I want to tell a story about what it was like to be arrested for the first time. Why tell this story now? Because climate change is accelerating. Because we need to consider every possible tool at our disposal to preserve a habitable world. Because deep social change requires a movement of disciplined, peaceful warriors for life. Because we hear the call to serve something larger than ourselves. Because sometimes that call drags us out of our comfort zone.
Before I tell the story, here come three clusters of reflection questions.
Under what conditions would you consider being trained in the principles and practices of peaceful civil disobedience? Under what conditions would you consider supporting people who were risking arrest? Under what conditions would you risk arrest yourself?
Who are the people who inspire you to do more than you thought possible? With whom do you hold hands, literally or figuratively, when you step out to make a difference in the world?
Gandhi said, “My life is my message.” What is your message?
The background: After years of combining parish ministry and climate activism, in 2001 I decided to head to Washington, DC, to join a brand-new (now defunct) interfaith group, Religious Witness for the Earth, in protesting the Administration’s energy policy and its intention to expand oil production in the Arctic.
On the first day we learned about oil drilling and the Arctic, about climate change and fossil fuels. On the second we lobbied our members of Congress and studied the disciplines of non-violent civil disobedience. On the third, about a hundred of us marched down Independence Avenue in religious vestments, carrying banners and singing. When we reached the Department of Energy, an enormous stone structure surrounded by police, we held a brief worship service. So far, everything was legal. Then came the part that wasn’t.
What follows is an excerpt from an essay1 I wrote about the decision to carry out civil disobedience and the experience of being arrested and spending time in jail.
The worship service was coming to an end. We sang “Amazing Grace,” and then the twenty-two of us who had decided to risk arrest joined hands and walked slowly to the doors of the Department of Energy.
I felt us cross an invisible boundary. With the others, I stepped over a threshold I could not see. I walked out of my ordinary life.
I am neither a lawbreaker nor a thrill-seeker. More often than not, I follow the rules – even enforce them. I fasten my seat belt, don’t cheat on taxes, write thank you notes, and stand up when the band plays our national anthem. But here I was, intentionally and publicly breaking the law. As if some inner revolution had quietly taken place, the old “me” was no longer in charge. Whatever security I’d felt in operating within the rules was gone. That’s partly why I felt so frightened as I left the safety of the circle and moved toward the door: I hardly recognized myself. I hardly knew who I was.
We stand or kneel in prayer, our backs to the building.
The pavement under my knees is hard. At home, I often sit on a meditation cushion to pray. Today there is no cushion, just the weight of my body against stone. I lift up my hands. I’m dressed for Holy Communion. I might as well hold out my arms as I do at Communion.
Instead of pews filled with parishioners, I see ranks of police and a cluster of supporters. I am afraid. I’ve never been arrested before. Years ago, as a VISTA volunteer in Mayor Rizzo’s Philadelphia I heard countless stories of police brutality. It’s not that I really expect the same thing to happen to me – the punch in the gut, the assault behind closed doors. Still, my body tenses as I place myself against the cops, the Feds, the law.
I close my eyes. One by one we pray aloud, words thrown into space, words hurled against stone.
Is this whole thing ridiculous? I briefly open my eyes and notice a well-dressed man watching us. He strokes his tie, leans over, and says something to a fellow nearby. The two of them chuckle. I have no idea what they’re talking about, but I wonder if they think we look absurd. I suppose we do. Here we are with our jerry-rigged signs, our predictably earnest songs and prayers of protest, a foolhardy band straight out of the ‘60’s.
Defensively, I imagine confronting that mocking man with the arsenal of our credentials. “We’re no rag-tag bunch,” I want to tell him. “We’re people with doctorates and master’s degrees – nurses and ministers, writers, and accountants. Thoughtful people, educated people, professionals.”
I am distracted from prayer by this indignant outburst. “Let it go,” wisdom tells me. “None of that matters – your degrees, your skills, your status in the world. The privileges of race and class mean nothing now. You’re a woman on your knees, that’s who you are – one human being pleading with God.”
I turn my attention back to prayer and continue to stretch out my arms. Suddenly I realize that beneath the tension, beneath the fear and self-consciousness, something else is welling up. I am jubilant.
“Lift up your hearts,” I might as well be saying to the people before me, beaming as broadly as I do at Communion.
“We lift them to the Lord,” would come the response.
How did I miss it? After years of going to church, after years of celebrating Communion, only now, as I kneel on pavement and face a phalanx of cops, do I understand so clearly that praising God can be an act of political resistance. That worship is an act of human liberation. The twenty-two of us come from different faith traditions, but each of us is rooted in a reality that transcends the rules and structures of this world. Tap into that transcendent truth, let the divine longing for a community of justice and mercy become your own deepest longing, and who knows what energy for life will be released?
I feel as defiant as a maple seedling that pushes up through asphalt. It is God I love, and God’s green earth. I want to bear witness to that love even in the face of hatred or indifference, even if the cost is great.
So what if our numbers are small? So what if, in the eyes of the police, in the eyes of the world, we have no power? I’m beginning to sense the power that is ours to wield, the power of self-offering. We may have nothing else, but we do have this, the power to say, “This is where I stand. This is what I love. Here is something for which I’m willing to put my body on the line.”
I never knew that stepping beyond the borders of what I find comfortable could make me so happy. That shifting from self-preservation to self-offering could awaken so much joy.
Adapted from “When Heaven Happens” by Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, in Heaven, ed. Roger Ferlo (NY: Seabury Books, 2007), 74-85.
This article was published on November 2, 2023, in “Going Deep,” one of two newsletters published by Third Act Faith. (You can find the article here.) The other newsletter, Third Acts of Faith, provides members and subscribers with all the latest “News & Views” for the month. To learn more and to join Third Act Faith, visit here.
I was discouraged when I boarded the bus to Manhattan. Over the years, I’ve marched, rallied, lobbied, and protested countless times to advocate for climate action, and I was ready to do it again: to join with friends and strangers to demand that President Biden take swift action to quit our suicidal dependence on fossil fuels. I knew that The March to End Fossil Fuels on September 17 would surely be the biggest march since the pandemic. It was scheduled to take place right before the first-ever U.N. climate ambition summit, and I felt honor-bound to go. But frankly I didn’t feel the high excitement that activists often enjoy before a big public march. Devotion to the cause may run deep, but activists who’ve been at it for a while can get tired. Fatigue sets in when repeated efforts yield only limited success. Why keep speaking up when it seems that few are listening?
That was my weary mood as I set out on the bus-ride from Northampton to New York City. The bus was filled with fellow activists, and it was a pleasure to sit beside my friend, UCC climate champion Jim Antal. As we sped down the highway, our bus captain reviewed the logistics of the march and taught us the chants we’d use, among them: “Biden, where’s your urgency? This is a climate emergency.” “From Willow to MVP,1 keep our rivers fossil free.”
