Today we are at another powerful turning point for first Americans, and for all of us. The courageous actions of the Standing Rock Sioux inspires place-based people everywhere. Through the example of prayerful indigenous people at Standing Rock, many Christians are coming to a powerful realization: Protecting our watersheds for future generations is God's call to action for people of all faiths today, just as urgent as it was for previous generations of interfaith activists to abolish slavery or march for civil rights. To protect water is the sacred task of today's generation.
I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day. — E.B. White
ON A GORGEOUS FALL DAY, I bundle up just a bit and go sit on the rock under the apple tree in the middle of the field. The low-angled sun pours its subdued warmth onto the splashy orange of the maples, transient yellows of the tamarack, and faithfully green cedar. Further to the west, the mountains cut a postcard-perfect silhouette against the seasonally pale blue sky.
Such grace, warming my heart with joy.
A loving God calls us to experience such profligate joy. Now, in the latter decades of my life, time picks up its pace at an alarming rate. So I often promise myself to seek more opportunities to sit on rocks.
But instead, each morning, the genes of my activist mother, the teachings of my faith, and probably a bit too much of my own hubris conspire to bring on the conflicting desire to “improve” (well, okay ... save) the world.
So I strongly identify with E.B. White’s dilemma, softened by his gentle humor-with-a-touch-of-wistfulness.
Working for social justice seems like forever. I am weary of being tedious to those around me who do not understand my seemingly quixotic campaigns. I am weary listening to the current loud, vicious, largely irrelevant public clamor surrounding issues to which I am dedicated. I am weary knowing that those of us preaching minority positions that were once slammed as unrealistic have been proven right. But it took so long: civil rights, the Vietnam War, apartheid, climate change. As we slogged through our protests and The Powers That Be didn’t listen, lives were lost, billions of dollars spent, time wasted. I am impatient: Why can’t the arc of the moral universe run, rather than just bend, toward justice?
FAITH-BASED COMMUNITIES have been at the forefront of environmental justice work since the phrase first came into use. In 1987, the United Church of Christ’s Commission for Racial Justice published the report Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States. The report—the first of its kind—documented the connection between the siting of hazardous waste sites and the race of the communities where they were located.
For Aaron Mair—an epidemiological-spatial analyst with the New York State Department of Health—environmental justice organizing began in 1984 when he and his family moved to the Arbor Hill neighborhood of Albany, N.Y. The 80-percent-black neighborhood was home to an incinerator that resulted in two of his daughters having upper-respiratory health issues, according to Mair. The neighborhood’s toxic air prompted Mair to begin organizing his community to get the incinerator shut down.
In May 2015, Mair was elected as the first African-American president of the Sierra Club, a national environmental organization with more than 800,000 members. Raven Rakia, a freelance journalist and Grist fellow, interviewed Mair for Sojourners in February.
Raven Rakia: What’s the significance of your becoming the first black president of the Sierra Club?
Aaron Mair: I didn’t start out to make history with the Sierra Club. I started out to make history as an environmental justice activist by elevating the voice of communities of color with regard to equal treatment and protection under the law.
Soon, Earth Day events became part of the fabric of our nation’s community life, churches began taking the Sunday service before or after Earth Day to pray, learn, and take action for God’s creation. As one 2006 Fox News article about Earth Day Sunday put it, “The environment has historically taken a back seat to common faith initiatives like the fight against poverty or hunger ... But now, congregations increasingly see a connection between care for God's creation and social issues.”
There are women in my life I choose to breathe with. With these women, I turn our breath into sounds, sounds into words, and raise them together in solidarity across the currents of justice. Together, we fight for the environment, we fight for rights, for black lives, for women's rights — and constantly strive for peace.
Last November, my deskmates at Sojourners (and my colleagues working all the way on the other side of the office) were interrupted by my joyful whooping and hollering at the news that President Obama had finally, finally killed the Keystone pipeline once and for all. Leading climate activist (and Sojourners contributing editor) Bill McKibben noted that the significance of the decision rippled far beyond Keystone XL itself: It made the president “the first world leader to reject a project because of its effect on the climate.”
Over the years, Keystone XL had become known by activists and journalists alike as “the zombie pipeline” — with delay after delay in the review process and legislative defeats followed by legislative resurrections in Congress as members attempted to expedite approval, the issue just wouldn’t die.
As we begin to walk the path to Easter this Maundy Thursday, Jacqui Rémond invited us to follow Jesus with a servant love of all creation.
“This Easter, I would invite you to replicate Jesus’ model of healing our neighbors … by caring for God’s creation, including humanity and all species,” she said.
Director of Catholic Earthcare Australia, Rémond draws on the words of Pope Francis in Laudato ‘Si, describing the nobility in the duty to care for creation — a duty worked out in small, deliberate acts.
Last night’s Democratic presidential primary debate in Flint, Mich., ran the gamut on issues, from guns to trade to racism to religion.
But it was also the most environmentally focused debate yet in the 2016 campaign.
Here’s a quick summary of the main environmental issues that came up (and a couple that didn’t).
