Faith communities have vital roles to play in tackling the climate crisis. Download a pdf of Margaret’s new article by clicking: How can faith communities address the climate crisis?
Imagine there is a fire in your house. What do you do? What do you think about? You do whatever you can to try to put out the fire or exit the house. You make a plan about how you can put out the fire, or how you can best exit the house. Your senses are heightened, you are focused like a laser, and you put your entire self into your actions. You enter emergency mode.
These are the opening lines of a fascinating essay that every climate activist and every faith leader should read.
“Leading the Public into Emergency Mode: A New Strategy for the Climate Movement” recognizes that when we face an existential or moral crisis, we can pull back into paralyzed inaction or rush about in panicked, ineffective, chaotic action. But choosing between paralysis and panic is not our only option. Instead, we can enter a state of consciousness in which we become highly focused and purposeful, pour our resources into solving the crisis, and accomplish great feats.
Margaret Klein Salamon, author of the article and the Founding Director of The Climate Mobilization, calls this “emergency mode.” She considers emergency mode a particularly intense form of flow state, which has been described as an “optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best.” She cites Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the psychologist who pioneered the study of flow and who described it as: “Being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one… your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”
When we enter emergency mode, inertia or panic are replaced by focused, productive action toward a few critical goals. Non-essential functions are curtailed. Failure is not an option.
In ordinary times, a country is governed in what Salamon wryly labels “normal political-paralysis mode.” We experience a lack of national leadership, and politics is “adversarial and incremental.” By contrast, when a country is in emergency mode, “bipartisanship and effective leadership are the norm.” People work together because they face a shared and urgent threat.
Salamon accurately calls the climate crisis “an unprecedented emergency.” She writes: “Humanity is careening towards the deaths of billions of people, millions of species, and the collapse of organized civilization.” Her article and her organization, The Climate Mobilization, are devoted to developing strategies to mobilize an emergency response. Although I don’t agree with all her policy recommendations, I believe that her basic framing of the challenge is just right.
Most faith communities do not recognize the climate crisis and are not in emergency mode. Yet when faith communities enter this heightened state of awareness about our planetary emergency, we have significant gifts to offer.
(To read the scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change, visit this NASA site and this site from the American Association for the Advancement of Science.)
I. When faith communities understand the climate crisis and enter emergency mode, what roles do we play? We…
• Address helplessness
People who are secretly worried about climate change often don’t take action because they feel helpless and overwhelmed (“The situation is dire. What difference can I possibly make?”). Faith communities address helplessness in multiple ways, both directly and indirectly. For instance, gathering for worship can be understood as turning toward a Higher Power (God, divine Mystery, Creator, Source) in whose presence we are uplifted, and feel our strength renewed. Entrusting ourselves to God can release within us unexpected power “to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20).
• Face facts
A person of faith is someone who is committed to the search for truth. A Zen Buddhist might speak of facing reality as it is. A Jew, Muslim, or Christian might speak of relating to an all-seeing, all-knowing God who is truth and who leads us into all truth. At their best, the Abrahamic faiths believe that God has given us the capacity to learn about the created world through the lens of science. Science is one important avenue to discovering what is true. People of faith try to see through self-deception and illusion in their quest to discover what is true and to live their lives in accordance with the truth.
Truth includes both material and spiritual realities. By definition, facts are true until proven otherwise. We do not have any right to our own facts.
Science has established that climate change is real, largely caused by human activities, already inflicting widespread damage, and, unless humanity swiftly changes course, on track to make it difficult or impossible for civilization to continue to exist. We know that 80% of known fossil fuel reserves must stay in the ground, lest we plunge past the point of no return. We know we must make a just and swift transition to a clean energy economy.
Such facts are difficult to face and absorb. But faith communities have the capacity to face facts, tell the truth, and dismiss denial. We trust, and are accountable to, a sacred reality that includes and transcends the material world. From this vantage point, faith communities are uniquely positioned to see through the lies of climate denial. Thanks to our commitment to the truth, we can let go the comfortable fibs and fantasies we may be tempted to tell ourselves (“I don’t need to change; I can continue with business as usual; climate change is someone else’s problem”). We also seek to uncover the confusion, misinformation, and lies about climate change that are deliberately spread by the fossil fuel industry and by the political leaders they fund. Not to do so is to participate in idolatry and to betray our own commitment to bear witness to the truth.
As a Christian, I believe that a religion that directs our gaze to a suffering, dying man on a cross is a religion that can face painful facts. As a Christian, I also believe that perceiving God’s presence in the very midst of suffering and death is a gateway to transformation and new life.
• Provide vision
“Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18, KJV).
Climate science has done its job, giving us essential facts about the potentially catastrophic consequences of continuing to burn fossil fuels. But facts alone are not sufficient to persuade people to take meaningful, concerted action. For that, we need vision – a shared goal, purpose, and values. This is what faith communities can do: lift up a vision of people living in just and loving relationships with each other and with the whole Creation, a vision energized by a deep desire for God’s love to be fully manifest in the world. Faith communities have a vital role to play in inspiring action to safeguard the world that God entrusted to our care.
As Antoine de Saint Exupery observed, “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 terrific 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.”
• Offer hope
Human beings hope for so much: we want a good future for our kids; we want a livable world; we want the web of life to remain intact. The climate crisis challenges these cherished hopes. It renders uncertain the future of the whole human enterprise.
Faith communities offer a context in which to explore and take hold of the kind of hope that does not depend on outward circumstances but that emerges from a deep and irrepressible place in the human spirit. Animated by a radical, God-given hope, people of faith throw themselves into healing the Earth and its communities, human and other than human. Active hope – actively embodying ones deepest values and being ready at every moment to welcome and build the longed-for future – is a path to joy.
• Renew love
Climate change is a “threat multiplier” that exacerbates existing problems, such as poverty, hunger, terrorism, refugees on the move, and the spread of infectious diseases. Racism, militarism, and xenophobia – the fear of what is perceived to be foreign or strange – are likely to increase as the planet warms and as various groups battle over depleted resources, such as arable land and clean drinking water. Religious groups, like every other group, can be hijacked by fear and become sources of discord and violence.
Yet the deep message of all the world’s religions is that we are interconnected with each other and with the Earth on which all life depends. Faith communities can help to restore our capacity to love God and our neighbor. The climate crisis is already bringing together leaders and members of many faiths in a unified call to protect Earth and all its inhabitants, human and other than human. Pope Francis’ landmark encyclical on climate justice, Laudato Si’, generated an ardent and enthusiastic response from diverse faith communities around the world.
In a sermon, a D’var Torah, or a dharma talk, in prayer circles, worship services, and meditation groups, in pastoral care, outreach, and advocacy, faith communities can renew our intention and deepen our capacity to act in loving ways, to respect the dignity of every human being, and to cherish the sacredness of the natural world.
Faith communities speak to the heart of what it means to be human. When people are going mad with hatred and fear, only love can restore us to sanity.
• Give moral guidance
The climate crisis raises existential questions about the meaning, purpose, and value of human life. What is our moral responsibility to future generations? What does it mean to be human, if human beings are destroying life as it has evolved on this planet? How do we address the anger, self-hatred and guilt that can arise with this awareness? How can we live a meaningful life when so much death surrounds us? How determined are we to radically amend our personal patterns of consumption and waste? What does living a “good” life look like today, given everything we know about the consequences of over-consumption, inequitable distribution of resources, and being part of (and probably benefiting from) an extractive economy that depends on fossil fuels and unlimited growth?
Faith communities provide a context for wrestling with these questions, for seeking moral grounding, and for being reminded of such old-fashioned values as compassion, generosity, self-control, selfless service, simple living, sacrifice, sharing, justice, forgiveness, and non-violent engagement in societal transformation.
Maybe we should think of the climate crisis as our doorway to enlightenment. The climate crisis challenges us, individually and collectively, to expand our consciousness and to live from our highest moral values. As Jayce Hafner points out in an article published in Sojourners, “I’m Ready to Evangelize…About Climate,” “The act of confronting climate change calls us to be better Christians in nearly every aspect of our lives.”
I expect that this is true not only for Christians, but for people of every faith.
• Encourage reconciliation and seek consensus
The coal miner who just lost his job… the CEO of a fossil fuel company who is making plans to drill for more oil… the woman whose home was destroyed by Hurricane Sandy… the farmer watching in despair as his crops wither from a massive drought… the construction worker laying down pipeline for fracked gas… the activist arrested for stopping construction of that pipeline… these are just some of the people who probably have wildly divergent views about the climate crisis and who may feel harmed by and angry with each other.
The climate crisis includes both victims and offenders. To some degree (though to quite different degrees) all of us bear some responsibility for the crisis. At the same time, all of us have a part to play in healing the damage and contributing to a better future. As we work to transition to a clean energy economy whose benefits are available to all communities, we need all hands on deck. Entering emergency mode requires that people work together toward a shared and deeply desired goal, and we need the participation and input of every sector of society as we try to protect our common home. As an African proverb puts it, “Two men in a burning house must not stop to argue.”
Faith communities can provide settings for difficult conversations, active listening, and “truth and reconciliation” groups modeled on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that was formed in South Africa in the 1990’s after apartheid was abolished. By expressing compassion while also holding groups and individuals morally accountable, faith communities can create possibilities for reconciliation and collaboration that would otherwise never exist. What’s more, because of their historic commitment to the oppressed, marginalized, and poor, faith communities can give voice to the needs of people and all creatures who are generally ignored or exploited by the people in power.
• Allow emotional response
The climate crisis can make us go numb. Why think about the enormous stretches of coral reefs in Australia that just died in less than two months? What can we possibly feel in response to the acidifying ocean, the children choking from asthma in our inner cities, the rising seas, the ever-increasing droughts and floods, and the cascade of species going extinct?
It is hard enough to face our own mortality or to mourn a loved one’s death. How do we begin to explore our fear and grief in response to the ecocide going on around us – much less express it? How do we move beyond despair?
Faith communities can give us practices, teachings, and rituals that allow us to feel, express, accept, and integrate the painful emotions evoked by climate change.
To ignite and sustain an emergency response, society needs to overcome what Salamon calls our “affect phobia,” our tendency to repress our feelings and to react to climate change only in terms of intellectual analysis and facts (How many heat records were broken last month? How many parts per million of CO2 are in the atmosphere now?). With the support of communities of faith, we can protect our human capacity to feel our emotional responses to the crisis without being overwhelmed by grief. Our emotions can also become a source of energy for constructive action to address the emergency.
(For a comprehensive overview of the psychological impacts of climate change, take a look at “Beyond Droughts and Storms,” prepared by ecoAmerica and the American Psychological Association.)
• Offer pastoral care
Faith communities can provide practical and spiritual assistance during climate-related disasters such as hurricanes, floods, and wildfires. Congregations can make “disaster preparedness plans,” prepare a response in collaboration with local agencies, and develop networks of communication. One leader involved in this kind of preparation comments that congregations can be “sanctuaries of hope in times of disasters.”
