rich Cizik marks him as a hero to more and more of us.
Another positive note in their letter: they asked an open-ended question! “We ask, how is population control going to be achieved if not by promoting abortion, the distribution of condoms to the young, and, even by infanticide in China and elsewhere?”
Sadly, the question had a nasty snap on Richard Cizik tacked on, and sadly, the question reflects a rather limited imagination, implying that nothing good can be done about the hopeless threat of overpopulation. But fortunately, their unanswered question can draw attention to some very good answers, including 1) improving education and employment opportunities for poor women, 2) improving health care for poor children, 3) helping poor families earn a livable wage so they can provide for their own retirement expenses, and so on. (My upcoming book might help them understand the relation between these interventions and the slowing of population growth.) Someone should send the writers of the letter a copy of the Micah Challenge Document, and they could learn a lot about what’s being done on this issue, along with others – all of which, to many of us, are truly moral issues.
There’s more to celebrate in the letter. They make a startling admission: “It does appear that the earth is warming.” This is a major leap ahead from where many of these folks have been in the past, so I think we should applaud their progress. They have let the nose of the camel of inconvenient truth into their very small tent, and we know where that will lead: an opening of the tent party.
Unfortunately, they preface the admission with a questionable assumption: “The existence of global warming and its implications for mankind is a subject of heated controversy throughout the world.” (The “heated controversy” pun was quite cool, I thought.) My sense in my travels is that the existence of global warming is no longer a subject of heated (or cooled) controversy around the world at all, but only among certain religious and semi-religious radio preachers, along with some fundraisers and lobbyists in the U.S. Everywhere else people are debating what to do about global warming, not whether it is or isn’t a problem.
Another positive sign: Bauer/Dobson/et al. are becoming aware of diversity in the evangelical world when they say, “We acknowledge that within the NAE’s membership of thirty million, there are many opinions and perspectives about the warming of the earth. We are not suggesting that our beliefs about it necessarily reflect the majority of our fellow evangelicals.” This is a powerful realization, a relatively new one, I think, for which they should be rewarded with loud “amens.”
When they “oppose the efforts of Mr. Cizik and others to speak in a way that is divisive and dangerous,” they seem to express a desire to speak less divisively themselves and maybe even to consider the dangerous unintended consequences of some of their own actions and statements. Again, these are significant and positive moves if they are taken seriously.
Perkins, Bauer, Dobson, et al. are also setting an example of dialogue among evangelical institutions. Perhaps their example will inspire other organizations to write similar letters to one another. Communication can be a good thing.
So, although I thought their letter represented in many ways the perfectly wrong way to respond to Rich Cizik’s courageous leadership, there are some positive features of the letter that help one indulge the desire to make sweet lemonade from lemons. You may find some more if you give it the careful read it deserves.
Brian McLaren (brianmclaren.net) is an author, speaker, Red Letter Christian, and serves as board chair for Sojourners/Call to Renewal. His most recent book is The Secret Message of Jesus, and his next book, Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope, will be released later this year.