Apocalyptic Climate Migration and our Testimonial Life

January 28, 2022 § 6 Comments

This is an awfully long post. I’m sorry. But I couldn’t figure a way to break it up.

I believe the next couple of decades—the next generation—will see an existential challenge to our Quaker peace testimony and to the relevance of the whole Quaker movement. Millions, maybe tens of millions, maybe hundreds of millions, of Spanish and Portuguese speaking, brown-skinned people will surge north to escape the deadly heat of the tropics and subtropics that global warming will bring in the not-so-distant future.

In a few decades, it will be literally impossible for humans to go outdoors in much of the tropics without literally dying from the heat and humidity alone. Before that, farming will collapse, infrastructures will break down, especially energy grids, and states will fail. All of this is happening already in some places.

The people in the tropics and northern subtropics will migrate north, as they do already. (I imagine the people in the southern subtropics might head for Argentina and Chile.) We’re talking about millions of people fleeing certain death.

Donald Trump and his racist, xenophobic, white Christian nationalist allies are right about this: a wave of human migration of unimaginable size is headed toward us (at some point) and it threatens to change our world, our country, and our lives in really profound ways. And it’s not just the numbers. Most of these people won’t speak English and they will come deeply traumatized, often unprepared for participation in a knowledge economy, and already very needy.

The pressure to build Trump’s wall—and to fortify it and militarize it—will become impossible to wave off as simply racist fear-mongering. The case for cultural survival of “the American way of life” will seem rational, even to some of the most liberal among us, even though the argument will be morally flawed and it aims at saving something that was already under extreme stress and never even really existed in the first place, except as an idea, if a powerful one.

The mounting suffering on the Mexican side of that wall will become its own source of trauma, exceeding by orders of magnitude the pain of watching videos of children in cages under mylar blankets. We will just stop looking. But we won’t stop shooting.

Part of your mind wants to deny that this is true. But it is true. Part of our optimistic Quaker worldview wants to seek peaceful resolution of looming problems. But there won’t be one. We will finish Trump’s wall. We will militarize it. At some point, the vast majority of Americans will believe that we have no choice. Some of us will even agree.

The only questions are, when do we reach that point, and what do we do to prepare in the meantime. That meantime is NOW. 

We must right now begin to think much more creatively about our testimonial life. What do simplicity, equality, earthcare, integrity, justice, and above all, peace and nonviolence mean in the face of this inevitable future?

More importantly, where do the Light within us and the Guide whose wisdom we seek in our corporate discernment processes lead us? What would Jesus have us do? We must right now pray and worship as we never have before, for guidance, strength, clarity, wisdom, and a prophetic voice and call to action that will make sense to our fellow Americans.

That must start with integrity. We must be honest with ourselves, and with our society, about what we face: this threat is real and inevitable; only its timeline is unknown. And we must be willing to make the sacrifices commensurate with our prophetic challenge.

I invoke Jesus because I believe he offers an alternative to denial, to the violent reaction that the self-proclaimed protectors of the American Way of Life will demand, and to helpless, incoherent hand-wringing and the approval of some minutes of conscience, which is the utterly predictable Quaker response. That alternative is love. Love as Jesus taught it, not as something one feels, but as something one DOES.

Love for the migrants swarming over our borders. Love for the landowners and the communities on the border, both here and in Mexico. Love for the white Christian nationalists. Love for the moderate majority of Americans who will reluctantly agree to extreme measures, who will feel forced to act in violation of their own moral compasses. Love for all the victims, which will be everyone.

I have a thing for apocalyptic popular fiction. I am an avid fan of The Walking Dead, for instance. That show is all about moral injury: how do you recover from having done the unthinkable, which you did because you thought you had to. It’s about all the ways in which humans deal with catastrophic collapse, and all the ways humans deal with the ways that the communities around them deal with catastrophic collapse, because the real danger is our fellow humans. It’s about what Walter Wink calls the myth of redemptive violence, the myth that violence can save you from violence. The zombies in that show are just the mythic carriers of our fear, our fear of losing what we have.

My take-away from this kind of apocalyptic fiction is the Quaker message: when things get really bad, you can only stand firm in the Light within you, sink down in the Seed, and act from Truth with love. Jesus is again the model here: it matters more how you live, how you suffer, and even how you die, than whether you live or die. For we’re all going to suffer and die.

