Friday, 4 September 2015

Refugees, Climate Change and Prophetic Vision

Emma Thompson was interviewed by Emily Maitlis of the BBC's News Night a couple of days ago here The interview ranges over a number of topics - arctic oil, climate change, the Mediterranean refugee crisis and the relative merits of the Labour and Green parties. At one point, Thompson is pressed on her priorities by Maitlis - why is she campaigning against the oil companies' plans to drill for oil rather than throwing her weight behind campaigns to help the refugees? Her reply is that the two issues are directly connected. If the arctic drilling goes ahead, its effects will mean that the current refugee crisis 'will look like a tea party,' to use her words. If present global warming continues unabated, and oil extraction in the arctic is not stopped, Thompson says that the prediction is for world temperatures to rise to unsustainable levels by 2030. This will mean an explosion in the numbers of displaced people as large populations attempt to resettle in response to devastating climactic events.

I was impressed by Thompson's clarity in holding together the short and medium term prospects. We live 'on the edge' so to speak. We are rapidly approaching the point where transition from dependence on oil will be forced upon us. The sooner we start to take this seriously, the gentler the transition may be for our generation in the West. However,the reality is that it will not be a period of gradual evolution for many of the populations of the world. Global warming will lead to currently unimaginable levels of war, civil strife and displacement of peoples. 

There is an extra-ordinary passage in the Synoptic Gospels where Jesus makes predictions about the destruction of the world order of His day. This material, which includes what is often referred to as 'the Abomination of Desolation', occurs in Matthew 24, Mark 13 and Luke 21v.5ff. Jesus' thinking and words seem to blur the detail of His contemporary situation in Jerusalem and the Roman Empire with a much more far reaching vision of turmoil in the distant future. This is rich soil for theologians to pick over as they try to disentangle the specific events to which He may be referring. In a similar vein, a friend who had worked in central Africa was on a thirty day retreat at a convent in the UK at the time of the first massacres in Riwanda. She had no access to the news but suffered very disturbed visions of darkness and blood and rivers of people trying to escape some unidentifiable force. These visions, she felt, could not be entirely explained by her own knowledge of the local situation, though she knew of some of the pre-massarce social tensions.

There is something in Emma Thompson's interview that reminds me that intuition and imagination borne of long reflection and put alongside a thorough-going, detailed knowledge of particular situations produce what we might call 'prophetic vision'. It also convinces me that there is 'something in the air' about the changes ahead of us today. The immediate challenges to re-home refugees and establish a compassionate relationship between Europe and peoples fleeing the parts of the Middle East torn apart by violence may, in fact, be birth pangs of a more radically changing world order than we like to think. Hence the resistance in things both great and small. I'm pretty sure that those who heard Jesus' words squirmed at His bluntness and downplayed or ridiculed what they heard. Prophecy can sound out-of-step to the point of bizarreness but it also has that 'won't-go-away' edge and that odd mixture of detailed knowledge and universal relevance. However much we rail against voices that appear to overstate the case, the tectonic plates of our world order are shifting. The relationship between the so-called developed world with its over-powering economic structure and the previously less well resourced countries is changing; the relationship between world faiths and secularism is changing and, above all, the climate is changing more than almost any of us are ready to acknowledge.

Luke's version of the 'Abomination of Desolation' is preceded by a tiny vignette. The first 5 verses of Luke Chapter 21 give us one of the best-known the stories in the Gospels; the widow who gave her mite. She put a tiny offering of two copper coins into the Temple's Treasury. Jesus, ever one to observe the minute detail of a situation, says, 'I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for they contributed out of their abundance, but she, out of her poverty, put in all the living that she had.' It is in response to being moved by the gift the poorest person brings that Jesus' discourse about world events arises. Refugees bring gifts. The poorest and most vulnerable people remind us that we are all vulnerable and connect us to one another and to the vast forces to which we are all susceptible. Jesus' sadness and contempt was for those who behaved as though they were safe, untouchable, secure. 

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