I quietly repeated the chants, but my heart wasn’t in it. I confessed as much to Jim. Where do we find the energy to keep fighting the good fight? Just then something outside the window caught my eye. I turned to look. A red-tailed hawk was soaring over the traffic. Wings outspread, it cruised to a bluff beside the highway and perched on a tree.
The glimpse of that wild bird passed in a flash but stunned me into silence. It felt like a visitation, an encounter.
Hawks are meaningful to me. I love their wild freedom and their capacity to see across vast distances. They are adaptable, resilient, and fierce. The Holy Spirit is often portrayed in Christian imagination as being like a dove – gentle and tender – but She also has qualities that remind me of a hawk. She is insistent and strong, “driving” Jesus into the wilderness (Mark 1:12). She is free (“Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom,” 2 Corinthians:17). As we hear in the story of Pentecost, She comes with the power of a violent wind and sets our souls on fire (Acts 2:1-13). And She is like the word of God, “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow,” with a gaze that sees clearly into our depths, into “the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12-13).
Fierce, free, and clear-seeing – that sounds like a hawk to me.
Hours later, we were marching, thousands of us, pouring through the streets with our banners and chants and signs. The skies were blue, the air was clear, and there wasn’t a hawk in sight. But as I walked, I wondered: what would a red-tailed hawk see if she were circling overhead?
She might see this: a sprawling metropolis that seems at first glance only to suppress the natural world. Except for the green glow of Central Park, living trees are few and far between. Just about everything is built up and paved over. Vehicles move on a grid of straight lines. Canyons are formed of steel, not limestone, and filled not with birdsong but with the clamor of human voices, music, and machines – sirens, motors, horns.
Yet that clear-eyed hawk would see through the illusion that humans care only about themselves. She would have considered the 75,000 people now pouring through the city streets who had set aside the demands and routines of daily life to proclaim their concern for each other, for future generations, and for the wild world on which all life depends.
Many of the people marching wore or carried images of their brother-sister beings. Over here was a woman dressed in a polar bear suit, carrying a sign that said HELP! Over there was someone lumbering about in a rather hilarious inflatable dinosaur suit, carrying a sign that said “Dinos thought they had time, too.” Meanwhile, a tall person was wandering through the crowd in a gauzy, cancerous, pinkish garment that erupted in bulbous shapes; this alarming creature carried a hand-lettered sign reporting (accurately) that 70% of the world’s wildlife population had vanished since 1970.2 Someone else pulled a wagon that contained a large inflatable Earth, its surface marred by a tangle of orange and yellow slips of paper to show the locations of wildfires, droughts, storms, and floods around the world.
Some symbols of nature proclaimed hope. Several men held aloft a river of thin metal hoops draped in blue paper and dangling rivulets of blue, as if a clear stream were flowing through the crowd. Other people carried trees of brown cardboard, decorated with puffs of green, symbols to remind us that even in this paved-over, built-up cityscape, we were walking in union with the river and the trees.
And how diverse we were! No doubt the hawk would see that.
Young people were marching, fired by anger and grief and the desperate longing for a livable future.
Frontline people were marching, the people whose land, water, and air are being poisoned by the extraction industries that are dismantling the web of life.
Indigenous people were marching, modern warriors in the long battle against an economic system fueled by white supremacy, greed, and the fantasy of endless expansion.
Scientists were marching, representing the inconvenient truths of physics, chemistry, and biology which humanity ignores at its peril.
People of faith were marching, proclaiming the sacredness of God’s green Earth and the dignity of every living being.
Stalwart elders were marching, some of them shuffling or wielding canes and all of them determined to make a meaningful stand for justice while they still had time.
I wondered if the hawk would recognize herself in us. At our best, we, too, are like hawks: brave, fierce, and inwardly free. I wondered if the hawk’s clear eyes would look into our hearts and see the deep truth that, despite our manifest selfishness and confusion, in fact we humans truly care for each other, for those who come after us, and for our beautiful, threatened world. I wondered if maybe the hawk would glimpse in our march one small moment in the great awakening of humankind – our slow, collective discovery that we are kin to each other and to our brother-sister beings. We belong to each other, and we will rise or fall together.
I know there will again be times when my energy begins to flag. But the March to End Fossil Fuels re-connected me with the love that never ends. When we show up and do the next right thing – when we join hands with other people and with the elements and creatures of the living Earth – I know we will be surprised again by the sacred energy for life that pours through us anew.
I imagine that hawk wheeling over the city, seeing our love and determination, and blessing us with her fierce cry.
1. In March 2023, the Biden administration approved the Willow Project, a massive operation by ConocoPhillips to drill for oil on the plain of the North Slope of Alaska in the National Petroleum Reserve. Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) is a fracked-gas pipeline through Virginia and West Virginia that was fast-tracked in June 2023 through a debt-ceiling agreement. Rose Abramoff, a climate scientist who attended the March to End Fossil Fuels, recently chained herself to a massive drill and helped to temporarily stop construction of the MVP pipeline. She is believed to be the first American climate scientist to risk a felony in an act of climate protest against fossil fuel projects. #StopWillow, #StopMVP
*UPDATE (10/19/23) Three additional dioceses have authorized these prayers, for a total of 28 dioceses:
The Rt. Rev. Patrick W. Bell Diocese of Eastern Oregon
The Rt. Rev. Lucinda Beth Ashby Diocese of El Camino Real
The Rt. Rev. Susan Haynes Diocese of Southern Virginia
After a summer of alarming evidence that the global climate is increasingly unstable, with billions of people around the world experiencing heat domes, fires, floods, storms, and deadly drought, many of us feel a deep need to pray. With sober joy we welcome Creation Season this year, the season from September 1 (“Creation Day” or “Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation”) through October 4 (the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi) when Christians worldwide are invited to dedicate special prayers, study, and action to honoring and protecting the web of life that God entrusted to our care.
During Creation Season this year, congregations in at least twenty-five dioceses across The Episcopal Church will be trying out fresh ways of praying with and for the natural world. A few weeks ago, my colleague, the Rev. John Lein (rector of St. Aidan’s and Christ Episcopal Churches, Downeast Maine) and I released Creation Season 2023: A Celebration Guide for Episcopal Parishes. This anthology of liturgical material, drawn from a variety of Anglican and ecumenical sources, is an updated version of a Creation Season guide that we produced last year and that was authorized by the two Episcopal dioceses of Massachusetts.
Before putting final touches on the newly updated resource, which is packed with prayers, hymns, readings, preaching ideas, and reflections on eco-theology, we decided to reach out to several other dioceses to see whether they, too, might like to authorize its use during Creation Season. By the time we published the worship guide on August 9, sixteen bishops representing seventeen dioceses had authorized the material. The list of early adopters is below. Little did I know that this was just the start.
