Easter in the Anthropocene
This post was an Easter Response in 2015. Clergy often follow a set list of readings (Lectionary) throughout the year, and the reading for this particular Sunday was set as John 20:19-20. This reading is reproduced at the base of this post. The article was written for the weekly bible study at Hare Street Uniting Church, in Adelaide South Australia. (See original post here)
Week of Sunday April 12 2015 - Easter 2
We celebrate Easter in the Anthropocene. If the Resurrection does not speak to the Anthropocene then our faith is worthless. In this First Impressions I am seeking to understand John 20:19-29 in the context of some of my former posts, and our growing awareness that we are entering a new human epoch.
The Anthropocene is the suggested description of a new geological era. Homo sapiens; that is, us, have had such a profound impact on the planet that we have become geologically significant. Jedediah Purdy, Professor of Law at Duke University in North Carolina, writes that in the last 5000 years
… we have made the world our anthill: the geological layers we are now laying down on the Earth’s surface are marked by our chemicals and industrial waste, the pollens of our crops, and the absence of the many species we have driven to extinction. Rising sea levels are now our doing. This is why, from the earth sciences to English departments, there’s a veritable academic stampede to declare that we live in a new era, the Anthropocene – the age of humans.
Our impact on the planet is undeniable. It is not a question of stopping change, or reversing damage. The challenge for humanity is how we survive the now irreversible change we have caused to our environment.
Management, and even survival of our new reality, is enormously complicated by the fact that there is no overarching authority to enforce or adjudicate policies for amelioration, ecological remediation, or simply limiting the increasing rate of damage to the biosphere. We are no longer talking about local systems and local or national jurisdictions, but the whole planet.
If the Anthropocene is about the relationship between humanity and the planet, well, there is no ‘humanity’ that agrees on any particular meaning and imperative of climate change, extinction, toxification, etc. (Purdy op. cit.)
It may be that we are powerless to manage the situation even at the level of our current imperfect international cooperation on other issues, but Purdy suggests that despite all the changes
… the Anthropocene will feel natural. I say this not so much because of the controversial empirics-cum-mathematics of the climate-forecasting models as because of a basic insight of modernity that goes back to Rousseau: humanity is the adaptable species. What would have been unimaginable or seemed all but unintelligible 100 years ago, let alone 500 (a sliver of time in the evolutionary life of a species), can become ordinary in a generation.
There is some truth in this claim about our adaptability. Even the Murdoch press, in Australia anyway, now writes about climate change as a given! But Purdy's words too easily blunt the nature of our crisis. A more realistic view comes from a New York Times Opinionator article (to which Purdy links) by Roy Scranton who was deeply affected by his experience in Iraq and his observation of the effects of Hurricane Katrina and other events. Scranton
predicts a radically transformed global climate forcing widespread upheaval — not possibly, not potentially, but inevitably. We have passed the point of no return. From the point of view of policy experts, climate scientists and national security officials, the question is no longer whether global warming exists or how we might stop it, but how we are going to deal with it.
So far Purdy and Scranton agree. But then…
The biggest problem climate change poses isn’t how the Department of Defense should plan for resource wars, or how we should put up sea walls to protect Alphabet City, or when we should evacuate Hoboken. It won’t be addressed by buying a Prius, signing a treaty, or turning off the air-conditioning. The biggest problem we face is a philosophical one: understanding that this civilization is already dead. The sooner we confront this problem, and the sooner we realize there’s nothing we can do to save ourselves, the sooner we can get down to the hard work of adapting, with mortal humility, to our new reality. (I have added the emphasis to this quotation.)
To emphasise where Scranton is coming from— I agree with him— we should note the extreme dystopia he foresees.
The greatest challenge the Anthropocene poses may be to our sense of what it means to be human. Within 100 years — within three to five generations — we will face average temperatures 7 degrees Fahrenheit higher than today, rising seas at least three to 10 feet higher, and worldwide shifts in crop belts, growing seasons and population centers. Within a thousand years, unless we stop emitting greenhouse gases wholesale right now, humans will be living in a climate the Earth hasn’t seen since the Pliocene, three million years ago, when oceans were 75 feet higher than they are today. (Scranton op. cit.)
But even now, before all this happens, this civilization is already dead. The whole way of thinking and being that has led us to where we are has failed us simply because it has led us here! It was based upon the false notion that we control and may exploit the planet without consequence.
