An increased awareness of the climate and ecological emergencies that we are facing has necessitated a re-examination and evaluation of our attitudes to towards the Earth and how we locate ourselves among the diverse non-human communities with whom we share the planet. This is not a new debate. Throughout Christian, Jewish and Islamic history there have been individuals and communities that have questioned our understanding and attitudes to the created world. It is a very deep and rich tradition and many are finding these voices helpful. However, what is different today is the urgency and sheer enormity of the task, as well as a greater understanding of our impact on the climate and ecology.
In the run up to the World climate conference, COP26, there has been a renewed interest in what the Bible might say to us about about the climate, the ecological challenges we face. One biblical figure that repeatedly springs to peoples’ minds when discussing ecological disaster is Noah. Whilst this is understandable, it is all too easy to draw rather simplistic parallels between Noah (and his saving animals from extinction) and our efforts to address climate and environmental breakdowns. However, the text is notoriously problematic. This should not be surprising as it functions within the biblical history of Israel as a narrative pivot point between the world of Adam and Eve and the one that was more recognisable to the writers of the accounts. Nevertheless, it raises some very serious questions about the environment attitudes to it that don’t altogether sit easily with an environmentally conscious reading or theology.
Students of religion and politics have had a mountain of material to consider recently. One particularly notable theme is the use of Christian/biblical language by the Trump administration and its supporters.
One noteworthy example emerged in the spring of 2017 when allusions to Donald Trump as a messianic figure began to circulate both mainstream and social media. For many, this appeared strange and provocative language. Within Christian tradition, the Hebrew word ‘messiah’ (מָשִׁיחַ – mashiach) , which literally means ‘anointed’ or ‘anointed one’ (rendered in Greek as χριστός – christos), has primarily come to denote the specific figure of Jesus Christ, with its allied associations of sonship, moral perfection and divinity. Consequently, any attempts to attribute messianic status to Donald Trump could be viewed as inappropriate and even blasphemous. Nevertheless, certain religious groups have continued to refer to him in this way. This is particularly interesting as it occurs against a backdrop of an increase in use of religious (Judeo-Christian) language to articulate and justify policy decisions (see earlier post – Weaponising Romans 13), suggesting a closer convergence between religious and political spheres than we have seen in recent history.
Although, many of the Christian leaders who support Trump specifically avoid using the term ‘messiah’ when speaking of him, they frequently refer to him as being anointed by God to lead the nation. This is exemplified by evangelist Paula White‘s comments recorded in2017:
One of the oldest methods of using biblical texts is ‘proof-texting’. This is when a specific text is used to legitimate or ‘prove’ a particular argument or position. The early Church fathers were fond of it and it can be frequently found in the writings of the Bible. It is therefore not surprising that most of the references to biblical texts today take this form. Particularly important texts are even referred to as ‘clobber texts’ (originally associated in relation to the homosexual debate) as they are known to deliver the knockout blow in a debate, thereby rendering the opposing side speechless. Follow any theological argument, whether that be abortion, sexual orientation, or female ministry (and countless others) and you will quickly begin to recognise each side’s favourite ‘clobber texts’.
As someone who makes a living from studying and lecturing on the Bible, I have to admit to finding proof-texting often rather irritating and unsatisfactory – whether that is Matthew’s use of them (although I do recognise they also have other functions), Justin Martyr’s or from a participant in the latest Facebook/Twitter argument. I do, however, accept that this practice has a long heritage and, like it or not, has a place within the community of faith. It is the trend towards clobber-texting that I find very concerning. Whereas proof-texting seeks to advance a scripture that neatly encapsulates a particular viewpoint (albeit in an often simplified shorthand form), clobber texts are often grabbed texts that are used to support an existing ideological view (in other words to argue that that viewpoint is ‘biblical’) and they are employed to shut down the debate. Anyone encountering an argument between two Christian positions will be familiar with this tactic.
This summer has been darkened by the catastrophic events surrounding the thousands of refugees attempting to find asylum in Europe. The release of images of the tiny body of 3 year old Aylan Kurdi lying face down on the shoreline has galvanised opinion and, more than that, helped to put a human face on the events.
Many Christian groups have been responding for some time to this crisis and recently their voicesare coming to thefore. A lot of my friends and associates on social media have also been adding their voice and, as one might expect, biblical texts are being widely quoted. But what is the biblical perspective?
Is it possible to make a truly biblical response to the images that we see?Continue reading →