Nature against Empire: Exodus Plagues, Climate Crisis and Hardheartedness

Note:  This is an excerpted, edited text of a talk given to the Alliance of Baptists Annual Gathering in Dayton, OH on April 27, 2018.  It was published (with images and graphs, absent here) in our May 2018 BCM Enews , and is part of my ongoing search to find theological ways to talk about the urgency of climate crisis.  This piece is long (10 pages), but I hope readers will spend some time with it and give me some feedback.  You can also hear the audio presentation as a 3-part podcast here.  Image above: From a 2012 Community Art Project on Exodus 7-11.

The realities of climate chaos hit me particularly hard this last December with the Thomas Fire in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.  California’s largest wildfire on record, scorching 80 % of our watershed, was for us an existential apocalyptic unveiling, the kind shared by survivors of recent hurricanes in Houston and Puerto Rico. 

I am a fifth generation Californian.  I understand that wildfires, and the inevitable subsequent mudslides, are part of the natural ecology of my bioregion.  But the unprecedented conditions of aridity and drought that caused this monster fire were aberrant.  In an interview on day four of the fire, a top California official called it the fastest burning fire he’d ever witnessed, and then echoed the mantra: “it’s the new normal.” Apparently that is now political code for climate-related weather events.

But Katrina in 2005 and Sandy in 2012 were not normal.  Neither were Maria and Irma last year.  They all, like the Thomas Fire, were natural disasters fueled by climate crisis.  A 2016 National Academy of Sciences study concluded that anthropogenic climate change (ACC) have significantly increased fire-season fuel aridity in the western U.S.  A UCLA climate scientist noted:  “The [relative] humidities during the first two weeks of the Thomas fire were much drier than what you’d normally see in the interior desert in the summertime …After the hottest summer on record, then the hottest fall on record for Southern California, the aridity was 1 %–in winter!”

Global temperature rise, polar ice evaporation, even sea rise are, for most folks, out of sight, out of mind.  But so-called “extreme weather” at our own doorsteps surely should get our attention.  At left is a graph from The Economist —note the same shape—charting the dramatic increase in natural disasters over the last four decades.  Yet the media still won’t name climate change plainly and consistently as the cause—much less our carbon addiction as the cause of climate change.

Worse, officials speak of it as if these things are being done to us, rather than by us.  So we must turn to deeper wisdom.

Nature with a Pitchfork: Climate Apocalyptic

British theologian Michael Northcott’s important 2013 Political Theology of Climate Change argues that our modern worldview offers no frame of reference for the “politics of slow catastrophe” stalking our history through ecological catastrophe.  He shows how traditional cosmologies, including the Bible, saw climate as political.  That is, the actions of nations influenced the health of nature; when people behaved badly, the earth behaved badly back.  Modernity, however, banished that notion as superstitious and unscientific.  Humans and our technologies are now in control, we believe, while nature is depersonalized, demystified and at our disposal.  That paradigm may have “worked” for a few centuries, but now we are realizing that nature seems to be biting back.

As eco- philosopher farmer Masanobu Fukuoka put it somewhat more whimsically, “If we throw Mother Nature out the window, she comes back in the door with a pitchfork.”
Northcott rightly uses the term “climate apocalyptic,” but doesn’t draw much on that tradition of literature in our scriptures.  Apocalyptic discourse in the Bible is not about predicting God’s cataclysmic destruction of the world, as so often assumed in popular culture.  Rather it expresses the fierce imagination of those who long for the end of destructive oppression by the imperial state.  After all, for the poor, the “end of the world” is already and forever being visited upon their communities by soldiers and fortune hunters and police.  Apocalyptic as a literature of resistance arose in antiquity first during the era of Persian, then Hellenistic, then Roman domination of the Mediterranean world, regimes which brought profound changes to traditional lifeways.  Powerful elites ruled ever more cruelly, extracted resources more deeply, imposed slavery more widely, and fought unending wars more mercilessly.  All of this made life more miserable for peasants, as well as for outlying pastoral and Indigenous peoples caught in the vortex of expanding States.

The Greek word apocalypsis means “unmasking or unveiling.”  It has to do with a kind of vision that is able to see through the dominant stories of empire—the grand fictions of entitlement and sovereignty, militaristic triumphalism, seductive myths of grandeur, and severe orthodoxies of law and order.  Apocalyptic seeks to lift what Morpheus, in the 1999 film The Matrix, describes as “the world that has been pulled over our eyes”: the propaganda of empire that masks the truth, distorts what it means to be human, and hijacks history.  Apocalyptic, in contrast, seeks a “double unmasking,” by:

  • stripping away the layers of denial and delusion that keep us distracted, in order to expose realities of personal and political suffering and injustice—that is, to see the world as it really is from the perspective of the poor and victims of violence; and then
  • transfusing our dulled and dumbed-down imaginations with visions of the world as it really could and should be from the perspective of divine love and justice.  The possibilities of a different way of being are revealed, or at least glimpsed, in apocalyptic visions.