Much less than being the owners, or even the managers of the planet, we depend upon it to the extent that we are subject to the planet. The planet
… is our ultimate reality check. Outside of the unsustainable and artificial environment of office and house, we are shown the world as it is. Do you see that our office, our kitchen, and the computer at which we write, are all designed and shaped according to a mythology which thinks we possess the land and control the earth? They are the propaganda of a mythology and of an empire which thinks it will go on forever, and which has no understanding of the old words of Leviticus: "the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants." (Leviticus 25:23) (Andrew Prior)
Most species that ever existed are already extinct. Why would we be an exception to the rule?
The Myth of Human Exceptionalism
Our "already dead" civilisation is founded upon
… the Myth of Human Exceptionalism. We believe that we are always going to be here, in some way privileged above all other species. But when we stop speculating about some magical rescue by God, what we know is that we are not exceptional at all. We are just one more life form… Are we at peace with the land, living in it, nurturing it, buried into it? Or do we exploit it and destroy it? We are no greater an animal than a plague of mice or rabbits. Too many of us living too harshly will destroy the balances of the biological systems which support us. We will die…. The land on which we live, and its ecology and climate, is not our possession. It is our partner. And it is the senior partner. It will outlive us. We think we destroy the land; we are learning this at last, but is this so? Do we even make the land merely unliveable for ourselves, or does the land reject us? When we are gone other life continues, and even thrives. (Andrew Prior)
The Stratigraphy Commission of the Geological Society of London — the scientists responsible for pinning the “golden spikes” that demarcate geological epochs such as the Pliocene, Pleistocene, and Holocene — have adopted the Anthropocene as a term deserving further consideration… (Ibid)
Who knows? Perhaps in a few years we will be following a Gospel written in a previous geological epoch!
Learning to Die in the New Reality
The challenge for we who are Christian is this: Does an old story which dates from a previous geological epoch!— have any relevance in the new reality which we are finally accepting as our own?
the biggest problems the Anthropocene poses are precisely those that have always been at the root of humanistic and philosophical questioning: “What does it mean to be human?” and “What does it mean to live?” In the epoch of the Anthropocene, the question of individual mortality — “What does my life mean in the face of death?” — is universalized and framed in scales that boggle the imagination. What does human existence mean against 100,000 years of climate change? What does one life mean in the face of species death or the collapse of global civilization? How do we make meaningful choices in the shadow of our inevitable end?... Many thinkers… have argued that studying philosophy is learning how to die. If that’s true, then we have entered humanity’s most philosophical age — for this is precisely the problem of the Anthropocene. The rub is that now we have to learn how to die not as individuals, but as a civilization… The human psyche naturally rebels against the idea of its end. Likewise, civilizations have throughout history marched blindly toward disaster, because humans are wired to believe that tomorrow will be much like today… If we want to learn to live in the Anthropocene, we must first learn how to die.
We are "wired" like all other humans. Christianity is frequently hijacked by those who wish somehow to keep "tomorrow much like today." And sometimes they are we. We constantly ignore the fact that resurrection involves death, or turn it into a "life after death insurance policy" which avoids the totality and finality of our physical death.
In John 20:19, we are told
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews…
This is one of our default responses to trauma. We 'hunker down' behind locked doors, afraid of more violence from that which has assaulted us. Denial paralyses us. We see this in climate change deniers. We hear it in Bible Studies where pious proclamations are made that God will rescue us via some kind of rapture or will somehow heal the planet. God becomes an intervening magic because our trauma is too hard to even process, leave alone integrating the violence which has been done to us into the reality of ongoing life. Great plans of geoengineering— God knows what havoc they might unleash— or the political manoeuvring by everyone from the one percent down to maximise our survival prospects with as little pain to ourselves as possible, are all a kind of denial.
They reflect the depth of violence done to us by a realistic assessment of the effects of climate change; what it does to our hopes for the future; what it does to our self-understanding as people and a species. To accept the Anthropocene is to accept the death of us as we are, and to contemplate our extinction.
In John there is a demonisation of Jewish people. This is important to own. The gospel itself witnesses to the huge pain of violence when it is done to us, even to the point that the very story of the final overcoming of violence has scapegoating violence creep back into it. So the church cannot afford to underestimate the trauma that the concept of the Anthropocene is working upon us. Otherwise we too will respond with violence. This is why I have included such lengthy quotations of Scranton and Purdy, and also recommend that you read them in full whilst attuned to your emotional response.
