Margaret contributed to ecoAmerica’s new report, How Faith Communities Fuel Social Movements: Lessons for Climate Advocacy from the Immigration, Black Lives Matter, and President Trump Election Campaigns.
Author Archives: mbj
ONE NIGHT LAST SUMMER, I lay awake staring at the ceiling, gripped by despair. The climate crisis can do that to me — to any of us. The web of life is unraveling before our eyes and some say that human civilization could be at risk of collapse. What then shall we do? How shall we respond to the climate crisis and the ecological emergency in which we find ourselves? On what reserves of strength and courage shall we draw as we face the greatest challenge our species has ever faced?
Raising these questions has become the focus of my ministry. After 25 years as a parish priest — while working as a climate activist on the side — I finally left parish ministry in 2013 to devote myself full-time to mobilizing Christians and other people of faith to place care for the Earth at the center of their moral and spiritual concern. As missioner for Creation Care with the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts and the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ, I travel from place to place, preaching about God’s love for our planetary home and the urgent call to safeguard the living world that we are so rapidly destroying. I lead retreats on spiritual resilience and resistance; I lobby for smart climate legislation; with kindred souls, I hit the streets for marches and rallies, and sometimes to carry out acts of nonviolent civil disobedience as we struggle to keep fossil fuels in the ground, where they belong.
I’ve come to learn that healing is a two-way street: Just as surely as human beings can work to heal the Earth, so, too, can the Earth heal us. Call it forest bathing. Call it recovering from nature deficit disorder. Whatever you call it, wandering outdoors with a conscious intention to be fully present — to listen to birdsong, ponder the sky, feel the wind on one’s face, encounter a tree — can do wonders for the soul. When we’re immersed in the natural world, many of us encounter the Holy.
Healing is a two-way street: Just as surely as human beings can work to heal the Earth, so, too, can the Earth heal us.
We realize again that we belong to a living, sacred reality much greater than ourselves. That’s why I make a practice of regularly stepping away from the computer screen. Forget the allure of virtual reality: In the end, the excitement of pings and “likes” can never replace authentic encounters with myself, other people, or the living world around me — much less with the Creator who loved us into being and whose presence sustains us still.
As I lay awake that night last summer wrestling with insomnia, I tried to sense God’s presence. The Bible includes plenty of stories about God coming at night, appearing in a dream or speaking in the heart. But I felt incapable of prayer. I was alone and anxious, closed in on myself, fearful of the future on a scorching planet. I didn’t want to disturb my husband, asleep beside me. Perhaps I would be restored to myself if I went outside.
I put on my bathrobe, opened the sliding glass door in the living room, and stepped onto the patio. The night sky was overcast. I could see no stars. I breathed for a while in the dark, studying the quiet houses, the empty street, the dull sheen of streetlights. I waited for my fear to subside. I waited for some inner door to open. I tried to pray, but nothing happened. I heard no voice that called my name; I felt no larger, sacred presence. I couldn’t shake the dread, the fearful certainty that this peaceful scene was imperiled. Actually, we were all imperiled. What could I do? What could anyone do?
I stepped back into the house, grabbed my cell phone, and carried it outside to sneak a peek at email. I was ashamed to resort to a technological fix. I knew what everyone knows by now: Using social media can be addictive. Peering at a screen can become compulsive. Reading email can be a distraction from facing ourselves. What quicker way to dodge the suffering and promise of the present moment than to escape into virtual reality?
But here I was, looking for something — courage, hope, maybe God Herself — in a palm-sized contraption of plastic, metal, and glass. I typed in the password, waited for the messages to load, and took a look. I found a new message from Emilie Smith, an Anglican priest in British Columbia. I’d met her the year before when I’d led a retreat for Anglican clergy on spirituality in a time of climate crisis.
Her email cut through my fog of helplessness like a beam of light. She began by warmly greeting her “dear beloved sisters and brothers, friends, family, and community.” She told us that she was scheduled to attend court the next morning. She had been arrested with scores of other faith leaders and friends in a protest to stop construction of a pipeline in Vancouver. She explained:
We were standing to protect eagles’ nests in trees, and salmon rivers, and the already-sick ocean, and the remaining forests, and in solidarity with the Indigenous communities who have been living with grace on this land for millennia.
It is time to turn away from the oil and greed economy. It is urgently time to turn towards one another and to stand unafraid of the state and business, which claim that all that we do to protect life is useless, harmful, and illegal.
Please stand with me and with the courageous land defenders here and all over the earth. Do what you can, wherever you are. Pray, sing, garden, support, bake, love, resist! Give everything you can away.
She was facing jail-time, yet tonight — the night before her sentencing — she could write:
I am filled to overflowing with gratitude. It has been a summer of untold abundance and blessing in my personal life.… Who could ask for anything more? I could: An end to violent colonial projects of domination that destroy the earth.
