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Follow Jesus in coal country and in a warming world.

by Kyle Meynard Schaap

Larry was the last holdout.

Years ago, the local coal company had purchased mineral rights from the inhabitants of Kayford Mountain to blow it apart – to tap the coal seams and bleed the mountain of its precious payload. One by one, Larry’s neighbors had sold their rights and moved – driven away in some cases by intimidation campaigns organized by the coal company itself. Larry’s cabin had bullet holes from his decades-long fight.

Everyone in that area has ties to coal. “If you ask any of these kids what they want to do when they grow up,” a teacher said, “each one of them will tell you the same thing: mine coal. It’s all they know.”

Neighbors had stories about inoperable tumors – a reality for countless people downwind and downriver from mining operations in coal country. One pastor of a small local church sympathized with Larry’s plight but saw it as the unfortunate yet necessary cost of business. “After all,” the pastor told me, “God gave the coal to bless us. He wants us to use it!”

But the practice of mountaintop removal has the feeling of a drug user working harder and harder to get a fix. These last remaining coal seams are marginal. Before technology advanced to the point where they could be harvested, they would simply be left alone. Our collective addiction to fossil fuels has driven us to ever more extreme behavior. And as with other addictions, the collateral damage of our singular drive to score is profound.

When I met Larry Gibson in Kayford, West Virginia in the spring of 2012, the consequences of our addiction to cheap coal were everywhere. Mountaintop removal had already scarred thousands of square miles of Appalachian landscape, displaced neighbors who had called now-buried Appalachian hollers home for generations, and poisoned countless neighbors living downstream.

In the Gospels, Jesus is asked, “What is the greatest commandment?”

The question is dripping with cultural, social and political baggage.

Jesus’ questioner is essentially forcing him to take a side, guaranteeing that he will alienate at least one faction of his listeners.

It isn’t hard to recognize the same kind of binary thinking at play in our own context today. Wherever we turn, we hear similar questions put to us when it comes to climate change. Which camp are you in? Skeptic or believer? Liberal or conservative?

Tragically, this kind of dualistic thinking seems just as prevalent in the church as anywhere else in society. An ingrained sense of moral certitude in a complicated world seems to be the inheritance for those of us who grew up in late-twentieth-century evangelical culture indelibly shaped by the religious right. Moral nuance was flattened into clear-cut answers of right and wrong. For some Christians, ambiguity is not merely a nuisance but a threat to a worldview that asserts that the Bible and its intentions are straightforward and that moral behavior is self-evident.

That’s why Jesus’ answer to this question is such a gift. He refuses to take the bait. He refuses to accept the binary terms of the question and instead offers something that is at once simple and deeply profound: love God and love your neighbor. That’s it. A radically faithful distillation of discipleship. Love God with everything you’ve got, and love your neighbor as if their present circumstance and future prospects were your own.

How refreshing it is for us as followers of Jesus living in a polarized age to see this kind of creative resistance from Jesus. When it comes to climate change (and any other pressing social, economic or political issue), we can feel enormous pressure to choose a side. There is pressure to flatten out the complexity and nuance of climate action by mashing it together with a whole host of other policy positions privileged by one political party or the other. Jesus’ answer is a clarifying lens that frees our imaginations from the shackles of zero-sum politics and reminds us that love is our highest calling.

After all, how can we love our neighbors well if we remain silent in the face of circumstances that threaten their livelihoods and poison their bodies? How can we tell our brothers and sisters in Christ, “I believe you,” when they describe ways that climate change is harming them and their families, and then do nothing to change their circumstances? The Bible has a word for the kind of faith that sees the suffering of its neighbors and does nothing to respond: dead (James 2:17).

The people I met in West Virginia that spring complicated my perspective. My time with Larry and the stories of pre-teens losing their hair from chemotherapy had confirmed my belief. I had been ready for that.

What I hadn’t been ready for was the pride with which people spoke about coal mining and their role in powering America. I hadn’t been ready for the sparkle in the eyes of the school kids who spoke animatedly about the day they would be old enough to join their parents in the mines. My strident certitude about the immorality of fossil fuel had been chastened. It was complicated.

People’s lives were wrapped up in fossil fuel extraction, transportation and distribution. Human faces now swam across my vision when I considered concepts such as mountaintop removal, environmental justice and a just transition away from fossil fuels toward cleaner alternatives.

Yet as empathy began to soften my outlook, my moral clarity was being hardened. It is possible to honor the contributions that fossil fuels have made to North American prosperity and well-being without giving fossil fuels a free pass in perpetuity.

We can recognize that coal has put food on millions of North American tables and poisoned the drinking water. Both can be true at the same time.

And, most importantly, underneath the partisan rancor, the esoteric legislative jargon and the impenetrable technological minutiae that make up the constellation of actions necessary to stave off climate catastrophe are people. Normal people. People who are living, breathing image-bearers of God doing their best to stay alive, to stay healthy, and to keep safe the ones they love.

Larry Gibson died of a heart attack in 2012, mere months after our visit. He died with his beloved mountain still in desperate danger. And I can’t help wondering: Could love have done more for Larry? If the creative, third-way love of Jesus were our ethical lens, I think Larry might have died differently. Rather than isolated and alone, he might have been assured that his fight for the mountain would carry on without him. Maybe the theology of the pastor I met would have been shaped less by the prevailing economic and political forces benefitting from the abuse of the land around him and more by a vision of love and protection for God’s creation.

What if Christians in North America were a people who saw the created world not as inert raw material meant for nothing more than powering our industrial machines but as the Creator’s masterpiece, shot through with the glory of God, with a destiny of its own in God’s coming good future? What if we were formed to love God’s world and to love the people who are harmed most by its degradation?

Then maybe local churches surrounding Larry’s mountain would have protected him from the harassment he suffered. Maybe Christians across the continent would have known Larry’s story and would have marched in the streets demanding a stop to the abuse. Maybe even today, years after Larry’s death, Christians would be exerting persistent pressure on corporations to find alternative means of energy production that treat humans like Larry and the rest of creation with dignity and respect. Maybe we would be leading the charge to transform all of humanity’s relationship to the created world by protecting endangered species, eliminating dangerous pollutants and stopping climate change in its tracks.

If the North American church had been formed by this kind of interpretation of Jesus’ command to love God and our neighbors alike, maybe Larry could have died differently. He could have known that his kinship with a mountain was not an isolated relationship but was shared by Christians the world over in all their varied, wild and beautiful places.

Following Jesus in a Warming World by Kyle Meyaard-Schaap. Copyright (c) 2023 by Kyle Meyaard-Schaap. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press. This adaptation was first published by Christian Courier and is used by permission. 

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