Faith-based environmental activism can take many forms. Your event could be small: a handful of people gather one evening outside a church, holding candles and praying for upcoming U.N. climate negotiations. Or your event could be large: hundreds of people share a multi-faith worship service at which they sing, preach, and pray about caring for Earth.

Your event could be simple: a panel of speakers from different faith traditions discusses the spiritual foundations of environmental activism. Or your event could be complex, with multiple components: maybe an interfaith crowd will gather to sing, speak, and pray on the steps of your State House, hold a procession inside, carry out more speaking and singing at your Governor’s office, and then spread out for an afternoon of lobbying. Your event could be even more ambitious than that: it could, for instance, launch with an interfaith service and continue with a pilgrimage across your state, pausing as you hold educational events along the way and sleep on the floor of houses of worship; it might conclude with a large, interfaith service indoors, followed by a public rally outdoors.

Your faith-based event could be legal or it could include non-violent civil disobedience. It could be a stand-alone action or it could weave itself into something larger, such as the 10,000 people of faith who marched together in the People’s Climate March in 2014, joining a river of hundreds of thousands of people who coursed through the streets of New York City.

Whatever form it takes, your event will require planning. Here comes a list of thirteen steps for carrying out an effective and memorable faith-based environmental action. Please add your own suggestions at the bottom of this post!

1. Gather and tend the seeds

Someone has the seed of a brilliant idea (“Let’s carry out civil disobedience on Good Friday to stop new pipelines in our city.” “Let’s walk across the state to raise awareness of climate change.” “Let’s honor the sacredness of water by paddling downriver, praying all the way.”). Welcome your seeds of inspiration. Gather a group of friends, test and refine your ideas, generate more ideas, and see who has time and energy to join a planning team.

2. Only connect

Who else needs to be included in designing and carrying out the event? How wide a circle do you want to cast? Who are your potential allies? This part of the process may take a good deal of time, thought, and relationship building.

You will need to decide if you want to create an event for people of just one faith tradition, for people of several faith traditions, or for people of all faith traditions. Because so many folks no longer identify with a particular religious tradition, considering themselves “spiritual but not religious,” you may decide to promote your event as being “for all people of faith and good will.”

You will need to decide if you want the event to be led by clergy and other recognized religious leaders, and, if so, if you want those leaders to be locally known and grown or to have a wider following.

You will need to decide if, and to what degree, “your” event is open to being shaped and led by other stakeholders. For example, if you are middle-class and white, are you open to meeting with people of color and to low-income and immigrant communities as you muse on a potential action? Will you listen to their needs and hopes? How will they be included as participants and leaders? Again, if you are middle-aged and older, how will you engage youth as participants and leaders? If you are part of a “mainstream” religion, will you reach out to indigenous religious leaders? How will you take into account the needs of the differently abled, such as those who are deaf or hard of hearing, or those who need an accessible walkway?

Creating an interfaith environmental event provides a precious opportunity to build relationships across boundaries of age, race, and class, and to respect “intersectionality,” that big mouthful of a word that acknowledges that different forms of oppression (such as race, class, and gender) overlap and intersect. As Naomi Klein has said, to change everything we need everyone.

3. Go for ‘now’ time and ‘deep’ time

An event that honors “now” time is an event that is timely. Will you hold your event during the final push to pass important legislation? Will your event try to affect an upcoming election? Will it be held on the eve of an important national or international event, such as Pope Francis’ visit to the U.S. or the next round of U.N. climate talks? Will it be held in the aftermath of an environmental disaster, such as an oil spill, hurricane, or wildfire?

A timely event will also explore the possibility of aligning with the larger climate movement. Can your prayer vigil, procession, pilgrimage, worship service or rally be timed to coincide with other events being carried out around the world? Right now the next big climate mobilization will be held worldwide on September 8, “Rise for Climate.” What better day than this to schedule an interfaith climate action and to uphold the movement in prayer?

              Note: to keep track of actions being planned on a global scale, follow 350.org. For climate justice events in Massachusetts, follow 350Mass for a Better Future; in the Pioneer Valley, follow Climate Action Now.

A faith-based event can be timed to connect with a civic holiday such as Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, or Thanksgiving. It can also be timed to resonate with the “deep” time of religion. Scheduling your event on a holy day, a day of atonement, or a liturgical season can add to its spiritual, moral, and emotional power. Even if the conjunction is accidental, it can still be meaningful. One of the most dynamic celebrations of Advent I’ve ever witnessed took place in 2011, when 7,000 people, including clergy and faith leaders, marched through the streets of Montreal to support decisive action at the U.N. Climate Change Conference. As I wrote in my book of Advent meditations, Joy of Heaven, to Earth Come Down (Forward, 2012, 2013), the march sounded the ancient themes of Advent:

“The time is high,” said one sign.
“People in power: wake up!” said another.
Now is the time wake from sleep. Repent. Time is short. Prepare for judgment.

Deep time is a good context for holding your event, but here’s a heads up: you will need to be thoughtful in selecting a date that does not create insurmountable obstacles for the faith communities you hope to reach. On Friday, Muslims are encouraged to gather at the mosque for special prayers; Saturday is when observant Jews mark the Sabbath; Sunday (particularly Sunday morning) is when Christians observe a Sabbath day of rest. Clergy may find it relatively easy to attend a weekday or weeknight event, but difficult to do so on a weekend, when they lead services. People with 9 to 5 jobs may find it easier to attend an event that is held on the weekend or at lunchtime or on a weekday evening. Finally, before choosing a date, be sure to check the proposed date against the schedule of special observances of the faith traditions you hope to include.