Reading her words, I felt my spiritual and moral strength return, flowing like an incoming tide to every cell in my body. I did not need to be isolated, passive, and helpless. I could stand with my friend and with everyone who loves life, everyone who is fighting for a more just and habitable world. That’s where we find joy, in giving ourselves to a mission larger than ourselves, in joining with other humans and our brother-sister beings in a shared struggle to protect life as it has evolved on Earth.
Will we be successful? Will we avert climate catastrophe, the mass death of human populations, and the collapse of ecosystems? I don’t know. I do know that technology — think fracking, mining, plastic production — is responsible for much of the massive assault on planetary life-systems that is now underway. Cell phones, tablets, and the countless other screens and gadgets that we use every day pose their own hazards, as well. And the virtual connections they provide, whether to people or nature, are no substitute for the real thing.
But technology can also be put to good use — tangibly, through wind farms, solar arrays, and renewable energy with storage, and intangibly, through keeping us connected with each other. And in certain moments, under certain circumstances, it can offer just what we need. A reminder that we’re in this fight together. A message of encouragement and hope when we need it most. Sometimes a cell phone can even convey the Word of God.
This article was published by Earth Island Journal in its August 2019 issue and can be read online here.
You can download a PDF of the article here: God in the Machine
Earth Island Journal published Margaret’s article, “God in the Machine,” in its Autumn 2019 issue. Click here to read it.
Our planet keeps setting records for heat. This week – at long last – a different record was set: the biggest day of climate protest in world history.
On September 20, 2019, more than 4 million people around the world went on strike to demand bold action to stop the climate crisis. Global Climate Strikes, inspired by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, were carried out in more than 150 countries, from Australia and the Pacific Islands to India, Turkey, Europe, and across the United States. Countless people of faith, including Episcopalians, took part, and I am thrilled to say that Episcopal bishops, led by Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, walked out of their House of Bishops meeting in Minneapolis to join the climate strike and issue a statement of support.
On September 19, the day before the Global Climate Strike, I returned home from an intensive mission trip along the coast of California, where I preached, led retreats and workshops, and spoke in multiple cities about the climate crisis. It was the first time I’d met people who had so recently and directly experienced the disastrous effects of climate change, from massive heat waves, droughts and wildfires to torrential rainfall and mudslides. I didn’t need to say very much about the urgency of the situation – I could tell from the alarming stories they shared and the concern in their faces that they already understood: we need as a species to change course fast. From Santa Barbara to Cupertino I urged everyone I met to join the weeklong Global Climate Strike.
Back in western Massachusetts on September 20, I spoke at two Climate Strike events in my corner of the world, Springfield and Northampton. Below are the notes for my remarks.
Springfield Climate Vigil: Standing for life
Under a hot sun, sixty or seventy people gathered at Court Square, Springfield, MA, for a climate solidarity vigil filled with music, speaking, and prayer. Organized by Verne McArthur, the vigil featured speakers including Buddhist teacher Jin Haeng Kyle Wiswall, Springfield City Councilor-at-Large Jesse Lederman, Deacon Bill Toller (who read a statement by U.S. Roman Catholic bishops on the need for climate action), Rev. Jason Seymour (Unitarian Universalist Society of Greater Springfield), Sister Melinda Pellerin-Duck (Sisters of St. Joseph of Springfield), and me. Rev. Marisa Brown Ludwig joined Verne in leading the singing. Here is what I said:
I am grateful to be standing with you! In my tradition there is a story of God’s people standing at a crossroads. They have a choice to make, and Moses says to them: “Today I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.”
We, too, stand at a crossroads. We are living at a pivotal moment in human history, where the choices we make going forward will make all the difference to the wellbeing of our children and our children’s children, and to the life – or death – of billions of people and non-human species around the world.
We know we have a choice. Today, at this crossroads, we stand for life.
You know that we face a long struggle ahead. The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has told us that we need to transform our society at a rate and scale that are historically unprecedented. This task will demand all our reserves of strength and courage. We need spiritual resilience. So it’s good to know where we are rooted and where we find strength.
Where does our strength come from? We begin by knowing where we stand.
We stand on Mother Earth. I invite you to feel your feet on the ground and to feel the good Earth holding you up. We can imagine our roots going down deep into the Earth, and from deep within Mother Earth we are drawing up strength.
We also stand with trees and all green-growing things.
We stand with other creatures – our brother-sister beings;
with children and young people who long to inherit a habitable planet; and
with the marginalized and poor, the people most vulnerable to climate change.
We stand with everyone who is suffering right now from floods, droughts, and storms,
and with the millions of people worldwide who are rising up to say that they won’t settle
for a death-dealing way of life.
We stand for a better future.
We stand for the possibility that love, not hate, will have the last word.