The Rt. Rev. Jennifer Anne Reddall, Diocese of Arizona
The Rt. Rev. Dr. Marc Handley Andrus, Diocese of California
The Rt. Rev. Russell Kendrick, Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast
The Rt. Rev. Kymberly Lucas, Diocese of Colorado
The Rt. Rev. Jeffrey W. Mello, Diocese of Connecticut
The Rt. Rev. Robert Skirving, Diocese of East Carolina
The Rt. Rev. Prince G. Singh, Provisional, Dioceses of Eastern and Western Michigan
The Rt. Rev. Lawrence C. Provenzano, Diocese of Long Island
The Rt. Rev. Thomas J. Brown, Diocese of Maine
The Rt. Rev. Alan M. Gates, Diocese of Massachusetts
The Rt. Rev. Jeffrey D. Lee, Provisional, Diocese of Milwaukee
The Rt. Rev. Brian R. Seage, Diocese of Mississippi
The Rt. Rev. Deon K. Johnson, Diocese of Missouri
The Rt. Rev. A. Robert Hirschfeld, Diocese of New Hampshire
The Rt. Rev. Mariann Edgar Budde, Diocese of Washington
The Rt. Rev. Dr. Douglas John Fisher, Diocese of Western Massachusetts
The Rt. Rev. Mark D.W. Edington Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe
The Rt. Rev. Cathleen Chittenden Bascom Diocese of Kansas
The Rev. Carrie Schofield-Broadbent, Bishop Coadjutor-elect Diocese of Maryland
The Rt. Rev. Samuel S. Rodman Diocese of North Carolina
The Most Rev. Melissa Skelton, Bishop Provisional Diocese of Olympia
The Rt. Rev. Stephen T. Lane Diocese of Rochester
The Rt. Rev. Dr. Shannon MacVean-Brown Diocese of Vermont
The Rt. Rev. Dr. Diana D. Akiyama Diocese of Western Oregon
I find it deeply heartening to know that this worship resource will be used in so many dioceses across the Episcopal Church. If your bishop hasn’t yet authorized these prayers for use in your diocese during Creation Season, please urge your bishop to do so.
The unfolding tragedy (and sin) of human-caused climate change gives us a precious opportunity to re-claim the biblical vision that all of God’s creation – not only human beings – is embraced in the story of salvation. Like so many other faithful Christians, I am eager to ditch the days of praying for just one species and of imagining that the rest of God’s creation is simply “resources” put here for our (literal) disposal. Instead, we want to pray with and for God’s good earth and for all who live here, human and more-than-human, thereby being faithful to the God who creates, redeems, and sustains the whole Creation.
I trust that these prayers will help Episcopalians and all people of conscience and good will to experience the divine love that sustains all things. And, stirred by that love, to take bold action. I will give the last word to the Bishop of Maine, the Rt. Rev. Thomas J. Brown, who expressed hope that this worship guide would “ignite our prayer life (first step) so that we can act for justice (second step).”
We couldn’t ask for more powerful readings than the ones we consider today on the feast day of the Transfiguration. Today we are summoned to the mountaintop to celebrate the transforming power of God. In our first reading, Moses is coming down from Mount Sinai, carrying the Ten Commandments that establish the covenant between God and God’s people. He has been praying on the mountain, listening to God with the love and attentiveness with which one listens to a friend (Ex. 33:11), and the skin of his face is shining (Ex. 34:29). He is radiant with God’s glory.
Today’s Gospel passage from Luke is also set on a mountain. Soon after Jesus tells his disciples that he will die and rise again, he takes with him Peter, John, and James and goes up on the mountain to pray. In the solitude of that holy mountain, with its long, sweeping vistas and its cold, clean air, Jesus’ prayer grows into an intense religious experience that recalls the experience of Moses. “While (Jesus) was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white” (Luke 9:29). To describe this change, Greek manuscripts use the word “metamorphosis” (metemorphothe); Latin manuscripts use the word “transfiguration” (transfiguratus est). Whatever you call it, it’s the same thing: at the top of the mountain, Jesus is swept up by the love that sustains the universe. What Dante calls “the love that moves the sun and other stars”1 so completely embraces Jesus that who he really is, who he has always been, is briefly revealed. A dazzling brightness emanates from his face, his body, even his clothes. The sacred radiance at the center of reality is shining through him, bursting through his seams, streaming from his pores, and even the three sleepy disciples can see it.
What just happened? The holy presence that secretly abides within every person and every part of the created world has suddenly, briefly become visible to the human eye. The vivid image of Jesus lit up from within aligns with the experience of mystics from every religion who speak of a vibrant, shimmering energy or light that flows through everything, although usually we don’t see it. In Asia, the cosmic life force is called chi in Chinese and prana in Sanskrit, and in many Eastern traditions, enlightenment is associated with a flow of energy throughout the body.2 Christian mystics speak of the Holy Spirit as a Presence or energy that moves through our bodies and the whole body of Creation. For Christians, there is something deeply personal in this energy: it is the dynamic, creative Presence of the Holy Spirit. When we sense its presence in ourselves or in the outside world, God seems to light up the edges of things or to shine out from within them. We see the hidden depth behind the surface of ordinary reality. The eternal makes itself known to us, and we may experience it as light, although it is beyond the reach of ordinary sight. That’s where the language of paradox and poetry comes in, where mystics speak of a “dazzling darkness” or a “dark radiance,” just as in this passage Luke uses the language of paradox when he describes Jesus’ experience in terms of both a dazzling light and an overshadowing cloud (Luke 9:29,34). Something about perceiving that radiant darkness awakens our love.
We may not consider ourselves mystics, but anyone who has ever been overcome by the beauty of the world – anyone who, in contemplating the world, has ever experienced a wave of wonder and gratefulness and awe – anyone who has ever spent time looking into the eyes of a baby or studying the details of a leaf – anyone who has ever gazed for a while at a mountain range or watched the sparkling waters of the ocean knows what it’s like to see the hidden radiance of Christ, whose living presence fills the whole creation. Whenever we look at the world – whenever we look at each other – with eyes of love, we see the hidden radiance, the light that is shining within each person and each thing, although they may know nothing about it. Seeing the world with eyes of love is to see the world shining – to see its suffering, yes; to see its brokenness and imperfection, yes; but, also, to see it as cherished by God, as precious in God’s sight, as shining with God’s light. To see the world with eyes of love is to see it with God’s eyes.
As we gaze at Jesus transfigured on the mountaintop, shining with the radiance of God, we see what Moses saw, what Jesus saw, and what poet Gerard Manley Hopkins saw: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”
I believe this is one of the great gifts that people of faith can offer the world in this perilous time: the perception of creation as a sacred, living whole, lit up with the glory of God. For let’s be clear: we were born into a society that does not see the Earth like that. Most of us were not taught to see the natural world as sacred and lit up with God’s glory. It’s as if a veil were placed over our minds, just as Moses placed a veil over his face (Ex. 34:33). When our minds are veiled, we no longer see God’s glory. We see the natural world as nothing more than the backdrop to what really matters: the human drama. Nature becomes something to be ignored, used up, exploited at will, dominated, assaulted without a second thought. We experience ourselves and other human beings as essentially separate from and even “above” the rest of creation, entitled to do anything we want to it, with no regard for its integrity or value or needs or rights.