This imaginary is best represented in our N.T., of course, in the writing of political prisoner John of Patmos.  The Book of Revelation is highly symbolic, full of bizarre signs and codes.  But these are not unintelligible when understood in historical context.  Take for example perhaps his most familiar image: the four horsemen of the apocalypse (Rev 6).  The symbolism of John’s Cavalry from hell is much debated, but it’s likely that the white horse represents the conquering power of the Roman Empire that had consigned the dissident John to prison.  What follows inexorably from the project of empire are three companion horses: the red horse of militarism, the black horse of economic stratification and oppression, and the pale horse of the death that follows.

I have elsewhere correlated these horsemen to Martin Luther King’s famous triplets of American empire (from his “Beyond Vietnam” speech).  Here I want to focus instead on the curious last phrase alluding to death coming by “pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth” (Rev 6:8).  Here John envisions nature going toxic, becoming a destroyer rather than a nurturer of life.  This revolt of the earth is something the ancients saw only through a glass darkly.  But it has become the defining feature of our own historical moment: the interlocking ecological crises of climate change, resource depletion, habitat destruction, and species extinction.  It is this last “horseman” that piques my curiosity as we try, like John the Revelator, to see through the veil—even when it’s painful, or depressing, or potentially paralyzing—in order to be bearers of good news in these hard times.

Nature vs. Empire: A Primal Biblical Trope

The notion of nature in insurrection has an even deeper biblical genealogy.  We find its roots in the old story of the Genesis flood, but the idea is articulated most fully in the Plagues of Egypt narrated in the book of Exodus.  I want to briefly explore this ancient tale of divine judgment because it has continually been on my mind during the Trump regime, and I believe its wisdom has something to teach us as we grasp for metaphors to make sense of climate apocalyptic.

The book of Exodus is an even older form of ancient resistance literature, but similar to apocalyptic, full of magical tales and archetypal symbolism.  The first third of Exodus narrates a slave insurrection against Egypt’s Pharaoh, the paragon of ancient empire (as Rome was to John the Revelator).  Interestingly, nowhere in Exodus does Pharaoh have a name—as if domination is generic.  The Hebrew heroes, on the other hand, not only have names, but colorful and complex personalities.  This is the story of empire told from below.

Exodus 4-14 unfolds almost as a political cartoon, replete with negotiation tactics, reversals, parody and dark humor, while at the same time exhibiting a bitter realism that makes the overall scenario of “trying to negotiate with tyranny” all too recognizable to oppressed people through-out history.  This is why this story has been adopted by folk struggling for freedom over two millennia, not least by African slaves in American fields (think the spiritual “Go Down Moses”).

Repeated refrains make clear in this story a “triangle of contestation.”  The Hebrew slave community is protagonist; their agent Moses keeps insisting: “Free our people!”  Pharaoh and his managers and magicians (who seek to outduel Moses) are antagonist, with the cynical ruler continually “hardening his heart” and reneging on agreements.  But the third “character” in this drama is nature herself, as represented in the series of plagues.  We could argue that this tale is about nature vs. empire, about Creator taking sides with slaves and deploying Creation to counterbalance what otherwise are vastly unequal power relations in this archetypal struggle.

Recall the set up for this showdown in the first few chapters of Exodus.  “They set task-masters over the Israelites to oppress them with forced labor” says Ex 1:11.  The labor was to build “store-cities,” into which the empire’s plunder (and the tribute of subject peoples) was gathered.  The struggle for freedom commences in chapter 5, where Moses makes his first ask of the ruler.  They just want to practice their own ceremonies in the wilderness, he says, sounding reasonable (after all, he reputedly grew up in the royal house).  But any concession to slaves is considered “unreasonable” to Pharaoh, so his response is to increase repression and workload (5:5ff)—exactly the script oppressed people have faced from rulers down through the ages.  So the Hebrews turn on Moses, complaining that his little freedom movement is actually making it harder for them.  Dr. King knew all about such classic dynamics of internalized oppression.