We stand for the possibility that our species will learn wisdom and compassion, generosity and self-control, so that we become at last what we were made to be: a blessing on the Earth.
And we stand in something, too. What do we stand in?
We stand in love.
We stand in the divine love that is always being poured into our hearts,
in the love that will never let us go and that will be with us till our journey’s end.
We stand in the love that nothing, not even death, can destroy.
We stand in the love whose power, working through us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.
You and I – we stand for life. Thank you!
Climate Emergency March for a Just Future, Northampton: A blessing
Late in the afternoon, many hundreds of people marched from Sheldon Field to downtown Northampton for a rally at City Hall. Organized by Marty Nathan (Climate Action NOW of Western Massachusetts), the rally featured music (led by Peter Blood and Paul Kaplan, and by Expandable Brass Band) and a range of speakers, including State Senator Jo Comerford, City Council President Ryan O’Donnell, Barb Madeloni (Labor Notes and past President, Massachusetts Teachers Association), Victor Davila (Neighbor to Neighbor Springfield), Maeve McCurdy (Divest Smith), State. Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, Patrick Burke (SEIU and Hampshire Labor Council), Andrea Schmid (Pioneer Valley Workers Center), and Kate Parrott (teacher at JFK Middle School).
Rabbi David Seidenberg (Prayerground Minyan) and I offered closing blessings. After each of us had prayed, the Rabbi blew his shofar to complete the rally. My blessing, more or less as delivered, is below.
Friends, we have good work to do and we face great challenges ahead. We need to root ourselves in our deep sources of wisdom, strength, and courage. This is a good time to turn to a power greater than ourselves, one that we know by many names: Great Spirit, loving Mystery, Creator and Sustainer of life. Dante called it “the love that moves the sun and the other stars.” Trusting in that sacred power, we can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.
I’d like to offer a blessing that I adapted from a Franciscan prayer1 that may be familiar to some of you. I invite you to join me in a spirit of prayer.
May God bless us with discomfort
At easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships,
So that we may live deep within our heart.
May God bless us with anger
At injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people and the Earth,
So that we may work for justice, freedom, and peace, and pass along to the next generation a habitable world.
May God bless us with tears
To shed for people and all our brother-sister beings who suffer from the effects of climate change,
So that we may reach out our hands to comfort them
And turn their pain into joy, and our grief into action.
And may God bless us with enough foolishness
To believe that we can make a difference in the world,
So that we can do what others claim cannot be done
To bring justice and kindness to children, to the poor, and to the whole of God’s Creation.
1. The source of this prayer is unclear. One Website attributes it to Craig Groeschel: https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/280711-may-god-bless-you-with-discomfort-at-easy-answers-half
The original version reads:
May God bless you with discomfort
At easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships,
So that you may live deep within your heart.
May God bless you with anger
At injustice, oppression and exploitation of people,
So that you may work for justice, freedom and peace.
May God bless you with tears
To shed for those who suffer pain, rejection, hunger, and war,
So that you may reach out your hand to comfort them
And turn their pain into joy.
And may God bless you with enough foolishness
To believe that you can make a difference in the world,
So that you can do what others claim cannot be done
To bring justice and kindness to all our children and the poor.
Choose life for you and your children!
What a joy to be with you! I serve as Missioner for Creation Care in both the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts and the United Church of Christ in Massachusetts. In this ecumenical role I travel from place to place, sometimes (as you can see) far beyond Massachusetts, speaking about the Gospel call to protect God’s Creation. If you’d like to hear what I’m up to, please take a look at my Website, RevivingCreation.org. I know you’re already taking steps as individuals and as a congregation to safeguard what our Prayer Book calls “this fragile Earth, our island home,” so even though we’ve never met, I feel as if I’m among friends.We have a fine text to reflect on this morning, the passage in Deuteronomy where Moses speaks to his community and gives them a choice. “I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of God, by loving God and walking in God’s ways, then you shall live and God will bless you. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish. Today I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.”1 This is one of those familiar passages that most of us have probably heard many times and considered mildly interesting in an abstract sort of way. “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live” (Deuteronomy 30:20). Today, however, that summons could not be more apt or timely or clear. We live at a pivotal moment in human history. Humanity stands at a crossroads where the choices we make going forward will make all the difference to the well-being of our children and our children’s children, and to the life (or death) of billions of people and non-human species around the world. What will we choose? Will it be life or death, blessing or curse? By now we’ve all heard about the drastic effects of continuing to burn fossil fuels, such as monster hurricanes like Dorian, which has decimated the Bahamas and also marks the first time in history that a Category 5 hurricane has hit the Atlantic four years in a row. Here in California, on the other side of the country, I know you’ve had your