Summer in Omelas: What Are We to Do With All This (Climate) Grief? Part 2

If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it … Scapegoating, […]

Ben Self / 9.4.19

If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it …

Scapegoating, exporting our unresolved hurt, is the most common storyline of human history. The Jesus Story is about radically transforming history and individuals so that we don’t just keep handing on the pain to the next generation.

Richard Rohr, “Transforming Pain

In part one, I wrote about the growing struggle to bear the onslaught of grim environmental news. To care about the environment in this apocalyptic age is soul-crushing, and yet the hard truth is that the material quality of our own lives depends upon the continued ravaging of the earth and the disregard and exploitation of so many creatures and fellow humans with whom we share it. It’s in this context that I keep coming back again and again to the question: what are we to do with all this grief?

I’ve wrestled with this question before and surely will again. Like sin, grief keeps bringing me back to the cross. But before we get there, I should acknowledge a common point of justification that often comes up when we talk about grief, which is that it can sometimes have practical value.

As with almost everything we experience, it’s true that God can use our grief. Heartbreak sometimes acts as a strange gift, a flame lit on the altar of our hearts that moves us toward love. Melinda Gates has spoken memorably along these lines:

One of the most important things I’ve learned in my work is that you have to let your heart break. When you connect with people who are suffering, you have to force yourself not to turn away from their pain, but to share in it, and carry it with you, wherever you go.

Because, in time, that pain hardens into strength, into conviction—and it motivates us to act.

There are parallels to this in the life of Jesus. A cursory internet search turns up nine different instances in the Gospels in which Jesus was “moved with compassion” or “deeply moved within” at the sight of human suffering and drawn into some act of tenderness or healing. I don’t know where you draw the line between grief, compassion, and heartbreak, but they’re all in the same ballpark of emotions dealing with the pain of loss, even if it’s someone else’s.

The point is: in breaking us open, leaving us vulnerable, stopping us in our tracks, these emotions can sometimes open us up to the will of a loving power greater than ourselves. At the sight of any terrible tragedy, our first impulse from childhood tends to be one of compassion and a longing to help — and that’s a good impulse! If you see the Amazon burning this week and have the sudden urge to donate to Nature Conservancy or plant a tree or put solar panels on your roof, please, be my guest! Every little bit counts, we can all make a difference, it takes a village, etc.

But even if grief has some utility, that doesn’t make it any easier to live with. Nothing we do is going to make up for whatever loss is at the heart of any person’s anguish, including our own. There’s no ‘fixing’ the death of a loved one. Likewise, climate change and environmental degradation are not problems we can fix — they’re already here and they’re going to get worse. This is a Tragedy of the Commons on a global scale. Humankind may, God-willing, ultimately mitigate the effects of climate change over the next few decades, but it’s going to take monumental, epochal, coordinated changes at every level and in every sector of global society, and we’re running out of time. I hope and pray for just such a transformation, but I’m not overly optimistic and it’s going to be a rough ride regardless.

Climate change alone is already one of the all-time great examples of the collective “Human Propensity to F*** Things Up.” No matter what we do, we’re part of the problem. “Sustainability” in our time is a quaint myth, an absurd ideal. None of us are making it through the narrow gate on this one. When we die, like it or not, we will all leave this blessed earth worse off in environmental terms than we found it. “Good works” therefore offer us little consolation.

From a theological standpoint, climate change provides a useful object lesson: there’s no way for any of us to deny or resolve our culpability, and not only because we ourselves can’t possibly ‘fix’ this problem that exists on a global scale, but because we can’t even fix it in ourselves. Even if we try to leave modern civilization behind, go off-grid, take to the wilderness like John the Baptist and subsist on locusts and wild honey — even if we somehow managed to go essentially carbon-neutral, as admirable as that might be, it’s not going to absolve us. We’ve been living off the fat of the earth since the day we were born. We are all beneficiaries of an exploitative, world-pillaging system.

In the last paragraph of Le Guin’s story, we learn that some in Omelas cannot abide the “terrible paradox” of their “city of happiness,” cannot live with the moral dissonance at the heart of their society, so they try to escape: “[T]hey walk ahead into the darkness and they do not come back. The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness … It is possible that it does not exist.” To me, the implication there is that while you might try to walk away from the sins of the world, there’s only one way out, and that’s in a casket. Nothing you or I can do will free us from that burden. So again, in this context, what’s a person to do with all this grief?

Well, according to the Gospel, there is One who meets us at the point of our greatest despair, One who stands in as a ransom for all ages and transforms our pain, saying to every paralytic like me, “Son, be of good cheer; your sins are forgiven.” There is One amid the gales of history who offers rest for the weary and heavy-burdened, not imputing their trespasses unto them. The child in Omelas’ basement is a false Christ-figure, a scapegoat that condemns rather than saves. But Christians proclaim one true Christ, who as the only Son of God offered Himself up as the last scapegoat, taking the place of all others to satisfy our unending need for both punishment and forgiveness, our bloodlust in this world of sin. Instead of hiding it in the basement, we make Christ crucified the very symbol of our faith, and proclaim unto the ends of the earth His paradoxical power in dying to release us all from the burden of never being enough.

So then what are we to do with all this grief? What are we to do when there’s nowhere to lay blame but at every doorstep, including our own, and when the wages of sin in this world seem too grim to bear? We drag that burden to the cross and lay it down. We take into ourselves the body and blood of Christ, a living sacrifice for all. There in the cross we find no simple answer except God’s love and mercy amid our shame and hatred, hope amid despair. If not a way out of Omelas, then the cross offers a way through. And perhaps, even a way to a better Omelas, one that, though never free from sin and strife, constructs its happiness less on control and exploitation and more on forgiveness and charity and the promise of new life. As Bryan J. has put it, we hold out hope for an Omelas “where weakness and love are not so unwelcome … a world where the defeated have a chance, where the weak on the wrong side of the hierarchy can be fully welcomed, and love is the order that moves the sun and other stars.”

After all the damage that has been and will be done, there is only one place to truly start again, and that’s in God’s mercy. A new world is possible even in the wreckage of the old through the extravagant love that’s freely given to us all. Simultaneously united in sin and in Christ, perhaps we might grow to treat this home we share more as a precious gift than “as a huge warehouse of stuff to be used for our convenience.” As Rowan Williams reminds us, climate change or not, this world has never been “secure” but is ever “pulsing with something unmanageable, terrible, and wonderful, just below its surface.” He continues,

God has made what we can see and manage, and what we can’t see and can never manage — a universe some of which we can get a grasp of, and some of which we can’t. This isn’t a recommendation not to try to understand things, but simply a reminder that not everything is going to be made sense of from our point of view. We don’t get to the end of being baffled and amazed …

Round the corner of our vision, things are going on in the universe — glorious and wonderful things, of which we know nothing.

Climate change is scary stuff. If you’re not frightened, you must be made of stronger material than me. I don’t know what’s going to happen to us. “Faith,” Matthew Kelty writes, “in the face of ultimate apocalypse … faith in the face of our own disintegration, is what we need. There is no magic, secret formula.” But it’s good to know in the midst of my grief and my inept striving to make a difference that I am forgiven and relieved of the burden of having to fix what I can’t, and that in the midst of my bewilderment I am forever comforted and amazed by the only cause for hope there’s ever been, a loving power greater than ourselves.

It’s good to know, as fires blaze and tempests blow, as rivers dry up and great sheets of ice fall into the sea, as countless of God’s precious creatures raise their ever more desperate pleas to heaven, that the promise of the Agnus Dei remains ever close at hand.

Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant us peace.

Image credit: Rk4446558