In 1986, the United Methodist Church’s bishops tried to outdo the Catholic bishops’ 1983 pastoral letter on nuclear weapons by themselves endorsing the nuclear freeze movement, renouncing nuclear deterrence, opposing missile defense, and espousing Carl Sagan’s spurious “nuclear winter” theory. The Catholic bishops had granted a “conditional” acceptance of nuclear deterrence and cited Just War teaching. They also rejected moral equivalence between the West and the Soviet Empire, noting, “Free people must always pay a proportionate price and run some risks – responsibly – to preserve their freedom.”
Unfortunately, the United Methodist bishops, in their rush to disarm and condemn the United States, were incapable of such serious reflection. Instead, their “In Defense of Creation” manifesto sanctimoniously intoned that “nuclear deterrence is a position which cannot receive the church’s blessing.” And they derided any adherence to deterrence as “idolatry” while slamming Christians who believed in resisting Soviet nuclear superiority as guilty of “idolatrous loyalties to special interests and ideologies.”
Fortunately, the United Methodist bishops’ surreal nuclear counsel was largely ignored. Arms control agreements with the Soviet Union were secured by following completely opposite advice: deploying additional U.S. missiles in Europe and refusing to abandon missile defense. Unable to match the U.S. militarily or economically, and having to failed to persuade Western public opinion to adopt policies that United Methodist bishops and other peaceniks advocated, the Soviet Union collapsed several years later.
Are the United Methodist bishops embarrassed by their 1986 call for strategic surrender to the old Soviet Empire and anxious to make amends with spiritually more discerning guidance for their flock? No! In 1986, these bishops represented 9 million Methodists in the U.S. Today, partly thanks to their frequent preoccupation with politics as the expense of spiritual vitality, they represent fewer than 7.9 million American church members. And they are determined to recycle their same mistakes by releasing a successor to “In Defense of Creation” that repeats a plethora of apocalyptic canards about global warming, diminishing resources and untrammeled capitalism. It has all the freshness of a Paul Ehrlich fear-mongering jeremiad from the 1960’s.
Called “God’s Renewed Creation: Call to Hope and Action,” this pastoral letter is long on fear and short on hope. “God’s creation is in crisis,” it portentously opens. “We…cannot remain silent while God’s people and God‟s planet suffer.” It’s unclear how inanimate objects “suffer,” but ascribing personality to the “planet” is a concern theme when prioritizing the earth over people. The bishops are predictably distressed over “pandemic poverty and disease,” “environmental degradation,” and the “proliferation of weapons and violence.” These ailments are not “isolated problems” but “related to one another” and demand a “comprehensive response.”
The bishops urge “environmental holiness” and challenging “those whose policies and practices neglect the poor, exploit the weak, hasten global warming, and produce more weapons.” They proclaim a political agenda that purportedly will renew all of creation. And naturally they fret that the U.S. “consumes more than its fair share of the world’s resources, generates the most waste, and produces the most weapons.” These busy bishops will “advocate for justice and peace in the halls of power in our respective nations and international organizations” and will, on their way, reduce their own ecclesiastical “carbon footprint” and “our collective exploitation of the planet.”
Identifying leftist movements with Providence, the bishops announce that “God is already visibly at work in people and groups around the world,” fomenting land reform, inspiring “green teams” and “demanding the major nuclear powers to reduce their arsenals, step by verifiable step, making a way to a more secure world totally disarmed of nuclear weapons.”
In their accompanying “foundation document,” the bishops warn that the “earth is heating up at an accelerating rate” after “several thousand years of a stable climate.” Ostensibly reassuringly, “Learned scientists and experts monitor the changes that impact our very survival” and “are clarifying the measures we must take immediately to save our forests, oceans, air, human and animal ecosystems.”
Despite these scientific exertions, the “storm builds as powerful forces swirl together.” This storm includes economic “systems built upon self-interest and fraud, “ the resource crisis as food, water and energy become scarce; the justice/poverty crisis as the gap between rich and poor continues to widen; the global health crisis as millions die of the preventable diseases of poverty like malaria, HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis; and the refugee crisis as millions of people are displaced by violence, natural disaster, and loss of jobs.” There is also “the energy crisis as oil reserves run out within two or three decades; the climate crisis as increasing greenhouse gases threaten to scorch the earth and desertification erodes productive land, polar ice melts, fire seasons lengthen, and coastal floods and severe storms increase in number; the bio-diversity crisis as at least one-fifth of all plant and animal species face extinction by 2050.”
Christian prelates more attuned to reality, and more prone to thanksgiving, might note that recent decades have in fact rescued hundreds of millions from millennia of poverty in China, India and elsewhere, that average lifespans are increasing almost everywhere, and that world food production is at record highs. Oil reserves have been perpetually and inaccurately forecast for depletion for the last century, until new discoveries always overthrow this expectation. And neither climate change, nor species extinction, are modern phenomenons.
The bishops naturally also bewail global military spending, which is actually at historic lows unseen since before World War II. Of course they complain that the U.S. spends 45 percent of global military expenditure. But would they prefer that other powers, like China or Russia, were spending proportionately greater amounts, creating another arms race and further global instability? They point at “weapons and violence,’ as though these impersonal forces were the cause of war. But they do not identify political movements or regimes (other than the U.S. of course) that are the real cause of conflict. Some regimes are tyrannical and have genocidal aspirations. Some movements aspire to extinguish human rights and religious liberty. Do they not merit mention in a decree supposed aimed at renewing all creation? And what about statist economic, or failed international aid policies, that breed and perpetuate poverty? What about extreme environmentalism that aspires to keep the poor in chronic poverty ostensibly to protect the planet from further exploitation?
Although laced with Scripture quotes and citations from Methodism founder John Wesley, this “God’s Renewed Creation” pastoral letter turgidly rehashes the cliches common to a thousand pleas from the United Nations or hundreds of secular NGO’s competing for dollars. The 18th century Church of England evangelist who launched Methodism preached spiritual renewal, self-denial, thrift, honesty, human dignity and practical social reforms. What his supposed spiritual heirs politically espouse would be more recognizable to a UN bureaucrat than to Wesley. Thankfully, “God’s Renewed Creation” will be even more widely ignored than “In Defense of Creation” was 24 years ago.