own encounters with a changing climate. I recently finished Bill McKibben’s new book about the climate crisis, Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? He quotes from an article by my friend Nora Gallagher2– a member of this parish – which describes what it was like last year to endure record heat and dryness and blazing wildfires, followed by heavy rains and massive mudslides and debris flows. My heart goes out to all of you. And our hearts go out to all the people and creatures around the world where fires are ablaze right now – in the Arctic; in central Africa; in Indonesia; and in the Amazon basin, where the rainforest that’s often called “the lungs of the planet” is on fire and close to crossing a tipping point into which it begins to self-destruct, die back, and release vast quantities of greenhouse gases. The web of life is unraveling before our eyes. “There are half as many wild animals on the planet as there were in 1970,”3 a fact that scientists are calling a “biological annihilation.” One expert commented: “This is far more than just being about losing the wonders of nature, desperately sad though that is…This is actually now jeopardizing the future of people. Nature is not a ‘nice to have’ – it is our life-support system.” So, my friends, are we afraid? You bet we’re afraid, and if we’re not, we ought to be. As David Wallace-Wells says in the opening sentence of his new book about climate change, The Uninhabitable Earth: “It is worse, much worse, than you think.”4 Fear is appropriate and fear can be worthwhile, propelling us to take urgently needed and long-delayed action. But fear can also freeze us in our tracks, so that we get paralyzed and stuck in inertia, wondering if it’s worth doing anything at all. We say to ourselves, “Maybe it’s too late to change course and maybe we’re too far gone. Besides, what difference can one person make?” Paralyzed by fear, we can close down, put up our blinkers, and carry on with business as usual, even if business as usual is wrecking the planet. And fear can separate us from each other, so that we push each other aside and build walls to keep each other out and keep each other down. Fear can lead us to oppress and dominate each other, and it’s fear that drives the politics of “divide and rule.” I’m very interested in what helps us to move beyond fear, inertia, and despair and to throw ourselves wholeheartedly into the movement to address climate change – so interested, in fact, that a friend and I asked colleagues in the faith-and-environment movement to write about their sources of spiritual strength. What gives them courage? What gives them hope? Our anthology of essays will be published this fall and it’s called Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis. What gives you courage to take action, even when the forces against us are great? What are your sources of strength and resilience in a perilous time? As for me, I draw strength from the living presence of Jesus Christ who is with us as we listen to Scripture, who comes to us as we sing and pray, whose love is poured into hearts through the power of the Holy Spirit, and who feeds and strengthens us when we stretch out our hands to receive the bread and wine of the Eucharist. Our fears can be strong, and the powers-that-be in this world are surely doing everything they can to stoke our fears of each other and to pull us apart, but Jesus’ words and presence convey bracing good news: we are infused and surrounded by a divine love that holds us together and that will never let us go. God loves us, and loves all Creation, with a love that nothing can destroy. As we breathe in that divine love and breathe it out in acts of healing and justice and compassion, our courage and strength are renewed. That is the great gift that communities of faith can give the world in such a frightening time: practices of prayer and community, practices of meditation and story-telling, practices of singing and ceremony, that connect us with a sacred, loving Power beyond ourselves. We don’t have to settle for a life that is undergirded and overshadowed by fear. As the Persian poet Hafiz once put it, “Fear is the cheapest room in the house. I’d like to see you in better living conditions.”5 When we move out of fear and into God’s love, we know in our bones how precious we are, how precious our neighbors are, how precious this whole, beautiful planet is, and we rise up to say that we will not settle for a death-dealing way of life – we will not settle for wrecking the planet. We hear God’s summons and we intend to be a blessing on the Earth, not a curse. We intend to choose life. When it comes to climate change, there is so much that we can do! Maybe we can plant trees. Save trees. Recycle more. Drive less. Drive electric. Eat local, eat organic, eat less meat and move to a plant-based diet. Maybe we can support local farms and land trusts. We can fly less – and, if we must fly, buy carbon offsets. Maybe we can afford solar panels and move toward a carbon-neutral home. If we have financial investments, we can divest from fossil fuels. If we’re college graduates, we can push our alma mater to divest, as well. Individual changes are important, but because of the scope and speed of the climate crisis, we need more than individual action – we need systemic change. As the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change makes clear, we need to transform our society and economy at a scale that is historically unprecedented, and do so in a very short span of time. So we’ll need to use our voices and our votes, and make it politically possible to do what is scientifically necessary. Here are three ideas. One: We can support the Green New Deal, the first resolution to address the climate crisis with the urgency, focus, and comprehensiveness that the situation requires. The Websites for GreenFaith and for Interfaith Power & Light offer statements for us to sign, to show that people of faith support the values and goals of the Green New Deal. Two: We can support non-profit groups like Corporate Accountability that are working