This week began in song and prayer outside the Environmental Protection Agency.
The government employees walking past our prayer circle definitely thought we were unusual; for Sojourners, though, publicly witnessing to our calling as Christians in care for creation is just another day on the job. We gathered with interfaith partners for a morning blessing to kick off the EPA’s hearings on the Clean Power Plan – an ambitious plan to curb carbon emissions from our largest source, power plants. Our goal was to show EPA and the nation that people of faith care deeply about what human sin has done to creation, and how all of God’s creation – including people – are suffering and will continue to suffer from climate change.
The next day, I was back at the EPA, this time to offer my testimony during their second day of hearings.
Colloquially known as the “Monkey Trial,” the Tennessee v. John Scopes trial ended on July 21, 1925, but 89 years later, the American public is still debating on where it stands with religion and science education.
John Scopes, a public school teacher, was charged by the state for teaching evolution because one of its laws prohibited any public school curricula that contradicted creationism. The trial began on July 10, 1925, and Scopes pled not guilty. Along with other members of the community, Scopes had planned the curriculum as a publicity stunt.
Eighty-nine years ago today, Scopes was found guilty and sentenced to pay a $100 fine — an estimated $1,300, when adjusted for inflation.
The Supreme Court’s Citizen’s United case infamously affirmed money spent in political campaigns as a form of free speech, thus declaring various legal limitations unconstitutional. The ruling gives a political megaphone to those with the most money and has been decried by many as contributing further to the nation’s political dysfunction and rigid polarization. I strongly agree.
But this ruling came to mind again when I heard the news that the World Council of Churches, at its Central Committee meeting in early July, had made a decision not to invest in fossil fuel industries. In fact, money does talk. Where institutions place their invested funds is not a neutral, pragmatic matter. It speaks volumes.
Worried about global warming, a growing number of churches and other faith groups are divesting their holdings in fossil fuel companies, which release large amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
“The warning in Scripture that ‘the wages of sin is death’ could not be more literally true than it is in the case of fossil fuels,” said Serene Jones, president of New York’s Union Theological Seminary, whose board voted in June to divest its $108.4 million endowment from fossil fuel companies.
“While we realize that our endowment alone will hardly cause the fossil fuel giants to miss even half a heartbeat, as a seminary dedicated to social justice we have a critical call to live out our values in the world. Climate change poses a catastrophic threat, and as stewards of God’s creation we simply must act.”
"A lot of people don't know that we exist."
Another Christian school moves to divest – this time, a Catholic university
Just one week after Serene Jones, President of Union Theological Seminary, announced their decision to become the world’s first seminary to divest from fossil fuels, another first announced. The University of Dayton, a Catholic, Marianist university, will divest fossil fuels from its $670 million investment pool. This is the first Catholic university in the world to do so.
Just as divestment makes sense for Union Theological Seminary and its history of engaging social justice, this choice is in line with Catholic social teachings and the Marianist values of leadership and service to humanity. Marianists view Mary, the mother of Jesus, as their model of discipleship, and their mission is to bring Christ into the world and work for the coming of Christ’s kingdom.
Union and the University of Dayton are the newest schools joining the growing list of U.S. colleges and universities divesting from fossil fuels as a way to stop financially supporting the climate pollution and the public health implications of coal, oil, and natural gas as the dominant sources of energy in the country. Their announcements are unique because they speak not only of the moral choice, but of the Christian choice on matters of financial investment.
At the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly this past week, in addition to the denomination’s decision to divest from three companies in relation to conflict in Israel/Palestine, a decision was made to begin the discernment process on fossil fuel divestment. The fossil fuel divestment conversation is happening in many churches and religious institutions across the country, and Union Theological Seminary and the University of Dayton are clear that they see this as an act of Christian witness for protecting God’s creation and people.
Information is from The University of Dayton’s website.
Last week, Serene Jones, president of Union Theological Seminary, announced that the school is divesting its endowment of fossil fuels. It is the first seminary in the world to do so, marking Union’s latest action in a long legacy of social justice commitments.
So what? Well, it helps to look at this news in context.
New York City’s venerable Union Theological Seminary plans to pull all investments in fossil fuels from its $108.4 million endowment, casting it as part of a bid to atone for the “sin” of contributing to climate change.
