I see five promising signs of hope as the world enters 2015. Also a few maybes.
Any optimism must be tempered by the now-present reality of climate destabilization. Already climate change is extinguishing vulnerable species, driving up insurance costs due to increasingly bizarre weather, increasing the number of refugees worldwide, and putting food supplies at risk. And many other things as unexpected feedback loops kick in.
The latest alarm comes in Naomi Klein’s book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate (Simon & Schuster, 2014). Looking back at how social movements have changed history in the past, however, Klein expresses cautious hope.
Signs of hope. Despite human maltreatment of the earth, I would point to these encouraging signs:
1. Pope Francis
At 78 and with just one lung, Pope Francis has figured out what the papacy should be all about. His genius is that he is both a Jesuit (in formation) and a Franciscan (in character). And he has been in the crucible. Breathing the spirit of St. Francis but with the savvy of an Ignatius Loyola, the new pope has instituted fundamental reforms across a broad spectrum while inspiring hope and faith. He breathes love, which the world finds disorienting, confusing. He is building links with globally-aware Protestant Evangelicals.
With a glance back at how God has worked fundamentally in past ages, I see hope here.
We all know that Iraq is a mess, for a whole host of reasons and due partly to a long series of bungles. But a corner was turned in 2014. Iraq now has a reasonable and capable prime minister and has taken some first steps toward a stable and functioning government that fairly involves both Sunni and Shiite Muslims, Kurds, and smaller ethnic minorities.
Due to this and the new Allied military intervention (the largest multinational coalition to date, I believe), the heretical pseudo-Islamic army that has taken over much of Syria and Iraq has now been put on the defensive. Equally important, most Muslim, secular, and non-aligned governments have come to recognize the threat for what it is.
All this is still very fragile, and could explode or fall apart within months. But as of now, it looks like 2014 will come to be seen as an historic turning-point.
U.S. recognition of Cuba is significant in itself, but even more so symbolically. The U.S. embargo of Cuba has been a thorn in international relations throughout the Americas for half a century. President Obama’s action in opening the door to Cuba signals the beginning of a new, more promising era in the ecology of international relations. For every negative result (and there will be some) we will see several positive impacts.
4. Employment and wages
Stupid regulatory changes in the U.S. in the 1980s and 1990s, especially, predictably brought on the Great Recession that began in 2008. Key reforms following the Great Depression were undone. Banks and other financial institutions were permitted to risk billions of dollars in (other people’s) capital on investments that were questionable even at the time. Most obviously, of course: Bingeing on high-risk mortgages and then packaging them as innovative “financial products” that financial institutions all around the world could speculate on.
The recession and its political repercussions in the U.S. largely stymied political progress and needed new reforms during most of the Obama Administration to date. (Canada, which kept control of its banks, never experienced the meltdown that the U.S. did.)
The key point, however, is this: Finally, at the end of 2014, long-stagnant wages have begun to rise. Unemployment has been dropping for about two years, but most people haven’t felt it. The gap between rich and poor has grown dangerously. Only now are there signs of hope for a reversal. For the first time in a decade, average household income should begin to rise in 2015 and following years.
For many medium- and lower-income families, this will start to bring hope where there has been despair. This in turn may breed a political environment more conducive to effective bipartisan government and long-neglected reforms, particularly regarding immigration, climate change, firearms, taxes, infrastructure, and a legal system that continues to disenfranchise and incarcerate the poor, ethnic minorities, and “illegal” aliens.
Here again, these economic changes right now are nothing more than a glimmer of hope. But trend lines are finally turning positive.
5. The late blooming of biblical full creation theology
I have been encouraged and somewhat amazed at the number of books on creation theology and ethics published in the last couple of years. They cover a broad spectrum, but they all make the same key point: For centuries the Christian Church has neglected biblical teachings on creation, and specifically the earth, in articulating a theology of salvation. A corrective wave has now set in. Naturally there will be false starts and extreme views here and there, but the emerging consensus (as I see it) is very encouraging.
