In a climate emergency, Jeremiah shows us how to lament

According to Jeremiah 12, injustice leads to land degradation and species loss. In an era of anthropogenic climate change, these words have new resonance and show us how to lament. (Listen.)

How long, O Lord, will the land mourn? How long will degraded topsoil blow away and riverbeds crack for lack of water? How many millions of frogs must die? How many fish? How many bees? How long will the evangelical industrial complex wield your name like a weapon, while passing laws and investing in industries which destroy ecosystems? How many bushfires, how many floods? How many environmental defenders must be murdered? Where is your justice, O Lord? How long must we wait?

These are the questions Jeremiah didn’t quite ask: yet well he might have. He was preaching to a people who had walked away from God. Some were worshipping gods of power, wealth and violence; others were invoking God’s name in order to build a conservative nationalism. Jeremiah preached to them all, calling them back to an intimate covenant relationship which would put them right with God, neighbour, foreigner and land. But his gutsy preaching so enraged people that his own kinfolk plotted to kill him.

We pick up the story when Jeremiah places his case before God. He cries, “You will be in the right, O Lord, when I lay charges against you; but let me put my case to you: Why does the way of the guilty prosper? Why do all who are treacherous thrive? … You are near in their mouths yet far from their hearts … How long will the land mourn, and the grass of every field wither? The animals and birds are swept away because of the wickedness of those who live in the land.’” (Jer. 12:1,4)

In this era of anthropogenic climate change (that is, climate change caused by human activity), Jeremiah’s words are striking. Last week, The Guardian reported that, since the Paris agreement on climate was signed, an average of four environmental defenders have been murdered every week. Although Indigenous peoples make up less than five percent of the world’s population, more than a third of those killed were Indigenous. The innocent die and the guilty prosper: How long, O Lord?

In Brazil, a ‘Bible-believing’ president is supported by a vast evangelical voting bloc; yet his government turns a blind eye to sweeping illegal land clearances and the murders of Indigenous peoples, journalists and activists seeking to protect the Amazon. Why, O Lord, do the treacherous thrive?

Here in Australia, a Pentecostal prime minister and his cronies direct billions of dollars towards fossil fuel industries. They clear protected native grasslands, slash clean energy funding, and block protection for the Great Barrier Reef. This week, they proposed scrapping recovery plans for nearly 200 endangered species and habitats and provided extra funding for school chaplains for children depressed by ‘climate alarmism’; two weeks ago, they approved an expansion to Wollongong Coal, which greatly alarms me. You are near in their mouths, O Lord, yet far from their hearts.

And while all this goes on, many Australian Christians seem more bothered by vaccine passports or LGBT+ people. Even as rivers dry up and bushfires sweep across the east coast, even as grass and even forests wither and animals and birds are swept away, the churches remain largely silent on climate.

Jeremiah demands to know why; Jeremiah demands to know how long: and so should we. But as we present our case to God, there’s a few things we can learn from Jeremiah’s lament.

First, it shows us that we can express anything to God. We can lay charges against God and point out that God doesn’t seem to be acting. We can weep, howl, scream and shout. We can collapse in anguish and despair. This is a tame extract from the book of Jeremiah, so let me be clear: There is no feeling or emotion, no expression of anger or frustration or despair, that is unfamiliar to God. We can rant, and we can accuse: for Jeremiah shows that we are free to express everything.

Notice, however, that Jeremiah’s lament is grounded in a commitment which has been personally costly. He is not disinterested. Instead, he is intimately involved with God and passionately committed to God’s justice, and it is from this position that he speaks.

When he speaks, Jeremiah reminds God of God’s own nature and demands that God act accordingly. God is a just judge; therefore, God should enact justice. This brings me to Jeremiah’s call for retribution found in chapters 11 and 12. Such language can make us squirm, but Jeremiah is not seeking personal revenge upon those who seek to kill him. Instead, he sets up a courtroom scene and makes a case, demanding that the perfect judge enact righteous judgement. He wants God to act. And although how we understand judgement might be different to Jeremiah, it provides a model for how we can pray. Because God is just, we seek God’s justice. Because God is creative, we seek God’s playfulness and change. Because God is life-giving, we seek renewal and resurrection. Because God is reconciling, we seek wholeness and healing for all. We can remind God of God’s nature, and demand that God act accordingly.

