Readings for 1st Sunday of Advent: Jer. 33:14-16; Ps. 25:4-5, 8-9, 10, 14; 1 Thes. 3: 12-4:2; Lk. 21: 25-28, 34-35 (http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/120212.cfm)
You probably know that we’re standing on the brink of a “fiscal cliff.” At least that’s what our politicians are saying. They insist that we’re heading for apocalyptic disaster. For them “fiscal cliff” means that if Democrats and Republicans can’t come to an agreement about taxes and deficit reductions before the end of the year, automatic tax increases and cuts in social spending will occur. And according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), that combination of tax increases and spending reductions is likely to plunge us into another deep recession. The politicians want us to think the sky is about to fall. Apocalypse is about to happen unless we stop spending on seniors and children, on our nation’s infrastructure, green technology and public transportation.
The annual United Nations Conference on Climate Change began last Monday [Nov. 26] in Doha, Qatar. In preparation for the meeting, the World Bank published an 84 page document on climate change. It’s called “Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4 Degrees C Warmer World Must Be Avoided.” According to the report, a four degree rise in planet’s temperature will produce disastrous heat waves and droughts, along with severe floods. Hundreds of millions of people will be forced to abandon their homes in coastal areas and on islands that will be submerged as the sea rises. The Amazon rainforest will disappear, and monstrous storms will destroy whole cities and communities. Health and emergency systems will collapse. Mass chaos will ensue, and the worst medical disaster since the Black Plague will strike the human race. (The Black Plague, you’ll recall killed 30-40% of Europe’s population.) According to “Turn Down the Heat,” radical measures are required to deal with this impending crisis. These include immediate and unprecedented investment in green technologies and mass transportation systems. And yet our politicians do nothing; they actually want to cut back on such expenditures! In the recent presidential debates, the phrase “climate change” was not even mentioned, much less debated. Quite the opposite: the two candidates strove to one-up each other in swearing allegiance to coal, oil, uranium and other dirty fuels that will only make the global warming worse.
This is the third week in a row that the lectionary has given us readings from apocalyptic literature. As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, apocalypse was not about the end of the world. Instead, it was resistance literature, written in code during times of extreme persecution by powerful imperial forces like Greece and Rome. The code was understandable to “insiders” familiar with Jewish scripture. It was impenetrable to “outsiders” like the persecutors and their police against whom apocalypse was written.
Apocalypse differs from ordinary prophecy in that it addresses periods of deep crisis, when the whole world appears to be falling apart. Neither prophets nor apocalyptics were fortune tellers. Instead, they were their days’ social critics. They warned of the disastrous consequences that inevitably follow from national policies that deviate from God’s will – i.e. from policies that harm God’s favorites: widows, orphans, immigrants, the poor – and (we might add) the planet itself.
Perhaps the best example of apocalypse in our own history is what happened to the indigenous populations of North and South Americans when the Europeans arrived. The coming of white people signaled the end of the “Indian” world. Everything changed for the Mayans, Aztecs, Cherokee, Iroquois, and so many other Original Peoples in our hemisphere. For them the times were apocalyptic. The indigenous world would never be the same. And our ancestors were the agents of its destruction.
Something similar had happened for the Jews when Luke was writing his gospel around the year 85 of the Common Era. Jerusalem had been completely destroyed by the Romans in the Jewish War (64-70 CE). The Romans had brutally razed the city and the temple that had been rebuilt after the Babylonian Exile. For Jews that was something like the Death of God, for the Holy City and its Temple were considered God’s dwelling place. The event was apocalyptic.
In today’s gospel, Luke has Jesus predicting that destruction using specifically apocalyptic language. Luke’s Jesus says “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.
What can such apocalyptic message mean in our own day faced as we are with false “fiscal cliffs” distracting us from the fact that we’re standing on the brink of an unfathomable environmental cliff?
Yes, the fiscal cliff is a mere distraction – a completely human and remediable fabrication. And dealing with it by reducing the government’s ability to spend on green technology and public transportation succeeds only in bringing us closer by the minute to the exceedingly real environmental precipice.
I mean, no law of nature is at work in the budget crisis. The Bush tax cuts, which the Republicans are desperately trying to preserve, were advertised as temporary from the outset. In fact, they are the chief cause of the federal deficit, and are scheduled to disappear automatically at the end of 2012 – with or without agreement by the two parties. Social Security is completely off budget. It’s not paid for by income taxes, but by payroll taxes. So tinkering with Social Security will have no impact at all on the federal deficit. Meanwhile the CBO assures us that reductions in Medicare and/or Medicaid expenses will have minimal effect on the federal deficit.
And yet we’re all supposed to be waiting for “apocalypse” to happen, as if the federal deficit wouldn’t be ameliorated by simply letting the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy expire as originally intended, and by closing the tax loopholes that allow the rich to shelter their capital gains offshore in places like the Cayman Islands, and that permit huge multi-national corporations to pay no U.S. taxes at all. As for Social Security; according to the CBO, it will remain solvent till at least 2035 if nothing at all is done about its reformation. And any problems that develop thereafter can be easily solved by having the rich pay like the rest of us on their entire incomes even after their first $100,000. (Presently, they pay Social Security taxes only to that point, and then are let off the hook.)
Meanwhile, the real threat to our planet is the environmental cliff that our “leaders” refuse to address. And who’s responsible for that crisis? Prominent religious leaders would have us believe it’s God. He (sic) is punishing us for Roe v. Wade, for legalizing same sex marriages, or for allowing women access to contraception. Let’s face it: that’s nonsense. It turns Jesus’ embodiment of the God of love on its head. It turns God into a pathological killer – a cruel punishing father like too many of our own dads.
Others would say the culprit preventing us from addressing climate change is government. Now that’s closer to the truth. Our elected politicians are truly in the pockets of Big Oil, the Banksters, and other fiscal behemoths whose eyes are fixed firmly on short-term gains, even if it means their own children and grandchildren will experience environmental apocalypse.
But we can’t simply blame government. We elected these people. We have to organize to make sure they take seriously the mandate they’ve received. That mandate is to make the economic system work for all of us not just for the 1%. To make it work, we must first recognize that an economic system that destroys the planet is a complete failure. The Doha Conference is fairly shouting that message. Our economic model is not working! In the long run, we have to organize to make our elected officials obey us, the People, rather than the business giants.
In the short run, we ourselves have to change our consumption habits. The Christmas season represents the perfect time to do that. What if this Christmas – three weeks from now – we supported each other in refusing to exchange all that plastic crap and those colorful pieces of cloth sewed together by slave labor and shipped at great environmental expense from the other side of the planet? What if we gave all that “gift” money to Greenpeace instead – or to the Heifer Project, or to Costa Rica’s Casa del Sol?
Our families and friends – even our children – would understand. I promise they would if we discussed it with them. They really don’t want or need that plastic junk either. This is a wonderfully teachable moment. And it allows us to actually be the change we would all like to see in the world – at this apocalyptic moment when we stand on the brink of an Environmental Cliff. As would-be followers of Jesus, do we really have a choice?