An Apocalyptic Climate
by Isaac S. Villegas
Dec 2, 2012
I’m reading a quirky book. It’s about a lot of things, but, for me, as I read, it feels like an invitation to pay attention to beauty, the graceful loveliness found in unexpected places. A man named Ken Lamberton wrote the book while locked up in prison, in Tucson, Arizona. On page after page, Lamberton documents the desert life that sneaks through the fences and walls of the prison: hawkmoths that flutter around lightbulbs on the cellblock, barn swallows that nest in the visitation ramada, the howling laughter of coyotes at night, the smell of creosote bushes just before a monsoon rain, a sonoran mud turtle that wanders into the yard, the regular visits from sun spiders and harvester ants, tiger whiptail lizards that sunbathe on the window ledges, between the bars. Not only does Lamberton write about all of this, he also draws pictures of what he says; it’s a kind of a picture book, with images of plants and animals and insects scattered throughout.[i]
Part of what it does to me, as I read, is it makes me feel like there’s a power of beauty at work in the world, a power of life, of creation, and this power can’t help but colonize our wastelands with life, a power of beauty that infiltrates our ugliness, a power of creation that sneaks into the places we build to dehumanize people, smuggling in the grace of nature. From Lamberton’s cell, he documents the utter disregard wildlife shows to prison security, to their claims to have total control of what comes in and what goes out. The desert abhors the ugliness of prison, the sinister attempt to create a lifeless environment, so the desert coordinates an invasion, an attack, an assault of sounds and sights and smells, raids of beauty.
The world is overrun by wild beauty, untamed, like the sunset this past Friday evening. I don’t know if you had a chance to see it: the sky streaked with reds and yellows and purples. I miss the sunsets of Arizona. I miss walking up the hill near my house, at the end of a day, and watching the vast sky turn pink and orange and red, signs of beauty, an invitation to wonder.
But, Jesus says, there is coming a day, when the sky will be full, not of signs of beauty, but of signs of terror, of anguish, of imminent destruction. And not only signs in the sky, but signs in the earth and in the seas — omens of an unbearable future, symptoms of the end which has already begun:
“There will be signs in the sun, moon, and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. People will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken.”
I think the best way to understand these words, this apocalyptic speech from Jesus, is to think of him, to think of Jesus, there on the steps outside the Temple in Jerusalem, think of him behind a table, with 3 or 4 turntables, record players, a stacks of records all around him. And he’s playing bits and pieces from old songs, a phrase a melody: Jesus as a DJ, a mashup artist, like Gregg Gillis, who goes by the name Girl Talk. I don’t know if you’ve heard any of the music Gillis puts together; I don’t advocate that you do so, just to be clear, but if you do listen, you will hear layer upon layer of samples, of songs from other musicians. In one Girl Talk song, for example, you can hear music from Black Sabbath and 2 Pac, The Brothers Johnson and M.I.A., Jane’s Addiction and Jay-Z, The Doors and Alicia Keys, The Ramones and Missy Elliot, Dr. Dre, Aaliyah, and N.W.A., among others. For Girl Talk, the creativity of music-making has everything to do with knowing how to fit together all of these voices, from different times and places, and make something new.
Jesus here in Luke 21 is like Girl Talk. The words of Jesus are a mashup of voices from the Old Testament: words and phrases from Daniel and Jonah, from Isaiah and Joel, themes from Ezekiel and Zechariah, from the Psalms and Jeremiah. Jesus picks up apocalyptic language from his people, scattered here and there in his record collection, and he smashes together these voices as he tries to say the unsayable: events are coming that will be signs of the beginning of the end, signals of a looming chaos, the convulsions of the earth. This is a Jewish way of talking about catastrophe, the same sort of thing that Melissa preached about last week in her sermon about the book of Revelation, which is also an Old Testament mashup, John’s Apocalypse is like a Girl Talk song: mashup poetry, a disorienting multitude of shocking images and scenes, describing a world as it falls apart.