By now we know where that perception of the world has taken us: scientists are reporting with alarm that the web of life is unraveling before our eyes and that human civilization is at risk of collapse. Gazing at Jesus shining on the mountain is like medicine for our troubled spirits. It removes the veil from our eyes and restores our inward sight. We are gazing on the one who loved us into being, the one who tells us that life and not death will have the last word, the one in whom all things hold together (Col. 1:17) and whose presence fills the whole creation (Eph. 4:10). We are gazing at the one who, at the end of Mark’s Gospel, commissions his disciples to go into all the world and proclaim the Gospel good news to the whole creation (Mark 16:15). That’s our mission, as disciples of Jesus: to bring good news in word and deed to the whole creation, for the whole world is shining with the love and presence of God.
So, when we see God’s creation being desecrated and destroyed – when we see God’s good Earth being poisoned by toxins and pollutants, and laid waste by corporate greed – when we learn from scientists that a mass extinction event is now underway, a “biological annihilation”– when we recognize that burning coal, gas, and oil is pushing the planet to break stunning new records for heat, causing droughts, floods, and monster hurricanes, drowning cities, and accelerating wildfires – when we understand that the people hurt first and hardest by the effects of a changing climate are the poor – when we realize that, unless we change course fast, we will not leave our children and our children’s children a habitable world – then we are moved to take action. For we want to bear witness to the love of Jesus that is shining on the mountain and shining in our hearts. We want to honor the sacredness of God’s creation and to protect it from further harm.
When it comes to tackling climate change, there is so much that individuals can do – maybe we can fly less, drive less, drive electric, install solar panels, avoid the clothes dryer and hang our laundry out to dry, eat less meat and move to a plant-based diet – and so on. You know the drill.
Making personal changes is important, but because of the scope and speed of the climate crisis, we need more than individual action – we also need systemic change. The U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change states very clearly that we must transform our society and economy at a rate and scope that are historically unprecedented. To do that, we must join hands and work together for collective action. What are some possibilities? Here on Cape Cod, we can join Faith Communities Environmental Network, which inspires eco-justice on Cape Cod and the Islands and is part of the Cape Cod Climate Change Collaborative. Or we can join 350Mass, the grassroots, climate action group in Massachusetts that has a node right here on Cape Cod. If we have money or credit cards in one of the four biggest banks that fund fossil fuels – Citibank, Chase, Bank of America, or Wells Fargo – we can move our money out and join the campaign to pressure banks to stop financing fossil fuel expansion.3 If we’re over 60, we can join ThirdAct.org, the new group started by Bill McKibben just a year or two ago that has already attracted thousands of old people like me who want to do everything we can to slow climate change and protect democracy. Last but not least, in September the U.N. Secretary General will host a first-of-its-kind Climate Ambition Summit to demand that world leaders commit to stopping the expansion of fossil fuels that drive the climate emergency. I hope that you will join me and thousands of other people who will take to the streets of New York City on September 17 in the March to End Fossil Fuels, the largest climate march since the pandemic. There is so much we can do! Together we intend to build a world in which everyone can thrive. I’ve made a one-page handout of resources that you can pick up at the door to the church.
Today we stand on the mountaintop, soaking up the light of Christ and letting ourselves be filled with his love. Even now, the glory that shone through Jesus Christ is shining in our hearts, longing to blaze up like fire and to melt away everything in us that is less than love. As we give ourselves to the great work of healing God’s creation, I trust that we, too, are shining.
1.William Johnston, “Arise, My Love…”: Mysticism for a New Era, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2000, 115.
2. Johnston, “Arise,” 115.
3. For more information about this campaign, visit ThirdAct.org. For suggestions regarding climate-friendly credit cards, check this pdf produced by 350Mass: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1R8jbw3laMOcOrilbnOsQdVlM7MDkf1zP/view?pli=1
A fresh breeze blew on Tuesday as almost three hundred people gathered for a climate rally in Northampton, MA. We heard from several speakers, including elders, teenagers, and faith leaders, and we chanted and sang. Then we marched down both sides of Main Street, led by an exuberant marching brass band, pausing to chant at Bank of America and TD Bank. The crowd assembled at the intersection beside the new Chase Bank office that will open at 1 King Street. Holding signs, we lined the sidewalks and cheered as about a dozen customers took turns cutting up their credit cards. Accompanied by the band’s high-spirited music, we carried out a ceremonial cutting-up of an oversized Chase Bank credit card by an oversized pair of scissors. We pledged to picket Chase Bank regularly and to make it clear that no one should bank there until it stops funding fossil fuel expansion.
I am happy to say that this rally is one of about a hundred events taking place today across the U.S. as thousands of people gather inside and outside big banks to demand climate action.
Let’s begin by taking a moment to appreciate the living world around us, to notice the gift of blue sky overheard, to notice the trees and green-growing things that give us the oxygen that fills our lungs and with whom we exchange the elements of life as we breathe in and out, to notice the good Earth beneath our feet, supporting our every step.
We are here to stand up for life and we are not alone. We will speak and sing and march in the company – and with the support – of all the creatures and elements with whom we share this planet. We affirm our kinship with them, our interdependence. As we mark the vernal equinox, a day of balance between light and dark, we renew our commitment to bring life back into balance.
With every religious tradition and with people of faith and goodwill everywhere, we renew our insistence that the Earth is holy and that it was given to us to cherish and protect, not to destroy.
Some of us are here because we’re frightened. Big banks like Chase that fund fossil fuels expansion are pushing the planet to record levels of heat, causing massive droughts, floods, monster hurricanes, and fires. Yesterday’s report from the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change makes it frighteningly clear that unless we change course fast, we won’t be able to leave our children and our children’s children a habitable world.
Some of us are here because we’re sad. Big banks like Chase that fund fossil fuel expansion are unraveling the web of life before our eyes, and we weep to acknowledge what we have lost and may soon lose, from coral reefs and glaciers to predictable seasons and moderate weather.
Some of us are here because we’re angry. We’re morally outraged when big banks like Chase continue to pour money into building new pipelines and new fracking wells, although climate scientists around the world and organizations like the International Energy Agency and the United Nations have called for an end to any fossil fuel expansion.1
Fear, sorrow, anger may have brought us here. But above all, we’re here because we love. We love this beautiful Earth. We love its creatures. We love each other. The spirit of love that connects us to each other and to the land compels us to call upon big banks: Quit propping up fossil fuels! Quit funding climate chaos! Invest instead in clean energy and climate resilience and healthy communities!
People of faith and goodwill cry out: Let it be known. Let it be known. The Earth is sacred and we won’t stand idly by and let it be destroyed.
Of the four giant banks that lend to Big Oil – Chase, Bank of America, Citibank and Wells Fargo – Chase is the biggest investor. According to the Sierra Club, in the years since the Paris Climate Agreement, Chase has been the world’s largest banker of fossil fuels. From 2016 to 2020, it poured more than $316 billion into the fossil fuel industry.
