Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Genesis 9: Rep. John Shimkus, the Flood, and Global Warming

A lot of American greens are getting very nervous that John Shimkus might nab the chair of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee--the group responsible for setting the U.S. House of Representatives' environmental agenda.

Why? Apparently, God told Shimkus that global warming isn't a real threat. Comforting, eh?

Speaking before a subcommittee meeting last March, Shimkus backed up his skepticism with Biblical evidence taken from Genesis and Matthew. Here's the Youtube clip, in all its grainy terrifying-ness:



To borrow a line from Tony Kushner, parsing this argument is like throwing darts at Jell-O; there are no satisfying hits. But let me see if I can try to break down the "theological" parts of this rambling mess.

Shimkus's first quote comes from Genesis 8, in the moments after Noah emerges from the ark onto the still-drying earth. Speaking to the head of the only family to survive the watery apocalypse, God calls a truce:

"I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.
As long as the earth endures,
seedtime and harvest, cold and heat,
summer and winter, day and night,
shall not cease" (8:21-22).

Shimkus's second text--and yes, it sounds like he's getting ready to preach a Protestant sermon --comes from Matthew: "And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other" (24:31).

He concludes this bizarre Bible minute with a quick exegesis: "The earth will end only when God declares its time is over. Man will not destroy this earth; earth will not be destroyed by a flood."

Apparently, Shimkus believes that God's promise in Genesis--that he won't wipe out mankind again--means that global warming is a myth, because God won't let us hurt ourselves. (I think?) And the Matthew passage confirms that God will only usher in total global catastrophe on his own timetable. (I've never quite understood why conservative Christians take such solace in the notion of apocalypse. Granted, they probably assume they're on the right side, but come on: it's still the end of the world, right?)

As Politico reported a couple weeks back, Shimkus still stands by these claims, and as a result, he is unlikely to push for meaningful climate legislation if named chair of Energy and Commerce. This is disturbing stuff, in no small part because we should start shaking in our collective tunics if our legislators have begun governing on literalist readings of the Bible.

But for what it's worth, Shimkus is playing fast and loose with scripture here--especially Genesis--and his Biblical logic is pretty far off.

To begin, it's worth noting that no environmentalist believes that global warming is tantamount to "the earth ending"; its results may be devastating, but it is not the apocalypse. But just for fun, let's assume that when Shimkus speaks of the end of the world, he's actually referring to significant environmental disaster.

His first assumption--that only God can or will bring along such disaster--falls by the wayside in the second half of Genesis, when earth-cracking drought imperils God's chosen (Jacob's family) and drives them to Egypt, where they will eventually be enslaved. There is no evidence in the text that God sends this deadly drought, and Jacob and company only survive it by the cunning of his black-sheep son, Joseph.

Shimkus's second assumption--that man will not bring environmental calamity on himself--is also incorrect by Biblical standards. In 2 Samuel 24, David angers the Lord, who threatens the nation of Israel with drought and famine once more. And though David ultimately receives a different punishment (pestilence, hooray!), the passage leaves open the possibility that God's people can invite meteorological cataclysm whether or not the eschatological timetable demands it.

Shimkus is on firmer ground with his third claim--that "earth will not be destroyed by a flood." However, he draws from the wrong passage for support. Indeed, God makes that promise not in Genesis 8, but in 9:15, which reads, "waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh." (Whether or not water may one day destroy some flesh remains to be seen, but I'll let Shimkus's hope stand for a moment.)

That being said, let me go on the record as saying that I wouldn't trust the post-diluvian God any farther than I could throw him. Why? Well, God's promise in Genesis 9--that he will not destroy humanity by "water"--is actually an attenuation of his oath in Genesis 8, where he swears he will not destroy humanity at all.

Many Bible scholars note this syntactical distinction and argue that God is hedging his bets. After all, it took all of a half-dozen chapters to get from Eden to Studio 54-style debauchery--and the deluge; who's to say that God won't want to fire away at a new set of heathen a few more verses down the line? (Sodom and Gomorrah, anyone?) Said differently, I'm not sure I even believe God in Genesis 9, so I sure wouldn't want to base federal energy policy on a fickle Lord's promises.

In summary, Shimkus shouldn't be legislating on the basis of his Biblical knowledge--first, because doing so violates the first amendment, but second, because his Biblical knowledge kinda sucks.

1 comment:

  1. Shimkus seemed to belie a "credo" in his simple presentation of scriptures that felt without rancour. It was a "confession" of his own that seemed open to debate. Quite different than, say, James Watt, Secretary of the Interior for two years durin the Reagan administration, who took a fundamental belief in the proximity of apocalypse as a reason to fail to pursue environmental protection of the creation. "Why bother," he seemed to say, "it is all going to end soon anyway." I was impressed that Shimkus declared himself open to theological debate...a door open to the contribution of a wider tradition than he seems aware of.
    Perhaps his turning to the promises of God that he sees in scripture are a result of his own sense of helplessness in the face of rather dire implications of climate change. That is often when people turn to God's grace....when our own efforts seem insufficient to the task.
    It seems like we are going to be dealing with more and more people who use scripture as a guidebook. Americans seem especially unwilling or unable to "eat" the darker side of life....that is acknowledging the already existent threats of global climate change, or the deteriorating effects of poverty on all humanity, our "terrible love of war," because of our fear and our unwillingness to admit to our helplessness. Should we base federal energy policy on a "fickle" Lord's promises...probably not. But it wouldn't hurt to have a dose of confidence that outside of ourselves is a power greater than ourselves that has shown to be committed to life. Then we are not alone, even though outnumbered, and we can try to tackle rather than merely tolerate the forces of darkness that roam the earth.
    The Pious Pastor

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