By Zdravko Plantak
In the last several years, and even more intensely in the very last few months, the earth has experienced deeply disturbing climate turmoil with some of the highest temperatures across the globe,1 the fires in California, then across the Amazon region, and then, more recently, across the entire continent of Australia; the earthquakes in various parts of the world around similar time-frames.
These events have created a significant moral reflection among many young people of the world regarding their future and the future of the planet on which we share existence. As one of the powerful voices reverberating around the globe talked about “our house being literally on fire,”2
I reflected on what may be our Christian responsibility and our moral response to such sentiments. Is our response to the urgent message of our earthly home being on fire that we play a lyre as emperor Nero did in ancient times while Rome was burning, or do we deny the facts of science that have clearly reached a consensus, or do we just hide behind the misunderstanding that since the Second Coming is drawing nearer, we have no need to be involved?
With such background fresh before our concerned eyes and reflective, faith-encompassing hearts, I remembered the powerful and disturbing text in Romans 8 that “consider[s] that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed.” And such exhortation brought me to a deeper reflection of that passage of lament and hope, the passage that reflects on the pain and suffering that nature experiences in the moments of climate distress in the world of ecological disaster when, in the Australian bush fires from September to December 2019, over 500 million animals have died (the estimates actually go from the very conservative 480 million to just under one billion animals).3
As I watched the animals suffer the fate of being burned alive, and read about the accounts of such horrific suffering in nature, I could not but hear the groaning of creation as described in Romans 8. Verse 22 describes the cacophony of voices crying out aloud, “The whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.”
The harshness and discord of that noise of nature sounded terribly painful and frankly disturbing. And Paul meant it to be so. He compared it to the pain and suffering and the loud cry of a woman in a difficult childbirth. The figure of the non-human creation is arresting because labor pain is excruciating as Isaiah 13:7-8 describes it: “all limbs will be limp, every man’s heart will melt, and they will be afraid. Pangs and sorrows will take hold of them; they will be in pain as a woman in childbirth; they will be amazed at one another; their faces will be like flame.”
The auditory image of Roman 8 is overwhelming, the high decibel noise, the polyphony of voices. Firstly, in verse 15, there is the loud cry of the believers; then the groans of the whole creation in verse 22, and then in verse 23 back to those believers who have the first fruits of the Spirit and who groan as much as they cry out (8:15), and finally the Spirit of God joins the two groups with ‘groans which cannot be uttered’ (8:26). As Sigve Tonstad comments: “The Spirit is decisively on the side of the groaners with a voice that does nothing to hush the intensity because the Spirit joins in with “inexpressible groans” (8:26). . . . non-human reality (8:22), human reality (8:23), and divine reality (8:26), all three on the same page and all expressing themselves in the verbal currency of groaning.”4
A noise analysis of groaning as the deepest language of suffering and most profound language of anguish as well as longing is the language of pain, which at the same time, is the language pointing towards hope. The plight of nature is complemented by the desire of the redeemed humans to be joined with the divine voice in the eschatological tenor in this language of groaning. I particularly appreciated Tonstad’s translation of this text: “we know that the entire non- human creation groans together and suffers agony together (in labor pains) until now.”5 He goes on to further comment: While “the entire non-human creation” depicts a single entity by means of a noun in the singular, the term is inclusive and all-encompassing. Many voices are coming to expression; indeed, every single voice in the non-human realm groans. The verbs have prefix sys- that conveys co- ordinated voices crying out in unison. Braaten points out that the verb “to groan” (stenazo) and its cognates often occur in mourning context in the Old Testament. He highlights two specific aspects of mourning in the Old Testament that add depth and perspective to the text in Romans. First, the mourning is intensified and made worse if “no one joins in mourning, or worse yet, if others ridicule the mourner’s plight.”
For the mourner, then, the mourning gets worse if no one cares. Conversely, communal participation lightens the grief, making it more bearable. In Romans, there is threefold “communal participation” in the sense that (1) “all non-human creation groans together,” (2) humans who have the Spirit groan, too, (3) and the Spirit joins in with “inexpressible groans” (8:22,23,26). The unison character of the groan- ing that takes place in non-human creation, together with the human groaning and the groaning of the Spirit, serve to amplify the voice but also to diffuse the pain.6
The Spirit-led believers recognize the pain and suffering of the earth and its non-human inhabitants and they grieve and groan with them because of the terrible abuse that has cost the lives of animals and eco-systems and that awaits future solution in the redemption that will be mutually received.
In view of all this pain and suffering we see around us, how should our ecological conscience prompt us to respond? Do we groan with animate and inanimate creation? Do we sympathize with our fellow beings in their cries and sighs? Is there anything more we could consciously do to alleviate that suffering and to help the voice of creation be more celebratory of their creator as expressed in the Psalms. How could we become agents of change and be more aspirational to what Hans Küng called “a world order which is friendly to nature.”
“We know” of Romans 8:22, (“we know that the whole creation has been groaning”), assumes the shared attunements to the plight of the world around us. But do we know? Are we a part of that redeemed group of the firstfruits of the Spirit who actually know and understand the excruciating suffering of ecological pangs happening all around us and join in that groaning as well as become involved with the eco-pains of our time? And even if “we know,” do we indeed join with the Divine Voice who intercedes “with sighs too deep for words”?