to push the fossil fuel industry out of international climate talks and to hold it accountable for its decades of deception about the causes of the climate crisis. And three: we can support the weeklong Global Climate Strike, which begins on September 20. I see that here in Santa Barbara, a climate strike will be held on September 27 at 12 Noon on the plaza in front of City Hall. Put it in your calendars. Make a plan to take part. Last year a teenaged girl walked out of school, sat down in front of the Swedish Parliament with a handmade sign, and demanded climate action. Back then Greta Thunberg, according to one reporter, was “a painfully introverted, slightly built nobody.” Greta similarly describes herself as “always [being] that girl in the back who doesn’t say anything. I thought I couldn’t make a difference because I was too small.’” Well, today, one year later, Greta Thunberg’s quiet, relentless, and disarming protest Friday after Friday, week after week, has drawn the world’s attention and sparked a vast and growing movement of student strikes around the world. Starting on September 20, people everywhere – all kinds and ages of people, not just students – will engage in a Global Climate Strike as we use our collective power to stop “business as usual” in the face of the climate emergency. This could be the biggest climate action the world has ever seen, and countless people of faith will take part – including Episcopal bishops at the House of Bishops meeting in downtown Minneapolis, led by our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry. As Greta Thunberg said several months ago in a speech at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum: “Our house is on fire… We have to stop our emissions of greenhouse gases. Either we do that or we don’t… Either we prevent 1.5C of warming or we don’t… Either we choose to go on as a civilization or we don’t… We all have a choice. We can create transformational action that will safeguard the living conditions for future generations. Or we can continue with our business as usual and fail. That is up to you and me.” Hear again with me the words of Moses: “Today I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.” What will you choose? If you chose life, what would you do now? What would you do next? May God give us the strength and courage we need to rise up and choose life!
1. Paraphrase of Deuteronomy 30:15-20. 2. Bill McKibben, Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2019), 32-33. 3. McKibben, 12. 4. David Wallace-Wells, The Uninhabitable Earth (New York: Tim Duggan Books, Penguin Random House, 2019), 3. 5. Hafiz, quoted by Jack Kornfield, The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness, and Peace (New York: Bantam Books, 2002), 83.
The Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas preached on July 14, 2019, at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Williamstown, MA, on “A plumb line in our midst: When we stop pretending about climate change.”
Shocked and helpless, I watched the live-stream as Notre Dame Cathedral went up in flames. Fire spread across the roof and the church’s mighty spire toppled and fell. Crowds gathered in Paris that spring night to weep and pray, to sing hymns and bear witness. Meanwhile, hundreds of fire fighters struggled to extinguish the fire, and another hundred removed artwork and sacred relics. I felt as if I were holding my breath with millions of others around the world as we waited to learn the fate of what some people consider a spiritual and cultural treasure.
Firefighters risking everything eventually brought the flames under control, and, some twelve hours after it began, the fire was snuffed out. We awoke the next morning to study the ruins and to give thanks for what was still standing: bell towers, pipe organs, and rose windows.
But Notre Dame is not the world’s only holy place: every culture has equally precious places that mediate the transcendent. Every mosque and temple is sacred, every shrine and synagogue, and every storefront church.
And so, too, are the lands and waters of indigenous peoples sacred. Where is the protest and grief as these lands are destroyed?
The fire in Notre Dame – literally, “Our Lady” – is over. But the fire on Mother Earth rages on.
The cathedral of life is being torched before our eyes. Year by year, temperatures worldwide continue to rise, setting new records for heat. Ice caps are melting; glaciers are thinning; even the deep oceans are warming. We who are middle-aged were born into a planetary cathedral blessed with a glorious profusion of alpine meadows and coral reefs, ice shelves and wetlands, soaring forests and expansive estuaries – a beautiful, complex, fragile, and resilient sanctuary that allowed life to flourish. But that living architecture is being rapidly dismantled as the climate crisis heats up. More than half the world’s population of animals has vanished since 1970, in part because of climate change.
The web of life is going up in smoke, as the climate grows increasingly inhospitable to all life, including humans. And the people who are least responsible for climate change – low-income communities, indigenous communities, people of color, and the historically marginalized – are suffering first and hardest.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns that we have only a small window of time – perhaps twelve years – in which to transform our economies and make a decisive change of course away from fossil fuels and toward clean, renewable sources of energy.
Otherwise, the Earth could scorch and the cathedral of life could collapse. But already, around the world, the effects of climate change are disastrous: rising seas, massive droughts, extreme weather events, the spread of vector-borne diseases, and millions of climate migrants forced to leave their homelands.
As of this writing, the cause of the fire in Notre Dame is still unknown. By contrast, the cause of our planetary fire is well understood. For more than 30 years scientists have been sounding the alarm about the dangerous effects of burning coal, gas, and oil.
