Confessions of the Rich (Wo)Man

14 mins read

On Struggling to Give up my Carbon Addiction as an Act of Faith

Author Rev. Abby Mohaupt
Author Rev. Abby Mohaupt

17 As [Jesus] was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18 Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” 20 He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” 21 Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money[a] to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 22 When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. (Mark 10:17-22, NRSV)

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What is it they say about the young rich man who went to see Jesus?

He went away sad.

But he’s a rich man. How can you be rich and sad?

The thing about the young rich man who went to see Jesus is that he knew what he was supposed to do. He knew the law, and he followed it. He loved his neighbors and went to church and was even open-minded enough to seek out a cutting-edge, new-fangled teacher like Jesus, trusting that God (who he knew through the law) was speaking to him through this man, Jesus of Nazareth.

And when Jesus told him to sell his possessions and give everything to the poor, he was sad.

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While the United States has led the way in so many things, we are so woefully behind in regards to caring for creation and each other. When it comes to climate change, we’ve caused so much of the problem, and we’ve neither suffered much of the consequences nor contributed to solutions.
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I get it. If I were the rich man, I’d be looking for Jesus to pat me on the head and say, “You’re a good rich man. Nice job following the law.”

Instead Jesus asks for more.

Photo Credit: The Guardian
Photo Credit: The Guardian

Others have written much more eloquently about the scientific state of our world and its climate (see Megan Gregory’s piece in this edition of Unbound or Bill McKibben’s ANYTHING). The facts are pretty clear. Climate scientists agree that “human-produced emissions are accumulating in the atmosphere and causing a slow warming of the atmosphere’s mean temperature.” [1]

I’m not a climate scientist; I’m not a scientist at all. But as a theologian, pastor, and human being who calls the United States home, I can’t help but be convicted by this biblical passage in the context of climate change.

I’m a member of one of the richest and most privileged societies of the world — I help pastor a church in Silicon Valley! — and while the United States has led the way in so many things, we are so woefully behind in regards to caring for creation and each other. When it comes to climate change, we’ve caused so much of the problem, and we’ve neither suffered much of the consequences nor contributed to solutions. [2]

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I’m used to being able to drive wherever I want, whenever I want to.
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Climate change is already wreaking havoc on the poorest and most vulnerable members of our world, people who have done little to substantially contribute to rising sea levels or global temperatures, yet they will feel first and most deeply the effects in floods and droughts, storms and lost crops, contamination and coastal devastation.

But we rich folk are accustomed to a way of life that is being threatened, too.

Charging ElectronicsI’m used to being able to drive wherever I want, whenever I want to. My fabulous Hybrid vehicle should mean that I get to travel short distances without worry, even if I’m not carpooling. Well, and then there are the cross-country trips home (mostly by plane—which uses more energy than driving) every once in a while to see my family. I can financially afford it, so why shouldn’t I be allowed to do it? And after all, family is important.

I’m used to plugging in my various electronic gadgets and constantly charging the batteries, just so I always have the internet at my finger tips, or so I don’t have to waste precious moments waiting for my laptop to boot up from being off. Never mind the ongoing electric suck from the sockets, nor the fan I leave running all night. The white noise helps me sleep.

I’m used to eating whatever I want, whenever I want it, even if it’s out of season and must travel across the world to get to my plate. Even if I don’t finish my meal and send it to a dump or a compost heap to turn into methane. I don’t mind paying for food that I might throw away. I can afford it.

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Yes, our affluent way of life is being threatened. In the end, that threat may be the very thing that saves us.
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But my Hybrid still takes gas, and my presence on the road adds to congestion so that all cars spend more time on the road. Truth be told, most places I go are accessible by public transportation. Many times when I start my car, it is not because of necessity but because I prefer the freedom of not being controlled by a municipal schedule.

Oh God, forgive my sin of affluence.

Abby car picAnd I love my tablet more than most things, but I have to admit that my life did get easier when the battery went dead and I couldn’t find the charger, causing me not to use it for a month. And I do not need to check my email on my phone one more time before I go to bed. Perhaps I could start to see unplugging from outlets anytime I don’t need to be charging as an act of faith: that I will get the information I need when I need it – and that I’ll be ok if the battery dies.

Oh God, forgive my sin of speed.

And it’s about time I stopped eating strawberries in the middle of winter, even if it means I’ll have to go without red berries in my oatmeal for a few months. They travel so far from South America — far enough that they could rack up their own frequent flier miles. Never mind that I know that the best strawberries are the ones grown ten minutes from my office and harvested in the middle of the summer months, and that no grocery store strawberry could EVER taste as good. It doesn’t matter — I want those berries when I want them, regardless of their travel footprint.

Oh God, forgive my sin of greed.

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Perhaps I could start to see unplugging from outlets anytime I don’t need to be charging as an act of faith: that I will get the information I need when I need it – and that I’ll be ok if the battery dies.
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I still have so far to go — adding solar panels to our home, being intentional about using organic laundry and dishwasher detergents, eating locally, etc. But there are small steps I can take, because we people of faith, like the rich man who came to Jesus, are called to give up all that we have and follow Jesus. We are called to empty ourselves and to care for people who are poor. Through that lens, responding to the climate crisis is indeed an act of faith.

Abby bike picAnd if we are to survive, as humans and as Christians, that act of faith is necessary. What the story of the rich man coming to Jesus reminds us is that it is not enough to know the law or to know that we are called by faith to care for creation and for each other. We must act in love and in faith — even when that act feels like a sacrifice.

Now is our moment—now is our time to give up the things that we people of wealth think we must have in order for all people, especially people without wealth, to have things that they really must have (arable land, breathable air, drinkable water). Our choices affect others because we are connected on this beautiful creation, planted here by our Loving Creator.

Yes, our affluent way of life is being threatened. In the end, that threat may be the very thing that saves us. What is it they say about the young rich man who went to see Jesus?

He went away sad.

I wonder, in the years to come, what it is they will say about us.

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[1] David G. Hallman. “Climate Change: Ethics, Justice, and Sustainable Community,” in Christianity and Ecology, Dieter T. Hessel and Rosemary Radford Ruether, ed. Harvard University Press: 2000, 454.
[2] Ibid., 457. This inequality of consequences is at the heart of justice issues in climate change. Over 80 percent of gas emissions are estimated to have come from industrialized countries since the Industrial Revolution. Yet countries like the United States, Canada, England, and other western industrial countries are more likely to be insulated from the effects like climate change because of economic and climate privilege. This inequality in consequences means that countries like the Maldives face the prospect of their country being completely flooded out of existence, yet they have barely contributed to carbon emissions in the world.

AUTHOR BIO: The Rev. Abby Mohaupt is the Pastoral Resident at First Presbyterian Church in Palo Alto, CA, and the Faith Community Liaison at Puente de la Costa Sur in Pescadero, CA. An Eco-feminist theologian, Abby is interested in the intersection of creativity, creation, and creature. She and her partner Nathan find joy in their garden and on long walks on the beach (which is a real thing if you live in Northern California).

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