In selecting the date of an interfaith event, you will almost certainly have to make some hard choices. Still, it’s better to weigh the pros and cons in advance and to make a deliberate and informed choice, offering explanations and apologies as you go, than inadvertently to choose a date that you later discover will exclude a large swath of the people you’d most hoped would participate.

4. Draw from symbol and story

Myths, parables and stories from religious traditions provide powerful ways to re-imagine ourselves and our situation. Because stories speak not just to our rational mind but also to our imagination, feelings, and will, they can be brought to bear to address the climate crisis and can give us courage, guidance, and motivation to act.

To name a couple of examples from the Judeo-Christian tradition: in Massachusetts, activists fighting new pipeline construction chose the biblical story of Moses confronting Pharaoh and demanding, in the name of God, that the people be set free, as the framework for Exodus from Fossil Fuels, an interfaith witness for climate action that we carried out in Boston in March 2018 during Holy Week (for Christians) and shortly before Passover (for Jews). (For my blog post on this event, click here.)

Similarly, activists fighting to stop construction of a trash-burning incinerator in a low-income community in Baltimore used the story of the theft of Naboth’s vineyard (1 Kings 21:1-21a) to illuminate their own experience of social and environmental injustice and to inspire their own acts of resistance. (For my sermon on this text, visit here.)

Sacred symbols such as water and trees also hold great power in many religious traditions. Is there a symbol around which you would like to organize your event?

5. Create a vision

If this event were “successful,” what would it look like? Hold this conversation early in the planning process. The vision that emerges can serve as a sort of North Star to guide you along the way. Keeping the vision in mind can raise energy, clarify focus, and open the heart. During the planning process, it is good to return to the vision from time to time. Are we still in alignment with the initial vision that so inspired us? Does our vision of the event need to change?

Antoine de Saint Exupery pointed out: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” Simon Sinek makes the same point in his TED talk, “How Great Leaders Inspire Action,” when he says, “Martin Luther King, Jr. gave the ‘I have a dream’ speech, not the ‘I have a plan’ speech.

6. Divvy things up

In other words: get organized. One model for organizing a complex event is to have a steering committee made up of maybe half a dozen dedicated individuals who can devote real time to overseeing the project. Other leaders can form subgroups that are devoted to accomplishing specific tasks (e.g. communications and media; worship service; choreography of civil disobedience; outreach to groups not yet represented). A member of the steering committee can participate in each subgroup and serve as a liaison to the steering committee, reporting on progress made and where more help is needed.

Divvying up responsibilities requires self-awareness (what skills do I bring to the table?), curiosity (what skills do the other people bring?), and clarity (what skills does this event need in order to be successful?). For example, some people may be excellent at generating and maintaining the big vision of the event, whereas other people may be terrific at handling details, creating timelines, forming agendas, and assuring accountability. A successful event will require both sets of skills.

               Note: if you are planning an interfaith act of civil disobedience to address climate change, Climate Disobedience Center is an excellent source of support and guidance.

7. Communicate

Craft a clear, simple message for the media and the public.

Let your visuals communicate the same clear, dramatic message. Will a casual passerby grasp the purpose of your event?

Develop a communications plan: make a flyer, figure out how to post it on bulletin boards and share it online, set up a Facebook event page, compose a decent press release, designate your spokespeople, and reach out to press, radio, and TV.

8. Make it beautiful

Music is essential, especially participatory singing that requires no song sheets. When it comes to enlivening an interfaith vigil or rally, songs are more potent than chants. Whether they are fierce or tender, songs can generate warmth and fellow-feeling, compassion and resolve.

Will you create banners? What about oversize puppets? There’s nothing like holding an interfaith rally that is attended by a larger-than-life polar bear or by Mother Earth herself.

Will your event include a ritual such as ripping a cloth (a sign of mourning in Jewish tradition), blessing the crowd with evergreen fronds dipped in water (a Christian tradition), or smudging your neighbor’s outstretched palms with dirt (a ritual of commissioning someone to become a healer of Earth)? What kind of ritual might enrich your event?

Encourage religious leaders to wear vestments or other clothing that represents their tradition. You’re aiming for an event that is dignified, colorful, diverse, and photogenic.

9. Keep it fun

Wherever possible, maintain a spirit of joy. How blessed we are to express our deepest values, to celebrate the sacredness of life, and to do so together!

Bring snacks to planning meetings. Offer your seat to someone. Yield the floor. Enjoy the ride.

10. Pray your way through

As you plan an interfaith event, trust that the initial seed of an idea, and the process of tending, enlarging, pruning, and adapting those ideas, is a gift from Spirit. Aim to stay connected with Spirit all the way through by keeping your meetings rooted in prayer, allowing space for silence, singing, and prayer, as well as for the nitty-gritty work of planning and problem-solving. The only way to reach peace is to be peace along the way.

It’s worth pointing out that people who organize an interfaith climate action are people who care deeply: we feel an urgent desire to preserve the web of life and to create a just and sustainable society. Organizers will not always concur on the best path forward, and strong feelings can lead to disagreements. Expect some misunderstandings and conflict. Keep breathing. Cherish the planning process as an opportunity to use and expand all your skills in non-violent communication. Understand that everything that happens – the bump in the road, a sudden gust of disappointment, the possibility of failure – is part of your own spiritual journey to grow in wisdom, compassion, and discernment.

11. Record & share it

Can you persuade a professional photographer to take video and still photos? Or will you rely on people’s cell phones? Amplify the impact of your event by spreading images on social media, and consider writing blog posts, letters to the editor, and op-eds. Creating a visual and verbal record of your event not only boosts your morale – it also educates other people and encourages them to create their own actions.

