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California Wildfires as an Ethical Issue at Santa Clara University


What might it mean to refer to the recent wildfires in California–especially the historic Camp Fire–as “biblical?”

It may be tempting to do so in a fundamentalist or even cynical sense: The former in which God judges everybody, and the latter in which the actions of God are invoked at the expense of being honest with ourselves. But David DeCosse of Santa Clara University’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics suggests that instead, we look to the book of Job in Hebrew Scripture for the awe and humility that may be the beginning of understanding divine action in such a disaster.

DeCosse’s essay, Wildfires, Ethics, and the Biblical, is part of a series of articles currently on the Markkula Center’s website, each exploring aspects of California’s wildfires from various perspectives: faith, ethics, personal responsibility, and humanity.

DeCosse, who said he was inspired by Pope Francis’ document on the environment, Laudato Sí, and its ‘Gospel of creation,’ argues that humans can’t throw up their hands in the face of these disasters.

“Not knowing for sure what the Divine is up to doesn’t mean we get to fall back on the catch-all explanation that the fires are an ‘act of God,’” he wrote.

“That way of putting things masks the human role in these catastrophes. Instead, the fires have clear human causes: climate change, over-stuffed forests, housing construction in fire-prone areas (often driven by the high cost of housing elsewhere), and unstable, overhead power lines.”

He cites the example of Job from the Bible as a way of discerning the right response.

“Job was a righteous man who lost everything… (Job) complained to God – until God set things straight: ‘Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth…when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?’ God asks Job in the climactic point of the book. God’s impossible, beautiful questions in part silence Job’s hubris, in part signal the divine love that brought creation into being, and in part point to the inscrutable, ongoing divine power at work in the world,” DeCosse writes.

By listening to such questions, DeCosse notes, “Job’s vision widens to see anew his own responsibility in the context of his dependence on a creative power and mysterious governance of the world.”

To read all of the articles in the Markkula Center’s series of essays on the wildfires, please go to the Center’s website at http://bit.ly/scuFireEthics.