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“A World of Ghosts”
Churches, Wildfires, and the Apocalyptic Summer of 2023
About the author: Jane Barter is Professor of Religion and Culture at The University of Winnipeg. She has published two books of Christian theology: Lord, Giver of Life (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2007) and Thinking Christ (Fortress Press, 2011). She is editor of the forthcoming Christology volume of the T&T Clark Encyclopedia of Christian Theology. She also has published extensively in the area of political theology.
The summer of 2023 will be remembered as a time when two-thirds of the population of the Northwest Territories was evacuated. When over 42 million acres of forests in Canada were destroyed, a figure more than double the previous record. It was when over 25,000 Indigenous people were displaced; their homes and livelihoods lost entirely to the wildfires. We will remember the fires so large in Québec that the east coast of the United States reached its lowest Air Quality Index (AQI) measure in history. When smoke from Canada closed schools in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, when baseball games and outdoor plays were cancelled or postponed. For the apocalyptic orange that lit up New York City skylines and stretched its way across the Atlantic to infiltrate European skies. This is what we remember.
The increase in temperature and decrease in humidity that has made a tinder box of Canada’s vast forests is the direct result of climate change. According to many scientists, we have entered into a new era, the Pyrocene, which is largely caused by the carbon emissions of the oil and gas industry. This is what we know.
We also know that many Canadian groups, including the churches, failed to respond to this emergency and continue to turn a blind eye to Canada’s protection of the fossil fuel industries. When the wildfires swept through each of Canada’s ten provinces and three territories, and especially Indigenous communities, the church remained eerily silent. Although it offered direct support within the communities affected, there was little by way of protest of this unprecedented catastrophe. While there were online prayer groups and statements issued by the mainline churches, there was no condemnation or even critique of fossil fuels. Even the United Church of Canada, the most progressive of the Canadian churches, could only muster this bland plea:
We are caretakers of this planet. Some of these fires were started by humans; it is imperative for us to look after the earth and our neighbours, since careless actions can have devastating impacts. We also strengthen our insistence that governments, industries, and natural resource extraction companies need to do more to combat the climate crisis since the scale and intensity of the fires is worsened by this global crisis.
Much can be said about this statement’s lack of coherence with scientific consensus about forest fires and human responsibility. But the chief flaw of this statement is its attributing the fires to “careless actions.” These are not careless actions: these are intentional, entrenched, and far-reaching national policies, that persistently protect oil and gas over human and non-human animal life. In a country with expanding pipelines and fossil fuel subsidies, it is not enough to “strengthen our insistence that governments, industries, and natural resource extraction companies need to do more to combat the climate crisis.” We must simply cease and desist from our idolatrous relationship with fossil fuels.
According to Karl Barth, the church is that community called to witness to God’s revelation in this time between the times. The church, although a community of remembrance and of hope, is also summoned in the time of the now to be what Barth deems “a living community,” one which “becomes offensive to the world in a particular way,” to “be the source of prophetic unrest, admonition, and instigation.” (God Here and Now, p. 81)
Yet, as Barth argues, God’s revelation to the church has too often, “become a world of ghosts full of worthy truths and high moral laws, with which they themselves basically no longer know how to begin, with which they therefore only dare bother the world in a half-hearted way, wearily stifling their own yawns” (p. 85). The church’s unrest has become weariness; its admonition, platitudes of worthy truths, and its instigation, an utter incapacity to begin.
The Canadian churches’ greatest temptation has always been to see the national project as coterminous with its own. They have persistently imagined Canada to be “God’s Dominion,” a kind and gentle nation, which would be upheld by churches’ benevolent and prayerful support. It is Canadian civil religion that inspired the churches to partner with the Government of Canada to operate the genocidal institutions that were residential schools. Its civil religion also renders it incapable of saying anything of substance during the summer when this country went up in smoke. To date, only two national denominations—the United Church of Canada and the Canadian Unitarian Council—have divested from fossil fuels. To date, only five Canadian Christian organizations have become signatories to the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty. When the church’s eyes have become heavy with sleep, whence comes prophetic unrest, admonition, and instigation?
Roughly one century before the first publication of God Here and Now, another Karl completed his most significant work, Capital. The fateful year was 1867, the birth year of Canada, a coincidence that Marx recognized in a letter penned to his friend, Friedrich Engels, on 21 July 1867, just twenty days after Confederation:
This centralization will of course give the capitalists the organized state power they require to expand across the entire territory of British North America. We will doubtless see in Canada the same process of primitive accumulation we have seen wherever the capitalist mode of production asserts itself: “Conquest, enslavement, robbery, murder, in short, force, play the greatest part … in America, the extirpation, enslavement, and entombment in mines of the indigenous population … This history, the history of their expropriation, is written in the annals of mankind in letters of blood and fire
What would it take to uncouple the Canadian church’s long-standing devotion to the nation from its own calling and mission? Can we even imagine a Canadian church that does not seek to uphold the nation as its primary aim? Can we even imagine reconciliation with Indigenous peoples without the mediating power of the state (a state intent upon continued colonial expropriation) to set its terms? How many more summers of blood and fire will it sleep through?
Thankfully, when the church has become a world of ghosts, the Word of God speaks through blossoming shrubs, dead dogs, flute concertos, or prophets who, over 150 years ago, saw clearly the “portents of fire and blood and columns of smoke” that were to come. When the church has fallen asleep, we must keep company with unlikely instigators to awaken it. In this time, here and now, amidst the burnt embers of a nation, this is how we begin.
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