Rebel for life: Climate change and the book of Exodus

Liz McKelvey reflects on inequality, consumerism, the climate emergency, and walking away from the slavery of Pharaoh.

From Tanzania to Didsbury

David and I went to live in Tanzania in January 1993 where we spent the next six years living on the dry central plains. On three occasions we made the long bumpy journey to the north, and on those trips glimpsed the snowy peak of Kilimanjaro suddenly appear as the cloud moved and formed a necklace around its throat. It stands alone – majestic, beautiful, and however many times it appeared and disappeared the sight was captivating and awesome.

In those same six years we lived amongst people experiencing failed rains and famine, or very heavy rains causing destruction, and famine. And since it only rains at one time of year for a relatively short period, when the rains fail there is no chance of growing anything for another whole year and no food to keep people going till then. ‘Hunger is biting’. Hunger had bitten many times before on those plains, but as the 1990s wore on it wasn’t just every now and then, it was becoming nearly every year, in a totally unpredictable way. David and I started to be aware of something called climate change.

Alex Majoli, magnumphotos.com

A picture can speak a thousand words, and sometimes a picture can bring a thousand mixed emotions too, especially if that picture catches you unprepared. We came to Didsbury in August 1999 and adjusted to life here. In 2005, I was casually turning the pages of the Guardian when I came across the picture below. It wasn’t on the front page, it wasn’t big news, just a casual photo of interest to break up the print. Kilimanjaro. The picture pierced me with so many emotions.

What has happened to the snowy top and the 11,000 year old glaciers, now shrunk out of sight? Is it anything that the people of Tanzania have done, that they should lose their jewel?

Here we are, another 14 years on, and every day there are more news stories reporting the collapse of the biosphere that we call home. The extinction of whole species, lots of them. The disintegration of vast ice sheets and the glaciers of the Himalayas. The shrinking extent of the polar icecap. Uncontrollable wildfires. Insect Armageddon. (80% of the biomass of insects has disappeared in 30 years – they are the little things that run the world and without them the environment will collapse into chaos.)

Back then, the news was a drip, drip, drip but now it is a steady stream. Have we taken any notice? Has anything changed? Are we all hoping someone else will do something?

We all know this stuff, but with each article we read or documentary we watch we have felt helpless. We are not lone individuals – we are part of a much bigger society and however much we have despaired at what we saw, we felt completely powerless to change it. The wall of denial goes up – brick by brick – it’s the only way to cope.

Back in time to Egypt

Joseph (with the dreamcoat) had become a very powerful man in Egypt, second only to Pharaoh himself and when his 11 brothers came looking for food Pharaoh gave them the best land in Egypt for shepherds, in Goshen. However, by the start of the book of Exodus this entire generation had died, and a new Pharaoh came to power who did not understand the relationship; Joseph having saved the Egyptians from famine, the Egyptians having saved the Israelites from famine. The new Pharaoh only saw the Israelites as an economic resource and a threat to his power base. He had plenty, but he wanted more.

The Israelites had also changed whilst living in Egypt. They arrived as shepherds, that was who they were. They had traded that in and now they are brickmakers, bricklayers, building storehouses for Pharaoh. Shepherding was lowly in Egyptian culture and they started to take that on board. if you were interested in making it get into the building industry. That was how to make it in Egypt. They traded in their livelihood, their heritage, their identity, for bricks.

No one likes to think of themselves as slaves. And they weren’t slaves were they? What kind of slaves own their own homes? They did. What kind of slaves have their own livestock? They did. What kind of slaves have a representative who speaks to the king? They did. They don’t think of themselves as slaves, it is God who describes them as slaves.

The Israelites in Egypt weren’t chained down, or depleted of their own resources, so why were they slaves? They were slaves because they had forgotten who they were, they had lost their values, instead they had become economic producers making a superpower richer and got entrenched in this system, because if they worked hard enough they could get richer too! Their purpose wasn’t to bless ‘all the families of the earth’ any more, it was to get richer, to get more like Pharaoh. Shepherds only carry with them what they need, loads of stuff just gets in the way. They had lost their identity and their purpose.

But then something that shouldn’t have been possible happened. Pharaoh died – Pharaoh wasn’t so absolute in his authority after all. He died! Some people here and there must have started to remember. To remember that life for their people had been different in the past. That people had been content and their life hadn’t been about getting rich. That the earth is bountiful. That life wasn’t really about storing up loads of stuff, but about relationships, simplicity, contentment, trust, and freedom. And maybe they spoke out about it to someone else? And someone else heard and thought yeah! And then that identity and purpose was awakened, a lot of people were groaning in pain, crying out in sadness, because they have woken up to something that had been buried deep down. Only because of that awakening, and that cry did God hear their groaning, look on them, and was concerned.