In some areas of the world, the need is already urgent: at least five Pacific islands have disappeared under rising seas since the Paris climate talks last December. The Anglican Church in that area is developing “a clear resilience strategy.”
Faith communities can also provide comfort and solace day by day. We can develop networks of pastoral care and spiritual outreach to address the rising rates of depression, anxiety, and other psychological challenges that are associated with climate change, being mindful that low-income communities may be particularly vulnerable to climate-related stressors.
• Heighten reverence for nature
In a society that treats the natural world as an object to master, dominate, and exploit, faith communities can call us back to the sacredness of the Earth. Faith communities can support the efforts of land trusts to preserve farms, woods, wetlands, and open space (to locate your local land trust, visit Land Trust Alliance); can partner with organizations to bring inner-city children into natural settings; and can sponsor retreats and hikes that explore the wonders of Creation. Faith communities can learn, and help others to learn, what a stone or cloud or bird can teach (see, for instance, “Opening the Book of Nature,” developed by National Religious Coalition on Creation Care). They can help people from different religious background to become environmental leaders (see, for instance, the programs of GreenFaith and of The Center for Religion and the Environment at Sewanee). Some communities of faith gather for spiritual practice outside. For instance, Church of the Woods in Canterbury, NH, founded by the Rev. Steve Blackmer, is a new kind of “church”: “a place where the earth itself, rather than a building, is the bearer of sacredness.”
• Inspire bold action
Faith communities have a long history of leading movements for social and environmental justice, from child labor to women’s rights, peace, the abolition of slavery, and the civil rights movement. Faith communities tap into our capacity to dedicate ourselves to a cause that is greater than our personal comfort and self-interest. Faith in God (however we name that Higher Power) can inspire people to take bold actions that require courage, compassion, and creativity.
Faith communities can model best practices for “going green,” such as to get an energy audit, increase energy conservation and efficiency, look into installing solar panels, put in bike racks, replace lawns with community gardens, and so on. But taking care of our immediate buildings and community is just a start. An adequate response to the scope and speed of the climate crisis requires collective action and political engagement.
Because of the current gridlock in Congress, it can be tempting either to quit participating in democracy entirely or to stay engaged but demonize our opponents. A recent blog post by my bishop, the Rt. Rev. Doug Fisher, persuasively contends that because Christianity is a “world-engaging faith,” people who follow Jesus must stay politically engaged and also encourage civil, non-partisan, political discourse that serves the common good.
The climate emergency is propelling people of different faiths to organize and to lobby for strong legislative action. See, for instance, the national work of Citizens Climate Lobby to put a fair and rising price on carbon, whose volunteers include clergy and members of congregations, and the national work of Interfaith Power & Light, which has an affiliate here in Massachusetts. MA Interfaith Coalition for Climate Action, launched only months ago (full disclosure: I’m on the Leadership Team), is pressing for timely, high-impact changes in laws and systems in our Commonwealth.
In the footsteps of trailblazers such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., hundreds, maybe thousands, of people, including countless people of faith, have been arrested in recent years as non-violent resistance to fossil fuels continues to grow. With fifteen other religious leaders, I was arrested on May 25 at a prayerful protest against construction of Spectra’s West Roxbury Lateral pipeline in Boston. On June 29 twelve faith leaders – Buddhist, Jewish, Protestant, and Unitarian Universalist – were among 23 people arrested in another protest of the same pipeline. In solidarity with the hundreds of people who recently died from deadly heat waves in Pakistan and India and were buried in mass graves, the clergy led a climate ‘mass graves’ funeral, featuring eulogies, prayers, and mourning, with some of the resisters lying down in the grave/trench for nearly two hours.
By inspiring significant action, such as divesting from fossil fuels and engaging in civil disobedience, faith communities can challenge the deathly status quo of “business as usual” and rouse society out of its apathy and inaction.
For religious leaders who want to network with colleagues to engage in visionary and prayerful civil disobedience, sign up at ClergyClimateAction.org.
To join an epic march, July 14-18, against new gas pipelines that will go all the way to the Massachusetts State House, visit People Over Pipelines.
Boston Globe article: “Al Gore’s Daughter Arrested in Boston Pipeline Protest”
Tim DeChristopher’s powerful reflection in word and video: “Grief and Resistance: The Mass Grave Pipeline Action”
Democracy Now! interview: “Tim DeChristopher Arrested Again in the ‘Age of Anticipatory Mass Graves’ for Climate Victims”
Democracy Now! interview: “Vice President’s Daughter Karenna Gore Arrested in the Trenches of a Climate Protest”
Press release: Symbolic Climate Mass Grave Funeral to #StopSpectra
II. When faith communities understand the climate crisis and enter emergency mode, what tools do we offer?
The myths, tales, parables and stories of religious traditions give us powerful ways to re-imagine our selves and our situation, and to absorb deep (not necessarily literal) truths. Stories speak not just to our rational mind but also to our affections, will, and imagination. From the Judaeo-Christian tradition, stories of Moses confronting Pharaoh and of Jesus healing, teaching, suffering, dying, and rising again – all these and more can be brought to bear to address the climate crisis and to give us courage, guidance, and motivation to act. Recently I learned that activists fighting to stop construction of a trash-burning incinerator in a low-income neighborhood of Baltimore are using the story 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.
• Prayer and silence
Every faith tradition offers practices that teach us how to move out our habitual narrow orbit of self-involvement and to connect with a larger, sacred reality. The climate crisis invites people who until now have felt immune from any desire to pray, to explore practices of prayer and meditation.
Expressive forms of prayer empower us to move beyond denial and numbness and to acknowledge the full range of our feelings. My article, “Feeling and pain and prayer,” originally published in Review for Religious, presents four ways that Christians can pray with difficult feelings. The article also describes how expressive prayer can change us over time, deepening our sense of intimacy with God, our experience of a peace that passes understanding, and our capacity to move from helplessness and hopelessness to effective action.
Contemplative forms of prayer (such as Centering Prayer and mindfulness meditation) strengthen our capacity to sit in silence with the unknown, to accept impasse, and to keep listening and trusting even in the darkness. Practices that lead the mind into silent awareness offer more than a respite from thinking about the climate crisis. They can open us to an intuitive, non-verbal experience of communion, even union, with others, with the natural world, and with ultimate reality. Experiencing our unshakable union with a love that is stronger than death is the great gift of contemplative prayer. Rooted in that fierce and openhearted love, we are guided to actions commensurate with the emergency we’re in.
Faith traditions offer a range of ceremonies and rituals that seek to awaken our awareness and revive our relationship with a sacred presence or power beyond the limited world of “I, me, and mine.” In a time of climate crisis, people need rituals that address our fear of death and give us courage to trust in a life greater than death. We need rituals that ask us to name our guilt and regrets, that grant us forgiveness, and that give us strength to set a new course. We need rituals that remind us of our essential connection with each other, with the rest of the created world, and with the unseen Source of all that is. We need rituals that remind us of how loved we are, how precious the world is, and what a privilege it is to be born in a time when our choices and actions make such a difference.
Faith communities have a heritage of holy days, festivals, days of atonement, and liturgical seasons that gain fresh meaning in light of the climate crisis.
It takes courage to preach about climate change. If you’re a faith leader who speaks or preaches frequently about the climate emergency, then yours is a rare and much-needed voice. If you’re a member of a faith community whose leaders speak rarely, weakly, or never about climate justice, then please give them steady encouragement to say what needs to be said.
As my climate activist friend and colleague, Rev. Dr. Jim Antal (Conference Minister and President, Massachusetts Conference, United Church of Christ) often says, if clergy don’t preach about climate change every few weeks, then in ten or fifteen years every sermon will be about grief.
My own ongoing efforts to preach a Christian perspective on climate are here. Last year’s “A New Awakening,” an ecumenical initiative to promote climate preaching across New England, has a Webpage of preaching resources. I just received a copy of Creation-Crisis Preaching, by Leah D. Schade, which looks like indispensable reading.
• Public liturgies and outdoor prayer vigils
Over the years I’ve led or participated in many outdoor interfaith public liturgies about climate change. In the wake of environmental disasters such as the Gulf of Mexico oil spill or Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, or on the eve of significant environmental events, such as Pope Francis’ visit to Washington, D.C. or the U.N. climate talks in Paris, people of all faiths often feel a need to gather so that we can express our grief, name our hopes, and touch our deep longing for healing and reconciliation. Faith communities can lead the way in providing public contexts for renewing our spirits, both indoors and outside.
III. What does this add up to?
Faith communities can become agents of transformation.
Humanity stands at a crossroads. As individuals and as a species we face a decision of ultimate importance both to our souls and to the future of life. “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live” (Deuteronomy 30:19).
This is not a fire drill. This is an actual emergency. Martin Luther King, Jr. got it right: we face “the fierce urgency of now.” “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!” (2 Corinthians 6:2).
Armed with this knowledge, faith communities can enter emergency mode. Speaking as a Christian, I envision a church in which every aspect of its life, from its preaching and worship services to its adult education and Sunday School, from its prayers to its public advocacy, grasps the urgency of protecting life as it has evolved on this planet. That is the kind of Church that the world needs today.
I am thankful for all people who are willing to face squarely the most challenging, even devastating facts; who reach into their reserves of courage, faith, and hope; and who step out to bear witness in very tangible ways – even in the face of suffering and death – to the ongoing presence and power of a love that abides within us and that sustains the whole creation.
“The huge West Antarctic ice sheet is starting to collapse and slide into the sea in a way that scientists call ‘unstoppable.’ …If ever there were a time to bear witness to our faith that life and not death will have the last word, now would be the time. If ever there were a time to take hold of the vision of a Beloved Community in which human beings live in right relationship with each other and with all our fellow creatures, now would be the time. The collapse of the ice sheet in Antarctica may be ‘unstoppable,’ but so is the love that calls us to stand up for life.”
— Excerpt of my sermon, “Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Climate Movement,” January 18, 2015
You can download an article adapted from this blog post by clicking here: How can faith communities address the climate crisis?
NOTE: I was prompted to write this essay after serving on a panel of faith leaders at the 2016 conference of Citizens Climate Lobby in Washington, DC. The panel’s moderator, Peterson Toscano, asked two questions: What role(s) do you see faith communities take on in times of crisis? What tools does your faith tradition offer that can be used to address climate change? The four panelists included Dr. Steven Colecchi (Director of the Office of International Justice and Peace, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops), Rachel Lamb (National Organizer and Spokesperson, Young Evangelicals for Climate Action), Joelle Novey (Director, Greater Washington Interfaith Power and Light), and me. The hour was over well before we’d finished exploring the topic. This essay is a bid to extend the conversation.
The day before I got arrested, I woke up singing.
“Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around, turn me around, turn me around.
Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around.”
Resolve filled me as I sang my way through the tasks of the day, preparing for the morrow. Do you want to gather your courage? Lift your spirits? Find your true north? Stay the course? You get there by singing.
On the day I was arrested, I sang.
We all sang.
