Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:25-37).
We all know how Jesus responded—not with a direct, cut-and-dried answer, but with a story. The Parable of the Good Samaritan gently challenged Jesus’ interrogator to take a step back, to question his deeply ingrained assumptions and prejudices, and ultimately to rise above his culture’s ways of judging and dividing people.
In telling this parable, Jesus was, in the modern-day language of clinical psychologist Mary Pipher, helping the lawyer to “increase his moral imagination.” In The Green Boat: Reviving Ourselves in Our Capsized Culture, Pipher describes moral imagination as “respect for [another’s] point of view.” It is “similar to empathy, but more complex . . . slow to develop and longer lasting.” It involves putting ourselves in others’ shoes—acknowledging the others’ worth and the legitimacy of their viewpoints and concerns. Increasing our moral imagination helps us overcome traditional barriers between “Us” and “Them” and enables us to enlarge our “circle of caring” to include more than just our families, friends, and like-minded people.
As Brethren, we have been blessed with stunning examples of persons with uncommonly vast moral imaginations. Brother John Kline (during the Civil War) and Ted Studebaker (in Vietnam) refused to classify people into the “friend” and “enemy” categories that their cultures promoted or even demanded. In both cases, their moral imaginations led them to respond with love and compassion to those whom they were expected to hate and kill. Likewise, we all stretch our moral imaginations when we pray not only for our brothers and sisters in the Ekklesiyar Yan’uwa a Nigeria (EYN), the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria, but also for their violent and murderous oppressors.
Is stretching our moral imaginations easy or popular? Of course not. To our human brains, there’s something deeply comforting about placing folks into tidy, clear-cut categories. In fact, we often succumb to “confirmation bias,” paying attention only to information that aligns with our pre-existing ideas about the world. Media outlets, in their determination to present “both sides” of stories, reinforce the idea that every issue has two opposing sides and that We and They naturally disagree about and debate them—often nastily. Shared values and understandings are ignored and common ground is eroded away, often without us even noticing. We and They stay at each other’s throats and no effective actions are taken.
In the midst of this culture of politicization and polarization, is stretching our moral imaginations even possible? With the New Testament’s guidance and the help of the Holy Spirit, emphatically yes! It is not only possible, but it is vital to living out our calling as 21st-century Christians. What does it take? Patience, humility, forgiveness, kindness, compassion, a thirst for justice—in short, the fruits of the Spirit and loving our neighbors as ourselves. Are such virtues countercultural? Absolutely! Fortunately, we Brethren have over three centuries of experience in the countercultural department.
Stretching our moral imaginations also requires practice and self-awareness—stopping to notice and analyze our unconscious reactions to words. When we hear “healthcare reform,” for example, let’s step back and ask what emotions the words trigger. What “Us vs. Them” categories automatically come to our minds? What assumptions underlie those categories? How fair and valid are those assumptions? How is focusing on the political debate getting in our way of solving real problems? What common ground do We actually share with Them? How could this common ground be built upon, instead of eroded? How can we transform “Us vs. Them” into a single, bigger “Us”?
When we hear (or read) “climate change,” we must take the same step back and ask the same types of questions. What emotions does the phrase conjure up in us? Perhaps we feel fearful, uncertain, anxious, confused, angry, scornful, exasperated, powerless, paralyzed, grief-stricken, despairing, fed up . . . or some combination of these. What “Us vs. Them” categories come to mind? With which of these categories do we tend to identify ourselves? How is focusing on the political debate getting in our way? What is worth debating about climate change, and what isn’t?
It comes as a surprise to many people to learn that 97 percent of climate scientists are in agreement that climate change is occurring and that humans are the major culprit. In fact, a number of major national and international scientific organizations have adopted statements acknowledging the human impact on the climate, including the American Chemical Society and the Geological Society of America—both of which have members involved in the fossil-fuel industry. The genuine scientific debates that do exist focus on other issues—for example, how much future warming and sea-level rise can be expected to occur under various scenarios.
People are often interested to discover that the US military strongly acknowledges that climate change is happening and that it must be addressed. Back in 2007, during George W. Bush’s administration, the CNA Corporation Military Advisory Board—a leading government-funded military research organization comprised of 11 retired senior military commanders— issued a report entitled “National Security and the Threat of Climate Change.” In the introduction to this report, the board stated, “The nature and pace of climate changes being observed today and the consequences projected by the consensus scientific opinion are grave and pose equally grave implications for our national security.” The military has already begun taking a number of steps to decrease its reliance on fossil fuels, to plan for rising sea levels at its coastal installations, and to prepare for emerging threats posed by freshwater shortages and other impacts of climate change. The insurance industry, likewise, accepts that humans are changing the climate in significant ways that can hurt its bottom line. In the New York Times, columnist Eduardo Porter reports, “Most insurers, including the reinsurance companies that bear much of the ultimate risk in the industry, have little time for the arguments . . . that climate change isn’t happening, and are quite comfortable with the scientific consensus that burning fossil fuels is the main culprit of global warming.”
Another cause of surprise for many people is that there is a wide variety of possible approaches to reining in climate change, not all of which involve increasing government regulations, jeopardizing the economy, and/or interfering with free trade. The question of which approaches are most desirable is certainly worth debating. The more voices that join this debate, in a spirit of constructive problem-solving, the better. Our uniquely Brethren brand of resourceful pragmatism embodied by Dan West (and countless other unsung farmers and disaster-relief workers) could carry us far!
There’s no denying it—coming to terms with the reality of human-induced climate change is tough. Admitting that it’s happening and that we’re playing a leading role puts us firmly “on the hook” for doing something about it. Yet, the problem feels too huge and abstract for us to fix. Individual actions seem pathetically unequal to the task, and government-based solutions often sound unappealing or unachievable. “Life as usual” goes on around us. Pushing climate change to the back of our minds is a constant temptation; we have enough other things to worry about. We have heard that the sooner and more boldly climate change is addressed, the better, but our society’s norms and living patterns seem so deeply entrenched. How could we possibly hope to alter them?
When the lawyer described in Luke 10 leaves Jesus, he leaves with a burden—the burden of increasing his moral imagination, of working to change social norms, and of acting with love toward all. As Christians, we are called to carry the same burden today. By and large, the people who will bear (and are already bearing) the biggest brunt of climate change are those least responsible for causing it—the poorest of the poor. Recognizing this, persons of many faiths, from Pope Francis to evangelicals, have called for action on climate change.
In the upcoming articles in this series, we will examine how climate change is related to the core values of the Brethren faith. We will highlight reasons for hope and opportunities for loving our neighbors near and far, human and non-human, present and future—peacefully, simply, and together.
Sharon Yohn is assistant professor of chemistry at Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania. Laura (Ranck) White is a small business owner and serves as the financial manager of the Huntingdon Farmers’ Market. She is especially involved in expanding access to the market for low-income community members. See all Climate Change articles in this series.