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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

What Does It Mean?
distributed 9/1/06 - ©2006

One of the surprising hit movies of the summer is titled An Inconvenient Truth. If we take a Pauline perspective on Christianity, that could be a catchy name for the New Testament, too, couldn't it? ("For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing" -- 1 Cor 1:18)

Many churches are using the new film to stimulate discussion about the ethics of global warming. The Bible has helpful insights about how to spread such a challenging message.

In the biblical story, there are two different layers of dealing with the truth about Jesus. The first step has to do with the fact of the resurrection. Did this rabble-rousing carpenter really rise from the dead? The Easter event seems unbelievable, but there are witnesses who tell compelling stories. Do you believe it, or not?

Not surprisingly, most of the folk described in the Bible do believe it. It took some of them a while (Thomas and Paul, for example), but eventually they affirmed that truth.

The New Testament writings don't dwell on the fact of the resurrection, though. The book of Acts and the various epistles are concerned with a different question about the Jesus truth. They don't focus on the details of the event, but with the meaning of it.

Once you affirm the idea that God has done a remarkable thing, once you make the Easter proclamation of "He is risen!" with conviction, then you can pretty much stop worrying about the "did it happen" question. Instead, there's a shift to what that event means for you, for your community, for humanity, and for the whole of Creation. The question changes from "did it happen?" to "what does it mean?"

That's why preachers still have something to say after all these years. The matter of "what does it mean?" has fresh relevance and new implications in every age.

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The public discussion in the US about global climate change is shifting, moving into a different layer of the inconvenient truth about the greenhouse effect. I think we're seeing a change from fights about the fact to discussions about the meaning of this catastrophe.

Within the last six to twelve months, US society has become far less skeptical. There are many things which have contributed to this new mood.

The one-two punch of hurricanes Katrina and Rita a year ago provided compelling evidence of a changing climate. The "I believe" proclamations about global warming from evangelical Christian leaders -- who broke ranks from the "old guard" of conservative churches in the US -- give a credible witness to many who didn't trust the scientists. State governments and businesses are starting to take strong action. And Al Gore's remarkable PowerPoint presentation has been on movie screens and in bookstores for close to three months now, pounding home the reality of the situation.

In the public mind, and in a rapidly growing segment of the political conversation, what had been a question is now a statement. "Is it happening?" is being replaced with "It is happening." Global warming is being accepted as real. That's a remarkable change.

And with that change in the public debate, it is appropriate and necessary to talk differently about the science.

When people are debating whether humans are having a discernable impact on the Earth's climate, there is a legitimate need to show that the science is credible, the evidence is reputable, and the models are accurate. When the basic fact of climate change become accepted, though, the value of science is in defining what changes are likely to come, how severe they will be, and what options are available to address those changes.

Once the scientific approach is considered trustworthy, the findings of science can become the basis for moral reflection and public policy. What does it mean, we can now ask, that glacier and ice caps are melting, sea levels rising, and storms intensifying? What does it mean, ethically and practically, when the rich nations of the world are causing severe impacts on the poor nations, and on widespread natural systems?

We look to science, in this new public climate, to tell us if we're in a mildly awkward situation or if we're well on our way to catastrophe. We depend on the science for indicators about how much we can look to new technologies to solve the problem, and how much will have to come from changes in our behavior.

Those are very different questions to ask of the science than when we're in the first stage of wondering if climate change is real.

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An Inconvenient Truth has helped many churches talk about climate change. With the widespread distribution of that movie this fall to congregations -- a wonderful effort being coordinated by The Regeneration Project -- thousands of churches, and hundreds of thousands of people, will be engaging the topic of climate change in a religious context.

I'm delighted that the discussion guide on An Inconvenient Truth that Eco-Justice Ministries prepared this summer is being widely circulated as congregations make use of the film. The team of volunteers who prepared the guide came up with questions to help church people discuss the film on many different levels -- emotional, scientific, moral and practical. They included the question about "why is the science important to you?"

The science about global warming is important in asserting the fact of our changing climate, and in defining likely effects and possible options. When we discuss these matters in our churches, we may need to be explicit in defining the two roles of science. We may need to encourage people to ask new and different questions about the evidence.

If An Inconvenient Truth only serves to strengthen the proof that climate change is happening, our congregations and our society won't get full value from the message it contains. That's sort of like proclaiming Easter as a fact, without ever talking about what the resurrection means for people of faith. The important stuff happens when we ask what it means.

May our churches be sensitive and responsive to the changing recognition about climate change. May we take this opportunity to move into the most important questions about the moral meaning of what is happening to our world.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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