On Great Causes


We hear a lot about climate change these days. The official line seems to be that this is the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced and we can only deal with it if we put aside our old prejudices and assumptions and pull together to make a new, green society, based on our new understanding that we are part of a delicate natural balance deserving of our care and respect. There are people who disagree, but they understand they are attacking the status quo, and seem very disorganized. Generally, there are a lot of little things you are supposed to do, like turn out the lights, take shorter showers, ride the bus instead of driving, and don't eat hamburgers. When everybody does this, the CO2 will disappear out of the atmosphere, world temperatures will stabilize, and everything will be good again. Erů no wait; that was a couple years ago. Now we must support the right political parties, and they will pass the laws needed to overcome human frailty. Then everything will be good, and we will be one step closer to building our perfect world. I am not sure if we still have to turn out the lights.

Unfortunately, this isn't exactly as it sounds. Climate change a.k.a. global warming is not a unique issue. It is merely the latest in a series of great causes to shake the world. The world is full of good causes, of course, but a great cause is different. A typical good cause, like stopping AIDS in Africa, has a sort of standard obligation. First, you compare it against the other causes you support. Then, if you find it worthy, and you have resources you don't really need, you hand it over to the people who can advance the cause. In the case of Haiti, this is the relief organizations. Although there are disagreements about what counts as a good cause (pro-life vs. pro-choice, for example), the trend is consistent. A lot of people give what they can spare, and things get solved.

Great causes, however, are different. With a great cause, things are different. Everyone is expected to contribute, and everyone is expected to give a little bit more then they can spare. Admittedly, everyone doesn't really mean "everyone", but it does mean "us, the good guys". And we know we are the good guys, because otherwise we would have to be the bad guys, and we don't want that. But exactly who the everyone who contributes really is isn't the problem; the problem is that they are expected to contribute a bit more then they can sustainably. Not sustainability in an environmental sense, but in a structural sense. People are expected to contribute to a great cause at a level they aren't able to keep up indefinitely.

The same thing applies to organizations, but more so. The popular image is that if a group is not willing to give its all to a great cause, it is a moral failing. A good example is climate change and the traditional Christianity. Despite the current situation, there is no real shift to new moral standards reflecting our changing world. Instead, the Church keeps on with its same old points about salvation through Christ, helping the needy, and strict obedience to moral codes that were considered obsolete two thousand years ago. The clear impression is that they just don't have their priorities straight, and they aren't doing their part.

Now there might be something to this, if you think about it. If the planet overheats and cooks us all, there is not going to be a lot of opportunity for anything except dying of heatstroke, and I don't think anyone wants that. However, as I said above, climate change is not a unique problem. Before that, the great cause was poverty in Africa. Before that, it was equality and civil rights. Before that, it was communism. Before that, World War II. I really doubt that there is any sort of conspiracy here; I think it is just human nature. But if traditional Christians were to spend all their effort in fixing the world, they would have none left to be Christian. And if they don't do that, they will become an irrelevant and forgotten bit of the world, like the mainline Protestants. I know that to a lot of people, especially non-Christians, this would not be a great loss, but it seems a bit of a stretch to demand they abandon their current position to work to their own destruction. Really, the moral authority that Christianity has built over so long is not just a handy supply to be tapped by people who needs some extra for their cause. And if the Christians disappeared, who would there be to talk about faith?


I don't know if this was finished or if I meant to add more. The idea I was thinking of was of Christianity (and many other groups) as repsoitories of some sort of energy/effort/whatever that was built up over time and could be tapped at need. Then the great causes came and wanted access to the the stored energy. The problem was that allowing people to come and take it would end up exhausting the stores and thus destroying the original group.

Back to essays page
Back to home page