I harp on Jesus because liberal, neoplatonic theology about that of God in everyone will not speak to the white Christian nationalists who will dominate the public reaction to the coming tide of migrants, and who may very well control the official state reactions, both locally in the border states and nationally in our immigration policy. It will not speak to most of the Americans who will feel caught in the middle, either. But Jesus might speak to them. Jesus will at least give them radical cognitive and moral dissonance.

More to the point, the spirit of the Christ is a real power in this world, and in their world. It can be denied. It can be suppressed. And it can fail to break through in this struggle. It’s failing right now, and we’re nowhere near the catastrophic collapse that is coming. In fact, I fully expect the failure of love and the spirit of the Christ to stop this disaster. I expect another crucifixion.

But the spirit of the Christ cannot be killed. By the spirit of the Christ, I mean the Spirit that anointed Jesus into his ministry, that gave him his charismatic power and the power of his love; the Spirit that has inspired, strengthened, and gathered the faithful for the two millennia since. The Spirit that gathered the first Quakers, the Spirit that still gathers our meetings for worship, if only now and then.

That Spirit is not all powerful. It did not give us a holy church after Jesus; we got a violent and imperialist church instead. It did not give us a “city on a hill”, as the Pilgrims hoped; we got the genocide of Turtle Island’s First Nations instead. But it did give us Mary Magdalene, Hildegard of Bingen, Jacob Boehme, George Fox and John Woolman, post-war food kitchens for starving Germans, and the many saints of our own time.

No wall can hold all these desperate people back. And trying to hold it back will morally injure this nation. It will shred our national ideals, leaving us with nothing to work with as a nation when the wall finally falls, however and whenever that happens.

But we might be able to build a new future on the faithful few who stood in the Light as best they could throughout the suffering, who insisted on steadfast lovingkindness in the face of it all. Assuming that our changing climate does not wipe us all out—which sometimes looks pretty likely to me—there will be some kind of resurrection, and we could carry its Seed.

I know this sounds extreme. It is. You would like to think it’s unlikely. But I urge you to look at your denial. I urge you to read the articles I link below, and the many others like it. And then I urge you to sink down in the Seed.

Let us begin now a public ministry of the message of love at the center of Jesus’ message. Let us preach—and live—in the spirit of the Christ, the gathering spirit of Presence and Love. Let there be at least this one candle in the house and let us take off the bushel that hides it.

NYTIMES articles:

Global Warming’s Deadly Combination: Heat and Humidity

A Hotter Future is Certain . . .

§ 6 Responses to Apocalyptic Climate Migration and our Testimonial Life

  • Janaki Spickard-Keeler says:

    Thank you for this. It has the ring of Truth to it.

  • Indeed “the ministry of Jesus will speak to millions in our country if they are gently reminded with Love,” but as a Friend recently pointed out to me, when you speak in the Lord’s power to that of God in another person’s conscience, you can expect that person either to be moved to repentance or to experience an internal storm.
    Such gentle reminders with Love can make bullies freak out, in our times as well as in George Fox’s day. Early Friends, often enough, ended words of challenge and reproof with “And this I have said in love to your souls,” but those addressed by their words responded with blows, disownments, imprisonments, or sword-strokes. And Jesus anticipated that: “For from henceforth there shall be five in one house divided, three against two, and two against three” (Luke 12:52). I experienced that myself just a couple of days ago, when a family member publicly vented at me about my religious self-expression online.
    Sharing the Light of Christ can get you in trouble, Friends! How many of you have protested your employer’s funding your retirement plan with mutual funds that invest in military contractors? How many of you have told your boss that you can’t participate in business with such-and-such of your company’s clients because of that client’s evil works and predatory behaviors? Have you asked your Meeting to cut its ties with Quaker schools that define Quakerism as “Quaker values” but repudiate discipleship to Jesus Christ? Have you despised yourself for seeing the whole world around you in thrall to Satan, and yourself as lacking the courage and integrity to risk your job, your family, your everything, by protesting?
    The Light of Christ is a spectrum, Friends, of which the cheering yellow glow of a candle is just a small part. It includes energies far beyond gamma rays, intense enough to create or destroy a universe. If you volunteer to be a lens for that Light, be forewarned that you may need to ask Christ for courage and wisdom far beyond what nature endowed you with.

  • Don Badgley says:

    Prophesy. Clear and spot on. I am grateful for it, and both frightened and hopeful. We Friends once had the courage to challenge those who claimed Christ and lived the opposite. Do we now? Even among Friends, passive Quaker ISM is part of the problem.