Be sure to thank members of the media who covered the story.

12. Plan to follow up

Will this be a one-off event or will it be the start of something? Consider how you will engage people, once your event is over. At the end of your action, consider distributing a short handout of upcoming events and local organizations. Make it easy for newcomers to get involved in the climate movement.

Gather participants’ names and contact information. Keep records.

13. Savor the harvest

Soon after the event, take time with your steering committee to debrief in person or on a conference call. (What did we learn? What were the high points and low points? Name a rose and a thorn. What would we do differently next time? Are we ready to consider next steps?).

If you’re up for it, hold a party.

If possible, protect space in your calendar so that you can now catch up on the responsibilities you probably set aside in order to plan and implement your wonderful event.

Give thanks.

 

 

Margaret reports on an international symposium about the climate crisis, held in Greece, June 3-5, 2018, in Episcopal News Service.  The article is here.

Leaders of the Eastern Church and the Western Church, representing billions of people worldwide, spoke with one voice this month about the moral urgency of confronting the climate crisis.

The Parthenon. The ancient city of Athens, where democracy was born, is often called the cradle of Western civilization. Photo credit: Robert A. Jonas

“A civilization is defined and judged by our respect for the dignity of humanity and the integrity of nature,” declared the head of the Orthodox Church, His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, in his keynote address for a three-day international symposium held in Greece. “Toward a Green Attica: Preserving the Planet and Protecting Its People” was the ninth international, inter-disciplinary, and inter-religious symposium that Patriarch Bartholomew has convened since 1991 to highlight the spiritual basis of ecological care and to strengthen collaboration across disciplines in our quest to build a just and habitable world.

I accepted an invitation to attend the symposium, along with 200 leaders in a variety of fields – science, economics, theology, public policy, journalism, business, and social activism. Gathering in Athens and visiting the islands of Spetses and Hydra, we studied climate science, explored strategic actions toward sustainability and resilience, and renewed our commitment to push for the economic and societal changes that must take place if we are to avert social and ecological chaos and widespread suffering. (For the program and a list of participants, visit here.)

The Bishop of Salisbury, the Rt. Rev. Nicholas Holtam, represented the Archbishop of Canterbury and affirmed the commitment of the Anglican Consultative Council to address the climate crisis (see, for example, Resolution 16.08: Response to Global Climate Change). As the Church of England states on its Website, “We believe that responding to climate change is an essential part of our responsibility to safeguard God’s creation.” (I note that from September 1 to October 4, Anglicans will unite with Christians around the world to care for God’s creation in a “Season of Creation.” Excellent materials for “Creation Season” worship, study, and prayer are available from the Anglican Communion Environmental Network and other sources here, and a complete guide to celebrating a 2018 “Season of Creation” is available here.)

Fr. John Chryssavgis, Orthodox theologian and adviser to the Ecumenical Patriarchate, and Professor Jeffrey Sachs. Photo credit: Robert A. Jonas

Peter Cardinal Turkson, a Ghanaian Cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church who worked closely with Pope Francis in developing the papal encyclical, Laudato Si, represented the Pope at the symposium. Cardinal Turkson read a statement from Pope Francis that included these lines: “It is not just the homes of vulnerable people around the world that are crumbling, as can be seen in the world’s growing exodus of climate migrants and environmental refugees. As I sought to point out in my Encyclical Laudato Si’, we may well be condemning future generations to a common home left in ruins. Today we must honestly ask ourselves a basic question: ‘What kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up?’” (The entire statement can be found here.)

One of the most powerful, disturbing and illuminating lectures was given by Jeffrey Sachs, a world-renowned professor of economics and director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. Sachs gave a one-hour overview of the history of economics that included a blistering critique of corporate capitalism and its veneration of greed, by which “Nature is utterly sacrificed for profit.” (A professional videographer recorded his speech, but until that video becomes available, you can watch a more basic recording here).

Other speakers at the symposium included such luminaries as award-winning scientist and activist Vandana Shiva, who argued that modern industrial agriculture has become “an act of war” against human health and the health of the Earth. She noted that the chemicals used to kill insects are the same chemicals that were used in Hitler’s concentration camps. Members of Hitler’s “poison cartel” were tried at Nuremberg for their crimes, she said, “but those crimes continue in the name of feeding the world.” Asserting that only 5% of cancers have a genetic basis, she maintained that the recent merger of corporate giants Monsanto and Bayer created a “cancer train”: one part of the company makes carcinogenic chemicals, and the other part makes the medicine used to treat cancer. She also contended: “Climate change is the destruction of the metabolic system of the planet to regulate her climate.”

Rev. Dr. Jim Antal (UCC), Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, & Dr. David Goa (theologian and author, U. of Alberta). Dinner after a full day of climate education and dialogue, island of Spetses. Photo credit: Robert A. Jonas

Professor Hans Joachim Schellnuber, Director of Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact, gave a hair-raising presentation on the precarious health of “the vital organs of the planet,” such as the Gulf Stream, coral reefs, Alpine glaciers, the Amazon rainforest, and West Antarctic Ice Sheet (a recent study shows that Antarctica’s ice loss has tripled in a decade; if that continues, we are in serious trouble). Citing a 2017 article in the journal Science, “A roadmap for rapid decarbonization,” Schellnuber asserted that we could halve carbon emissions every decade – “but we have to want to do it.”

