It takes quite something for Australia to make the U.S. media, apart from fluff pieces on our strange and sometimes deadly wildlife. These past few weeks, however, have put Australia firmly in the media spotlight.
We are burning.
It isn’t as if Australia is the only country that has suffered extensive fires. However, we are a warning to the world, with about 10.7 million hectares (26.2 million acres) of land having burned, nearly twice that of last year’s Amazon fires. At least 26 people have died, as well as billions of individual animals, potentially pushing some species to extinction.
Last year was Australia’s warmest and driest year on record, with most of the country recording its highest forest fire danger index on record. These changes were predicted back in 2008! Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have risen 24 parts per million (ppm) over the last decade to 412 ppm, so we are shifting the climate to make extreme fire events more likely.
The climate change denialist machine has accused the left of interfering with hazard reduction burns. This is untrue, with fire experts pointing out that hazard reduction burns are not a magic bullet. Such burns are part of the solution, and need to partner with Aboriginal practices rather than just trying to appropriate the techniques in typical colonial fashion.
One prominent pseudo-Christian and sportsman has been quick to ascribe the fires to God’s judgement on what he thinks are the most grievous sins in society. Christians of a more apocalyptic mindset might see the current events through the lens of 2 Peter 3, and I want to give this idea qualified agreement.
It would be easy to directly equate the fires of 2 Peter 3 with the fires that are occurring now. But there is a problem with this understanding, mainly the dualism that affects the church. Heaven is more important than earth some say, ignoring that fact that all things will be made new, and there will be a renewed heavens and earth that are joined together when Christ returns (Revelation 21). Creation groans now waiting to be renewed when we are resurrected (Romans 8:19-23). The very fact of resurrection should smash the dualism of the soul as more important than the body. The soul is actually all that makes up who I am, not just some ghost in the shell.
Dualism is read into 2 Peter 3 by assuming that the fires mean a literal, physical destruction of the Earth, denigrating the importance of matter. A Hebrew worldview sees an ordered creation as very good (Genesis 1:31). Peter’s comparison with the biblical flood is telling. The order of creation was overwhelmed by the release of chaos in the flood. The waters which were separated at creation come together in an act of ‘uncreation’ (Genesis 7:11; compare Genesis 1:6-7). The world returns to the formlessness of Genesis 1:2. If we think about this as material destruction, we are missing the point. The Earth was washed clean of the corruption and violence that led to God bringing the Flood in the first place (Genesis 6:11-12).
The corruption was washed away and the world was both recreated in a functional sense, made new to work properly, but also renewed because there was continuity: order was bought out of the disorder of the initial creation. Creation begins anew with a remnant of humans and animals, a new blessing to fill the earth (Gen 8:15-19, compare Gen 1:22, Gen 1:28).
So, when Christians read 2 Peter 3 as a literal burning, they are not reading like a Hebrew, but like a Greek Stoic who believed in the periodic destruction of the cosmos by a great fire. Of course, some Christians read this as a once and only fire, but this still misses the point. What then burns?
In 1 Peter 1:6-7, Peter talks about believers having their faith tested by fire in the same way that fire purifies gold. Then in 2 Peter 3, fire is about disclosing what is done on earth (v. 10). The point of the fire then is not the literal destruction of all things, but the revealing of sinful behaviour. Earlier in verse 7, Peter says that the fire is kept for the destruction of the godless, not the creation. Now the language is all inclusive, but the significance narrows down to human evil, precisely because of our impact on the earth, not a doing away with creation. In this sense, fire is not about literal destruction of all that we see, though it is cast in that dramatic, mythic language so typical of apocalypse.
Therefore, these fires are portents of judgment — but not on sexual behaviour, or not voting for Trump. Instead, it is judgment on our entire worldview. Since Francis Bacon, knowledge has been seen as power to wield against nature, to bend it to our will. The non-human creation groans in birth pains under this weight (Romans 8:19-23) and is now striking back reflexively with fires, heatwaves, floods, droughts, and rising sea levels. We have exceeded our limits in the quest for endless progress in a Babel-like way, and God is revealing judgment on this.
Along the way, women and indigenous people have been reduced to less than fully human, less than the image of God. Climate change impacts are gendered, and the attacks on Greta Thunberg reveal the misogyny of climate denial.
Underlying climate change is the idolatry of greed. At the heart of the Anthropocene, human domination of the planet, is colonialism. (See, for example, how mining trumps Aboriginal rights in Australia, or the right to clean water for the Sioux is less important than an oil pipeline.) The myths of modernity and capitalism have also led scholar Jason Moore to prefer the term Capitalocene. (And before you say it, he critiques Marxism, too, for simply offering the other side of the coin of the same growth mythology. )
What needs to burn then? Misdirected human desire for power and accumulation, the worldview that gives it narrative, and the systems that support and manipulate it. It isn’t an either/or personal sin vs. structural evil. It is, however, my frustration that, having bought into the Enlightenment view of the individual, and oftentimes being part of the Babylonian Captivity of the mind of identifying Christianity with Western politics and economics, evangelicals revert only to the personal sins.
But we need to (figuratively) burn down the fossil fuel industry, as well as the military-industrial complex that is used to secure other people’s fossil fuels, suppress freedom, and wreak havoc on the environment.
We need to burn down oligarchy, and idols of power and control. So much needs to burn and be purified, and no individual or human institution can remain the same.
So, let’s burn down this house, in order to see a new creation unfold.