On May 25, a crowd of nearly 100 people gathered under a blue sky in a neighborhood of Boston, near the West Roxbury site of the “metering and regulating” station for Spectra Energy’s West Roxbury Lateral gas pipeline. We came to pray about our commitment to keep fossil fuels in the ground. We came to put our bodies on the line: sixteen leaders of different faith traditions were readying for civil disobedience to stop the pipeline. And we came to sing.
Shoshana Meira Friedman, Assistant Rabbi for Engagement at Temple Sinai in Brookline, took the lead in organizing our act of interfaith prayer and protest. In her strong soprano, accompanied by guitar, she launched the event with an anthem by Holly Near, “We are a gentle, angry people and we are singing, singing for our lives. We are all in this together, and we are singing, singing for our lives.”
Once you understand the urgency of avoiding climate chaos – once you grasp the need to keep fossil fuels in the ground, including natural gas – once you realize that climate change is already starting to unravel the web of life and that it harms the poor first and hardest – then you know it’s no exaggeration to say that we are singing and fighting for our lives.
And sing we did, updating the words of various songs as we went along.
“Ain’t gonna let no pipeline turn me around, turn me around, turn me around…”
“Ain’t gonna let no coal mine turn me around…”
“Ain’t gonna let the folks at FERC turn me around…” – “FERC” being the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, an agency notorious for rubberstamping pipeline industry requests for new pipelines, even if those pipelines cut through conservation areas, or leak methane (a greenhouse gas far more potent and deadly in the short term than carbon dioxide), or carry highly-pressurized, potentially explosive gas into an urban neighborhood like West Roxbury, alongside a quarry engaged in active blasting.
“Ain’t gonna let no fear turn me around…”
When we reached this verse, I planted my feet more firmly on the ground and raised my head. Of all the verses, this one is the most far-reaching. Fear is what prevents us from stepping outside our comfort zone and taking part in the struggle for a more just and sustainable society – for starters, fear of the unknown, fear of failure, fear of loss, fear of ridicule, and fear of bodily harm. The power of ordinary people seems puny when compared with the power of the political and corporate behemoths that rule the world. Why stick your neck out?
Yet there is no message that runs more frequently through the Bible than the message: “Fear not.” We hear it in the Old Testament: “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield” (Genesis 15:1). “Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the LORD will accomplish for you today” (Exodus 14:13). “The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear?” (Psalm 27:1). We hear it in the New Testament: “Do not be afraid: for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people” (Luke 2:10). “Take heart, it is I: do not be afraid” (Mark 6:50). “Perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18).
The first followers of Jesus clearly tapped into a source of love and power that gave them strength to challenge injustice. Apparently there were two basic ways of identifying Christians: you would know Christians by their love (John 13:35) and you would know them by their commitment to “turning the world upside down” (Acts 17:6). Not surprisingly, the first followers of Jesus seem to have spent a fair amount of time in jail. As my bishop, Douglas Fisher, recently put it, “When we follow Jesus, stuff is going to happen.” How would Christianity change today if it became normative for Christians to risk arrest in acts of peaceful resistance to fossil fuels?
The sixteen of us preparing to risk arrest came from a variety of denominations and traditions – American Baptist, Buddhist, Episcopal, Hindu, Jewish, Presbyterian, United Church of Christ, and Unitarian Universalist. We represented a range of diverse religions, yet all of us were drawing upon a holy power greater than our selves. All of us were rooted in a reality that transcends the rules and structures of this world. All of us were fired by the vision of a better world, by faith in the human spirit, and by faith that God would guide us to courageous and visionary action.
And all of us were willing to step past our fear and to put our bodies on the line.
Music helped us do that – so, after holding a worship service in front of the “metering and regulating” station, we made our way in procession up the street, following Rabbi Shoshana and singing all the way.
“The tide is rising, and so are we.
The tide is rising, and so are we.
The tide is rising, and so are we.
This is where we are called to be.
This is where we are called to be.”
(To watch a splendid videotape of this climate anthem written by Shoshana Meira Friedman and her husband Yotam Schachter, and performed at Washington National Cathedral by Rabbi Shoshana and Rev. Fred Small, visit here.)
When we reached the intersection of Grove and Washington Streets, we saw ahead of us the open trench where construction workers were installing the pipeline. The procession paused briefly on the sidewalk for a quick consultation and a quick in-breath of courage. Then we made a dash for the pit. I slid under the barrier and scrambled to a seated position, my legs dangling over the 12-foot trench.
There we stayed, the sixteen of us, sitting on the edge of the trench and taking turns calling out prayers and giving short, impassioned sermons about the moral call to stop climate change. Using prayers I’d drafted, we prayed for the construction workers, the police, and the neighborhood.
A Prayer for the Spectra Workers: Gracious God, we remember before you everyone who labors, and especially we pray for everyone working here at this construction site for Spectra Energy. We pray for their safety and well-being, and we pray for their families and loved ones. We thank you, God, for the dignity of work. We pray that, as our economy makes a swift transition from fossil fuels to clean, safe, renewable energy you will give us strength and resolve to ensure that workers everywhere share in a clean energy economy and enjoy fulfilling, safe, and well-paid jobs.
Prayer for the Police: Almighty God, we commend to your gracious care and keeping all the men and women who serve in law enforcement. Thank you for their calling to public service. Watch over all police officers; protect them from harm in the performance of their duty; give them compassion, good judgment and wisdom, and fill their spirit with a balance of strength and love.
Prayer for this Neighborhood: O God, you have bound us together in a common life. We pray for the neighborhood of West Roxbury: for its safety, beauty, and good health. We pray for all communities that are divided over whether and how to end our use of fossil fuels. Help us, in the midst of our struggles for a just and sustainable economy, to confront one another without hatred or bitterness, and to work together with mutual forbearance and respect.
When the police chief gave a five-minute warning that we would be arrested if we didn’t move, we stayed put. Instead, we read aloud together the words of Buddhist activist Joanna Macy (World as Lover, World As Self: Courage for Global Justice and Ecological Renewal, Parallax Press, 2007):
“When you make peace with uncertainty, you find a kind of liberation. You are freed from bracing yourselves against every piece of bad news, and from constantly having to work up a sense of hopefulness in order to act – which can be exhausting. There’s a certain equanimity and moral economy that comes when you are not constantly computing your chance of success. The enterprise is so vast, there is no way to judge the effects of this or that individual effort – or the extent to which it makes any difference at all. Once we acknowledge this, we can enjoy the challenge and the adventure. Then we can see that it is a privilege to be alive now in this Great Turning, when all the wisdom and courage ever harvested can be put to use.”
By the time the police came to put us in handcuffs and escort us to the vans, we were singing again.
“The tide is rising, and so are we.
The tide is rising, and so are we.
The tide is rising, and so are we.
This is where we are called to be.
This is where we are called to be.”
Even as we sat, handcuffed, in the dark recesses of the van, waiting to be driven to the police station, we could hear our supporters singing outside, as well as snatches of the impassioned, impromptu sermon being delivered on the edge of the pit by our friend Rev. Mariama White-Hammond.
It’s no wonder that singing filled the lives of our ancestors in the faith (see Matthew 26:30, 1 Corinthians 14:26, Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16). Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom (2 Corinthians 3:17). And where there is freedom or the longing to be free, you will find people singing.
As of today, there have been 85 arrests at the West Roxbury Lateral pipeline site. I am sure there will be more. Resist the Pipeline is organizing protests and providing training in civil disobedience. Better Future Project is planning a major march and action to stop new gas pipelines on July 14-18, which will include direct action at the pipeline construction in West Roxbury (for information and to register, visit here).
Meanwhile, fossil fuel resistance is growing worldwide. In recent weeks, thousands of people on six continents took coordinated, strategic action to stop fossil fuels. Through Clergy Climate Action, a new project of Climate Disobedience Center, clergy of many faiths have signed a pledge to participate in peaceful direct action to resist new fossil fuel development. I invite all religious leaders to endorse our statement. Here is the closing paragraph:
“As religious leaders, we oppose further development of fossil fuel resources and infrastructure in our nation. We envision a livable climate for our communities, for the poor, for our children, and for all life. We call for immediate and robust public investment in climate solutions, including large-scale renewable energy. We will resist new fossil fuel development through joyful, faithful, spirited, and nonviolent direct action.”
The day after I got arrested, I woke up singing.
“We will not give up the fight, we have only started, we have only started, we have only started.
We will not give up the fight. We have only started.”
The 16 religious leaders arrested in West Roxbury on May 25, 2016:
Rabbi Shoshana Meira Friedman, Assistant Rabbi, Temple Sinai, Brookline
Rev. Dr. Jim Antal, Conference Minister and President, Massachusetts Conference, United Church of Christ
Rev. Anne Bancroft, Minister, Theodore Parker Unitarian Universalist Church, West Roxbury
John Bell, Buddhist Dharma Teacher, Plum Village Tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh, Belmont
Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Ph.D., Missioner for Creation Care, Episcopal Diocese of Western Mass. & Mass. Conference, United Church of Christ
Rev. Heather Concannon, Assistant Minister of Youth and Families, Unitarian Universalist Area Church at First Parish, Sherborn
Cantor Roy Einhorn, Temple Israel of Boston
Rev. Rebecca Froom, Minister, United First Parish Church (Unitarian), Quincy
Rev. John Gibbons, Minister, The First Parish in Bedford
Dr. Rajesh Kasturirangan, South Asian Center, Cambridge
Rev. Rob Mark, Pastor, Church of the Covenant, PCUSA & UCC, Boston
Rev. Dr. Ian Mevorach, Co-founder and Minister of Common Street Spiritual Center in Natick
Rev. Martha Niebanck, Minister Emerita, First Church of Brookline
Rev. Elizabeth Nguyen, Leadership Development Associate for Youth and Young Adults of Color, Unitarian Universalist Association
Rev. Fred Small, Minister for Climate Justice, Arlington Street Church, Boston
Rev. Rali Weaver, Minister, First Church and Parish in Dedham
If you read only one article this month about climate change, read Bill McKibben’s essay on the chemistry and politics of fracking, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Chemistry.” “Our leaders thought fracking would save our climate. They were wrong. Very wrong.”
For an eloquent essay on the West Roxbury protest and why people of faith – indeed, all people – need to interrupt business as usual, read Wen Stephenson’s essay, “A Prayer for West Roxbury – and the World”
Wen Stephenson writes for The Nation and is the author of What We’re Fighting for Now Is Each Other: Dispatches From the Front Lines of Climate Justice (Beacon)
The Boston Globe, “Police break up protest at pipeline construction site”
The Jewish Advocate, “Clerical activism, public safety, climate change”
Mass. Conference, United Church of Christ, “Antal among 16 clergy arrested at pipeline protest”
Wicked Local, Natick, “16 clergy members arrested at West Roxbury Lateral gas pipeline protest”
Universal Hub, “Clergy arrested at West Roxbury pipeline protest”
Resist the Pipeline video clip (a short, powerful overview of the event)
YouTube video clips:
- 6-minute video of the worship and arrests
- 3-minute video by Robert A. Jonas of the initial singing and prayers near the compressor station at Centre and Grove Streets in W. Roxbury
- 9-minute video by Robert A. Jonas of the religious leaders coming through the barrier, sitting down at the trench, praying, singing, and preaching
Do you want to be made well?
