By Father Bud Grant
Last month, as at the beginning of every school year, I offered what my students have come to call the “doomsday speech” in my Environmental Ethics class.
The fact that this is the 16th version, and that the news isn’t any better, adds a whole layer of “doom” that, frankly, hits me harder than it can the fresh crop of kids. This leads me to consider the Christian virtues of hope and courage, not to be confused with their secular counterparts.
Over 30 years ago the father of Libyan novelist Hisham Matar was “disappeared” in Egypt where the family had been living in exile from Kaddafi’s regime. His father was extradited to Tripoli. Hisham’s never-stilled hope has been fanned by the liberation of that city. Could his father emerge from some hellish underground prison? He knows this to be exceedingly unlikely. Moreover, he adds, living with vague and dubious hope is something of a curse. Here are his words: “Living in hope is a really terrible thing, people speak about hope most of the time as a very positive thing. … [But] it’s a very dispossessing thing, it’s a very difficult thing to live with. When you’ve been living in hope for a long time, as I have, suddenly you realize that certainty is far more desirable than hope.”
Can you grasp that? Secular hope is a breed of desire; that the worst has not happened, that the situation can be pulled back from the abyss. Clinging to that hope (especially for a long time, especially if it is so tenuous) is a burden. It taints every other life experience with a bitter flatness.
Christian hope is exactly the opposite: it is a yoke borne lightly because it clings to nothing … it has already died. Christians do not grasp at straws to keep desire alive, but rather, we have let go. Our hope isn’t that death won’t happen, but that resurrection will. And this hope is sure.
What does that mean as a Christian environmentalist? Well, for example, it means admitting that anthropogenic global warming is a fact and that it is well progressed. It is causing refugees to leave their homes, ecosystems to unravel and economies to creak under the stress. Hope means that we have obligations to adapt to this new world, not deny it. Christian hope empowers us because it is forward thinking: what will life be like on the other side of a very painful adjustment? How can we ease the burden for those who suffer the most: the poor, other species, future generations? Now, let us get on with it, which requires Christian courage.
Even secular courage is too often “Hollywood miscast” as fearlessness when it is, in fact, overcoming fear. It is finding the reserves, resources and resolve within oneself to accomplish far beyond what one would have thought possible. This is noble. Christian courage is another thing, however. It means acting in compassion for others and for the earth, despite not having the resources and without counting the costs.
Christian courage means letting go of one’s own concerns, even if they are serious; letting go of one’s judgments of those served, even if justified; letting go of all the rationalizations that would impede us from reaching out. For Christian courage is impeded not only by what we think we lack in order to do good, but by what we possess that we don’t want to surrender for the sake of the greater good. Christian courage is doing what is one’s duty as a disciple of Christ the Courageous without thinking about the consequences.
Concerning the courage of Christ: being the Incarnate Son of God must be terribly difficult if, as I suspect, this does not come with guarantees, magic power or perfect knowledge. If, as I suspect, it comes laden with human emotions, physical vulnerabilities and all the limits imposed by one’s moment in history, cultural baggage and social constrictions. Imagine, then, being endowed with cosmic love … and nothing else. This is Christ’s courage. This, then, is Christian courage.
What does this mean for a Christian environmentalist? It means not thinking about the end-game, which means we can skip over all the daunting obstacles between us and it. This, like Christian hope, is liberating. We are freed to act on what we know to be our duty rather than to act only expediently, pragmatically, romantically or idealistically. We do what we know needs to be done, no matter how difficult. “And thus,” to quote John F. Kennedy in his Profiles of Courage (a book that today’s politicians might read!) “in the days ahead, only the very courageous will be able to take the hard and unpopular decisions necessary for our survival in the struggle with a powerful enemy…”
(Father Bud Grant is an assistant professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)