Do you feel guilty about the effect your actions are having on the planet? Are you in fact guilty of having mistreated the community of creation to which we all belong?
There are two meanings to the term "guilt" and its cognates. The first is objective guilt, the state of having committed an offence. The second is the subjective feeling of regret, remorse and unease over the perception of having done wrong. The two do not necessarily go together. It is quite possible to feel guilty (subjective) without actually having committed any wrongdoing (objective). Conversely, it is also possible to commit an offence and so bear objective guilt without any corresponding subjective feeling of guilt, due to some combination of ignorance, insensitivity, acculturation and denial.
An interesting new poll reports that when 17,000 people across 17 countries were surveyed regarding both their subjective feelings of eco-guilt and their objective ecological impact, there was a strong negative correlation between the two. Those doing most to mess the place up feel least angst about it. Those most ridden by guilty feelings are objectively least to blame.
I have argued previously that a Christian response to feelings of eco-guilt can avoid legalism and self-righteousness through a proper focus on the liberating good news of Jesus (and I also discussed eco-guilt in these three posts). Yet while we do not need to be paralysed in self-accusation (or distracted by self-righteous condemnation of others), some brutal honesty about our contribution to planetary failure is essential. The Christian response to feelings of guilt is neither wallowing nor suppression, but sober judgement concerning the cause of the guilt: am I objectively guilty? And if so, then there is but a single Christian response: repentance.
And so let us face up to the fact that if the average lifestyle of a citizen of the developed world were to be shared with the rest of the world, we would need something like three planets. Our consumption of finite resources, our apathy towards the origin and destination of our goods, our acquiescence in the face of a political and economic system that behaves like a tumour cell, our wilful blindness to the cumulative consequences of our quotidian choices, our unwillingness to look beyond the next pay-check or election cycle, our insensitivity to the present and future suffering and destruction required for our luxuries: let us be honest with ourselves. Where we remain ignorant, let us discover what is the case, what is the true cost of our "cheap" consumption. Only the truth will set us free: the messy, complex and sometimes brutal truth about ourselves; the surprising, simple and energising truth about God's abundant graciousness towards us in Christ.
“What must I do to win salvation?” Dimitri asks Starov in The Brothers Karamazov, to which Starov answers: “Above all else, never lie to yourself.”