The Rev. Dr. Jim Antal is Minister and President of the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ, and former Executive Secretary of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. He provides national leadership as a climate activist for the United Church of Christ.
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Crisis Can Help Us Reorient What We Prize
We can make radical change more quickly than we imagined. COVID-19 and climate change demand nothing less.
It’s Now or Never on Climate Change
IT'S EASY to get discouraged. The Paris climate accord is the most significant multinational agreement yet to address climate change. Every country in the world, and Palestine, signed it. “That’s a lot of countries!” said former President Obama.
But on June 1, 2017, President Trump announced that the United States would withdraw from the Paris Agreement. By abdicating U.S. presidential leadership, Trump left it to the rest of the world’s governments to address the greatest crisis humanity has ever seen.
The depressing actions of the current administration are legion. Using federal agencies and executive orders, Trump is dismantling the climate progress so many have worked for. In September, federal agencies deregulated the release of methane gas, which traps about 25 times more heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide does. The Trump administration has allowed land set aside as national monuments to be pillaged for oil and gas drilling and mineral extraction. A fossil fuel corporate lawyer now working for the Environmental Protection Agency has dismantled our clean air regulations. The EPA has established incentives to encourage more than 300 coal plants to continue polluting our air and land.
If human-induced atmospheric warming continues at the current rate, the world will cross the 1.5-degree Celsius threshold of global temperature increase around 2040, much earlier than previously estimated, according to an October 2018 report from the International Panel on Climate Change, the first update since the Paris Agreement. Without aggressive action, food shortages and wildfires will worsen, water shortages will hit urban areas, killer heatwaves and violent storms will be more frequent, coastal areas will experience sea level rise, and populations will migrate. Humanity must become laser focused on achieving net zero emissions if creation as we know it is to survive. In other words, it’s now or never on climate change.
Why We Divested
On Ash Wednesday 2013, civil rights legend Julian Bond and I found ourselves crammed into a prisoner transportation vehicle. We had just been arrested for protesting the Keystone XL pipeline at the White House. With our hands cuffed behind our backs, we made the most of our time. We shared stories of the civil rights movement and climate activism.
I asked him what single ingredient was most essential for the success of the civil rights movement.
He responded: “Persistence.”
God’s Earth is Crying Out; God’s People, Responding, Must Prepare for Jail
God’s creation is in danger; and to call upon the powers of the world to heal it, God’s people are prepared to go to jail.
Perhaps most famously in our recent history, the startling sight of a religious leader in jail was embodied in the willingness of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to go to jail more than 20 times in order to embody his religious commitment to racial justice, peace, and nonviolence.
As we approach the Holy Week of Christianity and Passover, we should be aware that this tradition goes back thousands of years. The movement of ancient Israelites seeking freedom from a lethal Pharaoh began even before Moses, when two midwives – the Bible carefully records their names, Shifra and Puah – refused to murder the boy-babies of the Israelites as Pharaoh had commanded. The recollection of that moment is the first recorded instance of nonviolent civil disobedience.
When that cruel and arrogant Pharaoh, addicted to his own power, refused freedom to his nation’s slaves, his arrogance forced the Earth itself to arise in what we call the Plagues – ecological disasters like undrinkable water, swarms of frogs and locusts, the climate calamity of unprecedented hailstorms.
Passover has kept alive and lively the memory of that uprising. So it is not surprising that the Gospels record that just before the week of Passover, Jesus led a protest against the behavior of the Roman Empire, its local authorities, and a Temple he and his followers thought had become corrupted from its sacred purpose.
To protest against the Empire of his era, Jesus chose a time that was both appropriate and dangerous, since Passover celebrates the fall of Pharaoh. His challenge resulted in his arrest and imprisonment, and then his torture and execution.
Both Judaism and Christianity can trace their origins to acts of nonviolent civil disobedience. Indeed, for several centuries of Imperial Rome, the very persistence of Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity were collective acts of civil disobedience.
Today, religious folk face modern plagues imposed upon our countries and our planet by a new kind of Pharaoh.
To Dust You Shall Return: In the Meantime — Acting With Gratitude and Conviction
My wrist was cuffed to the White House fence next to the wrist of Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. Our nation’s chief climate scientist James Hanson stood next to me; Daryl Hannah sat in front of us. A few feet away, also cuffed to the fence, Julian Bond stood next to Bill McKibben and Michael Brune, Executive Director of the Sierra Club. Altogether, 48 of us from all over America obeyed our consciences. The days of safety and silence have ended. The time of pretending is over. Humanity will be held accountable for our desecration of creation. It is happening already.
And it was Ash Wednesday. When I mounted the platform to address the rally that preceded our civil disobedience, many were unaware that Lent was beginning. In the context of climate disruption, anyone who cares about creation can embrace the significance of Ash Wednesday. It’s a day of conscience, repentance, and conviction; a day when we take stock of our lives and our life together on the planet; a day when we confess our self-indulgent appetites, our intemperate love of worldly goods and comforts, and our obsession with consumption of every kind. For Christians, Ash Wednesday is a day to acknowledge that we are accountable to the God who gave us life and who entrusted the earth to our care.
Ash Wednesday is a good day to be arrested, I told the crowd. It’s a good day to realign our lives with God's desire to preserve this good creation. I invited any who wanted to receive ashes as a sign of their repentance to approach me on their way to White House.