Like many of you perhaps, I was struck last week by the public witness of Greta Thunberg, the young Swedish climate activist. Last Monday, she spoke at the United Nations General Assembly and on Friday she was in Montreal. As I watched the video of her UN talk, I thought that here was a prophet of the Old Testament in our midst. She told the UN, for instance: “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!” It’s not that different from “Hear this word, you cows of Bashan…who oppress the poor, who crush the needy, who say to their husbands, ‘Bring me something to drink!'” (Amos 4:1) Like many other prophets throughout history, her ministry has imposed a cost on her: she has given up school, she has changed her life, she has been subject to accusation, slander, and attack.
In both her UN address and her Montreal speech, Thunberg levelled a straightforward generational challenge: “You are failing us. But the young people are starting to understand your betrayal. The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us, I say: We will never forgive you.” One of the reasons climate change is such an intractable problem is precisely its inter-generational nature: the actions of one generation are largely felt in another.
One of the central aspects of the covenant God makes with Israel is that it is inter-generational. When Moses receives the law, we hear that God keeps “steadfast love for the thousandth generation” and visits “the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation.” (Exodus 34:6, 7) This makes a kind of intuitive sense. Three or four generations is about what a person can remember in a living family history. (How many of you can name all eight of your great-grandparents or all sixteen of your great-great-grandparents?) Bad fortune in one generation could be explained by “iniquity” in a previous generation—but probably not more than three or four generations back. Keeping steadfast love to the “thousandth generation,” by contrast, basically means “forever.”
Anthropological climate change reverses this generational pattern of blessing and curse in the Old Testament. We are already feeling the impact of carbon emitted a few generations ago. These impacts are terrifying and extreme but, for many people, still within reasonable bounds of expectation. If the predictions are right, however, the impact of carbon being emitted today will be felt not just for three or four generations but for centuries to come—and those impacts will be more devastating than anything we can imagine now. The amount of carbon in the atmosphere is already higher than it has ever been in human history and that level will take a long time to come down again. Among the many evils of climate change, then, let us add this one: it upends a Biblical pattern of generational relations.
As we discussed in the ministry seminar on Friday, the world needs prophets, evangelists, missionaries, and preachers. But we also noted that it needs priests, people who can gather the community and enable its gifts to be released. We saw that in Montreal on Friday in the relatively low-profile and anonymous group of people who provided the forum for a prophet of our time to preach her word. May we all heed it.
This message was written by College Principal Jesse Zink for this week’s Wingèd Ox, a weekly news digest distributed to the college community.