By Fr. Bud Grant
On June 1, in a speech which will define his presidency, President Donald Trump announced that the United States would be “getting out” of the Paris Agreement. “But,” he immediately added, “we will start to negotiate, and we will see if we can make a deal that’s fair. And if we can, that’s great. And if we can’t that’s fine.” “That’s fine.” It’s as if he were bargaining for a used car, as if there were no serious consequences. The earth begs to differ. I don’t just mean the 60 percent of Americans who disagree, or private companies, including Exxon-Mobile (for crying out loud) or China, Japan or all of Europe — even Russia. In fact, all the nations on earth disagree that there are no consequences, except for Nicaragua which argued that “Paris was too weak to save Mother Earth,” and Syria which, well, has other issues. No, I don’t mean just that the peoples of the earth disagree that there are no consequences — the earth itself does.
Providentially, the second reading for the Vigil of Pentecost, two days after President Trump’s speech, was that most mysterious text from Romans 8, which says that “we know that all of creation is groaning in labor pains even until now…” (v.22). The fuller text includes this: “creation was made subject to futility, not of its own accord but because of the one who subjected it, in hope that creation itself would be set free from slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God” (v.20-21).
Does Paul suggest that the very planet has “fallen” because of humanity’s sin? Is “creation,” meaning non-sentient beings and inorganic materials and processes, to be redeemed? Pope Francis, in his encyclical “Laudato Si,” suggests that Mother Nature “groans in travail” because humans have laid waste to her (2) and that the Holy Spirit is the “bond of love, intimately present at the very heart of the universe” (238) and that the universe itself will “share in unending plentitude” (243). This is a fair exegesis of this difficult text.
The context of that section of Romans is a discourse on the action of the Holy Spirit, which makes us “children of God” through Christ, the incarnate Son (v.14-17). But Paul is also deeply troubled by the idea of suffering, including his own, personal (and perhaps physical) sufferings which, he says, “I consider…are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us” (v.18). These are not really two separate tracks of thought. Suffering for the sake of redemption (v.23) is remediated (but not eliminated) by the aid of the Spirit (26). To the point: it is the redemptive suffering of humans — who are the proximate cause of the suffering of the rest of creation — which will redeem all of creation.
How might this prophetic text challenge President Trump’s deeply unpopular and profoundly dangerous position? It comes back to “fairness” (used nine times in a 20-minute speech). The United States is the largest contributor to climate change, per capita (China is almost twice as bad, but with four times our population). Moreover, our industrial power was built on the kind of pollution that is to be denied developing countries. The president complains that India is to be paid billions, but India is nearly four times our population and contributes about one-third of our emissions. I could go on but the point is clear: it IS fair that the U.S. should aid other nations to develop clean technologies because we are “hugely” responsible for the situation in which the entire planet is embroiled. Our suffering, to be blunt, is fair. Indeed, it is paltry compared to those suffering the effects of a global crisis. Furthermore, St. Paul suggests that our embrace of deliberate suffering for the sake of others can redeem creation … and in the process, ourselves.
(Father Bud Grant is a professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)