Chase wants us to believe it’s committed to going “green,” citing, for example, its pledge to reach net-zero emissions from its lending and investment portfolios by 2050. But that pledge is only hot air until Chase stops financing the expansion of fossil fuels.
Bill McKibben points out that the offices of the four big banks – including the beautiful old Silverscape Designs building that Chase will occupy – might as well have a giant smokestack coming out the top, to remind us how much carbon they produce when they lend money to expand pipelines and fracking wells.
That’s why people will head to downtown Northampton on Tuesday, March 21, to protest Chase Bank’s funding of climate chaos. Our event (https://bit.ly/ChaseRally) is being organized by many local groups and will be one of scores of nationwide events that day – from Puget Sound to the southern tip of Florida, from Dallas to Washington, D.C. – as people stand up to the big banks that so recklessly fund further development of fossil fuels.
On March 21, we’ll gather at 4:30 p.m. in Pulaski Park for a short, peaceful rally that will feature a few speakers and some singing. Then we’ll march in procession down Main Street, passing two other banks notorious for funding fossil fuel projects, TD Bank and Bank of America.
Our final stop will be the big intersection of King and Main Streets, near the location of the new Chase Bank. We want everyone to know that Chase Bank is enabling the fossil fuel industry and to urge people not to bank at Chase. After all, we have many good, green, local banks and credit unions to choose from.
I don’t know exactly who will come, but here’s what I envision. I imagine that elders like me will be there, people who’ve experienced in our lifetime a dramatic, accelerating rise in global carbon dioxide levels driven by the burning of fossil fuels. When I was born in 1951, the level of CO2 in the air had for millennia never risen above the safe, stable level of 300-310 parts per million.
Today’s level has skyrocketed to over 417 parts per million, pushing the atmosphere into territory not seen for millions of years. Humans now breathe air that our ancestors wouldn’t recognize. Elders will join the rally because we’ve witnessed this unprecedented change and are determined to leave a habitable world to those who come after us. Stopping banks from funding new fossil projects is essential to stabilizing the climate and drawing down emissions.
As I imagine it, parents will come to the rally cradling small children or pushing young ones in strollers. What is fiercer than a mother’s love? We parents want to safeguard the lives and health – indeed, the very future – of our beloved children. We’re willing to devote an hour to confirm that our love for our children and our neighbors’ children means moving our money away from banks that propel climate catastrophe and urging dirty banks to clean up their lending practices.
Students and young adults will be there, knowing that their future is at stake. Many young people are acutely aware of climate grief and anxiety and know that coming together to take action is a path to building a better future.
What’s more, opening a banking account with a green local bank rather than one of the giant banks turns out to be one of the most effective ways we can reduce our carbon footprint.
Faith leaders and members of diverse religions will join the rally because – whatever our tradition – we know that laying waste to the Earth and destroying the web of life violates our values. Faith communities have a long history of pressing successfully for social change, from child labor to women’s rights and abolition to the civil rights movement. We express our religious identity when we commit ourselves to mending a broken world.
Finally, both long-time activists and newcomers will join the rally, shaking off what experts call learned helplessness, the sense that we have no power to change a difficult situation. The truth is that we do have power to imagine a better world and can work together to bring that world into being.
Insisting that banks stop propping up the fossil fuel industry is a task that all of us can embrace. Let’s use our finances to fight climate change.
The Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas is an Episcopal priest who works to advance climate justice for the two Episcopal dioceses in Massachusetts and for Southern New England Conference, United Church of Christ. She lives with her husband in Northampton.
The first time it happened, we wondered if it was a coincidence.
Shortly before 3:00 p.m. on a Friday afternoon, Rabbi Andrea Cohen-Kiener and I walked to a branch of Bank of America located beside a highway in Springfield. Our plan was to hand-deliver a letter to the bank manager. We wanted to explain what was going to happen: we were part of a group of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim faith leaders who were about to hold a multifaith prayer vigil for climate justice at 3:00 p.m. outside the bank, urging the bank to stop funding fossil fuel projects.
Our letter explained that we would not impede sidewalk traffic or interfere with access to the bank, but that we did intend to sing, pray, and speak about the moral call to address the climate emergency. We would be urging customers to reconsider where they bank and to sign a pledge to move their money out of Bank of America if the bank continues to fund the destruction of our planet. If the fossil fuel industry can’t borrow money from large banks like Bank of America, new fossil fuel projects can’t move forward.
As we neared the bank, Rabbi Andrea commented, “I’m counting on your courage.”
Surprised, I answered, “I’m counting on your non-anxious presence.”
It’s no wonder that Jesus sent out the disciples two by two. Even if you’re sure that what you’re doing is reasonable, peaceful, and necessary, you can expect to be nervous if you’re confronting someone in power or disrupting the status quo. It strengthens the heart to have an ally at your side.
The bigger surprise was that, on a busy Friday afternoon, customers were waiting in line to enter the bank. For some reason, bank employees were examining each customer before allowing them inside and then locking the door behind them. Just as the rabbi and I finally moved up the line and reached the front door, a staff member announced that the bank was closed. No one else could enter. He didn’t look at us; he didn’t glance at the rabbi or comment on my clergy collar and stole; he simply declared to the disgruntled customers behind us that the bank had closed.
Rabbi Andrea and I were left to wonder: Was it sheer coincidence that the bank had closed just then or was it because they’d gotten wind of our prayer vigil?
We got our answer one week later. Our group was gearing up for a second multifaith prayer vigil for climate justice at 3:00 p.m. on a Friday afternoon, held this time outside a Bank of America in downtown Northampton. One of our vigil’s faith leaders, Rev. Dr. Andrea Ayvazian, dressed in clergy collar and stole, arrived early. She went inside the bank to look around.
“We’re closing,” a bank employee told her.
“Why?” asked Andrea.
“We’re closing,” came the tight-lipped reply.
By 2:00 p.m. the bank had locked its doors and posted a sign out front: Due to circumstances beyond our control, we are temporarily closed. We apologize for the inconvenience.
We went ahead with our prayer vigil, as planned. In words and song, we expressed our moral outrage that Bank of America is one of the top four banks (along with Citibank, Wells Fargo, and JPMorgan Chase) that most heavily funds the fossil fuel projects which drive the climate crisis. Bank of America has financed such controversial new projects as the Line 3 and Mountain Valley pipelines. Despite giving lip-service to the Paris Agreement (adopted in late 2015), over the next five years Bank of America provided an eye-popping $232 billion in lending and underwriting to the fossil fuel industry.
Some quotes from our press release make our perspective clear.
“No religious tradition says that we should destroy the planet,” said Rabbi Andrea Cohen-Kiener, who leads Temple Israel in Greenfield and who spoke, prayed, and blew the shofar at the vigil. “Yet this is exactly what governments, financial institutions, and major corporations are either doing or allowing – after knowing for years that fossil fuels cause climate change. It’s flat-out wrong.”