Pope Francis conducted Mass in the Mexican state of Chiapas (home to more than 1 million indigenous people), with Bibles available in different indigenous languages in order to make the ceremony accessible to as many audience members as possible.
Pope Francis minced no words when it came to the environment: “The environmental challenge that we are experiencing and its human causes affects us all and demands our response ... we can no longer remain silent before one of the greatest environmental crises in world history.”
TWO RECENT news items: 1) A new U.N. report finds that over the last 20 years, 4.1 billion people have been injured in extreme weather events—the floods and forest fires that are proliferating as the climate warms. The report adds that the total will keep steeply climbing in the years ahead.
2) Two teams of investigative journalists, following separate document trails, proved in the course of the fall that Exxon—now ExxonMobil, the world’s most profitable company—had known everything there was to know about climate change 25 years ago. And then lied about it, helping to set up the elaborate infrastructure of climate denial that has prevented serious international action on global warming.
I don’t know how to keep these two things in my head at the same time without giving myself over to hatred. I know I’m not supposed to hate, and much of the time I’m able to work on climate change without losing my cool. I can meet oil industry executives, understand the problems that make it hard for them to move quickly; I can and do sympathize deeply with coal miners and tar sands miners whose lives will be disrupted as we take necessary action.
But for Exxon? There have been hours, reading these reports in the Los Angeles Times and the Pulitzer-winning InsideClimate News, when I’ve just found myself in a blind rage, unable to comprehend how people—professed Christians, most of them, in that Texas hotbed of Christianity—could act this way. Their scientists told them quite straightforwardly that burning coal and oil was heating the planet and that it was going to be disastrous. By the mid-1980s, before any politician was talking about climate change, they had good computer models indicating (correctly as it turned out) how much the earth would warm. And they believed those predictions—they helped guide their actions in places like the Arctic, where they were bidding for leases in waters they knew would soon be free of ice.
But they also knew that serious action on climate change would cost them money—would force them to start switching their business from fossil fuel to renewable energy. And so they went to work, helping to set up front groups that hired veterans of the tobacco wars to open a new front of obfuscation. Their CEO, Lee Raymond, gave a speech in Beijing in 1997 insisting that the climate models were hokum, and that the earth was cooling.
Before the announcements of the new agreement at COP 21, when the thousands of people who were not closely engaging with official delegates of the 190 countries gathered in Paris, I was sitting at a small white table with my new found friend Kenneth.
We spoke for nearly an hour before I asked him the question.
We had been talking about the work of the Ghanian Religious Bodies Network On Climate Change, which brings together Muslims, Christians, and Indigenous peoples across Ghana to work on climate change because, after all, “climate change impacts all of us.” We touched upon capacity building, workshops, seminary education, practicalities, and visions. It was the kind of conversation that most people who were not directly involved in the negotiations were in Paris to have: networking, information sharing, and building cross-cultural relationships around common endeavors.
Finally, I asked him, “Are you religious?”
Pope Francis hailed the “historic” climate change agreement signed in Paris, urging the international community to swiftly implement the deal.
Speaking to the faithful in St. Peter’s Square on Dec. 13, Francis called on world leaders to act on the unprecedented environmental agreement signed on Dec. 12 by nearly 200 countries.
“The conference on climate has just finished in Paris with the adoption of an agreement, defined by many as historic. Carrying it out will require a unanimous commitment and generous dedication on everyone’s part,” he said.
It was not so long ago that the cobblestones of Paris were red with blood. November 2015: terrorism. 1940: WWII. 1914: WWI. 1871: Prussians (post Napoleon). 1789: Revolution. One could keep going: 1479 – Joan of Arc.
With such a history in mind, and with politicians screaming “crusades” not so far away, it is no small thing to witness thousands upon thousands of people gathered to sit at tables with laptops and coffee and microphones and to talk to one another, countries who have warred with one another and taken one another’s trees and lakes and minerals. Here are 190 countries – not counting the many indigenous nations still unrecognized but many of which are still present.
PREACHING A SERMON on an issue debated in the public square: It’s complicated. Make that issue the climate crisis, and it’s really, really complicated. Even in congregations where climate change is not broadly disputed, a pastor faces the challenge of crafting a gospel-informed message that doesn’t swing either to naïve ways we might “make it all better” or pessimistic apathy.
But there’s evidence it’s worth the work and risks: In terms of policy issues, climate is one where a clergy leader’s word has proven impact. According to a 2014 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute and the American Academy of Religion, Americans with a clergy leader who “speaks at least occasionally about climate change” are more likely to be concerned about the issue than those “who attend congregations where the issue is rarely or never raised.”
So where does a preacher begin and with what goals?
Leah D. Schade’s Creation-Crisis Preaching equips pastors to name the present crisis and preach a call to action and healing. She describes one theological path to sermons infused with both testimony of the sacredness of God’s creation and our call to be agents of the world’s healing. Schade is a Lutheran pastor and anti-fracking activist who has also done doctoral work focused on homiletics and ecological theology. Appropriately, in this book she explores both the theoretical underpinnings and the practicalities of climate-crisis preaching. Her approach is clear-eyed about the current dire situation of creation, but also committed to hope: “Because I am a Lutheran homiletician,” she writes, “I am compelled to find a way to preach the eco-resurrection, even when most signs indicate that Good Friday may be the fate of our planet.”