And Exxon has known this for even longer – since the 1960’s. Did it change its business model? No. Did it chart a new course and invest in clean, renewable energy? No. Instead, Exxon and other Big Polluters funded climate deniers and think-tanks that deny climate science; blocked protections that would promote clean, safe, renewable energy; confused the public by spreading misinformation; and poured billions of dollars into the effort to persuade us that fossil fuels are the answer to our energy needs.
It was a global effort to block policy – national and international – that would address the climate crisis. In fact, according to a startling new report, lobby groups representing some of the world’s biggest fossil fuel corporations have been crowding UN climate talks for decades and using the negotiations to push their agenda.
Despite Big Polluters’ extensive campaign of climate disinformation, people in the U.S. are finally beginning to see through the lies. As a result, the fossil fuel industry is taking a new tack: greenwashing. Eager to be perceived as environmentally friendly and as contributing to the common good, Exxon and other fossil fuel corporations present themselves as “energy” companies that are as devoted to providing power from sunshine and wind as they are to burning fossil fuels. (For a while, BP even tried to persuade the public that its brand was “Beyond Petroleum.”)
In actuality, developing power from sun and wind is only a miniscule part of coal and oil and gas reserves of the fossil-fuel companies, and the countries that act like fossil-fuel companies. They already hold perhaps five times the amount of coal, gas, and oil that, if burned, would further fuel the already raging climate chaos. And they continue to explore aggressively for more oil and gas. They have every intention of burning it.
If fossil fuel corporations are successful in carrying out their business plans, which require unlimited expansion of markets and ever-increasing extraction and burning of fossil fuels, they will destroy life as it has evolved on this planet, including humans.
Determined to douse the fire
I watched helplessly as Notre Dame Cathedral caught fire, but we don’t have to be helpless spectators of climate change. We don’t have to settle for standing wretchedly on the sidelines, wringing our hands. Instead, we can take responsibility for protecting our earthly cathedral, both as individuals and as members of society.
As individuals, we can learn to live more gently and lovingly in the cathedral of life. We can do everything possible to cut back sharply on our use of fossil fuels and to make wiser choices around energy.
As members of society, we can make an even greater difference. The climate emergency requires more than incremental or individual solutions: it requires bold, decisive action and systemic change. The time has come to rein in the corporate and political powers that are making huge profits by treating people and planet alike as disposable. Unless we stop them, they will extract and burn every last ounce of coal and every last drop of oil and gas until the Earth is laid waste.
That’s where the crucial work of the non-profit organization Corporate Accountability comes in: it campaigns to hold Big Polluters accountable for knowingly fueling and denying climate change. Along with a majority of the American public, Corporate Accountability understands that the fossil fuel industry bears a burden of responsibility for the harm caused by global warming and should pay for the damages.
Uplifted by a vision of a more just and life-giving society in which all people can thrive, Corporate Accountability is organizing to stop Big Polluters from writing the rules and is holding them accountable for the crisis they have fueled.
It’s time to become as focused as a fire fighter and to figure out not only how to douse the flames but also how to stop the band of arsonists that continues to fuel the fire.
Let’s say you know an arsonist – someone who is lighting and pouring gasoline on countless fires, but denying any responsibility for the havoc they cause. And let’s say you are a firefighter who is struggling to extinguish one of those fires. What if that arsonist dressed himself up like a firefighter, approached you, and earnestly claimed to be “part of the solution”? Would you let him anywhere near the building you were trying to save? Of course not! You’d probably grab his arm, hold him back, and cry out for someone to take him to court.
That’s exactly what Corporate Accountability is doing: organizing to move attorneys general around the country to investigate Exxon for its decades of climate deception. An arsonist posing as a firefighter is still an arsonist and needs to be restrained. What’s more, an arsonist who has raked in billions of dollars from setting a cathedral alight must be required to pay for the damage.
The climate crisis threatens everything we love. With that great love pouring into our hearts – our love for our children, our love for birdsong and whale-song, our love for clean air and clean water and for all the conditions that allow life to flourish on this planet – it’s an honor to stand with Corporate Accountability. I hope that you will join me in supporting their mission to confront the fossil fuel industry and hold it accountable. We intend to do everything in our power to save the living cathedral that God entrusted to our care.
This essay is also posted at Corporate Accountability’s Website here.
A plumb line in our midst: When we stop pretending about climate change“This is what the Lord God showed me: the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand. And the Lord said to me, ‘Amos, what do you see?’ And I said, ‘A plumb line’” (Amos 7:7).