“As Muslims we believe the Almighty Creator has appointed humans as the stewards of earth. Thus, we have a sacred obligation to preserve it, and, in that spirit, we call for responsible and just climate action,” said Tahirah Amatul-Wadud, a member of the Muslim community and Executive Director of the Massachusetts chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “For the love of our neighbors, families, and all vulnerable communities, we call on Bank of America to immediately cease financing practices that are harmful and destructive to the earth and to take steps to correct the harm done.”
“Now is the time for bold and urgent action on climate change,” said the Rt. Rev. Dr. Douglas Fisher, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts, who gave the vigil’s closing prayer. “Last year the International Energy Agency made it crystal clear that any new coal, oil, and gas projects are incompatible with avoiding catastrophic climate impacts. Bank of America must stop financing climate chaos. We need to stand and work together to bring our planet into balance and to renew God’s creation.”
Right now, the world’s eyes are on COP27, the next crucial round of U.N. climate negotiations, which will begin on November 6 in Egypt. In the lead-up to COP27, under the banner of Faiths4Climate Justice, a project of GreenFaith, people around the world of many different religions have been holding sit-ins and rallies, prayer circles and die-ins to call for bold, just action by corporate and political powers to address the climate crisis. Our two prayer vigils for climate justice were part of this growing worldwide movement of religious and spiritual communities to restore reverence for Earth and to protect humanity’s hope for a livable planet.
Watch this space: JPMorgan Chase Bank is expanding into western Massachusetts and just bought a large, vacant building on the main intersection of downtown Northampton. It plans to open for business in the first half of 2023. We plan to tell them what we’re telling Bank of America: unless they take rapid steps to stop funding fossil fuels and to promote a swift, just transition to clean, renewable energies, we will make our voices heard. We will protest banks whose policies accelerate climate chaos and desecrate the world that God entrusted to our care. We want banks to stay open, serve the community, and do the right thing for the future of our planet.
Here’s where to sign one of Third Act’s two “Banking on our Future” pledges: “If by the end of 2022, Chase, Citibank, Wells Fargo, or Bank of America are still funding climate-destroying fossil fuel projects, I pledge to close my account and cut up my credit card. If I don’t bank at these institutions now, I pledge I won’t do so in the future.”
The faith leaders who led the prayer vigil in Northampton on October 28, 2022:
The Rt. Rev. Douglas J. Fisher (Bishop, Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts)
Tahirah Amatul-Wadud (member of the Muslim community; Executive Director, Massachusetts chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations)
Rev. Dr. Andrea Ayvazian (ordained minister, United Church of Christ; member of Ministerial Leadership Team, Alden Baptist Church, Springfield)
Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas (Episcopal priest; Missioner for Creation Care in Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts & Southern New England Conference, United Church of Christ, and Creation Care Advisor in Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts)
Rabbi Andrea Cohen-Kiener (Temple Israel, Greenfield)
Amihan Jennifer Matias (lay leader, Haydenville Congregational Church, United Church of Christ; Associate Director, Sojourner Truth School for Social Change Leadership)
Rev. Kate Stevens (ordained minister, United Church of Christ; recently President, Interfaith Council of Franklin County)
This article by Margaret Bullitt-Jonas first appeared in the Volume 44 (2022) issue of Buddhist-Christian Studies, published by the University of Hawai‘i Press, pp. 69-83. You can download a .pdf copy of the article here.
Facing climate crisis and ecological collapse requires courage and tenderness. Courage, because it takes courage to see clearly what human beings are doing to our precious planet. It takes courage to hold a steady gaze and to witness the melting glaciers and bleaching coral reefs, the withered fields and bone-dry reservoirs, the flash floods and massive downpours, the record waves of heat. It takes courage not to look away but to hold a steady gaze as climate change makes sea levels rise and islands disappear, as oceans grow acidic and full of plastic, and as vast populations of our fellow creatures disappear.
Tenderness brings moments – maybe this is one of them – when we allow ourselves to feel our emotional response to what we have lost and are losing as climate change accelerates and as governments and financial institutions in thrall to the fossil fuel industry fail to take decisive action to address the crisis.
I am neither an academic nor a scholar. This paper will not report on research nor analyze sacred texts. Instead, it will reflect on some of the spiritual practices and perspectives that guide my work as an Episcopal priest dedicated to mobilizing a Spirit-filled, faithful response to climate crisis.
At this hinge point of history, practitioners of every faith tradition must ask ourselves: What are the gifts that our tradition can bring to the table as the human community – and the whole Earth community – experience the rapid unraveling of the web of life? What are we called to do? In what spiritual practices shall we root ourselves so that we can rise up with determination, courage, and compassion to take effective action? I’m very interested in what helps us to move beyond inertia, panic, and despair and to give ourselves wholeheartedly to the movement to address climate change – so interested, in fact, that a friend and I asked colleagues in the faith-and-environment movement to write about their sources of spiritual strength. How do they maintain courage, empathy, and determination? Our anthology of essays is entitled Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis.1
I speak as a Christian who is deeply indebted to the wisdom of Buddhism. My late mother, Sarah Doering, was a devoted practitioner and teacher of vipassanā (insight) meditation and for seventeen years attended the three-month silent retreats at Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. Because of her teaching, counsel, philanthropy, and spiritual support, she is credited by IMS with playing a vital role in helping Buddhism to flourish in the West.2 My husband, Robert A. Jonas, has also had a long-standing interest in Buddhist practice. Years ago, he founded a small, contemplative Christian center for meditation and prayer, The Empty Bell,3 which has sponsored many Buddhist-Christian dialogues; he met His Holiness the Dalai Lama three times at Buddhist-Christian retreats in various parts of the world; and he is an active member of this society. I am also deeply grateful for Joanna Macy, with whom I’ve studied and whose teachings have helped me and countless others to reflect on our human predicament and find a path to healing. I bow to these important people in my life, and to everyone who is nourished by Buddhist teaching and practice.
My own experience of Buddhist meditation opened me to a deeper understanding of Christianity, the faith tradition in which I was born and raised, and which I fled after high school. Buddhist meditation not only facilitated my return to the church – it also gave me my first glimpse of the vocation that would become my life’s work. I began learning and practicing vipassanā meditation in the early 1980’s, when I was in my 30’s. I was just beginning to recover from a food addiction that had plagued me since adolescence, and just beginning to explore what it meant to pay attention to my inner and outer experience. I particularly remember a ten-day silent retreat that I attended at IMS. As the teacher instructed, I followed the drill: You sit. You walk. You sit. You walk. That’s it. You do nothing but bring awareness to the present moment.
One day I left the retreat house for a walk in the woods. I paid attention to sensations as they came, the feel of my foot on the ground, the sound of birds, the sight of birches, hemlock, and pine. I was nothing but eyes and ears, the weight of each foot, the breath in my nostrils. At one point I stopped walking, overwhelmed by the sense that the whole world was inside me. I was carrying the round blue planet inside my chest. My heart held the world. I cradled it tenderly, weeping with joy.