I also learn from my own experience here. As a young child I saw the signs of climate change, not that I had the language or conceptual framework to name it. All I knew was that the land and the life described to me by the parents and grandparents of my story-telling family, was not the land I saw. I saw only dry creeks where they had settled next to water.
I grew up proud of my father's reverence toward the land, and his determination to farm well. But after university level ecological studies I realised, and mourned deeply, that we were still degrading the land which we farmed. And plenty of farmers can say the same without university. When our 'ecological eyes' are opened, there is degradation and devastation everywhere.
My 'long and gentle introduction' to the Anthropocene has nonetheless been a deep and abiding grief in my life. I have spent long periods of purposeful forgetting. How much harder it must be for someone who has lived among the lush lawns of suburbia to discover that this age is passing away. It is not surprising that we lock the doors of our lives and perceptions.
Here is the Good News. Despite the locked doors
Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’
The risen Christ enters our locked room and says, "Peace be with you." We have lost our world. Our civilisation is dead. But he comes in anyway. All our hopes for the future are gone. The mother of a friend discovered she was pregnant during the crisis that brought down the Berlin Wall. She was profoundly distressed: "What have I done, bringing a life into this?" The time will come when you will say, "Blessed are the childless…" (Luke 23:29) But he says, "Peace be with you."
He showed them his hands and his side.
Step beyond the side arguments about what constitutes physical resurrection. In the face of docetic theologies, John was saying, "This offer of peace is real." This is not empty rhetoric. It is not the language of some proto-gnosticism that talks about escaping from the reality of climate change and civilizational death. It is the 'down to earth' language of survival, and flourishing, despite earth changing almost beyond recognition. It is the 'down to earth' language of learning to die even if we come to the point of extinction.
The resurrection of the Christ is pioneer of our resurrection through epochal change.
How can this be anything other than emotive empty rhetoric?
John has made it clear that Jesus is King of the Jews. (John 18:33-40, 20:2-6, 14-15, 19-22) Kings who survive insurrection are not noted for their mercy toward the perpetrators. Jesus words "Peace be with you," and in Matthew, "Do not be afraid," (28:10) are not the words we expect when discover we did not manage to kill the king after all, and he came back. Instead, the stage has been set for violent retribution and retaliation.
But not only is Jesus an innocent victim— "I find no case against him," said Pilate— he does not take revenge. He calls us to the same life: "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you." (John 20:21) We are called to the life that forgives, to the life that serves, to the life that is compassionate and, according to the civilisation which is in its death throes, wasteful. We are called, as Jack Spong says, to "wasteful, expansive, freely given love." (Quoted in Like Catching Water in a Net: Human Attempts to Describe the Divine, pp 46 by Val Webb) We are called to life which is non-retaliatory.
This is not easy.
Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honour. (John 12:25-6)
It really is about, as Scranton says, "learning how to die."
It is also the basis of a new civilisation.
"Peace be with you," that wasteful, expansive, freely given love, which is non retaliatory, is spoken to us again this Easter as we approach a 'perfect storm.'
Already we see increasing extreme weather events. Already,
James Clapper, director of national intelligence, has told the Senate in March that “Extreme weather events (floods, droughts, heat waves) will increasingly disrupt food and energy markets, exacerbating state weakness, forcing human migrations, and triggering riots, civil disobedience, and vandalism.” (Purdy)
This comes at a time when the ability to destroy the earth, or do it incredibly serious damage via nuclear war, has spread from the well-controlled from-the-top-down military commands of a few nations, to numbers of smaller organisations around the world— we are uncertain just how many. We have only escaped nuclear annihilation as much by good luck as good management until now. What are our chances when a group infected with millenarian apocalyptic like "Let's hasten the end of the world because then God will rescue us" has a global reach? We are in a very dangerous place.
Rene Girard asserts that because Christianity has exposed the innocence of the scapegoat, our traditional methods of limiting violence are beginning to fail. (See here for more detail and sources.) During this last Easter weekend we saw "Reclaim Australia" rallies across the nation; good old fashioned stereotyping and scapegoating mobs. Once we would have beaten up a few Muslims, burned their shops, maybe killed a couple, and calm would have been restored.