When thinking about these words from Jesus, these images of apocalypse, I usually turn them into a metaphor, which I think is what we are supposed to do. Apocalyptic language is how Jews talked about events that were so disruptive, so disorienting, so destructive, that it felt like the world was going to end, that life as they knew it was ending. To say that an event felt like the end of the world is to start talking with metaphors. In Luke 21 Jesus is using apocalyptic images as metaphors to describe the cataclysmic event of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem; for his people, it would be impossible to imagine life without the Temple, which would be life without God’s presence, life without God’s providence, without God controlling the chaos of life. For Jesus to speak of the Temple’s destruction is to prophecy the end of the world as they knew it. For Jews to go on without the Temple would be as if the foundations of the earth were collapsing, as if the raging seas would erode the land with floods, as if skies were falling.
But what if we read this passage, these words of Jesus, and didn’t use the “as if”? This event was bad, so devastating, that was as if a flood washed away my life. Instead of turning the apocalyptic words into a metaphor, what if we read Jesus literally? Even though he was using the language of his people to talk about the looming destruction of the Temple, what if Jesus was saying more than he knew? What if he, without trying to, was saying something about our time, our century, where the earth is literally convulsing with earthquakes due to drilling and fracking, where the sky, the weather, is in chaos due to the gases released from melting icecaps in Antarctica and Greenland, where the oceans are literally roaring and ravaging cities due to climate change?
Perhaps, we may now have to read Jesus literally when he talks about the end of the world as we have know it, not just a statement about how terrible it is to lose the Temple in Jerusalem, but a prediction about the future, the future that is now ours, an earth that is becoming less and less hospitable for human beings. Scientists are saying that, within a hundred years, sea levels will rise by at least 5 feet. By 2050, they project 700 million people will be forced to leave their cities. We are standing on the edge of a global political crisis, where flooding will unleash a flood of migrants, from the Southern hemisphere, invading countries in the Northern hemisphere, trying to survive. Special committees within governments, working with private think tanks, are trying to come up with strategies for stability in the future, ways of protecting their countries from these soon-to-be displaced people, people they are calling “climate refugees.”
Already in 1995, half a million Bangladeshis became climate refugees when Bhola Island was taken over by the ocean, and it is only going to get worse. By 2050, in Bangladesh, 22 million people will become homeless due to the roaring seas, tossing homes and cities. The government of India can see the future of their neighbor to the east, so they are building a 2,500 mile militarized fence on their border with Bangladesh, to keep them out. A powerful student activist, India’s Hindu Right, has been working on a campaign to turn public opinion against immigrants, against the Muslims of Bangladesh.
In another part of the world, 22 Pacific Island nations, home to 7 million people, are already making plans for their relocation as the their land is disappearing into the sea. The people who will undergo the terrorizing effects of the weather will be the parts of the earth that lie between the tropic of Cancer and the tropic of Capricorn, where around 70% of the world’s population calls home.[ii]
What is the rest of the world planning on doing? Well, so far, the countries in the Northern part of the global, like the United States, are developing a political vision of the armed lifeboat, which involves ramping up our homeland security and protecting our borders with new military technologies, a politics of containment, keeping ourselves stable other nations undergo the warfare that comes with water scarcity, and the violence of managing refugees from the densely-populated coasts.[iii]
Look, Jesus says, “there will be signs in the sun, moon, and stars, and on the earth distress among the nations confused by the roaring of the sea, the tossing of the waves. People will faint from the terror of what is coming on the world.”