When my book Salvation Means Creation Healed (with Joel Scandrett) was published in 2011, there were perhaps only a dozen such books available. Now there are scores, maybe hundreds. I won’t mention titles except to say that A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology, by J. Richard Middleton (Baker, 2014) is one of the best and most comprehensive. The books of N. T. Wright are also making a huge contribution.
Such books are symptomatic of a broad shift, though one that is just beginning. One related hopeful sign is a growing awareness of the key place of creation and the earth in any genuinely biblical worldview. This is beginning to work its way into the curricula and programs of Christian colleges, universities, and seminaries.
This is huge—but also very tardy. There are dangers of “strange doctrines” and unbiblical pendulum-swings. But I am convinced God’s Spirit is behind this shift.
. . . and Four Maybes
Much too early to tell, but here are some possible signs of renewed hope for the planet:
China the world leader in climate-friendly initiatives? An expanding Chinese economy needs vast energy resources. Although China has become the world’s leading polluter, it is also emerging as a leader in solar, wind, and other “alternative” (renewable) energy sources. China sees the handwriting in the clouds. Other countries can learn, especially if there’s increasing international collaboration on climate and other environmental issues.
Renewables the dominant energy source? The technology is viable and improving. Some major energy providers are beginning to switch. Ways to store renewable energy are being developed. But this is still iffy.
International cooperation on climate? Concerted efforts (mainly in the U.S.) to undermine effective international cooperation on climate issues have been very effective. But finally, tardily, some progress is being made. Much hinges on the Climate Conference in Paris this coming December. (See http://climateparis.org/.)
Reform coalition in Congress? In the past, significant political progress in the U.S. Congress has often come through across-the-aisle coalitions of senators and representatives who insist on putting the general welfare above partisan or parochial politics. I am praying for the emergence of a reform coalition.
At the moment the biggest hope seems to lie with Senators Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.) and Susan Collins (R., Maine) who have cooperated to break political logjams and pass needed legislation. Other senators and representatives are ready to cross political lines to put the country ahead of party and personal ambition.
We will see what happens.
A Great Spiritual Awakening?
Much of the above focuses on politics and international relations. My theology is this: God is the Lord of the nations, sovereign over political and all other agendas. God’s Spirit works in, through, around, above, and in spite of politics and economics in the larger economy and ecology of salvation.
The greatest overall, underlying need is for a thorough spiritual renewal, a new Great Awakening with reach and agenda as broad and deep as the kingdom of God. For such renewal to bring, by the Spirit, broadscale reform to nations and cultures will require the multiplication of genuine Jesus communities, servant churches that live multidimensional discipleship that refuses to divide what God has joined together.
Spiritual awakening can begin anywhere and lead anywhere as Christians are open to Jesus’ Spirit and grounded in Scripture.
So everything mentioned here is a biblical, spiritual concern.
Hope for Earth?
My hope and trust are in Jesus and God’s amazing promises in Scripture. Witnessing to the full meaning and depth of the Gospel is the central agenda. People need to know Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord and follow him in discipled communities.
In this sense, the greatest signs of hope in 2015 are the many people who are turning to Jesus Christ, becoming his faithful disciples, and forming (or reforming) the church in the power of the Spirit. Here is the real hope of Iraq, Cuba, China, the U.S., and all other nations and peoples.
But this does not mean closing our eyes to earth’s pressing “nonreligious” concerns. Jesus-focused Christians will not ignore pressing issues of justice, mercy, truth, and earth’s wellbeing.
So I return finally to the issue of earth’s physical climate, which is intimately connected with its moral and spiritual climate.
There is in fact only one plausible hope of dealing effectively with climate destabilization, and that is the emergence of a social movement that counters and finally overwhelms the deeply embedded political-economic-religious resistance to sensible action.
But there are two positive corollaries to such a movement’s emergence, if it happens: One, it will be a coalition of life-enhancing causes or sub-movements all pointing in the same general direction.
Two, any such movement would have benefits across a broad range of fronts, from human health to increased biodiversity to a new flourishing of both art and science.
Compared to six or twelve months ago, I see new signs of hope. Our ultimate hope of course is in the Lord of History who sent Jesus Christ into the world in the power of the Spirit to bring his reign in fulness.
“The earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Isa. 11:9). Messiah “will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth” (Isa. 42:4).