Other speakers likewise underscored the urgent need to galvanize humanity’s vision, will, and moral courage as we confront the climate crisis, which poses an existential threat to civilization. Writer and activist Raj Patel urged us to consider the question, “What sort of ancestor do you want to be?” When asked about the role of civil disobedience, he replied, “Now and yesterday is a good day to put our bodies on the lever of the machine.”

Award-winning human rights advocate Rabbi Awraham Soetendorp spoke movingly about the power of compassion, based on his own experience as a three-month-old infant who was protected from the Nazis by a Roman Catholic family, and spared from death by an SS guard who took pity on him. “We are wood plucked out of the fire,” he cried. “How can I ever despair? We are able to plant the future into the present…We desperately need each other…A decade is rising before us, a decade where miracles can happen. Can we declare this decade a sacred time? We are one human family, one Earth community with a common destiny. Is this not a moment of kairos?… We are men and women of radical hope.”

Speaking of hope – Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) from 2010-2016, gave one of the most impassioned appeals to active hope that I’ve ever heard. Figueres was a key player in the successful delivery of the Paris Climate Accord, an agreement that she deemed “fundamentally necessary” yet also “insufficient.” Figueres is a small, vigorous woman; her concentrated focus and fierce tenacity reminded me of a diminutive songbird with the astonishing capacity to migrate thousands of miles. Like the Rabbi, she, too, spoke of kairos, which she defined – citing Patriarch Bartholomew – as “the intersection of conviction and commitment.” In response to the urgent question, “What can we do?” she exhorted everyone: 1) to eradicate meat from our diets; 2) to be careful in our methods of transportation; 3) if we live in a democracy, to vote responsibly (to do otherwise is “collusion with a crime against humanity”); and 4) to leverage the power of capital by divesting from fossil fuel companies and investing in clean renewables.

Christiana Figueres, UNFCCC Executive Secretary when the Paris Climate Accord was reached, urging ambitious action

Figueres went further: she challenged communities of faith to “strengthen the arc of faith” – that is, to “inject confidence” in the process of transformation that has started and that must accelerate. After all, limiting global average temperatures to a 1.5º rise – the aspirational goal of the Paris Climate Accord – gives only a 66% guarantee of saving small island states. How many of us would board an airplane that had only a 66% chance of landing safely? She also challenged faith communities to “expand the arc of love,” so that no one is excluded.

Both Jeffrey Sachs and Cardinal Turkson left the symposium early to travel to Rome. Pope Francis had taken the unprecedented step of inviting the world’s top fossil fuel executives – including the chairman of Exxon Mobil, the chief executive of the Italian energy giant Eni, and the chief executive of BP – along with money managers of major financial institutions, to meet with him in a two-day, closed-door conference at the Vatican. Sachs and Turkson joined the meeting to add their perspectives.

“There is no time to lose,” the Pope told the participants. He appealed to them “to be the core of a group of leaders who envision the global energy transition in a way that will take into account all the peoples of the earth, as well as future generations and all species and ecosystems.”

Thus, in one extraordinary week, Christian Churches, both East and West, called for robust action to address climate disruption.

The Rt. Rev. Marc Andrus, Bishop of California and leader of the Presiding Bishop’s delegation to UN Climate Summits, commented: “The moment is dire, and also is our (humanity’s) moment of greatest possibility. St. Irenaeus called a human fully alive the glory of God. Now, 1,300 years later we may understand that for humanity to act as one for the good of the Earth is yet a greater expression of God’s glory.”

Patriarch Bartholomew releases kestrel. Photo credit: Robert A. Jonas

Looking back on the symposium, Bishop Marc was thankful for its “great spirit of respect and mutuality… Rather than lobbying to enlist people to each cause, there was a celebration of what each person is doing to heal the Earth, and a seeking to support each person on their path, to make connections. A good example of this to me was the tremendous joy we all felt as the Ecumenical Patriarch released two kestrels that had been nursed back to health by an Athenian woman whose ministry is protecting and healing endangered birds.”

Another Episcopal participant, Dr. Sheila Moore Andrus, a biologist and an active climate champion from Diocese of CA, expressed appreciation for the opportunity to meet new climate activists and connect with individuals she has respected for many years – including the Rev. Fletcher Harper, who, she said, “is currently working on a project similar to one I am working on for the Diocese of CA: a web-based tool that can help people decrease their carbon footprint and aggregate those choices by church and diocesan Community.  The conference gave Fletcher, Marc and me a chance to explore ways to promote such a tool among interfaith groups, and all this in settings filled with inspiring talks and sacred indoor/outdoor spaces.”

The Rev. Fletcher Harper, Executive Director of GreenFaith, concluded: “The fact that it was searingly hot during the symposium made the point about the need for action as powerfully as any of the speakers.  This September, the multi-faith service at Grace Cathedral at the start of the Global Climate Action Summit gives everyone a chance – whether in person or on the live-stream – to commit to living the change in our own diet, transportation and home energy use that’s needed for a non-scorched, sustainable future.”

 

The Faith & Science Joint Appeal for Climate Action was released in Boston on May 23, 2018, and on May 29, Episcopal News Service published Margaret’s article about science and religion joining forces to fight climate change. Margaret’s article may be viewed here: “In new coalition of religious leaders and scientists, Episcopal bishops of Massachusetts declare climate change an emergency.” Margaret’s article concludes: “Facts and reason alone will not motivate us to change course; we also need stories, prayer, and ceremonies, the power of imagination and a vision of hope. Together with scientists, we can speak with one voice about the sacredness of God’s Creation and the moral imperative to protect it.”

