We have had the carrots. Now perhaps, it is time for the sticks.

It's amazing how instructive it is to watch a thermostat sink slowly into the 40s, dirty dishes linger unwashed in the dishwasher,  and a willow we planted in the front lawn when we moved in bend in a dismal arc towards the snowy ground.

Within an evening, a society connected by a febrile loop of communication technology can ricochet from 21st-century banter right back to 18th-century wonder.

This past Thursday, a storm that imprisoned our neighbors to the South in their homes for two days swept through this area, leaving close to 800,000 of our southern neighbors without power and dumping well above a foot of snow locally.

Time spent on a sofa, watching snow cascade from the sky at a rate of approximately 2 inches an hour, can prompt some urgent and often distressing reflections.

As a species,  are we capable of making the planet's survival a priority, having done such a poor job so far? And if we fail the rest of the created world who depends on our stewardship, what does it tell us about the faith(s) we profess?

As isolated as we were in our village hamlet during the ice storm and the latest snow event, we were not experiencing environmental stress alone.

• • •

In England, the River Thames overwhelmed its banks, swamping villages in floods unparalleled since the 18th century.

"We're dealing with an enormous force of nature here, vast quantities of water and an unprecedented weather pattern," British Defense Secretary Philip Hammond said in an interview with the BBC.

Last month the heat in Australia was so extreme that play had to be halted several times at the nation's premier tennis tournament, the Australian Open.  According to  a report from the country's Climate Council, blistering temperature events are now arriving earlier, occurring more frequently, and settling in for longer.  

To some believers, our own "master of the universe" hubris has little or nothing to do with the environmental instability around us. Christian friends attempt to puzzle out what God wills in sending (seemingly endless) lashings of snow, ice and polar-themed cold our way.   

Yet if God gave us intelligence, surely he intended us to use it to protect the complex web of life around us, rather than heedlessly exploiting it. Somewhere along the way in our journey as contemporary Americans, we have become so spiritually disconnected from the (remnants) of the natural world around us that we will not, apparently, struggle to save it for those who come after us.

Secular writers have long been sounding the alarm, telling us, as science writer Elizabeth Kolbert does in her recently published "The Sixth Extinction" that time to change course is short: "we're putting our own survival in danger."

But religious leaders also raise their voices, calling us to awaken from our narcoleptic slumber. Last summer a group of more than 200 evangelical scientists called for Congressional action to change the way we address climate change.

• • •

Catholic leaders have not been silent. Pope Benedict XVI was an underappreciated voice for attention to the problems of climate change. It is to be hoped that Francis will speak more explicitly, even bluntly, to the global implications of a warming world.

"Even if 'nature is at our disposition,' all too often we do not 'respect it or consider it a gracious gift which we must care for and set at the service of our brothers and sisters, including future generations,'" Francis said last month while addressing the diplomatic corps accredited to the Vatican.

"Here too what is crucial is responsibility on the part of all in pursuing, in a spirit of fraternity, policies respectful of this earth which is our common home. I recall a popular saying: 'God always forgives, we sometimes forgive, but when nature — creation — is mistreated, she never forgives!'"

 In Australia, leaders across religious traditions seem united, as this letter reveals, in calling for greater individual and social accountability and activism: "In the upcoming election we urge all Australians to give this moral issue the attention it demands. Our world is a blessing, a gift, and a responsibility. We must act now if we are to protect this sacred trust."

Tragically, for us and for the species who depend on us, Americans, the citizens of perhaps the most  powerful country on Earth, have allowed the debate  over the impact of  climate change to become a political football. Right now we seem, for all intents and purposes, immobilized — imprisoned by our own national myth of endless abundance.

Are the storms of the past few months the new norm? Or will weather extremes outstrip our abilities to imagine them? Scientists can predict, but they can't guarantee.

One thing seems clear — that if we (believers and atheists, Democrats and Republicans, pragmatists and visionaries), don't reclaim our shared humanity, it may well be too late to make a substantive difference.

There have been many times in history — notably the medieval era — when people saw the judgment of God in plague and battle and drought.

We can choose to view history that way — as passive spectators, toys of a capricious God. Or we can heed God's Genesis charge to care for the created world, the Gospel call to love our neighbors and the least, and the great biblical cry for justice for those without.

Time to turn on the lights rather than cursing the darkness.

This week, even a candle will have to do.


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