Willis Jenkins: earth care demands action as well as thought

Rhetoric around climate change is generating its own heat—denials in one corner, official pronouncements of ethical concern in another, and elsewhere a growing chorus of organized voices urging the global industrial north to change its way of life.

But the global warming challenge cries out for something more than posturing, says Willis Jenkins—practical action.

“It’s not enough for churches to tell politicians to get your act together and do something meaningful,” says Jenkins, the Margaret A. Farley Assistant Professor of Social Ethics at YDS.

“Climate change represents a new era. This is a new condition of responsibility that humanity has to the earth. For generations to come humans will be responsible for how atmospheric systems function. Religion can help us understand that responsibility. But the churches’ witness can be powerful only if they can demonstrate they have the capacity for action that shows what that responsibility means in practice.”

Jenkins’s current book project, “Sustainability, Social Justice, & Christian Ethics,” starts by critically examining how a dozen communities on various continents attempt to make their faith respond to the climate crisis.

“How do real communities generate solutions that also make a creative, faithful response to God?” he says.

“What generates creativity is the gap that exists between the problem and solutions demanded by love and justice.”

In efforts large and small, many churches are trying to answer that demand, Jenkins says. Some congregations are adopting carbon covenants to reduce their emissions and advocate for legislative change, or promoting carbon fasts during Lent, or initiating denominational dialogues across the global north and south.

One example from his research: an Anglican climate justice network that gathers bishops and lay people from companion dioceses to work, pray, and worship across some of the differences that frustrate global climate negotiations.

“The climate problem won’t yield simple solutions,” Jenkins says. “It can’t be solved like that. It’s now an enduring feature of planetary life that we must manage. These efforts create practices by which we can begin to be competent.”

Jenkins’s focus on real-world responses to ethical urgencies can be traced to two historical figures who inspire him—Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King Jr.

Each worked in very different milieus—Bonhoeffer a German minister who joined the attempt to assassinate Hitler during World War II, King a Baptist minister who used nonviolent principles to upend American racial injustice—but both embody what Jenkins calls “theocentric pragmatism.” Each in his own tumultuous time came to see that the call of God meant a call to action even in the face of the dangerous conditions of their day. Each willingly left the safety of their churchly routines to join a divine drama for justice on the streets, knowing they risked death.

“Both were transformed by social movements that they interpreted as the concrete drama of God in the world in their time,” Jenkins says. “This is where God’s mission is, they concluded, and they acted on it.”

Jenkins explores and underscores that pragmatic ethical challenge in Bonhoeffer and King: Their Legacies and Import for Christian Social Thought (Fortress, 2010), a book he co-edited. There he concluded:

“After King and after Bonhoeffer, Christian social thought depends on risk and creativity, on inventing anew the possibility of discovering and joining the body of God taking shape in history. Christian ethics has moved away from adjudicating principles or narrating Christian identity, and toward devising strategies that keep making gospel hope from violent cultures and poor inheritances.”

This demanding but necessary pragmatism applies to a complex challenge like climate change, Jenkins argues. Real-world responses have been modest so far, yet even modest efforts are far preferable to the trends that now dominate the conversation, he says.

In this presidential election cycle, for instance, denial is an established political posture. It’s a fixture in some more conservative Christian communities, too.

“Some deny climate change is a problem at all, or they suspect distorted science, or they say God won’t allow us to destroy the world this way,” Jenkins says. “That’s what communities say when they’re not sure what their faith means in relation to a major problem to be faced.”

It appears that Christian denial around climate change is a peculiarly North American phenomenon, Jenkins observes.

“What’s especially scandalous about Christian denialism is not so much that it ridicules the science as that it seems nihilistic to the faith—as if the faith isn’t capable of generating a response to this kind of challenge. This seems like a desperate maneuver. They are aligning the Christian way of life with a modern post-industrial, American way of life.”

But liberal churches aren’t in a much better position.

“They’ve made official pronouncements against climate change and offered specific policy recommendations. But their focus has been only on getting political solutions when climate change represents a much broader moral and cultural crisis. So the creative, pragmatic action that is needed must show how we can become the sort of people and societies that can bear responsibility for the atmosphere. It’s more than policy.”

Churches that want to be tough-minded and practical about the climate crisis—the difficult questions about justice, species loss, biodiversity destruction, the obligation to future generations—need to be clear-eyed about four features of the problem that work to defeat a political-cultural response, he says:

  • Countries with the highest carbon production are the least likely to do anything, while those that have done the least to cause the problem will suffer the most.
  • A cruel disincentive structure is in place: future generations will have it worse than present generation, making it easier for current populations to defer hard decisions.
  • The challenge to protect at-risk species will always be steep because they have no voice in our decisions.
  • The sheer fact of global inequality, the persistence of poverty, make it difficult to create structures of cooperation and trust across hemispheres and cultures.

“Climate change is so complex that it’s hard to see how Christianity can generate an adequate response,” Jenkins believes. But, with an eye on Bonhoeffer and King, he says hope gets the last word: “We can sustain hope in the face of big planetary problems—hope sustained by the demands of love and justice and fairness to push us to creative action. There’s where our witness must be.”

Posted: 12/05/2011