Notice, however, that God doesn’t answer Jeremiah’s questions directly. When Jeremiah demands, “Why?” and “How long?”, God asks Jeremiah why he is so weary. Further, asks God, “If you fall down in a safe land, how will you fare in the thickets of Jordan?” (12:5). As people living in a relatively safe country, people whom the rule of law tends to benefit and protect, these are questions which well might be directed to us.

Yes, salination is a huge problem. So, too, deforestation and carbon emissions and mass fish deaths and species loss and an ocean swamped with plastics: we can and must lament these things. But when we do, God might very well ask: Why are you so weary? Which wells are you drinking from? What messages are you listening to? Are you praying every day?

And, God might ask, if you feel despair in a safe land – a land where activists tend to be mocked, not murdered – how will you fare in the jungles of Mexico, Colombia, the Philippines or Brazil? Is it really so hard to work for the common good when the worst that will happen is other people’s scorn? God’s response implies that God is still working; and so, as people who are committed to God’s cause, we must take heart and never give up.

My takeaway is this. Lament, yes, at the state of the world and include all the feels. Tell God all about it, and remind God of God’s duty to act. But do so from a position of commitment, knowing that God has a nasty habit of telling those who want something to be done to do something about it themselves. And no matter how discouraging the situation appears to be, stay strong and don’t lose heart. Our God is still working, and our God doesn’t forsake people: not Jeremiah under threat of death, not Jesus hanging on the cross, not an environmental defender murdered, and not any one of us. In life, in death, and in life beyond death, God stays with us and works steadily for God’s cause and God’s justice. So with God at our side, let us lament: and let us keep working for God’s cause and God’s justice, too.

And so, my friends, as you embrace the challenges of this world,
may God bless you with courage to seek justice,
may God bless you with wisdom to care for the earth,
and may God bless you with love to bring forth new life.
In the name of God, the creator of life,
and of Jesus, the word of life,
and the spirit, the breath of life: Amen. Ω

Reflect: In the spirit of Jeremiah, what case do you bring before God? What is your lament? Which of God’s qualities do you appeal to in your prayer? Where does your hope lie?

Congregational responses:

  • We lament the Victorian roadmap laid out today. It exposes the vulnerable, particularly children who have not had any opportunity to be vaccinated. We appeal to the God of justice, and the God of the vulnerable, for protection and care.
  • We lament Australia’s obscene investment in new submarines: an investment in war, not peacemaking or justice or climate. We note that about 2% of our GDP goes to the military, but with this purchase will be raised to 3% or higher. We note that necessary climate action has been costed at about 1% of GDP. In other words, we are choosing death, not life. We appeal to the God of creation, of justice, of peacemaking.
  • We lament the sell out of evangelicalism, which has chosen political power and violence over self-giving love; and which has turned its back on climate. We appeal to the God of conversion, new life, resurrection, and growth.
  • We place our hope in creation. The seasons continue. Birds nest, seeds sprout, the tides turn. In one form or another, life on earth will continue even if we do not.
  • We place our hope in conversion. Many of us came to faith through evangelicalism, inspired by the whole-of-life commitment, the deep Biblical faith, the joy of community and the shared commitment. We place our hope in continued conversion, including of right-wing evangelicalism, towards life, love, peace-making, creation.
  • We place our hope in a new generation of believers who are seeking a faith which integrates all of life: including climate activism.
  • We place our hope in Scott Morrison’s complete lack of shame. He can do a complete policy reversal one day to the next without blinking. We pray that he sees it is politically expedient to take radical climate action, and so takes it.
  • We place our hope in the rest of the world, which is getting on with climate action even as Australia is left in the dust.
  • We place our hope in kitchen table conversations, and a groundswell movement to find independent politicians who will act.
  • We place our faith in a God of radical reversals and resurrection, who brings life out of death, who brings growth out of compost, and who makes all things new: the land, the hearts of conservatives, and me, and you.

A reflection on Jeremiah 11:18-20, 12:1-5 by Alison Sampson given to Sanctuary on 19 September 2021 (Year B Proper 20 – extending the suggested lectionary reading) © Sanctuary 2021. Photo by Matthieu Joannon on Unsplash, showing a dust storm on the South Africa – Namibia border.

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