It’s unusual to see a scientist, a politician, an economist, and a religious leader sitting together at one table to discuss climate change. Yet that’s just what happened at a public forum at Westfield State University entitled “Carbon Pricing – A Key Component in Solving a Warming Climate.” The four speakers included Dr. Carsten Braun (a climate scientist at Westfield State), State Rep. Jen Benson (D-Lunenburg, the lead co-sponsor of bill H.1726, which places a price on carbon in Massachusetts), Dr. Marc Breslow (Director of Policy & Research at ClimateXChange), and me.

The panel gathers at WSU: The Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Rep. Jen Benson, Dr. Marc Breslow, Dr. Carsten Braun, and the moderator, Hillary Sackett

The conversation was lively. Striding up and down the aisle of the auditorium, Dr. Braun began by reflecting on a photograph of a barren, lifeless landscape, which turned out to be Mars. Far off in the dark sky was the tiniest of dots: planet Earth. On that tiny dot was everyone and everything we love, a living, precious, blue-green planet.

Mars is unsuited to human life. In the movie “The Martian,” the character played by Matt Damon is stranded on the red planet and must fight to survive until he can be rescued. By contrast, as Dr. Braun observed, if we render planet Earth uninhabitable, we have no rescue coming. Nothing will save humanity from the ravages of global warming unless we take concerted action to save ourselves.

He showed us graphs and charts that predict what lies ahead. The best-case scenario puts the average atmospheric level of carbon dioxide at 550 ppm by 2100; the worst-case scenario puts it at 940 ppm. The trajectory is frightening, but the good news, he said, is that by taking action, “we get to choose the future.” (For scientific information on climate, he recommends ClimateCentral.org. For making the transition to clean, renewable energy, he recommends TheSolutionsProject.org.)

Dr. Braun urged us to move from knowledge to action, quoting the late chemist F. Sherwood Rowland: “What is the use of having developed a science well enough to make predictions if, in the end, all we’re willing to do is stand around and wait for them to come true?”

A scientist was followed by a politician. Rep. Benson discussed how her carbon pricing bill, H. 1726, would reduce carbon pollution, rebate 80% of the revenue, and reinvest the remaining 20% into a Green Infrastructure Fund for clean energy, public transit, and climate adaptation projects. Next came an economist, Dr. Marc Breslow, who explained that the price of a product should include the damage to society that it causes – such as its harm to public health and to the environment. What’s more, studies show that a well-designed carbon-pricing plan would not only reduce dirty emissions but also enable low-income and moderate-income households to come out ahead financially.

When it was my turn to speak, I argued for the spiritual and moral call to put a price on carbon, based on a talk that I gave four years ago at a similar carbon-pricing panel in Amherst. Some things clearly need to be said more than once! My reflections are below.

At the end of the evening, I expressed my agreement with the scientist, Dr. Braun: we earthlings should not count on being rescued from the climate crisis by some extraterrestrial or supernatural entity. Yet I do believe that human beings have the God-given capacity to access a loving Presence and source of wisdom that is greater than we ourselves. I hope that we will remember to heal and tend not only our outer landscape, but also our inner landscape, for, through prayer and spiritual practice, we can tap into a boundless love whose strength will never fail us, a divine love that gives us the moral courage to change course. Our task is to be good ancestors.

I don’t know if we will succeed in stabilizing the climate in time to maintain a habitable world for future generations. But I do know that I want to get up every morning, willing to do whatever I can to heal the web of life, and aiming to be what God intended for us to be: a blessing on Earth.


It’s a joy to be here tonight, and I am honored to be speaking alongside these expert colleagues who have addressed the science of climate change and the economic, environmental and societal benefits of a carbon fee and rebate.

I’d like to pull back the lens and to comment briefly on what I understand to be the larger spiritual and ethical context in which we’re holding this conversation.

I invite you to take a moment to feel your feet on the ground. Beneath the floor is the earth. Let yourself feel the support of the good earth beneath your feet. Feel the sensations of your feet on the floor, and let the good earth hold you up. Feel how solid your body is, as solid as the earth… I invite you take a couple of good, deep breaths. As you take in the sweet air and then let it go, feel the air passing into and out of your lungs. Notice that you are exchanging the elements of life with plants and green-growing things… You are giving the breath of life to trees. Trees are giving the breath of life to you. Take a moment to experience yourself as a living creature, connected in a dynamic, living relationship with the earth and air and all living beings.

Yellow-throated warbler. Photo credit: Robert A. Jonas

As we sit here with our feet on the ground, breathing with awareness, we may notice that none of us owns our breath. Our breath does not belong to us. We can’t hold on to it or save it up for later. We simply receive it freely and then let it go. Moment by moment, each breath is given to us. Breath by breath, we receive the gift of life. All of it is gift – everything we see and hear and taste and touch. This is where amazement springs up, along with wonder, gratefulness and awe. Here we are! Breathing!

Gratitude is the wellspring of all spiritual traditions, and from gratitude flows the perception that everything is precious. Everything is sacred. We belong to a sacred Mystery that is much larger than we are. We are part of a much larger whole. In our stressed and busy lives it’s easy to forget that we are part of something greater than ourselves, which is why so many of us come home to ourselves when we spend time outdoors – when we climb a mountain and get the big view, or when we pause in the midst of a busy day to listen to a warbler or gaze at a blooming dogwood tree.

When we are spiritually awake we feel our connection, our kinship, with other living beings, human and other than human. We recognize that we’re in this together, that all of us are part of one single, precious, and intricate web of life. Perceiving the world like this elicits a certain tenderness: we want to nurture and protect the mysterious gift of inhabiting a living planet. That’s the spiritual wisdom we can learn from being aware of our feet on the ground and our lungs filling and emptying with air.