Sylvia Keesmaat and Brian Walsh, in their most recent book, Romans Disarmed, talk about the very essential need to not jump to immediate practicalities of what to do or how to get engaged with the groaning creation. They talk about the importance of lament and the fact that unless we enter into the lament of creation in the first place, it may be hard, if not impossible, to genuinely repent.
One of the reasons Paul calls us to lament, to grieve, to enter into the groaning of creation, is that genuine grief and lament is a sign of repentance. Grief is the doorway to repentance. Without grief we will not come anywhere near comprehending the depth of the problem nor will we have a profound enough grasp of our need to repent. Unless we enter into that place of grief, it is too easy just to jump into solutions without having realized the depth of our sin. . . . Lament and repentance go together and form a circle of shared relationship, a dance of lament between God’s people, and the groaning earth, one sharing the pain of the other, both knowing the sinfulness that has led to this deep pain.7
The lament of groaning is, therefore, the first step in our solidarity with the suffering of creation. Truly, any serious engagement with a world of ecological wounds must begin in lament. In such a way, like any lament ideally anticipates, we are crying out for things to be different. In other words, groaning in Romans is surely an act of hope, an act of passionate expectations for things to change. Lament envisions a hopeful move forward, as in the way that we wait for adoption and redemption of our bodies, the creation is not only hopefully in birth pains to the outcome of hope that a child- birth inevitably brings and is waiting for such childbirth with eager longing. “[L]ament is always asking “How long?” be- cause lament is voiced in defiant hope of a restored world.”8
And therefore, the believers do not need to feel as if we are “stuck in a moment that we can’t get out of,” as Bono of U2 expressed it, paralyzed as if nothing can be done in some of our most liminal moments. What we need is a creative and transformed imagination that comes out of our co-groaning with the divine and non-human creation which is based in the firm promise that restoration is on its way and that hope moves us forward to become a community that joins the Lament Choir loudly groaning with the Spirit and the Creation and walking alongside the most vulnerable of non-human creation and those that are affected the hardest due to the suffering as a result of the earth’s worst ecological disasters.9
Zdravko (Zack) Plantak, PhD, is professor of religion and ethics at the School of Religion at Loma Linda University. Email him at: [email protected]
1 See, for example, a report of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of the U.S. Department of Commerce, “2018 was 4th hottest year on record for the globe: The U.S. experienced 14 billion-dollar weather and climate disasters”, https://www.noaa.gov/news/2018-was-4th-hottest-year-on- record-for-globe, (February 6, 2019); Patrick Galey, “2019 second hottest year on record”, https://phys.org/news/2020-01-hottest-year-eu.html, (January 8, 2020); “June 2019 was hottest on record for the globe: Antarctic sea ice coverage shrank to new record low”, https://www.noaa.gov/news/june-2019-was- hottest-on-record-for-globe, July 18, 2019); Jason Samenow, “Red-hot planet: All-time heat records have been set all over the world during the past week”, The Washington Post, (July 5, 2018), https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/capital-weather-gang/wp/2018/07/03/hot-planet-all-time-heat-records-have-been- set-all-over-the-world-in-last-week/. 1 Greta Thunberg expressed it in her second speech at Davos Forum in January 2020 like this: “Our house is still on fire. Your inaction is fueling the flames by the hour. We are still telling you to panic, and to act as if you loved your children above all else.”, Alexandra Kelley, “’Our House is Still on Fire:’ Thunberg demands stop on emissions ahead of Davos Forum”, The Hill, (January 21, 2020). The full speech of Greta Thunberg is available: ““Our House Is Still on Fire” at Democracy Now, (January 21, 2020), https://www.democracynow.org/2020/1/21/our_house_is_still_on_fire as well as “Greta Thunberg’s Remarks at the Davos Economic Forum”, New York Times, (January 21, 2020), https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/21/climate/greta-thunberg-davos-transcript.html. 1 Sigal Samuel, “A staggering 1 billion animals are now estimated dead in Australia’s fires”, (January 7, 2020), https://www.vox.com/future-perfect/2020/1/6/21051897/australia-fires-billion-animals-dead-estimate. 1 Sigve Tonstad, Letter to the Romans: Paul Among the Ecologists, (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2016), p. 239. 1 Ibid., p. 253. 1 Ibid., p. 254. 1 Sylvia C. Keesmaat and Brian Walsh, Romans Disarmed: Resist- ing Empire / Demanding Justice, Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2019), pp. 176-177. 1 Ibid., 190. 1 See, for example, Stephen Gardiner, “The Ethical Dimen- sion of Tackling Climate Change”, Yale Environment 360, (October 20, 2011) “We in the current generation — and especially the more affluent — are in a position to continue taking modest benefits for ourselves, while passing nasty costs onto the poor, future generations, and nature. However, pointing this out is morally uncomfortable. Better, then, to cover it up with clever but shallow arguments that distort public discussion, and solutions that do little to get at the core problems. After all, most of the victims are poorly placed to hold us to account — being very poor, not yet born, or nonhuman.”