I did not know it then, but that vision of carrying the world in my heart would become one of the core images to which I would return in prayer in the decades ahead, a place of consolation that renewed my strength for climate activism. Years later, someone gave me a contemporary icon of Christ bending over the world, his arms embracing the planet.4 I caught my breath in recognition. Yes, that’s right. That’s just how it is.
Learning through vipassanā meditation to steady my mind and make contact with my actual experience opened me to a flow of love that I didn’t understand and couldn’t have predicted. Time and again, as I sat in meditation, welcoming everything into awareness, clinging to nothing and pushing nothing away, an unexpected tenderness would rise up from within and gather me up like a child. Baffled, I went back to Sunday services in the church I had fled long ago, sat in the shadowy back pews, and marveled at the possibility that the preacher who claimed that God is love was not just a blithering idiot but might actually be on to something. My recovery from addiction through the 12-Step program depended on daily surrender to a so-called Higher Power that was vaster and wiser than my fragmented, isolated ego-self. I began to hope – and then suspect – that this “higher” power might be the power of divine love.
I finished what I was doing and headed to seminary, eager to know more about the God who had saved my life. I began to study and practice Christian contemplative prayer and learned about the mystics who encountered God in silence. I was ordained in the Episcopal Church in June 1988, the same month that NASA climate scientist James Hanson warned Congress that the extraction and burning of fossil fuels was disrupting the global atmosphere. It was the first time I’d heard about what was then called the “greenhouse effect.” Stunned, I touched the newspaper with my fingers and breathed, feeling again the love for the world which had been so mysteriously revealed at that Buddhist retreat center. A question emerged that became the riddle of my life, a question that to this day fuels my vocation as a faith-based climate activist: If God can empower a crazy addict like me to make peace with her body, is it not possible that God can empower us crazed, addicted human beings to make peace with each other and the body of Earth?
For 25 years I served in parish ministry; on the side, I led retreats, taught seminary classes on prayer, and was a climate activist. Finally, in 2013, I went to my bishop in the Diocese of Western Massachusetts and confessed that I needed to leave parish ministry: anxiety about the climate crisis was keeping me awake at night. I asked if he could create a job in the diocese to let me focus full-time on mobilizing Christians to protect the living world that God entrusted to our care. God bless him, Bishop Doug Fisher said yes, if funds for such a job could be found. Lo and behold, just then a parishioner came forward who had sold his shares of stock in oil pipelines and wanted to donate the funds to the diocese to address climate change. That became the seed money for my job – which quickly went ecumenical. I now serve both of the Episcopal dioceses in Massachusetts, as well as the United Church of Christ in Southern New England, and I maintain a website, RevivingCreation.org.
Christianity is my root tradition and the one I know best, but obviously there are many ways to construct Christianity. Some versions of Christianity have inflicted, and continue to inflict, enormous harm on human beings, the land, and the other creatures with whom we share this planet. Christianity has been used to justify slavery and white supremacy, patriarchy, homophobia, colonialism, and a definition of “dominion” that permits and even encourages a wholesale assault on Mother Earth. Christianity has been hijacked to bless the Doctrine of Discovery and the unjust claims of Manifest Destiny. Who knows how many Black, brown, and indigenous peoples – as well as people of different faiths – have been enslaved, dispossessed, or killed in the name of Jesus? What’s more, growing up in the 1950’s, I heard nothing in my church about God’s love for or participation in the natural world. The God I grew up with had no body. God was pure spirit and, as far as I could tell, essentially disconnected from the material world. Among the myriad life-forms that God created, God apparently cared about only one, Homo sapiens – all the other creatures and elements of the natural world were, at best, scenic backdrop and bit players in the only drama that mattered to God: the human drama. Even now, as Rev. Cameron Trimble points out, the pews of conservative Christian churches are filled with people who believe – mistakenly – “that nature is available for our endless consumption, that short-term profit outweighs plenary survival, access to resources should be owned by a few rather than available to all, and in the end, technology will save us.”5
A socially just, ecologically wise, and spiritually mature Christianity must begin with an act of repentance and humility. In the face of climate emergency and species extinction, every religious tradition, beginning with Christianity, must reckon with the aspects of its heritage that no longer serve life and must critique, discard, or transform the practices and perspectives – however ancient and long-standing – that do not meet the challenge of this planetary crisis. At the same time, every religious tradition, including Christianity, must sift through its teachings, practices, and rituals to locate the gold, the elements of deep ecological wisdom that the human community so desperately needs. Every religious tradition, including Christianity, must also ask itself: How does this unprecedented moment in human history challenge us to evolve so that we truly serve the common good? Now is the time to ask and address these questions, for scientists tell us that we don’t have much time to avert a catastrophic level of suffering and to preserve a habitable world for our children, our children’s children, and all the other creatures with whom we share this planet.
The world around us is dying. How can we – teachers, students, and practitioners of spiritual wisdom in a variety of contexts – be of use?
Here’s an image to consider. There is a puzzle6 that consists of nine dots on a page, lined up in rows of three. The goal is to connect the dots by making four straight lines without once lifting your pencil from the page or retracing the same line. The only way to connect all nine dots with just four straight lines is to go outside the borders of the box. Solving this puzzle is an example of “thinking outside the box,” of moving beyond a given paradigm in order to perceive or accomplish something that otherwise couldn’t be perceived or accomplished.
That’s what religious and spiritual traditions are meant to do: to help confused, isolated, and fearful human beings to think, feel, and understand outside the box of our little ego-selves so that we can experience our connections to each other and to a sacred Reality greater than “I,” “me,” and “mine.” Imagine that we live in a world in which everything feels fragmented, divided, and falling apart, a world in which a beloved landscape can go up in flames, a flash flood can drown people in a subway, a mass shooting can take place in your local grocery store, and starving birds can fall dead from the sky. Imagine a world in which people feel helpless, frightened, and alone, more tethered to their cell phones and social media than to each other, more ready to arm themselves and stock food in their basement than to reach out to help a neighbor, and perfectly willing to douse their lawns with herbicides and to eat cheap beef from a factory farm because the fate of other creatures is of no concern. Imagine isolated dots, trapped in an increasingly hot, harsh, and violent world that could well tumble into social and ecological collapse.
Imagine now that we find four lines of thought or four arrows of prayerful intention that disclose an underlying wholeness and unity. What if those isolated dots – what if all of us – discovered that we were held together in a sacred reality, that we were embraced by a love that created all things, connects all things, and sustains all things? On the surface, in the realm of our senses, we might notice only differences, what divides us from each other, but in the deep center of reality we would sense common ground that holds everything together, drawing us into community with each other and drawing us into communion with the sacred Mystery that some of us call “God.” Now we would be living outside the box. And from this place we could begin to heal ourselves and an ailing world.
