How To Rage: Climate Grief and the Church.

Introductory comment for the Climate panel at SCM Press’s ‘How to Rage’ event, January 2021. The panel included Panu Pihkala, Anupama Ranawana, and Sophia Chirongoma.

If you are going to be angry in this time of climate breakdown you are going to need a long-term plan. I have said elsewhere that climate breakdown is a grief multiplier – there is not one climate grief that we will be able to solve, or find closure for, in our lifetime. It is our companion now. The same is true, I believe, of the kind of rage which climate injustice creates in us. Yes, rage is something that, for many of us, we can opt out of by simply turning off social media – but even for those of us who do not get to opt out, anger is an exhausting emotion, and if we are to clothe ourselves in anger, we must clothe ourselves carefully. Of all the passions the Church fathers described, anger was the one which made them most wary. Long before Jedi wisdom, St Augustine had observed that anger ultimately leads to hatred, and hatred to the dark side. That’s my translation – if you want the original, I can give you the reference. In perhaps one of his most convicting commentaries on the human condition, he points out that no one who is angry considers their anger to be the unjust kind, and that sweet, sweet feeling of being right means we are tempted to let it hang around until it sours into hatred of the image of God in another. In other words, we all assume our particular kind of anger is righteous, and since there is unrighteous anger in the world, some of us must be wrong. I am talking here about the anger of those whose sense of rightness becomes so loud in their ears that they cannot or will not hear the angry cries of others who have been left behind. And I talk about this because I believe it’s particularly important to pay close attention to our anger in relation to the ways we imagine our anger with, or on behalf of, the Earth.

Lots of biblical scholars have observed that the prophetic tradition treats the Earth as alive, as an agent, as a witness to human sin. It responds to us, it mirrors our sin, it measures human faithfulness. But other creatures also have their own worlds, and their own relationship to the Creator, of which we are not a part. It is tempting for those amongst us who are economically removed from intimacy with the Earth to try to tame it in our imaginations – to make it our ally against oppression, to pair its rage with ours. But the Earth does not lash out at the people we want it to. The Earth’s scars and groanings bear witness to the greed and power of a minority, but the result seems to be that a less greedy, less powerful majority are punished. How do we rage with the Earth when the Earth also seems to pose a threat? Like humans, ‘the earth’ is not one homogenous entity. Our relations to it differ, and we need to attend to these different – and sometimes competing – angers carefully if they are to shape our activism.

And just as our anger doesn’t necessarily mimic the witness of the Earth, as the church we must emphasise that God’s wrath – that is, God’s eternal opposition to the powers of sin and death – is not identical to our own. We are in danger of reading the wrath of God as communicated by the prophets as being similar to ours – we are the prophet, not those prophesied against. How often, by way of example, do we call on Jesus clearing out the temple as a model for our activism, rather than hearing it as a warning against us?

I make these observations because an anger which is not brought into obedience under love – and in particular a love of truth about the real state of the world and ourselves in it – will destroy us and turn us to despair. Activism for the Earth across our diverse experiences will require humility, and patience – a consistent attention to others. Has your anger stopped you from listening? It is no longer obedient to love. Activism requires a generosity of spirit towards failure and compromise. Has your anger made you a legalist? It is no longer obedient to love. And activism requires us to give up our own agenda to make space for others. Is your anger crushing another in order to burn? It is no longer obedient to love.

I hope that these three observations offer some context for careful attention to our panel today as we consider the nature of our activism. We are set up to offer you different testimonies, in conversation. We hope to honour points of tension with humility. And given that the majority of listeners to this panel will occupy positions of relative safety in relation to the Earth’s witness, we hope that attentiveness to the anger of others can guide our own anger not to self-justification, but to a longing for liberating truth. It is in this commitment to truth that our anger can bear the fruit of change.

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