But our bodies also teach us about the ethical dimension, the justice dimension of the world. The good earth beneath our feet is the same earth that fossil fuel companies are blowing apart by mountaintop removal in order to extract coal; the same earth that is being violently injected with tons of chemicals that crack apart shale, release fracked gas and methane, and poison rivers and streams; the same earth that is flooding in some places, going dry in others, and manifesting unpredictable, violent extremes of weather because of the abrupt changes inflicted by global warming.

The life-giving air that fills our lungs is the same air into which fossil fuel companies are pouring greenhouse gases as if the atmosphere were an open sewer; the same air that contains more carbon dioxide than it has for millions of years; the same air whose delicate balance is being disrupted and destroyed.

Our own bodies connect us to the wounding of the world and to the cries of the poor, who are affected first and hardest by climate change, and who are already suffering from its effects, including extreme storms and rapidly rising seas, food and water shortages and infectious diseases.

That is the spiritual and ethical context in which I welcome a carbon tax and rebate. Putting a stable, rising, and meaningful price on carbon, and distributing the fee in a way that is fair and doesn’t harm the poor, is an essential step in making a swift and just transition to clean renewable energy. My friends who advocate for carbon pricing point out that carbon pricing is not a silver bullet – by itself it can’t resolve the climate crisis. But carbon pricing is an essential piece of the jigsaw puzzle. It is one of the most promising tools we have for changing consumers’ behavior, reducing our use of dirty energy, creating green jobs, and stabilizing the climate.

Here’s the bottom line: we need to protect the web of life, which is unraveling before our eyes. We need to move quickly to build a just and sustainable future for our children and our children’s children. We need to plant our feet firmly on this beautiful earth, to take a good deep breath of air, and to press together for a strong, fair, and equitable carbon fee and rebate plan. I hope that Massachusetts will lead the way.

 

 

The Rev. Dr. Jim Antal is retiring as President and Minister of the Massachusetts Conference, United Church of Christ. I will miss him! Here’s what I said at his retirement celebration in Worcester.

Laura Everett (Mass. Council of Churches), Jim Antal (MACUCC), Doug Fisher (Episcopal Diocese of Western Mass.), and Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, at Jim’s retirement party

What a blessing to be here as we honor our friend Jim. I’ve been invited to speak about his leadership in protecting God’s Creation and taking action on climate change.

Not everyone who wanted to be here today was able to make it. Someone who dearly wanted to come sent a letter that he asked me to share, and I brought it with me. The missing person is Scott Pruitt.

Jim, you need to know that he wanted to have a few words with you and to share his feelings about your climate ministry. He delivered his letter in a 12-foot limousine that gets 5 miles per gallon. Here’s what he wrote.

Dear Reverend Dr. Antal,

You know how hard I’m working to dismantle every regulation that protects the integrity of our environment. You know how hard I’m trying to convince the American public that science doesn’t matter, climate change is nothing to worry about, and God put all that wonderful coal, gas, and oil in the ground so that we could dig it up and burn it, and, incidentally, so that some of us could get rich.

Reverend, I must tell you that you are a thorn in my side, a burr under my saddle, and a monkey on my back. If my work comes to nothing, it will be because you, and people like you, rose up to stop me. I fear your energy, your eloquence, your moral conviction, and your persistence. But there is one thing about you for which I am grateful: you make my speeches easy to write. I read what you say, and then I say the exact opposite.

Sincerely yours,
Scott Pruitt

Jim and Margaret help deliver 52,000+ signatures on a climate letter to Presidential candidate, Mitt Romney (September, 2012)

Thanks for sharing, Scott.

Here’s what I want to say: eleven years ago, in 2007, I met Jim on a sidewalk somewhere between Newton and Cambridge, near the end of the Interfaith Walk for Climate Rescue, a 9-day walk from Northampton to Boston that I helped organize to raise awareness about the climate crisis. The march ended with an interfaith service at Old South Church, and when the congregation stepped into Copley Square, we held what was until then the biggest climate rally in U.S. history.

I love it that Jim and I made friends on a climate walk. As we walked along together, we immediately launched into a spirited conversation about everything from the nature of hope to the moral call to care for the Earth. I wondered to myself: Who is this brilliant guy with the big-picture mind, the passionate dedication to solving the climate crisis, and such an extraordinary zest for life? His laugh could light up a room.

Assembling for People’s Climate March in D.C. (March 2017): Pam Arifian, Tom Carr, Jim Antal, Margaret Bullitt-Jonas

In the years since then, Jim has been an intrepid ally, friend, and visionary thinker in countless other climate actions. We dangled our legs over the side of a pipeline trench in West Roxbury as we prayed and sang before the police handcuffed us and took us away. On another occasion, Jim declared “A New Awakening,” and we co-led workshops on prophetic preaching about climate. We spoke on panels. We marched in D.C. We visited the State Department to weigh in on the upcoming climate talks at the U.N.

In 2012, when Mitt Romney was running for President against Barack Obama, we joined Bill McKibben in delivering to Romney’s local headquarters more than 52,000 signatures on a climate letter. In 2013, we co-organized the Climate Revival in downtown Boston. In 2017, when Trump announced his intention to pull out of the Paris Climate Accord, we co-wrote an ecumenical statement of Christian protest, “An Opportunity for Which the Church Was Born” – that title came from Jim.

This is only a glimpse of Jim’s leadership on climate. I should mention, by the way, that he was a key player in persuading the United Church of Christ to become the first denomination to move toward divestment from fossil fuels.