Schade sketches the sometimes contentious and damaging history of religion’s relationship to the environment, some different approaches to ecological theology, and a “‘green’ hermeneutic for interpreting scripture.” She explores briefly how social change theory can inform the vocation of preaching and the role sermons might play in a social movement.
At COP21 last week, religious leaders participated in a “Fast for Climate” and delivered petitions with more than 1.7 million signatures to Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, demanding immediate climate action.
These leaders, from different faith traditions, also held a press conference at COP21 with the message that they are united in the fight against climate change.
COP21 is not only a gathering of world leaders to achieve an agreement on climate change — it is a gathering for all concerned with the issue. This has included religious leaders from many of the world’s faiths and denominations, who realize a responsibility to speak out on grave societal illnesses and care for the world.
One of the most intriguing and lifegiving events at COP21 was an ecumenical worship service held at the Notre Dame Cathedral on Dec. 3, organized by the Council of Christian Churches in France.
WHEN WE CONSIDER the crisis of climate change, many of us swing back and forth between a narrative of despair in which “there is nothing we can do” and a narrative of hope that affirms that good futures are available when we act responsibly. Surely Laudato Si’, the encyclical released by Pope Francis last spring, has given enormous impetus to the narrative of possibility, summoning us to act intentionally and systemically about climate change.
The issue of climate change is a recent one, but the matter of revivifying the creation is a very old one in faith. In ancient Israel, as now, care for creation required a vision of an alternative economy grounded in fidelity.
The economy of ancient Israel, a small economy, was controlled and administered by the socio-political elites in the capital cities of Samaria in the north and Jerusalem in the south. Those elites clustered around the king and included the priests, the scribes, the tax collectors, and no doubt other powerful people. Those urban elites extracted wealth from the small, at-risk peasant-farmers who at best lived a precarious subsistence life. The process of extraction included taxation and high interest rates on loans. These were financial arrangements that drove many of the peasants into hopeless debt so that they were rendered helpless in the economy.
While that arrangement was exploitative, it no doubt appeared, at least from an urban perspective, to be normal, because the surplus wealth and the high standard of living it made possible seemed natural and guaranteed. The power people who operated the economy could assume surplus wealth, and the exploited peasants were impotent in the face of that power. The arrangement appeared to be safe to perpetuity.
Speeches of judgment
Except that a strange thing happened in ancient Israel in the eighth century B.C.E. (750-700 B.C.E.). There appeared in Israel, inexplicably, a series of unconnected, uncredentialed poets who by their imaginative utterance disrupted that seemingly secure economic arrangement. We characteristically list in that period of Israelite history four prophets—Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, and Micah. They came from various backgrounds, but they shared a common passion and a stylized mode of evocative speech.
The “normative” economy of the period had assumed that the economy consisted of only two participants: 1) the productive peasants, and 2) the urban elites, who did not work or produce anything but who lived well off of peasant produce. Those uncredentialed poets, however, dared to imagine and to utter that there was, inescapably, a third participant in the political economy: namely, the emancipatory God of the Exodus.
The French government has banned mass gatherings during COP21 in Paris. So protesters have gotten creative.
The organization Brandalism has posted 600 pieces of artwork and fake advertisements all over the city that mimic real advertisements but actually denounce politicians and corporations for their apathy toward climate change.
They said it was a fool’s errand.
They said there was too much money on the other side.
They said the politics were too difficult.
And yet here we are.
As my friend Bill McKibben wrote in 2011, our indigenous brothers and sisters in Canada had been fighting the Keystone XL pipeline for years. But before August 2011, virtually no one in the U.S. had even heard of it.
Then I read the pastoral letter from Alberta’s Bishop Luc Bouchard, The Integrity of Creation and the Athabasca Oil Sands, and I felt the Spirit calling me to action.
We put out a call to religious leaders to join the Tar Sands Blockade in Washington, D.C., in the summer of 2011. It was hot. It was humid. It was summer in D.C. But hundreds and hundreds of Protestant pastors, rabbis, Buddhist priests, Franciscans, Unitarians, and Christians of all stripes said they would come.
Religious historian Diana Butler Bass is our preeminent narrator of the decline of traditional religion and the emergence of progressive and spiritual-but-not-religious faith in the 21stcentury.
Her newest book, Grounded: Finding God in the World, A Spiritual Revolution, turns from descriptions of postmodern religious life toward scrutinizing contemporary science, both physical and social, for evidence of ongoing “Incarnation,” what the ancient Hebrews called Emanuel, or “G-d with us,” or what religion scholars call “panentheism”—God in everything.
The first thing the new Pope Francis said to the world in St. Peter's Square when he accepted the papacy was "I am a sinner." In a final mass of one million people in Philadelphia, the last words Francis spoke to the American people were, "Please pray for me; don't forget!"