That interested me, this image of God standing beside a wall, holding up a plumb line to see whether or not the wall was straight and could stand. So I went on the Internet and learned that plumb lines are useful in a great many fields. A plumb line, or something like it, can be essential if you want to build a house or build a ship, or if you want to make a level wall or draw a good map. Carpenters use plumb lines, and so do stonemasons, astronomers and geographers.I went to a hardware store to get a plumb line. Here it is. As I let the weight drop, we establish a vertical line. And with that perpendicular line, we can test to see whether something is in alignment, whether it is straight and sturdy. When I raise the string, I can see, for instance, whether the walls in this sanctuary stand up straight or if they tilt. Good news – they’re straight! As I lower the string, the weight sinks straight down, which, among other things, would be helpful if I were fishing and wanted to measure the depth of the river or pond. This simple tool has a wonderful figurative meaning, too: when we want to get to the bottom of things, we speak of “plumbing” the depths. Here’s what I like about a plumb line: it tells the truth. It’s objective. It doesn’t care about my preferences, my agenda, or my political views. It simply shows me what’s true: either the wall is straight or it’s not. I find that refreshing in a time when press conferences and tweets are so full of deception, spin, and outright lies. A plumb line shows the truth, plain and simple, so that we can see what we’re actually dealing with and can understand what needs to be done. So today we meet Amos, a shepherd back in the 8th century before Christ. He begins to have intense experiences of God. He begins to feel God’s persistent, unstoppable longing for people to live in loving, just, and liberating relationships with each other and with the land. Amos is the prophet that Martin Luther King, Jr. so often quoted: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24). In fact, Amos has such a vivid experience of what we might call Beloved Community – and such an acute sense of how the society around him is falling short – that he leaves his little village and heads to his nation’s center of power to proclaim God’s judgment and grace. In one of his visions, Amos sees God standing beside a wall with a plumb line in his hand. The wall was built with a plumb line and designed to be sturdy and balanced. And then, as Amos watches, God sets the plumb line in the midst of his community. What does God see? Is the nation structurally sound, like a well-built wall? Are the people living in alignment with God’s love so that the society is compassionate and just and dedicated to the common good? Apparently not! In a blast of anger, God declares that the nation’s centers of power will fall. The nation is like a wall that is askew: it’s morally unsound and unbalanced. The whole Book of Amos blazes with the prophet’s outrage as he accuses the nation of abandoning the loving purposes of God. Well – no surprise – this message doesn’t sit well with the powers-that-be. Amaziah, the high priest, is an ally of the king. He warns the king that Amos is a troublemaker who must be stopped, and he tells Amos to flee, to get the heck out of there. Amos can prophesy all he wants to back home, but he must never again speak at Bethel, the nation’s center of religious and political power. Now here’s the part I really like. Amos answers by saying, “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees” (Amos 7:4). In other words, he’s not a professional prophet – he doesn’t do this for a living. He’s not a lobbyist. He doesn’t get paid; he didn’t inherit the role; he didn’t plan to be a prophet, he didn’t study to be a prophet, and for all we know he doesn’t even particularly want to be a prophet. Amos is just a regular guy with a humble job in some forgotten, far-away village, but God intervened in his life and compelled him to act and speak as a prophet. Amos became so fired with God’s love and God’s yearning for justice that he had to confront the people and powers of his time that were invested in perpetuating an unjust status quo. Amos says, “The Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel” (Amos 7:15). Here’s the very good news: Amos is alive and well and in our midst. Amos is everybody who grieves and protests injustice and lies. Amos is everybody who is willing to hold up a plumb line and to face facts, even the ones that are difficult to face. For we know for a fact that our society is out of balance, and we know for a fact that the ecological foundations of society – the planetary life-systems upon which all forms of life, including human life, depend – are unstable and at risk of collapse. Scientists with instruments more sophisticated and accurate than a plumb line report that animal populations around the world have plunged by more than half in less than 50 years, mostly by the destruction of habitat. More than half the number of animals that were on this planet when many of us were born are gone. Human activity has wiped out 60% of the world’s mammals, reptiles, amphibians, birds, and fish since 1970. Alarmed scientists are describing what they call a “biological annihilation,” and one expert commented: “This is far more than just being about losing the wonders of nature, desperately sad though that is…This is actually now jeopardizing the future of people. Nature is not a ‘nice to have’ – it is our life-support system.” Related to species extinction is our changing climate. Because of the relentless burning of coal, gas, and oil, month after month our planet is breaking records for heat. Satellites show that last month was the hottest June ever recorded. “The five warmest years in recorded history were the last five, and…[that] 18 of the 19 warmest years have occurred since 2001.” With heat locked in, and more heat on the way, the world is already experiencing droughts, floods, and crop failures, monster hurricanes and wildfires, and millions of climate migrants being forced to leave their homelands. Scientists tell us that unless we change course fast, we won’t be able to leave our children and our children’s children a habitable world. The U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns that we have only a small window of