I am blessed to worship with you this morning. Thank you, Cricket, for inviting me back to preach. The last time I was here, I served the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts as your Missioner for Creation Care, but since then my job has expanded: now I also serve as Missioner for Creation Care for the United Church of Christ in Massachusetts. As far as I know, I’m the only person who holds the same job in both the Episcopal and UCC Churches. To me, this joint position, is an emblem of good things to come. As we awaken to the climate crisis, Christians of every denomination – in fact, people of every faith – have a precious opportunity – even in the midst of our wonderful and colorful diversity – to pull together and to speak with one voice about the urgent need to safeguard the world that God entrusted to our care.Today’s Gospel text gives us a way to reflect on our call to protect and heal “this fragile Earth, our island home.” In a story from the Gospel of John, Jesus heals a paralyzed man whom he finds lying beside a pool. It is a quick little story – no more than nine sentences – so let’s pause to visualize the scene. The pool, called Beth-zatha, is located near one of the gates into Jerusalem. Years ago archaeologists actually located and excavated the pool. Apparently it was quite large and had four sides. Stairways were built in the corners of the pool, so that people could descend into the water, which may have been fed by springs that welled up at intervals. The bubbling waters were thought to have healing powers, and sick people – the blind, the lame, the paralyzed – came to the pool, believing that whenever the waters were stirred up, the first person to enter the pool would be cured of whatever sickness he or she had. That’s the scene. Here’s the story. A man who has been ill for thirty-eight years is lying near the pool on his mat. The story doesn’t say how long he has been waiting to get into the water, but it does say that he has been there “a long time” (John 5:6). What do you imagine this man is going through, as he lies paralyzed for so long beside the pool? As I imagine it, he feels helpless. The waters that can heal him are close by, but out of reach. What can heal him is way over there, separated from him, at some distance away, and he can’t move toward it. He can’t reach it. He can’t get there. He is cut off from the source of healing, and he is utterly paralyzed. What’s more, he is cut off from the people around him, too, as he competes with the crowd to be the first to get into the pool when the waters bubble up. Who knows what he is feeling, but I would guess anxiety, frustration, desperation, even despair – all those painful, negative feelings that get stirred up when we feel helpless, vulnerable, and alone. Now of course we can take the story literally, as a story about physical illness, but in John’s Gospel every story has an imaginative or symbolic dimension, too. When I imagine my way into this story and hear it in the context of climate change, all kinds of connections start playing in my mind. I start thinking about the ways the world’s web of life needs healing – about the alarming levels of carbon dioxide now pouring into the global atmosphere as coal, gas, and oil continue to be burned, about the oceans heating up and becoming more acidic, about the rising seas that could flood, disrupt, and even take down our country’s coastal cities within the lifetime of our children. I think about the new report saying that continued burning of fossil fuels could cause great swaths of the Pacific Ocean to suffocate from lack of oxygen in only 15 years. I think about the 93% of coral reefs that just bleached in the Great Barrier Reef of Australia. March 2016 was the hottest month ever recorded, which crushed the record set in February, which crushed the record set in January, which crushed the record set in December. A recent article in the Washington Post bears the title, “Scientists Are Floored by What’s Happening in the Arctic Right Now.” When we hear news like this about our ailing planet, it’s easy to stop listening. It’s too much to take in, so we shut down. We may feel paralyzed by anxiety or paralyzed by grief. Like that man beside the Beth-zatha pool, we may feel immobilized and overwhelmed. How can this dire news be true, and how can we possibly respond? Where can we turn for help and healing when our planet is on track to catapult into climate chaos caused by an ever-expanding economic system that runs on fossil fuels? People the world over can become so gripped by fear, anger, and despair that they feel unable to imagine, much less create, a better future, so they just carry on with business as usual. It’s as if we can fall under a spell and make what U.N. Secretary General Ban-ki Moon calls a “global suicide pact.” So please turn with me again to our Gospel story. Jesus comes upon this scene of the blind, lame, and paralyzed beside the pool, and, the story tells us, “When Jesus saw [the man] lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, ‘Do you want to be made well?’” (John 5:6). That single sentence says a lot. The first step in this miracle of healing is that Jesus saw the man and knew him. John’s Gospel underscores again and again that when Jesus sees us and knows us, he sees and knows us through and through, more widely and deeply than we know ourselves. He looks deeply into us with eyes of love, with eyes that see the whole truth of who we are, and that perceive everything in us, everything about us, with loving-kindness and compassion. When we open ourselves to Jesus or to our Creator God in prayer, we open ourselves to the One “unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid” (Collect for Purity). In prayer, we turn toward the Holy Presence who searches for truth deep within and whose loving embrace encompasses everything we are, everything we feel. That is the first step in today’s healing miracle: Jesus sees and knows. The second step in healing is his question, “Do you want to be made well?” That is a surprising question. We might have expected Jesus to take one look at the situation, pick up the man without a word, carry him straight to the pool of healing water, and slide him in. Why waste time? Why bother asking such an obvious question? When someone is hungry, you offer food to eat; when someone is thirty, you offer drink. Why mess around asking questions? But Jesus’ question reveals something important. The God we meet in Jesus does not force or push, even when it comes to healing. The God we meet in Jesus is deeply respectful of our freedom and gives us space in which to choose. It seems that in order for real healing to take place and new life to spring forth, God’s desire to heal us must meet our own desire to be healed. Do you want to be made well? It is not just a rhetorical question with a pro forma answer. The question invites the man paralyzed beside the pool to explore his desires and to clarify what he truly wants. Regarding the climate crisis, do I really want to be made well? Well, yes and no. Part of me prefers to stay blind, to close my eyes, duck my head, and turn my attention to more manageable things. Part of me prefers to come up with lame solutions: OK, I’ll change the light bulbs, but that’s it, I’ve done my part. Part of me feels paralyzed: I’m no expert; I’m too small to make a difference; surely someone else will take charge and figure this out. How does the man by the pool reply to Jesus? “‘Sir,’ [the man says,] ‘I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me’” (John 5:7). Jesus’ response is powerful and short: “‘Stand up, take your mat and walk.’ And at once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk” (John 5:8-9). What just happened? How did the healing miracle take place? I can’t explain it. But as I imagine it, as Jesus gazed on the man with those piercing, loving eyes that saw and knew and loved him through and through, and when Jesus asked him the probing question, “Do you want to be made well?,” in a flash of insight the man could admit his own halfheartedness and mixed motives and the ways he’d been holding back. I imagine that he felt his deep-down desire to be whole and free, his longing to love and be loved, his longing to draw close to God and to serve God “with gladness and singleness of heart.” So I imagine him claiming his deepest desire and turning to Jesus to say, “Yes, I want be fully alive. I want to fall in love with life, to give myself in love to each moment without holding anything back. I want God’s healing power to flow through me, so that I heal others and so that I, too, am healed.” The Gospel does not record that conversation, but I imagine it happening non-verbally by glance and gesture, as the sick man looked up at Jesus and said, without words, “Yes, I want to be made well.” “Stand up,” Jesus said, “and walk.” And he did. And so can we. Amazing things happen when we join our deep desire for healing with God’s deep desire to heal. When I look around, I see a planet in peril, but – thanks be to God! – I also see people shaking off their paralysis, reaching deep into their souls, and accessing their deep, God-given desire to love and serve life. I see people standing up to join the struggle to maintain a habitable planet and to create a just and sustainable future. I see a wave of religious protest and activism rising up around the world, as people refuse to settle for a killing status quo and declare that climate change is a spiritual and moral issue that must be tackled boldly and without delay. Just think of all the signs we see of a growing movement that is pushing for a new social order. We see people blocking the path of new fracked gas pipelines and being arrested for civil disobedience as they read aloud from Pope Francis’ encyclical. We see people lobbying for a fair price on carbon, so that we can build a clean green economy that provides decent jobs and improves public health. We see our own Episcopal Church deciding to divest from fossil fuels, since it makes no financial or moral sense to invest in companies that are ruining the planet. We see new coalitions being formed and new alliances being forged, as people realize that the environmental crisis is closely connected with the social crises of poverty, income inequality, and racial injustice. Right here in Massachusetts we have a strong grassroots climate action network, 350Mass for a Better Future, which has a node right here in the Berkshires. I’ve left a clipboard at the back of the church, and if you sign up for the weekly newsletter or attend a node meeting, you’ll connect with a vibrant local effort. I’m also part of a new group, Massachusetts Interfaith Coalition for Climate Action, or “MAICCA” for short, which is bringing together people of different religious traditions to advocate on Beacon Hill for legislation that supports climate justice. I hope you’ll sign up for MAICCA’s newsletter, too, for we are fighting to keep fossil fuels in the ground and to accelerate a transition to clean, safe, renewable sources of energy, such as sun and wind, that are accessible to all communities, including those that are low-income or historically underserved. As climate activist Bill McKibben points out, “The fight for a just world is the same as the fight for a livable one.” The Church was made for a time like this – a time when God calls human beings to know that we belong to one Earth, that we form one human family, and that God entrusted the Earth and all its residents to our care. One last word about our Gospel story: notice that the man didn’t need to be immersed in the pool of Beth-zatha in order to be healed. In Jesus’ presence, the man discovered that the healing spring was not outside him – it was inside him, just as it is inside us. As Jesus told the woman at the well (John 4:1-26), Jesus gives us water that becomes in us a “spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (John 4:14). Even in troubled and scary times, we have everything we need. The healing pool is within us; the spring of healing is already bubbling up; and Jesus will nourish us with his presence in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. In the strength of that bread and wine and through the power of the Spirit, we can be healed from paralysis and become healers and justice-makers in a world that is crying out for our care.
1. The Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to John (I-XII), introduction, translation, and notes by Raymond E. Brown, S.S., Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1966, pp. 206-207.
Sometimes I am perfectly capable of scanning large swathes of bad news with aplomb, keeping my feelings at bay. I know how to brace myself before I open the morning paper, turn on the TV, or scan the news online. OK, world, I’m ready! Bring it on! Give me the latest list of apocalyptic woes! I can take it! I can handle it without blinking an eye!
But then comes a story about one small bird.
Researchers have confirmed the first death from malaria of a loon in New Hampshire. As the global climate heats up, diseases of the south, including malaria, are marching north. Although human beings are not susceptible to avian malaria, this tropical disease could have “devastating impacts” on birds with no natural resistance. To find a bird killed by malaria in the northern reaches of New England is a foreboding discovery. As one researcher observed, “This might be a canary in a coal mine situation.”
The metaphor is apt. In the old days coal miners would bring a caged canary into the mine to provide advance warning if dangerous gases like methane or carbon monoxide were building up. A canary is sensitive. A sickened or dead canary warned miners to take action quickly lest they, too, breathe their last. Today the whole world is in “a coal mine situation,” for extracting dirty fuels like coal, gas, and oil is releasing dangerous amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, disrupting the delicate balance of the climate and threatening the web of life.
