There is no escaping faith. This is important to understand. You have to believe in something. When Jesus spins around and confronts this large crowd who is following him with a word that sounds harsh and confrontational and impossible, he is at least making this truth plain. There is no such thing as neutral living. If you choose not to give yourself to something, you have given yourself to something else by virtue of your choice. If you choose to be inactive about something you are, at the least, supporting the status quo. No matter what you do, you are giving yourself to something. The question is to what.
What are we to make of this? What hope and help can we draw from this text and the others that accompany it. Why would we imagine, based on this single story, that anyone would even want to follow Jesus and his way?
We find a similarly dark message in Jeremiah. The prophet goes down to the potter’s house and arrives just as the potter abandons a pot he’s been working on. We can see it. On the spinning wheel the soft, wet clay begins to wobble and then collapse. It is uneven and misshapen and rather than try to save it, the potter stops the wheel, cuts the clay from it, leans his shoulders into the malformed pot and mashes the clay once again into a ball so he can center it on the wheel and begin again to make something of use.
And perhaps this is the key. To follow the way of Jesus is to give yourself fully to a particular way even if that way is not popular that unsettles and unnerves, it is to give yourself to a way that means life for all that sets itself in opposition to that which destroys. It is to be of use to the world and all that lives within and beyond it. In just four chapters, as the rich young ruler walks away sad, Peter says to Jesus, “we have left our homes and followed you.” And Jesus, perhaps remembering this moment will say to them: “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God who will not get back very much more in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.”[i]
Consider the cost. There is an accounting that is happening here, you see. There is a counting of the cost that sees beyond the short term and beyond self-interest to a broader scope. That is, at its heart, what I think Jesus is saying here as he stuns the crowd with his harsh words. The choices that we make, what we choose to give ourselves to, these things make a difference. Following Jesus is not about philosophical ideals and spiritual platitudes; it is about our very survival. It is a wake-up call. And at the heart of Jesus’ message is the affirmation that going beyond self-interest is in fact in our self-interest. To die to self is to live.
June 23rd, 1988 is considered by some to be the birthday of the modern day climate movement. That’s the day James Hansen, then director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies testified before a packed congressional hearing and everything changed—at least for a while. It was a sweltering day—98 degrees—that still stands as a record for that day in Washington, D.C. Oh, and the building’s air conditioning was on the fritz.
Naomi Klein, tells the story in her 2014 book This Changes Everything.
Hansen told a room filled with sweaty lawmakers that he had “99 percent confidence” in “a real warming trend” linked to human activity. In a comment to The New York Times he added that it was “time to stop waffling” about the science. Later that same month, hundreds of scientists and policymakers held the historic World Conference on the Changing Atmosphere in Toronto where the first emission reductions were discussed. The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the premier scientific body advising governments on the climate threat, held its first session that November…
The issue was so prominent that when the editors of Time magazine announced their 1988 “Man of the Year,” they went for an unconventional choice: “Planet of the Year: Endangered Earth,” read the magazine’s cover line, over an image of the globe held together with twine, the sun setting ominously in the background. “No single individual, no event, no movement captured imaginations or dominated headlines more,” journalist Thomas Sancton explained, “than the clump of rock and soil and water and air that is our common home.”[ii]
We know, of course, that a lot of water has gone under that bridge, so to speak, since then. And Klein’s book tries to take a look at why and how a scientific consensus that quickly had the backing of politicians of all stripes in the United States and commitments to cut emissions from the world community[iii] was drowned out by a very different story of greed, out-of-control consumption, and the emergence of a canyon between rich and poor in incomes and real wealth.
Klein is stark in her analysis. It was a case of very bad timing, when attention to the climate was overwhelmed by the emergence of China and other developing countries, by the rise of free trade and the ascendancy of the neoliberal age and its economic ideals. Three policy pillars defined what arose at the same time and came to trump any commitments we were willing to make to the earth and our well-being on it. Indeed, these ideals were protected by law in many of the free trade deals that arose, while commitments to climate were only suggestions.
They “are familiar to us all” Klein writes:
privatization of the public sphere, deregulation of the corporate sector, and lower corporate taxation, paid for with cuts to public spending. Much has been written about the real-world costs of these policies—the instability of financial markets, the excesses of the super-rich, and the desperation of the increasingly disposable poor, as well as the failing state of public infrastructure and services. Very little, however, has been written about how market fundamentalism has, from the very first moments, systematically sabotaged our collective response to climate change, a threat that came knocking just as this ideology was reaching its zenith.
Klein’s language is instructive here and it gets us back to the heart of Jesus’ word as he turns to his followers. Economic philosophy is, like religion, a belief system. It is a way of understanding the world and our commitments within it, and it contains in it values that go to who we are in relationship to one another. And Klein suggests that our public commitment to these particular free market orthodoxies that dismissed as heresy anything but perpetual economic expansion and allowed greed to roam freely rose to such a religious level that for a time they could not be questioned. “And together,” Klein asserts, “these pillars form an ideological wall that has blocked a serious response to climate change for decades.[iv]
And the results are beginning to be self-evident if we read the papers. Klein cites the data to underscore her point. Rather than the carbon reductions that were imagined in those months after Hanson’s 1988 congressional testimony, global carbon dioxide emissions in 2013 were 61 percent higher than they were in 1990 when negotiations toward a climate treaty began in earnest. [v]
And now the task has become much harder. Klein again:
“Because of those decades of hardcore emitting exactly when we were supposed to be cutting back, the things we must do to avoid catastrophic warming are no longer just in conflict with the particular strain of deregulated capitalism that triumphed in the 1980s. They are now in conflict with the fundamental imperative at the heart of our economic model: grow or die… our economy is at war with many forms of life on earth, including human life.” [vi]
Our choices make a difference. And while we may choose to debate some of the particular conclusions that Klein draws in her book, the point is clear that our commitment to this Christian gospel is a commitment to the well-being of all, and to real-world policies that make for life for all—especially those who are most in danger.
The good news, is that we can make a difference. The Spirit that works to shape the pot to be of use, shapes us in a life toward and for our common life, and for the life of the cosmos that is the gift of the Creator.
Count the costs, Jesus says to those who would follow him. Consider the real costs of the choices we make, even if the choice at first seems stark. He is talking, after all, about our survival, and we might listen to the one who gave his life for it and shows us the way.
[i] Luke 18:18-30.
[ii] Klein, Naomi. This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate (p. 74). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.
[iii] Klein, Naomi. This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate (p. 55). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.
[iv] Klein, Naomi. This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate (pp. 72-73). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.
[v] Klein, Naomi. This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate (p. 11). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.
[vi] Klein, Naomi. This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate (p. 21). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.