time – perhaps twelve years – in which to transform our economies and make a decisive change of course away from fossil fuels and toward clean, renewable sources of energy. Amos is everyone who is willing to face and name such facts, even when the corporate and political powers want the facts to go away. Amos is everyone who calls out the fossil industry for pouring billions of dollars into the effort to confuse and mislead the American public and for funding climate deniers and think tanks that dismiss climate science. Amos is everyone who challenges government leaders who scrub climate science from government Websites, who refuse to take climate change into account when setting policies, and who dismiss and discredit climate science – all while taking unprecedented steps to open up public lands and waters to more drilling, to expand oil pipelines, and to roll back protections on clean air and clean water. Amos is a teenaged girl who walks out of school, sits down in front of the Swedish Parliament with a handmade sign, and demands climate action. Back then Greta Thunberg was, says one reporter, “a painfully introverted, slightly built nobody.” Greta describes herself as “always [being] that girl in the back who doesn’t say anything. I thought I couldn’t make a difference because I was too small.’” Well, today, one year later, Greta Thunberg’s quiet, relentless, and disarming protest week after week has drawn the world’s attention and has sparked a vast and growing movement of student strikes around the world. Starting on September 20, people everywhere – all kinds of people, not just students – will engage in a Global Climate Strike as we use our power to stop “business as usual” in the face of the climate emergency. I hope you will sign up with Global Climate Strike and take part. Prophetic action takes many forms. We can begin at home, by sharply reducing our own carbon footprint and learning to live more gently and wisely on God’s good Earth. I urge you to enroll in Sustain Island Home, which will be introduced at the Forum after our service. This carbon tracker works a bit like a plumb line – it’s a way to measure your carbon footprint and to make better choices around energy. Our family has found it informative and, in some cases, surprising. Sustain Island Home is being introduced across The Episcopal Church and it’s one of the basic ways we can express our love for Jesus Christ, who – as we heard in today’s Gospel reading – calls us to be good neighbors and to show mercy. I also want you to know about other climate prophets right here in the Berkshires. 350Mass for a Better Future is a grassroots, statewide, climate justice network that has a Berkshires node. With 350Mass for a Better Future, you can push for smart climate policies in Massachusetts. You know, we live in an extraordinary time, when the decisions we make about tackling climate change will make all the difference as to whether or not we are able to preserve the world that God entrusted to our care. Like Amos who was just a simple herdsman, we may not have planned to become a prophet – we are busy, we’ve got other things to do – but God’s love is always being poured into our hearts (Romans 5:5), giving us a divine plumb line so that we can see honestly and accurately where we need to amend our lives and where we need to call society to account. I am glad to be in this struggle – in this adventure – with you. Thank you.
How To Preach on the Green New Deal: Margaret contributed one of the tips to this resource for preaching
Below is a statement about biomass that I gave at a public hearing held by The Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources (DOER) in Springfield on June 5, 2019.
My name is Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas. I’m an Episcopal priest with an ecumenical job. I serve as Missioner for Creation Care for the 375 churches of the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ, and also for the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts, which stretches from Worcester to the border of New York State and whose diocesan headquarters are located right here in Springfield.
I am here to speak against Governor Baker’s proposed new standards that consider biomass a form of renewable energy. I am here to stand with trees.
Forests are sacred spaces, not spaces to make a fortune. Trees matter. They sequester carbon, and the latest IPCC report makes it abundantly clear that in order to avert climate chaos we must protect and enlarge our forests, not cut them down. It’s absurd to claim that burning intact trees is carbon neutral because new trees will grow back some day.
The truth is that logging releases an immediate pulse of carbon into the atmosphere that will take years for young trees to absorb – and there’s no way to re-freeze the polar caps and the glaciers that will have vanished in the meantime.
It’s also absurd to claim that incinerating trees is a form of clean energy, for inefficient biomass power plants actually release more CO2 per unit of energy than coal-fired power plants do. If humanity manages to survive on this planet, it will be thanks in part to the forests that we leave intact and to the new forests that we plant.
Trees are essential to human health and survival. Trees are also essential to the human spirit. Biblical scholars point out that there is a tree on the first page of Genesis and on the last page of Revelation – the first and last pages of the Bible. There is a tree in the first psalm, and the Bible refers to its wisdom as a Tree of Life (Proverbs 3:18). Jesus calls himself the true vine (John 15:1).
Love calls me – the God of life calls me – to stand with trees, to stand with all our brother-sister beings that are so swiftly being destroyed by an economic system that heedlessly devours the web of life that God entrusted to our care.
I call upon Governor Baker and his administration to drop plans to count incineration as renewable energy. I call upon Governor Baker and his administration to stop renewable energy subsidies for all biomass and trash incineration in our state.
For trees and the Bible, read Matthew Sleeth, Reforesting Faith: What Trees Teach Us About the Nature of God and His Love for Us (Colorado Springs: WaterBrook, 2019).
For information on biomass in Massachusetts, visit Partnership for Policy Integrity.