Two phrases in Exodus 6 capture, respectively, hopefulness and despair.  On one hand, the liberation movement is animated by Yahweh’s attentiveness to the bitter realities of domination.  God hears the “groan,” the visceral moaning of a people under siege, and so sets about honoring ancient promises of freedom: “I have heard the groaning of the Israelites whom the Egyptians are holding as slaves, and I have remembered my covenant” (Ex 6:5).  On the other hand, “Moses told this to the Israelites; but they would not listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit and their cruel slavery” (Ex 6:9).  Poignantly, the people can’t hear the call to mobilize because they are just too beat down.

This impasse, however, is broken by the divine strategy: Creator will instruct Creation itself to rise up against the Empire on behalf of the slaves.  So begins the great series of plagues, winding through the conflict like a labyrinth, slowly escalating the stakes.  This ancient tale seems to have multiple sources, and many symbolic and literary levels, as outlined in detail in Laurel Dykstra’s Set Them Free: The Other Side of Exodus (Orbis, 2002).  The plagues represent both “blows” (Heb negeph) to Pharaoh’s regime, but also “signs” (oth) of its impending demise: “The Nile is filled with blood just as the Reed Sea will be filled with dead Egyptians” (p. 103).  Moreover, the narrative is “a literary assault on the entire Egyptian cosmology, a ‘judgment of the gods of Egypt’ (Ex 12:12)… The frog, sun, cobra, cow and the Nile are all deities in the Egyptian pantheon, yet each is distorted or defeated by the superior power of YHWH” (p. 113).

The first sign of nature’s protest is the Nile turning to blood.  There have been countless attempts to explain this phenomenon scientifically.  One theory holds that rising temperatures led the Nile to slow and shrink, making it hospitable to toxic fresh water algae. A bacterium known as Burgundy Blood algae has been documented widely around the globe, multiplying drastically in slow moving warm water streams, then dying and leaving a red stain in water.

It is further speculated that an ecological cascade of consequences may have ensued.  Any blight on the water that killed fish also would have caused frogs to leave the river and probably die (Plague 2).  A lack of frogs in the river would have allowed insect populations to increase, while the rotting corpses of fish and frogs would have attracted significantly more insects to areas near the Nile (Plagues 3 and 4).  Biting flies in the region could in turn transmit livestock diseases, which could spark epizootic epidemics in animals and humans (Plagues 5 and 6).
I am not particularly moved by efforts among rationalists or hermeneutic conservatives to find scientific proofs for biblical nature miracles (and there’s plenty of them on the web, usually poorly argued).  The power of these biblical stories as archetypal and a political “war of myths” is lost in such modernist attempts at literalism.  That said, I was at first bemused, then intrigued, when I stumbled across an article in the prestigious Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine from a decade ago.

Their Abstract caught my attention:  “We propose the root cause to have been an aberrant El Niño-Southern Oscillation teleconnection that brought unseasonable and progressive climate warming along the ancient Mediterranean littoral, including the coast of biblical Egypt, which, in turn, initiated the serial catastrophes of biblical sequence — in particular arthropod-borne and arthropod-caused diseases.”  In other words, the authors’ “unifying causative theory of Old Testament plagues” was climate change.  Moreover, they saw “public health implications… for the possibility of present day recurrence of similar catastrophes and their impact upon essential public services.” These scientists, too, saw in these old biblical tales a warning lesson about our ecological crisis.

Again, this should not prevent us from seeing the powerful symbolics of protest in these narratives.  For example, the Sixth Plague commences thus:
But the heart of Pharaoh was hardened, and he would not let the people go.  Then the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “Take handfuls of soot from the kiln, and let Moses throw it in the air in the sight of Pharaoh.  It shall become fine dust all over the land of Egypt, and shall cause festering boils on humans and animals throughout the whole land of Egypt.” (Ex 9:7-9)

A kiln was, of course, the worksite of Hebrew brickwork.  Throwing ashes at Pharaoh was a defiant demonstration of repudiation of his slave system.  These ashes then spread over the empire like acid rain, as if to suggest that oppression ultimately makes everybody sick.

Plagues 7-9 escalate the struggle to virtually cosmic proportions, as negotiations between Moses and Pharaoh become more hardball.  Fiery hail increases the pressure on the ruling class “from above,” causing the king to begin to soften his public line.  For the first time he admits “we have a problem”—but quickly retrenches his position.  Locusts—that traditional pestilence turned into superstorm—in turn ratchets up pressure “from below.”  Pharaoh is getting squeezed, but refuses to yield—so typical of autocrats, then and now.  (Note that in 10:13 and 19 Creator conjures the winds to both bring on and drive out the locusts, employing natural forces to restore as well as to inflict.)