A loon is our canary today. News that a loon has died from malaria spread by climate change stops me in my tracks, appalled. I love loons. Summer by summer our family spends a week in New Hampshire beside a lake. Loons’ haunting cries erupt in the night, thrilling and wild. During the day we watch for loons as we paddle our canoes, and if we spot one – precious sight! – we pause to let the boat drift so as not to disturb these shy birds. I am not a scientist, and I can’t describe how loons contribute to the intricate balance of life in the lakes and woods of northern New England nor how their loss would affect the ecosystem, but I do know that losing the loons would somehow empty the lake, leave an aching muteness in the air, and tear a hole in my heart.
I weep for loons.
Can we grieve the losses brought about by a changing climate? I raised that question last week with Episcopal clergy from the Diocese of Delaware when we gathered for a three-day retreat in Pennsylvania at Pendle Hill, a Quaker center for study and contemplation. We talked about how easy it is, in the face of the danger and loss brought on by climate change, to go numb, change the subject, minimize the threat, and find a way to distance and distract ourselves. Most of us don’t challenge outright the science of climate change – we know it’s real, we know that human activities account for most of it, we know it’s already having profound, damaging, and sometimes irreversible effects worldwide. But most of us do engage in a kind of everyday climate denial: we avoid thinking about it. We consider it someone else’s problem. As the Australian ethicist Clive Hamilton points out in Requiem for a Species, we resist the truth about climate change for all kinds of reasons:
“Sometimes facing up to the truth is just too hard. When the facts are distressing it is easier to reframe or ignore them. Around the world only a few have truly faced up to the facts about global warming… It’s the same with our own deaths; we all ‘accept’ that we will die, but it is only when our death is imminent that we confront the true meaning of our mortality.”
When the full truth of the climate crisis finally breaks through our defenses, we experience what one journalist has called the “Oh shit” moment we all must have. Our denial breaks down. We realize that the people we want to ridicule as “alarmists” are conveying news that is both terrifying and true.
I remember exactly where I was when I had my “Oh shit” moment. It was a warm July night in 2002 and I was standing on the edge of Thompson Island, looking out over Boston Harbor. I was deep into an intensive weekend conference on the science and politics of climate change. I had spent the last couple of days jotting down facts about droughts and floods, sea levels and hurricanes, the connection between a warming world and a rise in infectious disease. I’d taken notes on the extreme social disruptions likely to be unleashed by global climate change, on the millions of refugees that would go in search of food and water, on the wars that could erupt over increasingly scarce natural resources.
I had taken in all the facts I could, I had fought valiantly against the temptation to daydream or space out, and now I was reeling. Deeply shaken, I stepped outside into the dark. I stood in silence for a while, breathing the night air. The whole planet seemed to be tilting under the stars, as if the ground were shifting beneath my feet. The old world I’d lived in was gone.
I tried that night to assimilate what I’d heard, to regain my balance, and to find my way back to God. That night I tried to sleep. The next morning I went looking for Paul Epstein, the doctor from Harvard Medical School whose presentation on climate had so overwhelmed me. I carried my breakfast tray to his table and asked if I could have a word with him. I told him how stunned I was by what he had told us.
“How do you bear it?” I asked him. “What do you do with your feelings?”
“I don’t get into my feelings,” he told me. “I focus on what I can do.”
Thus Dr. Epstein taught me one of the options after our denial breaks down: we can get busy and focus on action. His comment reminded me of what labor organizer Joe Hill reportedly said before he died, “Don’t mourn. Organize.” Some of us definitely prefer not to mourn. Most of us, in fact, prefer to engage our painful emotions as little as possible. We lock them away or we leapfrog over them. After all, we don’t want to look morbid, weak, or sentimental. Or we may dodge our feelings for fear of being overcome by anxiety or despair, or of drowning in sorrow. We may fear that experiencing our emotions will become a substitute for action or even sabotage our capacity to act. And you can’t argue with the fact that taking action is essential. In the midst of the battle to protect life as it has evolved on this planet, we do need to act. We do need levelheaded leaders who can say, This is what we must do. Let’s go.
Yet I’m convinced that for the long haul we also need to notice and experience what we feel. Is not grief a way of expressing love? Is not anger a natural response to injustice? Doesn’t learning how to ride the energies of grief and anger in a skillful way bring forth actions more likely to be wise, compassionate, and effective?
By the time that long-ago weekend workshop was over and the ferry was carrying us back to shore, I realized that I had no wish – indeed, no ability – to take action regarding the climate crisis unless I gave myself permission along the way to notice what I was feeling. After all – I’m a recovering addict. Nearly 35 years of recovery have shown me the value of respecting my emotional life: listening inwardly and honoring, even befriending, what I feel prevents me from careening into compulsive and willful behavior.
I was beginning to clarify my own approach to living with what James Howard Kunstler has since called “the long emergency,” that extensive period we are now entering, in which human beings must deal with a host of coinciding global problems, from climate change to water scarcity and economic instability. Yes, we will need to master the facts and to understand what we’re facing as accurately as we can. Yes, we will need to take action, and to do it together, building community as we go. But I would add this, too: we will also need to stay in touch with our feelings, to give ourselves room to protest and to grieve, to mark what we have lost and to name what we hope to preserve. I, at least, need such a space as a creature needs air.
So, in the course of last week’s retreat with the clergy of Delaware, we spent an evening session talking about our heartbreak. We reflected on the crucifixion of the Earth and on where we hear the groaning of God’s Creation. Then each of us took a piece of paper and a handful of oil pastels and spread out around the room to draw whatever came to us – perhaps a prayer, a poem of protest or grief, a confession of guilt, a plea for forgiveness, or a cry for help. As soft music played, each of us confronted and gave form to our pain. When we had finished our drawings, we placed them on the floor around the altar and talked about what the prayer exercise had been like and where we find hope. Tomorrow morning we would go ahead and focus on what we could do, but tonight we would pause to honor our pain.
When Lazarus died, Jesus wept (John 11:35). After pausing to feel his love and sorrow, Jesus performed a mighty act. He brought forth life out of death. He prayed to God and called out to Lazarus, and Lazarus stepped out from the tomb.
I don’t know if we’ll be able to prevent catastrophic climate change, but I do know this: When we mourn the losses caused by a disrupted climate, even a loss apparently as small as the perishing of a loon, we immerse ourselves in the love that will never let us go. Besides, God seems to have a soft spot for birds. The Bible offers images of God resembling a dove (Matthew (3:16), a hen (Matthew 23:37), and an eagle (Exodus 19:4), and, as the Gospel song puts it, “His eye is on the sparrow.” (To hear a wonderful performance by Lauryn Hill and Tanya Blount, turn up the volume and visit here.) Grieving can be a sacred act. By the grace of God, grief can reconnect us with the love that brings forth life, the imperishable love that creates, redeems, and sustains. With that love breathing through us, who knows what we’ll accomplish together?
Here is a poem by Elizabeth Cunningham that I shared at the retreat.
You can only pray what’s in your heart.
So if your heart is being ripped from your chest
Pray the tearing
if your heart is full of bitterness
pray it to the last dreg
if your heart is a river gone wild
pray the torrent
or a lava flow scorching the mountain
pray the fire
pray the scream in your heart
the fanning bellows
pray the rage, the murder
and the mourning
pray your heart into the great quiet hands that can hold it
like the small bird it is.
On Day #3 of a four-day, 46-mile walk to stop the construction of the Kinder Morgan NED pipeline, scores of activists gathered in the sanctuary of St. James Episcopal Church in Greenfield, Massachusetts, for a spirited rally organized by Sugar Shack Alliance. St. James Church is a grand old beauty of a building, a neo-Gothic stone structure that was consecrated in 1849. The sanctuary buzzed with excitement as a diverse crowd took their seats, many of them walkers eager for encouragement after a long day of tracing the route of the proposed pipeline on foot.
As a Christian climate activist, I found it stirring to realize that the rally was taking place on the eve of Palm Sunday, the day that Christians around the world step into Holy Week. Here were the stately altar and lectern arrayed in cloths of traditional red colors for tomorrow’s service, yet here, too, were banners draped across altar, pulpit and lectern, crying out in large letters: “No Prisons, No Pipeline. Shut It Down,” “Respect Existence, Expect Resistance,” and “Love Will Win.”
At first I was startled to see these messages spread out across the sacred space, but then I realized that their meaning was exactly right and resonated with Palm Sunday: we were here to celebrate non-violent confrontation with unjust power. On Palm Sunday, Christians remember Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and the cheering crowds that cast palm branches on the ground to welcome him. Jesus was on a collision course with imperial Rome and all the powers of this world that rule by force and domination. He came to proclaim the power of God’s love. He came without armor or weapons, riding not a war-horse but a humble donkey, as the prophet Zechariah foretold: the king of peace would come on a donkey (Zechariah 9:9-10).
I think that Jesus would rejoice in the wave of non-violent action against fossil fuels that is rising up around the country. Growing numbers of individuals and groups are confronting the unjust political and corporate powers that hold society – and the very Earth itself – in a deathly grip. Resistance to fracked gas is mounting, from Seattle to Seneca Lake, from Ashland, Oregon to Ashfield, Mass., where last week Will Elwell, a local resident, constructed with his friends a replica of Thoreau’s Walden Pond cabin, placing it directly in the path of the proposed Kinder Morgan pipeline. On the eastern side of Massachusetts, in the West Roxbury neighborhood of metropolitan Boston, activists are fighting to stop the construction of the Spectra Energy pipeline project, which would bring highly pressurized fracked gas through a densely populated area and terminate at a station beside an active blast quarry.
Whatever our faith tradition, the resolve to stand up for life and to resist a deathly status quo springs from a deep place in the human spirit. So I was grateful to have a chance to offer a brief word of blessing as the rally began. Looking out at the faces of all these good people who long as ardently as I do for a more just, peaceful, and sustainable world, I invited the crowd into a spirit of prayer. I called upon the Spirit of love, the divine Mystery that we call by many names, and I prayed to God:
“Through our own experience and in the words of your prophet Isaiah, we know that:
Those who hope in you
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint (Isaiah 40:31).
“Thank you for the love that you pour into our hearts through the power of your Spirit (Romans 5:5).
“Thank you for your power working in us that can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20).”
I asked God’s blessing on each person present and on the great work that we’ve been called to do.
After that, speakers came forward to articulate a particular argument for keeping so-called “natural” gas in the ground. Why were we struggling to block this pipeline? Because of our right to clear air and clean water. Because of the risk to public health from leaks and explosions. Because of conservation areas – farms and forests, scenic trails, wetlands, and rivers – that must remain intact. Because in Article 97 the constitution of our Commonwealth protects conservation lands and open space (a provision that the Tennessee Gas Pipeline Company is challenging aggressively in court). Because forced surveys of land violate the Fourth Amendment and constitute “unreasonable search and seizure.” Because we are committed to a clean energy economy. Because it is reckless to invest another dime in new fossil fuel infrastructure. Because we are pushing hard to avert catastrophic climate change.