Our civilization is the most creative and powerful ever known, but also the most fragile and threatened because it no longer has the safety rails of archaic religion…
To make the revelation wholly good and not threatening at all, humans have only to adopt the behaviour recommended by Christ: Abstain completely from retaliation and renounce the trend to extremes. Indeed, if the trend to extremes continues, it will lead straight to the extinction of all life on the planet.
Promise and Proof
In John's story, Thomas is a prototype for one of the extremes of our time. He thinks reality is bound and limited by the material world.
Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe. (John 20:25)
There is no proof if 'proof' is defined in materialistic terms. We have come to the limits of science. The new civilisation must proceed by "belief."
Jesus said to [Thomas— who is our twin], ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’ (John 20:29, re twin: 11:16, 20:24, 21:2)
Belief is not about propositional assent to something unseen— the Red Queen's six impossible things before breakfast— belief is about trusting our intuitions and insights into the promises of the Christ enough that we act on them. We shall not theorise upon an extravagantly wasteful and loving life, but we will seek to live it. That is when we will be "blessed."
I have been invited as the speaker at the Church Fellowship's Easter meeting. Does one talk about the Anthropocene with the sort of group which has a sometimes deserved reputation for being determinedly social? We are simple folk; the speaker for a previous Fellowship meeting had to cancel at impossibly short notice, so the group had a thoroughly enjoyable morning playing Beetle.
But it is not the playing of Beetle by which we judge the church. It is whether our beetling along is an extravagantly wasteful compassion which includes and heals the outsider, or whether it is our own private club.
I shall go easy on the philosophical language, but it is the folk playing Beetle who are the new civilisation. They— we— above all people must understand why we live Christ's way in the new world.
A story from an end of the world.
... in the midst of this Rosa Sorak's widowed daughter-in-law gave birth to a baby girl. With the food shortages, the elderly and infants were dying in droves, and after a short time, the baby, given only tea to drink, began to fade. Meanwhile, on the eastern edge of Goražde, Fadil Fejzic, an illiterate Muslim farmer, kept his cow, milking her by night so as to avoid Serbian snipers. On the fifth day of the baby having only tea, just before dawn, Fejzic appeared at the door with half a litre of milk for the baby. He refused money. He came back with milk every day for 442 days, until the daughter in law and granddaughter left for Serbia. During this time he never said anything. Other families in the street started to insult him, telling him to give his milk to Muslims and let the Chetnik (the pejorative term for Serbs) die. But he did not relent.
Later the Soraks moved, and lost touch with Fejzic. But Hedges went and sought him out. The cow had been slaughtered for meat before the end of the siege, and Fejzic had fallen on hard times. But, as Hedges says :
When I told him I had seen the Soraks, his eyes brightened.
“And the baby?” he asked “How is she?”
This for me is the sign of True Worship: not only the complete lack of concern about his reputation with his own group; not only the refusal to believe the lies about the despised other whose fault it all was; not only the daily trudging, for fourteen and a half months, through the dawn with milk before the snipers could see well enough to shoot. But the brightening of the eyes at the contemplation of the baby in whose jagged-edged creation he had found himself playing a part. (James Alison "Worship in a Violent World." He is quoting the journalist Chris Hedges, War is a force that gives us meaning. New York Public Affairs, 2002, pp. 50-53.)
It is also the sign of a new civilisation. It is being sent as the Father sent Jesus.
[As we talked in Fellowship it became clear to us that this is our message and gift to the world. It may even be that church is once again to be the monastery keeping and teaching the Word as a civilisation reinvents itself.]
In this sentness, and given his fears about the future, a reporter asked Girard what we should do.
"We just sit it out?" she asks.
"We just sit it out. But we must try not to surrender to the spiritual decadence of our time and rise above the world around us."
She asks, "What about this quotation: 'Except those days should be shortened, there should no flesh be saved: but for the elect's sake those days shall be shortened"?'
"It means that the end times will be very long and monotonous, so mediocre and uneventful from a religious and spiritual standpoint that the danger of dying spiritually, even for the best of us, will be very great. This is a harsh lesson but one ultimately of hope rather than despair."
This is what it means to trust God: a mostly unspectacular renunciation of violence and retaliation as we seek to feed the hungry and welcome the stranger. In this love the "un-power of God" is shown and violence fails. Our ability to destroy ourselves means this restraint is our only option. (Andrew Prior)
Will we enter the Anthropocene with the risen Christ, or will we remain locked in the room of our trauma and fear?
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
Gospel: John 20:19-29
19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’
24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’
26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ 27Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ 28Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ 29Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’