“I Worship Jesus, Not Mother Earth”: American Christian Exceptionalism and the Paris Withdrawal

Slow violence. That’s how Rob Nixon, scholar of environmental humanities, describes the changes inflicted by a warming world. Many ecological harms occur over expanded senses of human time, often emerging without a traumatic event or single moment of collapse. Climate change fans flames but doesn’t often announce itself with fanfare. When it does ring out, the violence, harm, ecocide and loss of biotic community most acutely affects those scapegoated by poverty, racism, and colonialism. Global warming is problem organized and accelerated and fiercely protected by Euro-American powers feverishly obsessed with the feigned convenience, alchemy, and profit of fossil fuels.

I write these words to slow us down as well. The intention of President Trump to remove the United States from the Paris Climate Accords is not a singular event, despite the way it played out in the news. Of course, we must remember that these words, twisted with devastating policy turn-arounds, junk science, dashes of covfefe nonsense entwine themselves with systemic gutting of the American Interior, the EPA, the National Park and Monument System, and other environmentally regulatory practices and ecologically creative passions.  As Jay Michaelson wrote at The Daily Beast, “climate denial was ‘fake news’ before ‘fake news’ was a thing, and it’s part of the Republican mainstream, not the Trumpist fringe.”

There’s a double bind here: we must acknowledge the awful of this event just as we acknowledge the awful coast-to-coast ecological meltdown politically geo-engineered across time.

The duty of scholars of religion and theologians is to expose the religious stories that construct this ecocidal scaffolding, rending apart wildlife preservation and those diverse coalitions of peoples and creatures coalescing to protect the water and the land. We must expose these stories because the atmospheric flesh winding itself through all of our earthen creativity requires an evil banality of many people in power praying to the status quo. We witness another human decision in a long line of human decisions that makes the march of slow violence more inevitable and more urgent.

In the toxic atmosphere immediately before and after this Paris announcement, conservative pundits like Erick Erickson (no relation to this author) announced proudly on Twitter that his conscience was clear: “I worship Jesus, not Mother Earth,” he wrote. “He calls us all to be good stewards of the planet, but doesn’t mean I have to care about global warming.”

Whatever he means by “good steward,” one might suspect that Erick Erickson heard the word “steward” and filled it with an image of himself and not the imago Dei or the first century Jesus who knew Hebrew nature poetry in his bones.

Rep. Tim Walberg, a Republican Representative from Michigan told supporters, reflectively that, “Well, as a Christian, I believe that there is a creator in God who is much bigger than us. And I’m confident that, if there’s a real problem, he can take care of it.” Rep. Walberg seems to conveniently forget that in that story human sin also wrecks created life in ways that demands human repentance and not some divinely rooted apathy.

Many others continued to remain silent.  Many countries reaffirmed their commitment to the Accords, however imperfect they may be. Many felt, yet again, that political despair of watching events unfold without much agency to resist them.  “American Christian Exceptionalism” is one of the most insidious forms of climate denial, and stirring up resistance to that toxic story is the job of religious thinkers and leaders.

When I hear these anti-ecological religious voices arguing against addressing global warming, I think of all of the brilliant spiritual and theological voices taking global warming seriously in North America and Europe: the water protectors at Standing Rock, “Green Sisters” taking the earth seriously at Genesis Farm, Lutherans demanding an “Eco-Reformation,” theo-ethicist Michael Northcott, process theologian Catherine Keller, Pope Francis, Interfaith Power and Light, and the innumerable others who change lifestyles and organize motivated by their faith, their theological imagination, the slow and quick violence experienced by their communities already.

Those communities coalesce solidarity, faith, hope, and love in ways that create resilience even in the face of these setbacks.

And we see that hope in the innumerable government officials around the world and in the United States recommitting themselves to the Paris Accords. While Trump Administration officials were arguing that Donald Trump is the “President of Pittsburgh and not Paris,” the mayor of Pittsburgh Bill Peduto tweeted his support for Paris. Numerous state governments and legislators of all parties reaffirmed their desire to keep with the agreements.

Slowing down, again, one hears voices of support and solidarity for climate action crying out just as loud as an ill-informed press conference or shock jock spiritual pundits. And slowing down, we hear that the process for removing the U.S. from those Accords could be slow as well—years, in fact—which already makes global warming and eco-social justice one of the defining issues of the 2018 midterms.

There’s no doubt about it, our planetary life together is at stakeAnd unless meaningful action is taken to address the malformations of power in the for-profit capitalism of the Anthropocene (or whatever names you use for our current human-induced geologic crisis), slow violences will become more acute and more and more will be irreversible.

Multireligious and nonreligious, multispiritual and nonspiritual lives are equally needed in this planetary endeavour.

We need to ask ourselves more strongly than ever what theological and spiritual stories of resistance and resilience can we tell together to help us stand together across difference in the shifting plates of this earth? How can we speak of the beauty and worth of the earth beyond the art of for-profit deals?  We must slow down, notice each sparrow that falls, each oil spill, each emission of CO2, each species lost for all time, each hungry and thirsty person in the food deserts of negligence and racism, each island nation drowning under the selfish inaction of self-made men.

We must slow down, notice each song sung, each coalition formed, each appreciation of tragic beauty, each wonder of creativity, each intricacy of poetry and science.  We must slow down, protest, act wisely, and demand better.