In 2004, the Pentagon commissioned a study called, “An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario and Its Implications for Unites States National Security.” The titles of these studies are always so boring, but at least they are clear: the study thinks through how to protect the United States from the global threat of climate change. Here’s part of what the report says, about the future, our future:
“Nations with the resources to do so may build virtual fortresses around their countries, preserving resources for themselves… Europe will be struggling internally, large numbers of refugees washing up on its shores and Asia in serious crisis over food and water. Disruption and conflict will be endemic features of life. Once again, warfare would define human life.”[iv]
“On the earth, distress among the nations,” Jesus says. But I thought Advent was a time to anticipate, to welcome, the one who brings peace on earth. I think the point of this first Sunday of Advent, this apocalyptic Jesus, is to shock us into awareness, to wake us up, to invite us to consider all the ways that Jesus is wrapped up in the cries for a new world, for all things to be reborn, created anew, healed, restored. Incarnation, Christmas, means that God is committed to this earth, to the land under our feet, to the air we breath, to the plants and animals that sneak their way into prison, signs of grace and life and beauty for a man who tries to survive the metallic cold of incarceration.
So, what now? What do we do? I was at a meeting this past summer with hardcore environmental activists, the sorts of people who scoff at the work of Greenpeace. I heard the panic in their voices, the desperation in their eyes. For them, our dire situation requires direct action, which may or may not pay off because the horrifying condition of the global environment; it may already be lost. Driving home, I realized that my attempts at environmentalism don’t mean very much for them. My desire to shop local, to eat organic, to use less gasoline, to recycle, to garden — all the stuff I do is, for them, cute. I’m just another naïve and adorable citizen of the most powerful economy in the world, an economy which is more than happy to let me feel like I’m changing the world with my eating habits and gardening, so it can continue to extract minerals from Africa before the continent collapses — minerals that will fund the technologies to protect this country from the onslaught of their refugees, which will happen several generations from now.
None of this means that we should quit taking care of our little corner of the earth. We care for nature because we are called to care for our neighbor. The land, the animals, the water are kinds of neighbors — neighbors who care for us more than we probably care for them; neighbors who are closer to us, more intimately involved in our lives, than we like to acknowledge; neighbors who continue to do what they do for us without ever needing a thank you. We care about nature because we care for our neighbors, not because we are going to save the earth. The earth doesn’t need us to work for its salvation. Nature abounds with creative powers, energies, forces of life that work against the our works of annihilation; that’s part of what Lamberton documents from his prison cell: the uncontrollable, scary power of the earth to undo what we’ve done. The earth will endure, evolve, absorbing our pollution, reinventing itself like it has always done, for eons. The real problem, at least for us human beings, is that we are creating the conditions for our own eradication, first the destruction of peoples who happen to live south of us.
I wish Jesus gave us more to go on, on how to live at the end of the world. He does tell us what to do, but I have to admit, his words confuse me, they frustrate me. Here’s the last verse in our passage: “Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”
The “be alert” part makes sense. After all, that’s what I’ve been trying to do this whole time in my sermon: to help us to be alert, to pay attention to the world, to the signs in the sky and in the sea. But the part that gets me, that baffles me, is where Jesus tells us to be alert so that we can flee before it gets really bad, “that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place.”
I honestly don’t know what to do with that, with that call to escape. Part of the reason why that call isn’t important to us is because we won’t need to escape, when the rest of the world falls apart, because we live the country with the most guns. As far as resources go, we’ll be fine. Instead of needing to escape, we can enjoy the apathy of the winners, of people who don’t need to care. It’s all the other people, the 70% of the world, who will need to escape, some of whom are already planning their escape.
Or maybe we do need to escape, maybe that’s the only thing we can do. If so, if we need to take Jesus seriously about our need to break free, then our journey of freedom would have to look like Jesus, the one whose journey we celebrate during this season of Advent, the one who fled from heaven to join the struggle here on earth, as one of us, Immanuel, the one who joined the side of the losers of history.
[i] Ken Lamberton, Wilderness and Razor Wire: A Naturalist’s Observations From Prison (San Francisco: Mercury House, 2000).
[ii] Christian Parenti, Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence (New York: Nation Books, 2012), 7.
[iii] Parenti, Tropic of Chaos, 13.
[iv] Parenti, Tropic of Chaos, 15.