That groaning of the people, their recognition of the pain and sorrow and oppression of the system they had got into, their remembrance that they are in fact Israelites to be a blessing to all the families of the earth, was the beginning of a walk to freedom and a turning point. They cried out, God heard and acted.

Is this relevant to us at all in 2019?

2016: 61 billionaires owned the wealth of half of the world’s population (3.8 billion people).
2017: it was 43 billionaires.
2018: just 26 people owned as much wealth as half of the world.

Think about that! Visualise that! 26 is fewer people than in an average class.

Oh yes, Pharaoh is getting richer, the people are getting poorer. And we are slaving away to be like Pharaoh, that is our promised land!

At the same time we have seen many problems increase in our own society, problems which significantly result from this same way of life. Isolation, depression, anxiety, stress, obesity, heart disease, cancer, diabetes, eating disorders, polluted air and asthma…

This system isn’t making us happy, it is taking us and the planet on which we live on a long and slow death spiral. We have been sucked into building Pharaoh’s storehouses.

I really want to ask those billionaires ‘Are you even happy?’ Apparently they are buying themselves bunkers and worrying about how they will pay their security guards when money isn’t valid anymore! Why not use all your power and money to defend what you have got!! Who does it remind you of?

We have nothing to lose and everything to gain from saying ‘let’s go’ and walking out of this societal mindset? Let’s recover our identity as people living in relationships with one another and with a purpose to be a blessing to all the families of the earth, rather than as economic producers and consumers. There is a beautiful earth to rediscover our dependence on, and vigorous healthy communities to create in the process.

We have until 2030 to cut carbon emissions in half, and then to zero by 2050. The longer we leave it the steeper the cuts will need to be. If you are heading at speed towards a wall the sooner you brake the easier your halt will be! We are currently headed for 3C warming, which is a conservative estimate. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported in October that to go beyond 1.5C is very likely to result in a huge increase in severe consequences for the world population. We have already reached 1C.

We can’t do it on our own. We are in a much bigger system, we can only do this together. The Israelites couldn’t have walked out of Egypt in ones and twos. They needed to do it in unison. In agreement. The time had come. There was nothing left to lose and everything to gain.

When the Israelites left Egypt there would have been some in the vanguard, leading the way (the young people may be who couldn’t wait to get out of that place?). Then a body of people following on who could see this was the time. And probably some reluctant to move, trailing along at the back. We will all be at different places on this journey, but the important thing is that we all start moving. Where ever you are in that long trail of people on the move we all need to go together. Don’t look back at what you are leaving behind – look forward to where you are going, and just how good ‘good’ can be!

What does this all mean right now?

Wake up! Speak up! The exodus started with groaning. Like the #MeToo campaign, speaking up encourages other people to speak up and lifts the lid on the denial. I think this is the most important thing you can do. Break silence. When you go home today, talk about how you feel, talk about the reality, about what is important. Talk about what you can do differently, have real discussions about what needs to change. No more silence about climate change.

Take action! Tuck your cloak into your belt, tie your sandals firmly on your feet, take your staff in hand and let us leave Pharaoh’s system behind together. Challenge yourself. Change a habit, cut your carbon in half. Give someone else your car keys so you have to think about using the car. Walk, cycle, catch the bus, take the tram. It is amazing how far you can get in a city in 30 minutes without a car! Imagine what Manchester could be like tomorrow if even half of the car journeys weren’t made? How much better our air would be!

Rebel! It is not enough to hope that our politicians, our economic system and the premises on which big decisions are based will change. We need to make sure our leaders know that nothing is more important than this. Just as with Pharaoh, power doesn’t give itself away. Not usually. Of course there will be resistance but is that a reason not to do it? Do you wish the suffragettes had thought like that? Become part of a movement called Extinction Rebellion as I have.

We have been putting off doing anything for 20 years, thinking the problem will go away. It’s decision time now, today. Let’s do it. Let’s go! This will be so much better than you think.

  • Sources for Exodus material: Interrupting Silence, by Walter Brueggeman; The Ultimate Exodus, by Danielle Strickland.
  • Originally published at St James & Emmanuel, reused with permission.

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