The Common Good

In Sandy’s Wake, Can We Now Create a Hurricane of Social Change?

Suppose we were applying biblical theology to the events of this week: 

Mario Tama/Getty Images
People gather around the remains of burned homes after Superstorm Sandy. Mario Tama/Getty Images

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We might say that God listened to the two major candidates for president of the most powerful nation in the world refusing to say the words “climate change” or “global warming” in a single one of their major speeches and debates.

And then God, His face flaring red in hot anger, acting as King and Judge and Lord to rebuke their sin, would send their country an overheated storm to punish and remind them what is the greatest problem they should have been addressing.

Suppose we were instead applying a theology that sees the Divine Presence more infused in the world; that understands “YHWH” as a Breath. (Try pronouncing it without any vowels.) Not just as a breath, but as the inter-breathing of all life. As a concise statement of the science that says: We breathe in what the trees breathe out; the trees breathe in what we breathe out. 

This theology fuses religious wisdom with scientific knowledge. Through this lens we see the interplay of Breath, this balanced interplay of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the global atmosphere, the very Breath of Life throughout our planet, as God’s Presence in our midst.

When human beings insist on over-burning fossil fuels, and thereby “breathing” far, far more CO2 into the atmosphere than the trees and grasses can breathe in, this imbalance overheats our planet. It threatens the balance that makes life possible. It burns holes into the “YHWH” that is the Divine life-giving Breath of Life.

What we call the climate crisis is a crisis in the very Name of God. 

The breath God breathed into the nostrils of the human race in first birthing us from Mother Earth (Gen. 2: 7) becomes a hurricane of change — like the Wind that blew apart the Red Sea to free a gaggle of runaway slaves and then blew back again to shatter Pharaoh’s army (Exod. 14).

This theology should call out to all religious folk to lead the effort to calm our climate crisis. To insist that God’s Name be restored to health so that the Name can once more become a healing of compassion.

The last of the Hebrew Prophets, Malachi, warns that the Earth may become a furnace of destruction, and urges that we prevent this disaster by turning to the healing solar wings of a Sun of Justice. From that energy of the sun itself and of the winds its “wings” bestir, we can warm and light our lives without destroying the life we seek to benefit. And this is “religion” even more than it is “science.”

It is not surprising that our purely secular “environmental” movements have played out their ability to change society. For the changes we need to undertake are not only technological and political, but deeper and more difficult. They call on us to shape new institutions and new values.

When God’s Wind shattered Pharaoh’s power at the Red Sea, it was only the beginning of the creation of a new society. It took 40 years of struggle, of transformation and mistake, backsliding and grumbling, to ready a people that could live in a sacred relationship with each other, with the Earth, and with the Breath of Life. 

So even if we were to shatter the gross and domineering political and economic power of our modern pharaohs, the giant corporations of Big Oil, Big Coal, Big Unnatural Gas that will not relent from over-burning and overpowering us, we would still need to be growing what religions claim to offer: a new vision of our lives.

Some “religious leaders” have spoken out; but like all growing, this one needs to happen at the grass roots of our religious communities. 

May the Great Storm that has blown apart the ocean waters teach us now to create a hurricane of social change.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow founded (1983) and directs The Shalom Center. His newest book, co-authored with Rabbi Phyllis Berman, is Freedom Journeys: The Tale of Exodus & Wilderness Across Millennia (Jewish Lights Publ., 2011). 

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