Jim, you are an incomparable friend and an incomparable leader on climate. Thank you for hearing the cry of the Earth, the cry of the poor, and the cry of future generations. I couldn’t say it better than Bill McKibben, who wrote, in the foreword to your new book, Climate Church, Climate World: “…For as long as there has been a serious climate movement in the United States, Jim Antal has been at the forefront… He is on the short list of heroes who have given their all.”

Maybe one day Scott Pruitt will stop by your house in a Tesla – or on a bike! – shake your hand, and thank you for converting his heart. If he asks to plug his Tesla into your outlet, I know you will be generous and say yes. Until then, I’ll be with you in the struggle. Let’s keep walking.

 

 

Margaret is extensively quoted in “Responding to Small Island States Imperiled by Human-Forced Climate Change: An Ethical Imperative for Christians,” by Jame Schaefer, Anglican Theological Review, Winter 2018 issue (Volume 100, Number 1). To download the article, click here: Responding to Small Island Nations.

The Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas preached on April 15, 2018 at Federated Church of Orleans, on Cape Cod, Massachusetts: “You are witnesses of these things.”

Click here to watch the video on YouTube.

 

Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter, April 15, 2018 Delivered by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas at Federated Church of Orleans, East Orleans, MA Acts 3:12-19 1 John 3:17 Luke 24:36b-48

             “You are witnesses of these things”                  

Today we are deep into the Great Fifty Days of Easter, and I want to share a story told by an Episcopal bishop about leading worship one Easter morning. Bishop Mark Macdonald was preaching to a congregation in the middle of Navajo Nation. When the time came to read the Gospel account of Jesus’ resurrection, Bishop Macdonald stood up and began reading in Navajo: “It was early in the morning…” Almost before the words were out of his mouth, “the oldest person there, an elder who understood no English, said loudly (in Navajo), ‘Yes!’”