I was particularly touched by the remarks of cultural anthropologist Lisa McLaughlin of the Nolumbeka Project, who spoke about the ancient Native American burial grounds that must not be disturbed. She pointed out that in addition to the particular places that Native American tribes deem sacred, the whole landscape has its own “naturally sacred geography.” For Native Americans, she said, the struggle against the pipeline represents a clash of cultural values: one set of values considers the Earth to be profane and dead, with humanity entitled to dominate and exploit, and the other set of values views the Earth as sacred and alive, with humanity existing as part of nature.
The latter understanding is the perspective that Pope Francis lifted up in his encyclical Laudato Si, which in many ways draws from the best of the Judaeo-Christian tradition. A recent sermon by Br. Keith Nelson, SSJE, conveys beautifully this way of seeing the world. He writes: “We must become students of the air, the soil, the waters, the birds and beasts, whose simple being is prayer. From them, we must re-learn how to live well and live deeply in union with the Creator.”
People who protest gas pipelines, compressor stations, fracking wells, and other extreme forms of energy extraction are people who understand that human beings are connected to the larger web of life. We have a moral responsibility to bless the Earth and its inhabitants rather than to desecrate, destroy, and demean what has been entrusted to us.
The need to keep fossil fuels in the ground is urgent. February 2016 was the hottest of any month ever recorded, which crushed the record set in January, which crushed the record set in December. A recent climate report in the Washington Post bears the title, “Scientists Are Floored by What’s Happening in the Arctic Right Now.” Last year, 2015, was the hottest year on record.
In the face of the profound assault now being unleashed on our planet, what are we called to do? Once we know that “the heat accumulating in the Earth because of human emissions is roughly equal to the heat that would be released by 400,000 Hiroshima atomic bombs exploding across the planet every day,” what changes do you and I need to make in our work and witness?
On Palm Sunday Jesus rode into Jerusalem with no army except a crowd of supporters and a handful of friends, most of whom soon melted away into the darkness, betraying him, denying him, or simply fleeing. He rode with no weapon but the weapon of truth, no power but the power of mercy, no strength but the strength of love. He entered the city with no weapon, and yet, the Gospel tells us, “the whole city was in turmoil” (Mathew 21:10) – it was shaken. The Greek word used here is one that describes an earthquake. The powers-that-be in this world are shaken up when the king of peace rides into town, when he rides into the boardrooms and back rooms of our country, when he rides into our hearts. There is an upheaval in the center of reality.
This is the holy upheaval that I glimpse in the climate movement. Some of us may suffer as Jesus suffered – indeed, the environmental activist for human rights and indigenous rights, Berta Caceres, was martyred in Honduras on March 3, 2016. We don’t know if our own efforts will succeed any more than Jesus’ did. After all, Jesus’ life apparently ended in failure: just days after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, he was arrested, tortured, and crucified.
Yet faith beckons us to stand with Jesus against the power of Empire. And faith tells us that if we live in the spirit of Jesus, we, too, will be raised to new life in him. I grinned when I saw the “Cabin Raising” sign on the corner of Beldingville Road, pointing the way to the Thoreau-inspired cabin to protest the pipeline. On the sign, someone had crossed out “raising” and scribbled “raised.” Yes, that cabin has gotten raised, all right, and so have our spirits. A week after Palm Sunday, Christians will proclaim on Easter morning that Christ has risen. That is why we join the Jesus Movement: because we believe that love, not death, will have the last word. Because we know that those who hope in God will renew their strength; they will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.
On December 12, 2015, the same day that nearly 200 nations adopted a historic pledge to lower their carbon emissions, more than two thousand people from across New England marched and rallied in Boston in the biggest climate justice demonstration that the city has ever seen. A wide range of groups were represented, including, among others, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Maine’s Penobscot Tribe, National Nurses United, New Bedford Worker Center, 350 Massachusetts, Mothers Out Front, and Climate Action NOW. I spoke on behalf of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts and the newly formed MA Interfaith Coalition for Climate Action. The crowd cheered when I mentioned that faith groups are involved in the climate justice movement.
Whatever mood you were in, there was a banner or a sign to express it: sarcastic (Billionaires for Fossil Fuels) and mournful (Where have all the icebergs gone?), winsome (Save the Earth: It’s the only planet with music) and worried (It’s December and I’m wearing a T-shirt), urgent (Climate delay = global collapse) and resolute (System change, not climate change).
We started with a rally at the Parkman Bandstand on the Boston Common, but we didn’t just stand around, listening to speeches: accompanied by a marching band, we also chanted and sang our way through the streets of Boston. After marching for a mile and half, we held a closing rally in front of the State House. (For Michael Horan’s brief video montage of the march, visit here.)
The U.N. climate deal is an historic first: countries have pledged to rein in their carbon emissions and have expressed an aspiration to limit global warming to no more than 2 degrees and maybe even 1.5 degrees Celsius above average temperatures at the start of the Industrial Revolution. Yet the pledges are voluntary, and, even if carried out, insufficient to avert catastrophe. As Bill McKibben quickly observed in the New York Times, “we need to build the movement even bigger in the coming years, so that the Paris agreement turns into a floor and not a ceiling for action.” In a separate article for Grist, McKibben commented that although the international climate pact gives us reasons to be cynical, we still have reasons to hope: we must build a movement to hold countries to their promises (“What, you want to build a pipeline? I thought you were going to go for 1.5 degrees. You want to frack? Are you fracking kidding me? You said you were going for 2 degrees at the absolute worst.”)
Meeting the 1.5 or even 2-degree target will not be easy, McKibben writes in yet another article (boy, he is fast), “given that we’re currently on track for between 4C and 5C. Our only hope is to decisively pick up the pace. In fact, pace is now the key word for climate. Not where we’re going, but how fast we’re going there. Pace – velocity, speed, rate, momentum, tempo. That’s what matters from here on in.”
One of my favorite placards at the Boston rally proclaimed:
3500-2500 B.C. Bronze Age
1800-2015 A.D. Fossil Fuel Age
Do we believe that 2015 marks the end of the Fossil Fuel Age? That’s what the U.N. climate deal in Paris has promised. But that promise won’t come true all by itself. If we want it to come true and are serious about wanting to preserve a habitable world, we’ll have to work for it – to organize, lobby, vote, pray, invent, create, protest, and push – to do it together and do it fast.
We’ll do it because we’re committed to the message proclaimed by another sign:
Love will win.
Here is the speech I gave at the rally in front of the State House:
Friends, I am thrilled to be with you today as we express our shared commitment to a world that works for everyone.
We walked a fair distance to get here, and I invite you to take a moment to feel the sensation of your feet making contact with the ground. Feel the support of the earth under your feet, and let’s notice for a moment that whoever we are – wherever we come from, whatever we do for a living, whatever the color of our skin, whatever our religion or political party, we all stand on one earth. We have just one home, this home, this beloved planet on which all life depends.
I invite you to take a couple of deep breaths and to notice that wherever you’re standing, whether you’re up front or in the middle or the edge of the crowd, we’re all breathing the same air. We’re all immersed in the one atmosphere that we share, taking into our lungs the one flowing mix of gases that encircles the globe and sustains life in every creature that breathes.
We stand on one world and we breathe the one air. That may seem completely obvious, but we’re living in a time when all kinds of forces want to tear us apart – to separate us from each other and to pit us against each other us on the basis of race or class or religion, gender, nationality, or the status of our citizenship. We’re living in a time when all kinds of forces want to make us suspicious or contemptuous or afraid of each other. Some of these forces come from within us, and some from outside us; and it is our great challenge to stand strong and to say No to hatred, and Yes to love and compassion.
So we have gathered in our glorious diversity – people from all walks of life, people of different ages, backgrounds, and experiences – to stand together, shoulder to shoulder. We need each other. We belong to each other. The only way to create a just and sustainable world is to create that world together.
Each of us may bring to the table a particular concern, such as labor or health or poverty or racism or immigration or human rights or the environment, but we know that these supposedly separate issues are in fact deeply connected. We will only find a path forward if we walk that path together – if we reach out to each other, and show up for each other, and work together to heal our shared planet from the threat of climate chaos and social chaos.
I’m glad we’re standing in front of the State House, for we have many legislative battles ahead of us as we fight to keep fossil fuels in the ground. I’m especially glad to be standing with other founding members of the brand-new Massachusetts Interfaith Coalition for Climate Action. We are committed to an energy future based on clean, safe renewable energy such as sun and wind. Just as important, we are committed to a human future based on justice and compassion. In a society that too often treats people like objects, and corporations like people, we intend to lift up the deep wisdom found at the heart of every religion: the Earth and all its residents are sacred.
We call upon the power of love, the sacred power that created all things and that holds all things together. With that love in our hearts, we stand strong on this good earth. We breathe deep of this sweet air. And we commit ourselves to walk this walk together.
Some people named the week beginning September 21, 2015, the Week of Moral Action for Climate Justice. Others called it Pope Week. I want to call it Watershed Week: the week when Americans streamed to Washington, D.C., New York City, and Philadelphia, like rivers pouring through a watershed, eager to hear Pope Francis speak about our call to love each other and all Creation. The week was a watershed in another sense, too: a turning point where everything changed.
I spent most of that week in D.C., swimming through crowds and participating in prayer vigils, concerts, strategy sessions, and rallies. On Monday I gave the opening prayer at the National Prayer Breakfast on Creation Care, an annual event organized by the National Religious Coalition on Creation Care (NRCCC). NRCCC is composed of members of all the major religious groups in America, including Catholics and Protestants, Jews and Muslims, Evangelicals and Orthodox Christians. Joined in prayer, and united with people of every religious tradition, we advocate for a right relationship to God’s creation.
Over the summer I’d taken the lead in composing letters from NRCCC to President Obama and to members of Congress about the moral and religious call to address the climate crisis, and on Monday we officially released the letters and began delivering them to members of Congress. (The NRCCC press release is here.)
The Open Letter to President Obama focuses on actions he can take without approval of Congress, such as becoming an advocate for a carbon tax, modifying the Trans-Pacific Partnership, rejecting the Keystone XL Pipeline, and rejecting new coal leases on public lands. The letter urges the President to adopt the language of “emergency” whenever he speaks about climate change, and “to mobilize the nation with the same focus and determination with which we mobilized during World War II, so that we reach 100 percent renewable energy in two or three decades.”
We were gratified to hear from the Council on Environmental Quality that the letter was shared widely with the White House climate team. Maybe it will make some waves.
On Tuesday a group of NRCCC members headed to the State Department to meet with Karen Florini, Deputy Special Envoy on Climate Change, and Amy Willis, in the Secretary’s Office for Religion and Global Affairs. With only two months to go until the crucial international climate talks in Paris, we wanted to express in the strongest possible terms our desire for bold leadership by the United States. Ms. Florini welcomed our faith-rooted advocacy – she herself is a person of faith – and we talked about how to push for effective climate action both at home and abroad in the midst of an obstructionist Congress. As she put it, “We are under active political assault.” (Learn more about the visit here.)