Then darkness falls, a foreboding harbinger of the finale to come (Ex 10:21ff). This spectacle will, a millennium later, also mark the execution of that Hebrew descendent Jesus of Nazareth on Calvary’s hill, under a different empire.  The rhetoric describing this penultimate plague is so evocative: “People could not see one another, and for three days they could not move from where they were” (Ex 10:23).  What a symbol of collective blindness, denial and paralysis, so fitting to the culture of empire!

Remembering Resistance

This sparks the final showdown, succinctly captured in Pharaoh’s death threat: “Then Pharaoh said to Moses, ‘Get away from me! Take care that you do not see my face again, for on the day you shall die.’  Moses replied, ‘You said it! I will never see your face again’ (Ex 10:28-29).  Moses takes this as his green light to get the hell out of Dodge.  But it takes one last plague (Ex 11), the one we know because it inspires the elaborate liturgy of Passover.  If you’ve never celebrated Pesach with Jews, you should experience this venerable, persistent tradition that helps keep this amazing story alive and subversive.  The stark lesson of this longest plague episode is that the powerful only respond when their own children are threatened—and sometimes not even then.

Speaking of old traditions, I want to highlight a particularly moving moment in this famous drama: “It was for the LORD a night of vigil, to bring them out of the land of Egypt. That same night is a vigil to be kept by all the Israelites throughout their generations” (Ex 12:42).  The “watchnight” vigil has been important to African American Christians since December 31, 1862, the night before the Emancipation Proclamation took effect.  On New Year’s Eve many black churches still hold worship services from late evening until midnight, called watch night meetings, which commemorate the memory of freedom.  The black community thus also preserves the Exodus story as a living one; I commend that experience to you too.

But Creation’s partnership in forcing Pharaoh to relent is not finished.  The Hebrews organize their massive labor strike and walk out, led out into the unknown by a pillar of fire.  Of course, one last time Pharaoh changes his mind, and pursues the Israelites into the wilderness.  The sea famously opens up to escort the escaped slaves to freedom, but closes up around the Egyptian militia.  Fire and water: primal elements of nature, and archetypal to boot!  Creation has conspired in liberation, setting a theme that will recur many more times throughout our scriptures.  So why is this narrative so marginal in our churches?

To be sure, this is a difficult narrative, for at least two reasons.  First, because the revolt of the earth generates many victims, human and nonhuman.  This is not a fairy tale or a super-hero story.  People and critters die, lots of them—something with which later Jewish midrash often wrestled.  And the issue of ethical responsibility is thorny.  The narrative, consistent with the cosmology of Jewish monotheism, imputes the agency ultimately to God: Yahweh orders the Exodus, summons the plagues and hardens Pharaoh’s heart.  God is the sole director, so to speak, of the whole drama.  But this is where we must resist simplistic literalism.  The clear theo-political implication of the narrative is that the empire has brought this all upon itself: nature’s revolt is generated by the groan of oppression; it is extended only because of the duplicity of Pharaoh’s administration; and the story culminates in the just liberation of slaves despite the determined efforts of the empire to keep them locked down.  This is, in other words, a story that imagines the divine execution of justice, though the path is tortured and costly.

We don’t have to take the plague tales literally to see how they articulate mythically a historical reality: it was overexploitation of resources that led to ecological collapse among ancient empires.  Jared Diamond (2005) has explored how irrigation agriculture in the Fertile Crescent over two millennia resulted in silt and alkaline degradation that doomed history’s first empires in Mesopotamia.  Elsewhere I have looked (webinar here, article here) at how deforestation was a major factor in eastern Mediterranean politics that we see reflected in the biblical prophets.  In other words, nature does indeed rebel against imperial presumption to rule over it—sometimes slowly, sometimes dramatically, but always inevitably.  Nor need one be theologically committed to speak of this in terms of “judgment.”  We are now witnessing, concluded well-known scientist James Lovelock in 2007 concerning climate crisis, the “Revenge of Gaia.” The resonance between the ancient stories of scripture and modern science is both stunning and sobering.

Which brings us to the second reason this is a tough story, at least for people like me. The late Robert McAfee Brown used to worry about how we North American Christians could read the Exodus, since in terms of the power relations within that story, our vantage point could only be located “within Pharaoh’s household.”  In 2002, aforementioned activist-scholar Laurel Dykstra, coming out of the Catholic Worker movement and now a watershed discipleship priest in British Columbia, published an important commentary on Exodus that precisely takes that approach.  “If I am to bring my own experience to Exodus, then I must identify with the Egyptians, the villains of the story.”