    It is not too late because as you say, the ministry of Jesus will speak to millions in our country if they are gently reminded with Love. Our task is not to condemn but only to point into the Light. There is still time to mitigate the coming collapse and perhaps reverse it but it will require far more than ISMs and well meaning statements. With the efforts of millions of those who claim Jesus as the Christ modeling the heart of that ministry, way will open.

  • Steven, I’m surprised that no one else has commented on this post yet. But I know that all your readers are reverberating from it. And so am I.
    For imagine that you had prophesied that a future U. S. president, legitimately elected by a huge majority of voters, and supported by huge majorities in Congress, would launch a pre-emptive nuclear attack on all of Latin America. And imagine that you had also prophesied that the majority of Quakers in the United States (most of whom had voted for… let’s call him President Gog) could think of nothing to do but wring their hands, draft minutes of conscience, and “rend their garments, and sit on the ground astonied.” For to build a border wall to keep out “millions, maybe tens of millions, maybe hundreds of millions” of people fleeing certain death is the moral equivalent of such a pre-emptive nuclear attack.
    Well, that’s the prophecy that we, your readers, are all reverberating from. We feel the truth of it. We’re sitting with it.
    That is to say, we don’t know what will actually come to pass, but we recognize that we, the voters, labor-force, investors and consumers of the United States, have planted the seeds of such a dreadful future, and that those seeds are surely germinating, unseen, in the soil.
    All that said, I can’t tell you how grateful I am to read your words, “But Jesus might speak to them.” The problem is, Jesus speaks to a lot of people already, and often their response is either to crucify Him afresh, to silence Him, or to betray Him with a kiss, which amounts to the same thing. I hope that we’re all asking ourselves how we’ve been responding to His voice as we sit here on the ground, astonied.

  • Thank you for this, Steve, and in particular for asking us to look at our own denial.
    I’m sure you’re right that the Spirit of the Christ cannot be killed. All power in heaven and on earth is His. But I think you’re wrong to begin your next paragraph with “That Spirit is not all powerful.” I believe that It _is_ all-powerful, but It respects human choice. “Behold, I stand at the door and knock,” It says (Rev 3:20), inviting us to open the door from the inside. It doesn’t stand at the door like a SWAT Team and smash the door down.
    It asks us to surrender self-will, so that we invite the will of God to be done instead of our own self-will. We must do that freely, knowing that we may be risking martyrdom. But paradoxically, as Jesus says in Luke 21, though they may put some of us to death (21:16), there shall not an hair of our head perish (21:18). How can this be? Having given up self-will — what an earlier generation of Friends called “living in the Cross” — we begin to live in eternal life, in Christ, whether we remain in the flesh or not. There Christ gives us the courage, the endurance, the unshakable trust, whatever it is that we need to persist in faithfulness.
    Of course, if we look at history, we’ll see that many Christians have chosen to live instead by “Christian realism,” which translates to “Let us do evil, that good may come” (Romans 3:8). This often means putting physical survival or comfort ahead of faithfulness. Then when something like the Decian Persecution of 249-251 C.E. comes along, Christians that would save their own lives (and maybe the lives of the children accompanying them) by burning incense to a statue of the emperor live, while those who refuse die on the spot. (Would I refuse, supposing that I didn’t have small children to protect? Maybe; maybe not. But I’d hope that Christ would lend me the courage to obey whatever He asked of me!)
    Quaker culture as we have it today does not encourage the faith of the ancient martyrs, nor the faith of George Fox, Mary Dyer, John Woolman, or Levi and Catherine Coffin. How can we get it back? I suggest that we each, individually, make the surrender of self-will to the Divine Will, and then see what the Living Christ does with us. Even I, old, lukewarm middle-class American white male that I am, have experienced the “circumcision of the heart” that Paul wrote of (Romans 2:29, following Jeremiah 4:4). And if the One who circumcises our hearts gathers us into a community of the like-minded — well, we’ll find one another; but it may not look quite like the Quaker Meeting we’d known before we left self-will behind.
    And it’s this that would set our neighbors a meaningful example of marching to a different drum than Mainstream America offers.

  • martinkelley says:

    One of this month’s Friends Journal articles is on Jim Corbett. He seems like a good role model for what you’re talking about: https://www.friendsjournal.org/jim-corbett-smuggler-for-the-kingdom-of-love/

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