By Ched Myers (4 Pentecost: MK 4:35-41)
Note: This is an ongoing series, re-posting Ched’s brief comments from 2015 on the Markan gospel readings from the Revised Common Lectionary during year B.
This Sunday’s gospel text is the poignant story of Jesus and his disciples caught in a storm at sea, which threatens to drown them. It is a profound, archetypal scenario that Mark narrates twice (again in 6:45-52). Because today is the day that Pope Francis’ historic encyclical on climate crisis is being published, I will focus on how this appeal addresses the storm that is Climate Catastrophe. A month from now I will return to Mark’s sea stories for Pentecost 8 (on which day the Lectionary inexplicably hops over the second boat journey in its piecemeal gospel selection, which we’ll rectify!).
Jewish German philosopher Walter Benjamin was one of the first European intellectuals to defect from the optimism of Progressive Era. Writing on the eve of WW II, Benjamin rejected the virtually theological conviction that western society was building Paradise on earth through industrial technology, Manifest Destiny, capitalist management and western dominance.
In a passage from his Theses on the Philosophy of History, Benjamin meditates on a 1920 painting by Paul Klee entitled “Angelus Novus” (right):
His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned…
“This storm,” Benjamin concludes, “is what we call progress.”
Indeed, Progress has not delivered Paradise, but rather the storms of interlocking ecological disasters which relentlessly draw us toward our own destruction. It is as if prescient heretic Benjamin foresaw the historical ultimatum of climate catastrophe that we, in our pursuit of a dream of material prosperity, have brought on ourselves and our planet.
Sober scientific and political assessments of our ecological situation are growing increasingly dire. Pope Francis’ release today of “Laudato Sii: Sulla Cura Della Casa Comune” (“Blessed are You: Concerning the Care of our Common Home)” is a desperately needed word into this storm. Can his moral imagination help break the political and cultural gridlock that is undermining our chances of survival? I suggest three reasons it might.
1) Because this document confirms the scientific consensus about the urgent disaster of climate change, it is being enthusiastically received by many scientists. Jeff Kiehl of the National Center for Atmospheric Research said Monday in USA Today that this encyclical (Francis’ second) might get “a message across to a segment of society that the scientific community could never do.” NASA climatologist Gavin Schmidt believes “the pope’s encyclical is probably going to have a bigger impact than the Paris negotiations.” To underline the Vatican’s commitment to climate science, the message was introduced by a Catholic cardinal, a Christian Orthodox church leader and a climate scientist identified as an atheist. The message anticipates the pope’s meeting with President Obama and his address to Congress and the UN General Assembly in September, as well as the December 21st U.N. conference on climate change in Paris. While Francis’ approach will (and already has) draw the ire of the secular and religious right (including Catholics like John Boehner), it should significantly change the public conversation, and will be a great help to those of us trying to move churches beyond ambivalence.
2) Francis’ approach to environmental issues through the lens of social justice strengthens those of us working on climate crisis as a deepening expression of racism and inequality. This pope is already outspoken about the unacceptability of global poverty and wealth concentration; Ghanaian cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace who will launch the encyclical, emphasized to The Guardian last Saturday that “much of the world remains in poverty, despite abundant resources, while a privileged global elite controls the bulk of the world’s wealth and consumes the bulk of its resources.” This way of framing the environmental crisis will help us with the often difficult task of overcoming the balkanization between ecological and social justice sectors, and encourage those working at intersectionality. It will also doubly piss off the religious right.
3.) Francis’ leadership is animating broader and deeper ecumenical and interfaith efforts to speak and act into climate crisis. Rabbi Arthur Waskow of the Shalom Center in Philadelphia responded to the Pope’s initiative by drafting and circulating a “Rabbinic Letter on the Climate Crisis,” which more than 340 rabbis have signed. Waskow also believes that Francis’ release of the encyclical on the first day of Ramadan reflects a “deep ecumenism,” and points out that “leading American Muslim organizations and teachers have this year called for ‘Green Ramadan,’ focusing on acting with care for all Creation.” This papal initiative will surely spur the widespread “creation care” movement that has been building among North American churches across the board to deepen its work.
For those of us on the ground organizing and educating among faith communities around climate catastrophe, Francis’ encyclical offers a ray of hope amidst the political darkness—because it is reckoning with Benjamin’s angel of history. I recommend that we pay attention both to the content of, and the reactions to, this historic message. And then redouble our efforts to mobilize all hands on deck to face this storm.