From the State Department we headed to the Senate Building to meet with the legal counsel of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. We gave him an earful about the moral mandate to tackle the climate crisis, citing science and Scripture, ethics and economics. In turn, we listened to his concerns about unemployment in Kentucky and the future of coal. A member of our group pointed out, “Coal is over.” So the question becomes: can Republicans and Democrats work together to make a swift and just transition to a new economy based on clean energy? That is something to work and pray for.
Wednesday began with an interfaith coalition of climate leaders meeting over breakfast with the staff of ecoAmerica. EcoAmerica has been instrumental in developing best practices for climate communication, and its Blessed Tomorrow campaign is mobilizing faith communities to engage in the struggle to stabilize the climate. The offices of ecoAmerica happen to be directly across the street from St. Matthew’s Cathedral, where Pope Francis spoke for one hour to Roman Catholic bishops and cardinals. We relished having the chance to see the Pope as he entered and left the sanctuary.
On Wednesday night I joined a large group on the steps of John Marshall Park near the National Mall to mark the end of Yom Kippur. At the start of Yom Kippur the night before, Rabbi Mordechai Liebling had delivered a powerful sermon that called for atonement – At-One-Ment – with the Earth and each other, a watershed moment that can only take place when we “feel in our hearts and know in our guts that what happens to the oceans, to the forests, to other species, to other people is also happening to us.”
A multi-faith prayer vigil completed the marking of Yom Kippur, and I gave the opening prayer, lifting up Jesus’ cry from the cross as the cry of the Earth-community.
“Why have you forsaken me?” We hear that cry
in the din of collapsing glaciers as they tumble into the sea,
in the crash of forests as they are felled,
and in the blast of mountaintops as they are blown open for extraction of
“Why have you forsaken me?” We hear that cry
in the murmur of refugees searching for water in lands scorched dry,
in the diminishing bleats and roars and chirps worldwide as species go extinct,
one by one,
and in the silence of dying coral reefs as they bleach in acid seas.
At the foot of the cross, we hear the cry of all humanity, and especially the poor, as the climate crisis unfolds around us.
We hear the groaning of all Creation: “Why have you forsaken me?”
The prayer ended with an appeal for divine mercy, asking God to empower us not to forsake each other, but instead to stand with the vulnerable, the poor, and the living world around us. Receiving God’s forgiveness and accepting our interconnection with all Creation can be a watershed moment. The dusk drew shadows around us; above us, the stars began to shine. (The complete prayer is here. )
On Thursday morning, I joined thousands of people at a reserved area on the lawn in front of the Capitol Building, to listen and watch on large screens as Pope Francis addressed a joint session of Congress. Eventually I moved further back on the National Mall to participate in the Moral Action on Climate Justice Rally, which featured lively music, speakers, and a diverse throng of activists. On either side of the stage stretched two long banners in English and in Spanish, quoting from the papal encyclical: Hear the cry of the Earth. Hear the cry of the poor.
A hush settled over the crowd as the Pope began to speak. In a world where so many leaders speak rapidly and evasively, bending the truth to suit their needs and using their words to dominate opponents, defend a narrow, partisan agenda, and push for power, it was rare and sweet to hear a leader speak slowly, truthfully, and from the heart, excluding no one and welcoming everyone. Here was a person whose humility evoked our own basic goodness as human beings, reminding us that in fact we are connected to each other, we do care about the Earth and each other, we do have the capacity to be good, we do have the power to work together and to do the right thing. Was I the only listener moved to tears? I doubt it.
After the Pope left Capitol Hill, I lingered for a while at the rally to meet with friends, old and new. Activist and writer Ted Glick was on the penultimate day of an 18-day, water-only Fast for New Permits, organized by Beyond Extreme Energy. The fast targeted the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which essentially rubber-stamps approval for gas pipelines. Ted, looking tired but resolute, cited Gandhi’s insight that “fasting is the sincerest form of prayer.”
That night I made my way on foot to the National Cathedral (forget driving – roads were closed because the president of China was on his way into town). “Coming Together in Faith on Climate” brought together Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and other national religious leaders to express interfaith and ecumenical support of the Pope’s call to action on climate and Creation care. The Episcopal Church’s Presiding Bishop spoke eloquently, and, with the other faith leaders, committed to five initiatives to address global climate change.
As leaders of many faiths were endorsing and amplifying the Pope’s message in Washington, D.C., so, too, countless communities beyond Washington, D.C., were also bearing witness to the moral imperative to create a just and sustainable world. Take, for instance, Springfield, Massachusetts, where, on the same day that the Pope addressed Congress, a rally was held at City Hall to support funding for a climate justice office. Bishop Doug Fisher of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts gave a rousing speech.
I’ve been part of the religious climate movement for many years, but I’ve never experienced as deep and wide an awakening to the urgent call to stand up for life as I did last week. In order to give our children a livable planet, we need the vision and passion of people of faith – people who can see the long view, not just short-term quarterly or annual reports; people who care about the homeless, hungry, and poor, not just about elites; people who understand that the web of life is a gift to be protected, not a commodity to be exploited and destroyed; people who place their hope not in the promise of success but in the faithfulness of God.
People like that are rising up on every side. The image of a watershed may fit this moment in history, but, so, too, does the image of a rising tide. I look back on last week as a watershed moment, because around me and within me I sense a rising tide of activism, resolve, and love.
The most inspiring climate song I’ve yet heard was written by Rabbi Shoshana Meira Friedman and Yotam Schachter, and first performed by Rabbi Shoshana and Rev. Fred Small on September 20 – just in time for that pivotal week. They also went on to perform it at the National Cathedral on Thursday night.
The song is called: “The tide is rising and so are we.”
On a sultry summer morning this week, with the temperature already climbing past 97˚ and a heat index of 102˚, I paused on the steps of the Capitol Building to pose for a quick photograph. As volunteers with Citizens Climate Lobby (CCL), nearly one thousand people had traveled from near and far to lobby for a carbon fee and dividend in Washington, D.C.
Being a first-time volunteer, I had recently attended CCL’s basic training in how to lobby members of Congress about climate change. Here is how I usually prepare to lobby, especially when facing people whom I consider adversaries: Do research. Assemble talking points. Brace for confrontation.
By contrast, here is what Citizens Climate Lobby advises: Do research. Assemble talking points. Search for connection.
This is harder than it sounds. As I surveyed the voting records of the four Republican members of Congress to whom I’d been assigned, my heart sank. What connection could I possibly have with these conservative men? I am an ardent, long-time climate activist who lives in Northampton, a particularly liberal city in liberal Massachusetts. These House members hail from Kentucky, Florida, Illinois, and Texas, all of them states that have a strong interest in protecting the coal, gas, and oil industries. Just about everything these men had voted for, I was against. Just about everything they had voted against, I was for. Politically, we stand on opposite sides of the aisle. In one portfolio or another, I read phrases like these: Supports fracking and Keystone XL pipeline. Prohibits use of funds by the Administration to conduct a climate change agenda. Opposes and votes against any effort to increase taxes. Voted to gut the E.P.A’s ability to limit carbon pollution from power plants. Voted to open the Outer Continental Shelf to oil drilling.
To my consternation, it turned out that CCL asks its volunteers not to browbeat members of Congress but instead to build relationships and to find common ground. CCL maintains that if you can’t find something to respect and admire in a politician’s life or work, then you should not lobby that person. So I forced myself to slow down. I looked more carefully at the voting records and I tried to exercise some empathy and imagination. What could I appreciate about each person? What did this person seem to value, and why? How might I connect with him?
Spiritual traditions tell us that human beings are essentially inter-related. When we are spiritually awake, we can see the dignity, even the beauty, of each person. Despite whatever may divide us, in fact we are more similar than different. For starters, all of us are mortal, all of us we want to be happy, and all of us want to love and to be loved. It is easy to forget such basic truths when you are caught in the heat of political struggle. It is easier to demonize than to humanize, easier to seek safety behind the walls of righteous judgment than to meet ones “enemy” with an open heart.
This does not give us license to be naïve and sentimental – far from it. Jesus urges us to be “wise as serpents” as well as “innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). Yet if we are to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:44) – to say nothing of praying for those whom we want to persecute – then we must stay grounded in a transcendent love that embraces all beings, even the person we might want to condemn as a villain or a fool.
Who knew that lobbying could be a spiritual practice? Not I.
My first meeting was with an aide to Representative Ander Crenshaw, an Episcopalian from Florida. I introduced myself as an Episcopal priest who believes that climate change is the great spiritual and moral issue of our time. I told the staff member that I’d left parish ministry in order to focus all my efforts on building a wave of religious activism to address climate change. She listened politely, courteous but reserved. I could feel the distance between us.
Pressing ahead, I said that I appreciated Rep. Crenshaw for working tirelessly – for eight long years – to secure passage of the ABLE Act, a significant piece of legislation that protects disabled Americans. I said that I appreciated his concern for the vulnerable, his persistence in accomplishing something difficult, and his capacity to stay focused on an issue to which he was passionately committed. By now the aide was smiling, and I was smiling, too. I was surprised by my own happiness as we looked at each other: it is a pleasure to express and to receive sincere appreciation. It is like striking a chord of kinship: we feel the resonance. Dimly or clearly, we remember our shared humanity.
I went on to propose that, just as the representative was a champion for the disabled, maybe he could also become a champion for the poor, who are affected first and hardest by climate change. Maybe he could apply his passion, his persistence, and his capacity to get a difficult bill passed, to becoming a leader on tackling climate change. The aide listened and took notes. By the end of the meeting, after everyone on our team had had a chance to speak, to listen, and to share some facts about CCL’s proposal, I sensed the possibility that Rep. Crenshaw might now see a way to take effective action on climate change in a way that is consistent with his own values.
I left the meeting with renewed hope that people on opposite sides of the aisle can come together – before it’s too late – in the race to stabilize the climate and to create a just and habitable future. That vision is not just pie in the sky. The carbon fee and dividend proposed by CCL is a way of pricing carbon that has potential to unite people of very different political persuasions. According to an independent study conducted by REMI (Regional Economic Modeling, Inc.), CCL’s plan to place a steadily-rising fee on the carbon dioxide content of fuels at the source (such as a well, mine, or port of entry) and to return all revenue to American households on an equal basis would cut carbon emissions by half within 20 years while adding 2.8 million jobs to the economy. Under this plan, about two-thirds of all households would break even or receive more in their rebate checks than they would pay in higher prices due to the fee, which means that low-income and middle-class folks would be protected.
If you hate taxes, the CCL proposal should be acceptable: the fee is not a tax, since revenue is not spent by the government but instead is returned directly to the people. Nor does this carbon-pricing plan add layers of bureaucracy or additional regulation. It simply allows the free market to do its work, because carbon-based fuels would become increasingly expensive, and clean, renewable sources of energy, such as sun and wind, would become increasingly cheap. This process would unleash entrepreneurial energy and investment in clean energy.
