Coal in the Easter Basket

Western Christians, both Protestants and Catholics, are currently observing Lent, the 40-day season preceding Easter. Through self-denial, alms-giving, and prayer, many Christians prepare themselves to properly commemorate our Lord’s passion and resurrection.

Lenten self-denial traditionally includes giving something up we enjoy, like a particular food or pleasurable activity. Well, this year, clergy in Britain are asking their dwindling flocks to give up coal for Lent.

Well, sort of. The Anglican bishops of Liverpool and London have called for a “carbon fast” this Lent. Instead of giving up, say, chocolate or meat, people should reduce the amount of greenhouse gases they produce.

Thus, preparing for Good Friday and Easter consists of actions such as the following: “avoiding plastic bags”; “giving the dishwasher a day off”; “insulating the hot water tank”; and “checking the house for drafts.” I’m serious.

Perhaps the bishops were aware of how, well, silly this sounds because they had to cloak it in language like this: It is “individual and collective action” on behalf of the poor. According to the Bishop of Liverpool, “it is the poor who are already suffering the effects of climate change,” and “to carry on regardless of their plight is to fly in the face of Christian teaching.”

It’s true that “carrying on” while ignoring the plight of the poor violates Christian teaching. What’s not so clear is how giving your dishwasher a day off or using paper instead of plastic fulfills your Christian duty to the poor.

Then again, as Frank Furedi of the University of Kent reminds us, the religion being appealed to here isn’t Christianity but, instead, “environmentalism [as] a caricature of a religion.” He calls the carbon fast a “morally illiterate attempt to recycle” Christian practices “as a form of environmentally correct behavior.”

In this caricature, according to Furedi, “original sin has been reinvented as a wicked act of ‘carbon emission.’” Instead of the Seven Deadly Sins, we have “everyday behaviors,” including your morning latte, turned into an offense against the planet and, oh yes, the poor.

Of course, recycling and conserving energy, however sensible, won’t make any difference whatsoever in the lives of the poor. And it certainly shouldn’t be passed off as a “sacrifice” for their sake. Its only beneficiaries will be westerners who will feel better about their own lives, even as the lives of the supposed beneficiaries remain untouched.

The saddest part about this “carbon fast” business is that our preparation for Good Friday and Easter ought to include an examination of our assumptions about what constitutes the “good life.” The global recession is a painful reminder of the dangers of laying up our treasures where moths, rust, and thieves—including those in expensive suits—can take them from us. This will be the subject of tomorrow’s broadcast.

God may be calling us to live more simply—but it ought to be as an expression of our trust in Him, not fear of an environmental doomsday. This, in turn, will enable our concern for the least of our brethren to go beyond choosing paper over plastic.

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