Union’s portfolio has been investing 11 percent (or about $12 million) of its endowment in fossil fuels. Jones did not mince words in condemning the school’s contributions to fossil fuel, quoting “the wages of sin is death” from Scripture.
“We have sinned, and we see this divestment as an act of repentance for Union,” Jones wrote in an op-ed for Time magazine. “Climate change poses a catastrophic threat. As stewards of God’s creation, we simply must act to stop this sin.”
How refreshing to see Roman Catholic Archbishop Thomas Wenski’s May 29 letter to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy urging that the new carbon pollution rules on existing power plants should “protect the health and welfare of all people, especially children, the elderly, as well as poor and vulnerable communities from harmful pollution emitted from power plants and from the impacts of climate change.” The Miami archbishop was speaking on behalf of the U.S. bishops in his role as chairman of the U.S. bishop’s Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development.
Since last Monday and even in the months leading up to the release of the new EPA rules governing carbon pollution, there’s been a battle royale in the media and the blogosphere between the fossil fuel industry (and their supporters) and the environmentalists (and their proxies).
Political talk of moral obligation almost always invokes future children; it is not politically controversial to hope that our children and grandchildren will live on a safe planet. But the moral dimensions of climate change are far more complex and granular: food shortages here, extreme weather events there, floods that displace people in coastal regions, melting polar icecaps causing increased extinctions, the vulnerability of the global poor.
A moral vision able to see these granular risks comes, I would argue, not from time (Obama’s “future children” or the Pope’s “Creation will destroy us”), but from space.
Since 1946, the modern world has been able to view images of the earth from space. Some four millennia earlier, Hebrew scribes penned Genesis 1’s creation account of the whole known world. Ancient and modern, these are two portrayals of the earth, one to begin the Scriptures and one iconic of the modern space age — both spatial lenses offering moral vision about climate change.
Climate change is about people, not just science and politics — it is an inter-generational ethics issue. The earth is the Lord’s, and in Genesis, God entrusts us with caring for Creation. The earth that we leave to future generations is already being changed by climate change, and so far, our nation has done little to stop climate pollution. The Clean Power Plan, announced Monday by the EPA, is a great step forward for our country in taking climate change seriously.
The policy will treat carbon the way it should be treated — as a pollutant that’s harming our health and our planet. It will reduce our carbon pollution 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, but will allow each state the flexibility to decide how it reaches that goal.
The rule reflects some of the best values we hold dear. It will help prevent premature deaths and asthma attacks caused by smog and other air pollutants. But most importantly, it will reduce the pollution that fuels climate change. It’s clear that President Obama cares about the legacy he leaves to today and into future generations. While there is a lot more that can and should be done by this administration and by Congress, President Obama deserves our appreciation for embracing the common good and taking such a big step to preserve the earth for our grandchildren’s grandchildren.
"The Clean Power Plan is a great step forward for our country in taking climate change seriously. It’s clear that President Obama cares about the legacy he leaves to today and into future generations. While there is a lot more that can and should be done by this Administration and by Congress, President Obama deserves our appreciation for embracing the common good and taking such a big step to preserve the earth for our grandchildren’s grandchildren."
About 30 global religious leaders working in their churches and organizations on environmental justice and advocacy for climate change met last month for the World Council of Church’s (WCC) Working Group on Climate Change in Wuppertal, Germany.
This group tackled the urgent issue of climate justice — as there are environmental problems caused by rich nations that affect others. This includes, for example, the great Pacific garbage vortex and depletion by U.S., Japanese, and Norwegian fishing of species, such as cod, on which smaller countries depend for sustenance, creating conditions that affect vulnerable communities around the globe. Climate change is affecting those in Africa as it dries up their land and enlarges the size of the Sahara desert. It affects Asia as huge storms flood broad areas of coastline, devastating homes and lives. Climate change is affecting the most vulnerable populations, which live near vulnerable croplands and shorelines and depend on farming and fishing for their livelihood. Climate change creates weather that takes lives and destroys communities.
Climate change workers realize that those who have contributed the least to CO2 emissions are (and will be) suffering the worst consequences.