Margaret in front of Federated Church of Orleans, whose banner reads “Boldly Caring for Creation”
The bishop remarks that “it seemed a little early in the narrative for this much enthusiasm,” so he assumed he had made a mistake – maybe he had mispronounced the words in Navajo. So he tried again: “It was early in the morning…’” This time he heard an even louder and more enthusiastic Yes. After the service, the bishop went up to one of the lay leaders and asked if he had pronounced the words correctly. Oh, she said, looking surprised, of course. Well, asked the bishop, then why was the older woman so excited? Oh, he was told, “The early dawn is the most important part of the day to her. Father Sky and Mother Earth meet at that time and produce all that is necessary for life. It is the holiest time of the day. Jesus would pick that good time of day to be raised.”1 Bishop Macdonald realized that while the early dawn is certainly the best time for new life, he had never thought about the possibility that this “observation about the physical word could be theologically and spiritually revealing, that it suggested a communion between God, humanity, and creation that is fundamental to our… existence.” It took him a while to absorb this. He writes: “An elder with no formal schooling had repositioned the central narrative of my life firmly within the physical world and all its forces and interactions. It was,” he says, “an ecological reading of a story that, for me, had been trapped inside a flat virtual world misnamed ‘spiritual’.” Today, on the Third Sunday of Easter, we celebrate Christ’s resurrection and the sacred power of the natural world. Like Bishop Macdonald, today we remember and re-claim what he calls “a primal, long-ignored layer of spiritual consciousness that [is] also an ecological consciousness.”2
Horseshoe crab on tidal flats, Rock Harbor, Cape Cod
I don’t know about you, but I grew up thinking of “spirituality” as completely ethereal. The God I grew up with had no body. Being a good Christian was all about distancing oneself from the body and transcending the body – both one’s own body and the “body” of the natural world. The natural world and its wild diversity of buzzing, blooming, finned, and feathered creatures was essentially irrelevant and dispensable, just the backdrop to what was really important: human beings. Since the time of the Reformation, Christianity – at least in the West – has had little to say about the salvation of the natural world and the cosmos, as if only one species, Homo sapiens, is of any real interest to God. So what a healing it is, what a restoration of the ancient biblical understanding – an understanding that has never been forgotten by the indigenous people of the land – to know that the Earth is holy. Its creatures are holy. The whole created world is lit up with the power and presence of God. Our Gospel story this morning is full of meanings, but surely one of them is that the Risen Christ is alive in the body, in our bodies, in the body of the Earth. While the disciples were talking about how they had seen Jesus risen from the dead, “Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost” (Luke 24:36-37). But Jesus doesn’t come as a ghost. He doesn’t come as a memory, as an idea, or as something from “a flat, virtual world misnamed ‘spiritual’.” He comes as a living body, a body made of flesh and bone that can touch and be touched, a body that can feel hunger and thirst and that wants to know, “Hey, isn’t there anything to eat around here?” Scripture tells us that the Messiah is born, lives, suffers, dies, and rises as a body, and that says something about how much God cherishes the body and wants to meet us in and through the body – through our bodily senses of sight and sound, through taste and touch and smell, in this very breath. Scripture tells us that for forty days the disciples met the living Christ through his risen body. And then, when he ascended into heaven, Jesus’ body withdrew from the disciples’ sight, so that his living presence could fill all things and so that all of us can touch and see him, if our eyes are opened.
Bird tracks on tidal flats, Rock Harbor, Cape Cod
What this means is that when you and I go out into nature, when we let our minds grow quiet and we simply gaze at the white pine, the first blooms of forsythia, the seashell on the shore – when we gaze with a quiet eye, not grasping for anything and not pushing anything away, we begin to perceive that a holy, living presence fills everything we see. Wherever we gaze, the Risen Christ is gazing back at us and his presence is flowing toward us. “Peace be with you,” he is saying to us through wind and tree, through cloud and stars. “Peace be with you. I am here in the needles of the pine tree beside you that flutter in the breeze, and in the bark overlaid with clumps of lichen, each one a tiny galaxy. I am here in the ocean waves that form and dissolve on the shore, in the sand under your bare feet, in the sea gull that is crying overhead. Peace be with you. I am here, and you are part of this with me, and you are witnesses of these things.” This morning I brought with me an icon of the Risen Christ.3 The icon imagines Christ as a Native American figure whose body shines out from every habitat and every creature – from the sky above to the water below, from mountains, field and buffalo. The God who created all things also redeems all things and fills all things. Through the crucified and risen Christ, divine love has woven together the human and natural worlds into one inter-related whole. When our inward sight is restored and our eyes are opened to behold Christ in all his redeeming work, the Earth comes alive and we perceive Christ in every sound we hear, in every handful of dirt that we hold and in every bird we see. We are witnesses of these things. In our first reading this morning, Peter speaks about God’s power to heal and to bring forth new life, and he says, “To this we are witnesses” (Acts 3:15b). Our Gospel passage ends with the risen Christ speaking about God’s power to bring new life out of suffering and death, God’s power to reconcile and forgive and heal. Jesus says, “You are witnesses of these things” (Luke 24:48).
Storm erosion has been eating away about 12 feet of Nauset Beach every year. Last year’s Nor’easters decimated the beach.
Today more than ever we need witnesses to the love and power of God and to the divine love that fills the whole Creation, for God’s Creation is in the process of being recklessly assaulted by an economic system that is based on limitless expansion and dependent on the relentless burning of fossil fuels. Countries around the world agreed in the Paris Climate Accord that we must limit the rise of the global average temperature to no more than 2 degrees Celsius, and ideally to no more than 1.5 degrees. The national proposals of the Paris Accord help get us part of the way there, but only part of the way (3.3 C, or 6 F), so we must rein in dirty emissions even more boldly than that. If we stick to our present course and keep going with business as usual, global temperatures will skyrocket by the end of this century, raising temperatures an average of 4.2 degrees Celsius (or 7.6 Fahrenheit). Human beings simply can’t adapt to that level of heat. We would be living on a different planet. Thank God, there is a lot that we, as individuals, can do. Maybe we can plant trees. Save trees. Recycle more. Drive less. Eat local, eat less meat, and move to a plant-based diet. Get our home insulated and get LED lighting. Support local farms and land trusts. Fly less – and, if we must fly, buy carbon offsets. Maybe we can afford solar panels and move toward a carbon-neutral home. I was thrilled to see the solar array behind the church.  That’s the first time I’ve ever seen solar panels behind a nice white picket fence! Individual changes make a difference, but because of the scope and speed of the climate crisis, we need more than individual action – we need systemic change. To do that, we’ll need to become politically engaged, to confront the powers-that-be, and to push our elected leaders to awaken from the fantasy that we can continue with business as usual. So some of us carry out peaceful, disciplined actions of civil disobedience to stop construction of new fossil fuel infrastructure and keep fossil fuels in the ground, where they belong. Some of us push for policies that support the development of clean renewable energy, since that is where our future lies, if we’re going to have one. Some of us join Citizens Climate Lobby and advocate for a national carbon tax, or support legislation right here in Massachusetts that would put a price on carbon. Those of us who are white and privileged listen to the voices of racial minorities, indigenous peoples, and the poor, knowing that they are God’s beloved and that they are the ones hit first and hardest by climate change. Together we intend to build a world in which everyone can thrive. Here on Cape Cod you are fortunate to have a local node of 350Mass for a Better Future, the grassroots, climate action group that is working hard to build political will to stop new pipelines and move the Commonwealth to 100% clean energy. I hope you’ll sign up with 350Mass and check out a local meeting. Our state politicians may see what’s needed, but they are not moving fast enough to stop the damage.
Solar panels enclosed by white picket fence, Federated Church of Orleans
What motivates us to join the struggle to protect life as it has evolved on this planet? As followers of Jesus, we take action not only out of fear, although we do fear for the future of our children and our children’s children if we leave them a scorched and barren world beset by climate disruption. We take action not only because we’re angry, although we are angry, and refuse to allow political and corporate powers to dismantle the web of life for the sake of their own short-term profit and greed. We take action not only out of sorrow, although we do grieve for all the species we have already lost and will lose, grieve for the dying coral and vanishing bumblebees, grieve for the climate refugees, the vulnerable poor, and all the innocents who are already suffering and whose lives and livelihoods are being destroyed. Fear, anger, and sorrow – all these feelings may galvanize us to act. But stirring beneath them all is love, love for each other, love for the Earth entrusted to our care, love for the God whose mercies cannot be numbered. We were made for communion with God and each other and God’s Creation, and we put our trust in the power of God to work through us to heal and reconcile and save. I don’t know if in the end we will be successful, but I do know this: we intend to be living witnesses to the power of a living God until the day we die.
1. Mark Macdonald, “Finding Communion with Creation,” in Holy Ground: A Gathering of Voices on Caring for Creation, edited by Lyndsay Moseley and the staff of Sierra Club Books, San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 2008, pp. 150-151. Macdonald is the former bishop of Alaska, and now serves as the National Indigenous Bishop of the Anglican Church of Canada. 2. Ibid, p. 151. 3. “Mystic Christ,” by Fr. John Giuliani, Bridge Building Images, Inc.