The CCL proposal is no magic wand, but it has power to bridge the political divide and to appeal to our shared desire for economic prosperity, a healthy environment, and homegrown, affordable energy production. It’s an approach to stabilizing the climate that is embraced not only by Dr. James Hansen, the renowned climate scientist, but also by George Schultz, Secretary of State during the Reagan Administration. Both of them serve on CCL’s Advisory Board, along with Bob Inglis, who spent 12 years in the U.S House as a Republican representative from South Carolina, and Dr. Catharine Hayhoe, an atmospheric scientist and evangelical Christian. (For a 2-minute video about carbon fee and dividend, visit here.)
Those four days of CCL training and lobbying have changed me. I am still an ardent climate activist. I am still prepared to go to jail to stop the Keystone XL pipeline. I am still convinced that we need a complete overhaul of how we live on Earth, and that Pope Francis and Naomi Klein are on target when they call for the deep transformation of our social, political, and economic systems. I still want to build a powerful grassroots movement to address the climate crisis, to re-weave the web of life, and to protect a habitable world for future generations. As Jonas Salk once said, “Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors.”
What has changed is that I have found a fresh path forward. I am excited about CCL’s proposed carbon fee and dividend, which I believe is an idea whose time has come. What’s more, thanks to my training with CCL I also feel a renewed commitment to constructive dialogue and to the spiritual discipline of moving beyond “them” and “us.” My experience with CCL draws me to prayer, especially to the prayer for the human family that is found in the Episcopal prayer book. I pray that God will “look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth…” (Book of Common Prayer, p. 815)
If anyone asks what I learned this week in D.C., here is what I will reply: together we can build a low-carbon future, and, when carried out in the right spirit, lobbying can be work that is good for the soul.
P.S. To participate in workshops that teach you how to open up a space for “constructive dialogue where conflicts are driven by differences in identity, beliefs, and values,” visit Public Conversations Project. To see how this kind of approach is being put into action internationally, visit Karuna Center for Peace Building.
Martin Luther King, Jr. and the climate movement
Friends, it is good to be with you this morning. Thank you, Cat, for inviting me to preach. I serve the diocese as your Missioner for Creation Care, so I travel from church to church, preaching the Gospel and speaking about our call as Christians to heal the Earth. I am blessed by the timing of this invitation to speak, for across the U.S. this weekend Americans are celebrating the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., a man who gave his life, quite literally, to the quest to heal our country’s great racial divide, and who dreamed of a world in which men and women of all races could live together with justice and mutual respect. Racism and racial justice is of course a vital issue in our country right now, a topic of intense debate as we observe in several cities the tragic tensions between some white police officers and the people of color that they were sworn to protect. Across the country people are exploring hard questions about white privilege and institutionalized racism, about how far we have come as a society and how much farther we have to go before we finally manifest what Dr. King called the Beloved Community.Dr. King recognized that race relations do not exist in a vacuum. He understood that racism intersects with other patterns of violence, including poverty and militarism. If he were alive today, I believe that Dr. King would add a fourth item to what he called the “triple evils” of poverty, racism, and militarism. To that list I believe that he would add environmental destruction, especially human-caused climate change. For unless we stabilize the global climate and rapidly reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases, we will unravel the web of life and destroy any possibility of Beloved Community for human beings and for most of the other beings with which we share this precious planet. The struggle to end racism is linked to the struggle to end poverty, the struggle to end war, and the struggle to protect life as it has evolved on Earth. Racial justice, social and economic justice, environmental justice, climate justice – all these struggles intersect. In the end we share one struggle, one dream, one deep and God-inspired longing: the desire to build a peaceful, healthy, just, and sustainable world. It is God who whispers that dream into our hearts, God who plants that longing in us like a seed that grows into a mighty oak, God who stirs us out of our complacency and sends us into action. It is God who gives us a heart to care, and strength to keep fighting the good fight. For it can be difficult to keep going, difficult to keep the faith in the face of sometimes brutal opposition and the sheer inertia of business as usual. There is a wonderful scene in the movie Selma, a movie that I hope you will see, if you haven’t already. The movie is set during the turbulent three months of 1965, exactly fifty years ago, when Martin Luther King, Jr. was leading a campaign to secure equal voting rights. Early in the movie we see David Oyelowo, the actor playing Dr. King, awake at home late at night, restless, anxious, and acutely aware of the threats against his own life and against the lives of his wife and children. Should he keep going and head to Selma? He is resisting the powers and principalities of this world and he has reached the limit of his strength. In that late-night hour he picks up the phone, dials, and says to the person on the other end of the line: “I need to hear the Lord’s voice.” The friend he has phoned is the legendary Gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson, and into the phone receiver she begins to sing very tenderly, “Precious Lord, take my hand.” It is an intimate moment, as intimate as the moment recorded in this morning’s first reading, when late at night the boy Samuel hears the voice of God speaking his name in the darkness (1 Samuel 3:1-10). When God speaks to us in that intimate way, often without any words at all, we feel mysteriously addressed. In that quiet, intimate encounter we feel known by name, touched very personally by a loving power that sees us, knows us through and through, loves us to the core, and gives us strength to carry on. This is the experience of the psalmist who writes – marveling and full of wonder – “Lord, you have searched me out and known me; you know my sitting down and my rising up; you discern my thoughts from afar” (Psalm 139:1). This is the experience of Philip, who hears Jesus call him to follow, and of Nathaniel, who realizes that Jesus saw, and knew, and thoroughly understood him even before they’d met (John 1:43-51). As Christians, we open ourselves to be seen and known, loved and guided by an intimate, divine presence that will never let us go. That is what prayer is, and it gives us strength. And when we’ve lost touch with that divine presence, when we feel frightened, despairing, or overwhelmed, we rely on each other to help us find our way back to God, just as Philip helped Nathaniel, as Eli helped the boy Samuel, and as Mahalia Jackson helped Dr. King. As people of faith, we are in this together, and when any of us lose heart, we try to help each other, as individuals and as a community, to turn again to God and to make our appeal: Precious Lord, take my hand. I feel as powerfully as ever that call to prayer, that call to community, and that call to active, faithful service and advocacy. I don’t usually carry a newspaper into church – actually, this is the first time I’ve ever done it. But I want to show you the front page of yesterday’s New York Times, which gives a map of the world colored in shades of red to indicate all the areas that were above average in temperature last year. The year 2014 broke the record for the hottest year on Earth since we started keeping records. But hey, we may be saying to ourselves, it’s been so cold in New England! It turns out that below-average temperatures in our region may be indirectly linked to climate change. Some scientists are studying the likelihood that the unusual dips they are noticing in the jet stream are connected to the rapidly warming Arctic and the exceptionally warm waters of the Pacific Ocean. Bottom line is that the phrase “global warming” is probably much too simple – a better term might be “global weirding.” As the world grows warmer we can expect more erratic and extreme fluctuations in local weather, and some places will sometimes become unexpectedly cold. Yet all the while the average global temperature is heading in only one direction: up. In just two centuries – a blink in geologic time – we have burned so much coal, gas, and oil and released so much heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are higher today than they’ve been for hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of years. I heard a climate scientist say, “We are breathing from an atmosphere that none of our ancestors would recognize.” Sticking to business as usual could raise average global temperatures between 5 and 11 degrees Fahrenheit in this century. That may not sound like much, but in fact it would make the world extremely difficult for humans and other creatures to inhabit. Oceans are already heating and becoming more acidic; tundra is thawing; ice caps and glaciers are melting; sea levels are rising; coral reefs are dying; massive droughts are spreading in some places and heavy rains are intensifying in others. Last spring we learned that the huge West Antarctic ice sheet is starting to collapse and slide into the sea in a way that scientists call “unstoppable.” The latest climate report from the U.N. warns of food shortages, waves of refugees, and the mass extinction of plants and animals, if we keep to our present course. This is the sort of news that wakes me up at night and pulls me into prayer: precious Lord, take my hand. It is also the sort of news that propels me out of bed in the morning, eager to find a way to be of use. Once we have grasped what the bishops of the Episcopal Church call “the urgency of the planetary crisis in which we find ourselves,”1 there is so much we can do, so many ways that we can contribute to the healing of Creation. Thank you for the work you’ve done here at St. John’s to conserve energy, switch to efficient light bulbs, and use cloth rather than paper napkins. Our individual actions add up: we can recycle more, drive less, be sparing in our use of water, quit using bottled water. We can turn off lights when we leave a room. Maybe we can eat local, organic foods and support local farms and land trusts, maybe even leave them some money in our wills. I hope you’ll form a “green team” in this parish, and name a Creation Care Minister. I hope you’ll sign up to join a network of people in the diocese who care about Creation. I’d be glad to support you in any way I can. I also hope you’ll sign up to receive a weekly newsletter from the grassroots group, Climate Action Now, which is centered right here in the Pioneer Valley. If we work as isolated individuals, our success will be limited, for the scope and speed of the climate crisis require action on a much broader scale. So we link arms with other people and we join the movement to make it politically possible to do what is scientifically necessary. The climate movement is gaining momentum, and many of us are inspired by Dr. King and the civil rights movement. Last week I spent a day in Amherst with other local climate activists, studying the principles of non-violent civil disobedience as practiced by Gandhi and Dr. King. Along with more than 97,000 people across the U.S., I have signed a pledge of resistance, a pledge to risk arrest in non-violent direct action if the Keystone XL pipeline is approved. Stopping that pipeline has become a powerful symbol of the urgent need to keep 80% of the known fossil fuels in the ground, where they belong. Fossil fuel companies now possess five times the amount of coal, gas, and oil that, if burned, would force the average global temperature to rise far higher than the 2 degree threshold that gives us a 50-50 chance of preventing runaway climate change. So now is the time to make a swift transition to clean, safe, renewable energy, such as sun and wind. In this unprecedented time, many of us feel called anew to listen to the tender voice of love that God is always sounding in our heart, and then to embody that love in the world as bravely and clearly as we can. If ever there were a time to bear witness to our faith that life and not death will have the last word, now would be the time. If ever there were a time to take hold of the vision of a Beloved Community in which human beings live in right relationship with each other and with all our fellow creatures, now would be the time. The collapse of the ice sheet in Antarctica may be “unstoppable,” but so is the love that calls us to stand up for life. Archbishop Desmond Tutu fought for racial justice and against apartheid in South Africa, and now he is one of the world’s champions of climate justice. Reconciling human beings to each other, to God, and to the rest of Creation is what Tutu calls the “supreme work” of Jesus Christ. Thank you, my brothers and sisters in Christ, for joining me in that supreme work.
1. In 2011 the bishops of the Episcopal Church issued a pastoral teaching on the environment that begins with a call to repentance “as we face the unfolding environmental crisis of the earth.” For the full text of “A Pastoral Teaching from the Bishops of the Episcopal Church,” meeting in Province IX, in Quito, Ecuador, September 2011, visit here.