Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

A Difference Between Herod and Trump
distributed 12/30/16 - ©2016

According to the Christian liturgical calendar, we're now half-way between Christmas Day's celebration of the birth of Jesus and the Epiphany celebration of the Magi. The extended commemoration of God's incarnation -- God's direct engagement with the stuff of this world -- is the reason for the season.

For those of us in the US who are fixated about such things, it is also important that today is exactly three weeks before a new President is sworn into office.

There is, I believe, a timely message that hooks together the biblical story of the Magi, the impending change of national leadership, and a core principle of eco-justice ethics. All of those force us to ask, how do we respond to challenging news?

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The Epiphany story of "the wise men from the east" is often referred to as "the revelation to the Gentiles," because those non-Jewish astrologers did come to see that important things were happening in Bethlehem. But the story might also be called "the revelation through the Gentiles." Those outsiders observed evidence that change was coming to Israel, and they are the ones who alerted Herod to the birth of a new king.

Herod takes the visitors seriously, and is anxious about this unexpected news. He turns to his in-house experts for guidance. They take a fresh look at the Jewish scriptures and discern that, if such a royal birth were to happen, it would be in Bethlehem.

Herod, being a power-hungry and brutal ruler, responds to this threat by ordering the death of all the baby boys in Bethlehem. There were only about 300 residents in that small town, so there would not have been many male toddlers. But it was still a violent and unconscionable act.

Fifteen years ago (in my first Advent season writing Eco-Justice Notes), I connected Matthew's story of the Wise Men to current events in "Insights from Outsiders". I wrote:

Today, environmental biologists and atmospheric physicists, going about their routine, secular work, see an important message in the evidence that they are paid to observe and analyze. They see ecological collapse and global climate change as present realities. And like the Magi twenty centuries ago, some of those scientists have come to the political and religious leaders to share their important news. A critical message about what is going on in the world comes ... from secular researchers.

In 2001, just as in the time of Herod, some of those who heard the evidence of profound changes responded in fear, and acted to defend their power and privilege. But I celebrated that there were some leaders who took the news seriously. They used this new revelation as an occasion to re-evaluate their understanding of how the world works, and to wrestle with new ethical challenges.

As we come to the end of 2016, there is good news that many world leaders -- in governments, business, and religion -- have acknowledged the reality of climate change, and have started to shape effective ways to reduce that threat. It isn't enough or fast enough, but the revelation from environmental scientists has been taken seriously.

Which brings us, I'm afraid, to the inauguration of Mr. Trump in three weeks. Because the President-elect and several of his cabinet nominees appear to reject the scientific revelation about humanity's impact on the global climate. As an article in The Atlantic this week put it,

Though it's difficult to pin down exactly what Trump thinks about climate change, he has a well-established track record of skepticism and denial. He has called global warming a 'hoax,' insisted while campaigning for the Republican nomination that he's 'not a big believer in man-made climate change,' and recently suggested that 'nobody really knows' if climate change exists.

The incoming Trump administration will be an anomaly among world governments. Essentially every other nation has acknowledged the science and the need for some kind of strong action.

I don't know what is going on in Mr. Trump's brain -- who does? -- but I find it quite likely that many of the climate "deniers" in US politics and business understand the scientific evidence quite well. Their public denial is simply a strategy for derailing any large-scale action that would disrupt the economic system that is central to their prosperity and their worldview. As Naomi Klein wrote in "This Changes Everything", "I think these hard-core ideologues understand the real significance of climate change better than most of the 'warmists' in the political center ... when it comes to the scope and depth of change required to avert catastrophe, they are right on the money."

What is called "climate denial" is an interesting twist on Herod's brutal response to threatening news. Herod killed all of the little boys in Bethlehem. When extreme denialism shapes a US presidency, there is a different kind of "slaughter of the innocents" stemming from both action and inaction.

On a direct level, many honest and conscientious climate scientists may be fired as the new administration establishes their values and priorities. The Trump transition team has already requested names of government scientists who have been engaged in climate research. That's like killing off the Magi because they brought bad news.

Less directly, the refusal of the Trump administration to acknowledge and act on the climate threat is a death sentence for countless innocent humans, and other species. Dismantling international accords like last year's Paris Agreement, and rolling back initiatives to reduce emissions (auto emissions standards, and the Clean Power Plan) force the entire planet into more rapid and more severe climate impacts.

Herod killed a few babies to preserve his hold on power. The climate deniers are willing to disrupt the climate of the entire planet -- with certain repercussions on refugees, agriculture, economies and war -- to keep their "business as usual" going strong.

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The biblical narrative has many stories of powerful people acting badly to preserve their wealth and power. Herod is not an isolated case. Secular history of all world civilizations show the same reality. Conflict and corruption are not new or rare. Ethical systems have always tried to make sense of those conflicts in sorting out what is good, right and fit.

Those ethical systems, though, generally demand that we deal honestly with the realities of our situation. An eco-justice ethical perspective, in particular, insists that the diverse experiences of all stakeholders -- those in power, and those on the margins -- be taken seriously. The reputable findings of science, sociology and economics must be acknowledged.

Even Herod paid attention to the experts of his time, both the Magi and his own scholars. He acted brutally on those facts, but he admitted what was going on.

We can't make responsible and ethical choices when reality is denied. Whether from ignorance or ideology, those who refuse to face up to inconvenient truths will never be able to make wise or just decisions.

As we move into the Trump presidency, we must never accept climate denial as a legitimate basis for policy and ethics. Our faith and our morality must take reality seriously. In the coming years, we will need to be vocal and compelling in naming the reality and urgency of climate disruption.

As a starting step in that witness, I urge you to consider joining with our colleagues at Green Faith and the People's Climate Movement in holding a faith-based vigil for climate justice during the first 100 hours of the Trump administration. Eco-Justice Ministries is planning a vigil in Denver, with details to be announced soon. Even a simple event in your congregation or community is a powerful statement of eco-justice ethics.

May we always be persistent and passionate in witnessing to climate realities.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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