The Plantationocene as the New Egypt: Denial or Discipleship

Indeed, today we are the Egyptians who have brought about a climate crisis threatening all life on the planet.  Just as wealth is unequally spread across the globe, so too are environmental impacts.  We in the U.S. have by far the largest ecological footprint, and those of us who are economically privileged the largest footprint of all. ( Al Gore’s global warming project reveals the uneven per capita responsibility for emitting CO2 in the atmosphere, culpability lying squarely with the First World.

Climate crisis is rooted in persistent, historic and systemic inequality, which makes it a justice as well as a survival issue.  This has led some to question whether the term Anthropocene is adequate.  It is not “humanity in general” that has brought us to this endgame.  We cannot say that Australian aborigines or Mexican farmworkers or African American factory workers or Filipino contract laborers have brought this crisis about.  No, it is that part of humanity that has both driven and benefitted from the industrialization of the world and the globalization of capitalism.

“The Anthropocene,” Jason Moore argues, “does not challenge the naturalized inequalities, alienation, and violence inscribed in modernity’s strategic relations of power, production, and capital.”  Anna Tsing thus prefers the rubric “Plantationocene,” because the “exploited, alienated, and often transported labor” used by the “slave plantation system was the model and motor for the carbon-greedy machine-based factory system that is often cited as an inflection point for the Anthropocene” (see more here.)  Or as Naomi Klein puts it in This Changes Everything: “The reality of an economic order built on white supremacy is the whispered subtext of our entire response to the climate crisis, and it badly needs to be dragged into the light.”

So how do the Exodus plagues help us understand this crisis?  I began by noting the increase of natural disasters over the last four decades.  Nature is rebelling against empire: in our case, the consequence of our relentless resource exploitation, over consumption and carbon addiction.  Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was a wake-up call to both climate crisis and racialized social disparity, as chronicled by Michael Eric Dyson’s 2007 Come Hell or High Water.  But the hearts of our political and industrial pharaohs were too hard to change.  Superstorm Sandy in 2012 was a wake-up call for rising oceans and climate chaos, as analyzed by Adam Sobel’s 2014 Storm Surge. The pharaohs’ hearts were somewhat moved, because this time it was the Washington-New York corridor that was impacted—but they soon hardened again.  And Maria and Irma and Thomas last year? These disasters seem to have elicited only unprecedented hardness of heart from our new Pharaoh-in-Chief (recall his infamous lob of paper towels to residents in Puerto Rico so they could get on with mopping up the disaster).

Our First World obstinacy ensures that the plagues will keep coming, and keep intensifying, just as the Exodus story told it.  “Extreme weather” has spawned another bureaucratic term, if less euphemistic: “Billion-Dollar Weather and Climate Disasters.”  NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information list no less than 17 just last year.  And NOAA already named three more in the first quarter of 2018!  The harbingers keep coming, and the hearts of our ruling Pharaohs grow colder and harder, with every policy initiative, every political appointment, every military intervention.  But also our own hearts, as we keep driving and consuming like there is no tomorrow—thus making the final tomorrow of climate catastrophe inevitable.
The choice facing us as Christians is increasingly stark: either a more protracted denial, or an embrace of radical discipleship.  As noted at the outset, the purpose of biblical judgment oracles is not only to unveil inconvenient reality, but to stimulate repentance, which means to struggle to turn our personal and political history around.  In an age of climate crisis, this call to conversion gives a new meaning to the old Baptist ultimatum “Turn or Burn.”

I prefer the adage of old St. John Chrysostom: “Sin is followed by shame; repentance is followed by boldness.”  We cannot afford to be stuck in shame responses to our sinful hardheartedness and class/ race complicity; they only paralyze us.  True repentance leads to bold action: to recover enough of a sense of Beloved Community with earth to intervene in our own collective and individual addictions; to stand with the poor and people of color who are affected first and worst by the climate plagues we generate; and to resist the carbon Pharaohs—our own leaders and our own deeply entrenched compulsions.

Some people of faith are directly reappropriating the Exodus story in dramatic public witness, as in the action taken by Interfaith Witness for Climate Action in Boston this spring.  Inspired by the work of Arthur Waskow, the group drew on the symbolism of Holy Week and Passover to confront the Governor of Massachusetts in an action entitled “LET MY PEOPLE GO!  Exodus from Fossil Fuels.”  Their “Exodus” procession sought to halt an invasion of oil and gas pipelines the Carbon Pharaohs are trying to place in nearby neighborhoods.  This is the sort of animating public liturgy that we can bring to the struggle.

The plagues will keep coming.  May Christians be moved to apocalyptic clarity, inspired by Exodus liberation, and empowered by God’s dream of freedom, to take bold action to help turn this this history around!