Here are four lines of thought, four arrows of prayerful intention that help me step out of the box and into a larger, wilder place where I can envision social and ecological healing and find strength to take action.
1. First arrow: We cultivate an interior relationship of love. In ways that resonate with Buddhism, one of the great promises of Christianity is that in silence and solitude, through practices of contemplative meditation, we can learn to listen to the inner voice of love that is always sounding in our hearts. Christians imagine Jesus in many different ways, but one of the most compelling is expressed by the 18th-century Methodist, Charles Wesley: “Jesus, thou art all compassion, pure, unbounded love thou art.”7 Like filings to a magnet, we may be drawn to that love, yearning to receive, experience, and embody it more fully every day. We may be drawn to imageless forms of prayer, such as Centering Prayer or the Jesus Prayer, which use a sacred word or two to guide our longing to encounter the Divine, the ultimate mystery beyond words, thoughts, or feelings. We may pay attention to each breath, consciously breathing in the love of God and breathing it out into the world. One of the earliest Christians, a Desert Father named Anthony, advised, “Always breathe Christ.”8 Or we may simply wish to rest in God’s loving gaze and to pray the simplest of prayers: I gaze at God, and God gazes at me. That is how the 17th-century Carmelite monk Brother Lawrence describes what he calls the practice of the presence of God. He writes, “I… concentrate on being always in [God’s] holy presence; I keep myself in [God’s] presence by simple attentiveness and a loving gaze upon God… to whom I often feel myself united with greater happiness and satisfaction than that of an infant nursing at his mother’s breast; also for the inexpressible sweetness which I taste and experience there, if I dared use this term, I would willingly call this state ‘the breasts of God.”9
Similarly, in words that recall the practice of mindfulness meditation, the 18th-century French Jesuit, Pierre de Caussade, speaks of what he calls “the sacrament of the present moment.” In my tradition, sacraments are special ceremonies that convey the grace and presence of God – outward forms that convey inward spiritual realities.10 De Caussade argues that every moment should be received with the reverence with which we receive a sacrament. Since every moment is filled with God’s infinite holiness, every moment should be honored.11
What I’m trying to describe is how we can move through our days with a deep inner stability, a confidence that moment to moment we are resting within a relationship of love. The accent is relational – we turn toward a holy You (capital Y) whose presence is with us wherever we go. Human beings thrive in the context of loving relationships, and whether sitting or standing, walking or waiting, we can tune our awareness to an intimate Someone (capital S) whom we may name and experience in different ways but in whose usually subtle but sometimes vivid presence we feel seen, known, and loved.
Why is this relevant to facing ecological collapse and climate change? Because when people are in the grip of collective trauma, they need practices that steady the mind, calm the nervous system, and restore a sense of inner safety and accompaniment. Because drawing from a sacred, inner wellspring is a source of solace and strength for anyone facing a difficult present and the likelihood of an even more difficult future.
What’s more, as climate change intensifies, we are increasingly likely to hear messages such as “The world would be better off without human beings” or “Human beings are a cancer on the planet.” I understand the bitterness and grief in statements like these, and I recognize that, in some ways, these messages are accurate: economic systems that depend on dirty fossil fuels, endless expansion, and relentless extraction of natural resources are indeed taking down life on Earth. But the only way forward is not to feed the voice of self-hatred, but instead to listen to the voice of love. Only love can empower us to imagine new possibilities, relinquish a killing status quo, and set out on a different path. When people are going mad with hatred and fear, only love can restore us to sanity.
2. Second arrow: We awaken to the love that is everywhere. Falling in love with Jesus or with the God we find within does not lock us into a private world of our own. On the contrary, when we follow Jesus, we follow him straight into the wide-open heart of the Father/Mother of our souls, the Creator who loves every inch of the created world and who, according to the mythic story, at the beginning of time pronounced everything “very good” (Genesis 1:31). Participating in the flow of divine love means that our tightly gripped sense of self must dissolve and expand. Our little ego didn’t invent this love; we didn’t create it, we can’t control it, and it’s a lot bigger than we are – or to be more accurate, bigger than who we think we are. In truth, it is the essence of who we are, what Thomas Merton would call our True Self. Even if we’d like to hoard God’s love for ourselves or our own little tribe, when we are drawn into the heart of God, we discover that everyone else is there, too. As Fr. Henri Nouwen would say,12 when I know deeply that I am the beloved – when God breaks through my layers of resistance and self-doubt and reveals that I am cherished to the core – then I discover that everyone is the beloved. Everyone is cherished by God. No one is left out.
This is a radical, out-of-the-box message in a dog-eat-dog world of frenzied competition, where people elbow each other in a zero-sum game for status, possessions, and power, and where nations and corporations too often run roughshod over the needs of the land and the needs of the poor. By contrast, a love that encompasses all people and all sentient beings calls us to live in harmony with each other and the rest of creation. Such love asserts moral values quite different from those of late-stage capitalism. I will name two: intersectional justice, and reverence for the natural world.
Intersectional justice understands that everything is connected. For instance, climate change is linked to economic and racial injustice. Although climate change is largely caused by wealthy nations and communities, its impacts are felt first and most painfully by low-income and minority communities – the very communities least likely to have contributed to the crisis, least able to adapt to it, and least likely to have a voice at the table where policy decisions are made. We risk participating in “climate apartheid,” where the rich pay to escape the increasing heat and hunger caused by the climate crisis and the rest of the world suffers.13 We also risk “climate gentrification,” where wealthy people seeking refuge from the effects of climate change move into once “undesirable” neighborhoods, forcing out low-income and minority residents.14
Climate justice is so closely linked to racial justice that some people contend that we wouldn’t have climate change without white supremacy. Where would we put our urban oilfields, our dumping grounds and trash, our biomass plants, our toxic incinerators and other polluting industries, if we weren’t willing to sacrifice Black, Brown, and indigenous communities? To quote the Sierra Club’s Hop Hopkins, “You can’t have climate change without sacrifice zones, and you can’t have sacrifice zones without disposable people, and you can’t have disposable people without racism.”15
Climate change is not one of 26 different causes that we care about – it is a cause that affects everything we cherish. The Pentagon has long called climate change a “threat multiplier,” which means that it amplifies existing problems, from national security and public health to poverty, hunger, and immigration. That is why it is so important to build an intersectional movement that pulls people out of their isolated siloes of concern and pushes for comprehensive solutions. Environmentalism used to be a movement mainly of white people defending polar bears and wilderness areas, but today’s ecological and climate justice movement realizes that people of every race and class must join together in a shared effort to live in loving relationship with each other and with the Earth upon which all life depends. In his stirring encyclical Laudato Si’, Pope Francis makes an impassioned plea for what he calls “integral ecology”: the recognition that everything is connected and that our social and environmental crises are not two separate issues but must be addressed together.16
A second ethical value that emerges when we perceive the world as pervaded by God’s love is reverence for nature. That’s what happened to me: as I recovered from my food addiction and learned to honor my body, listen to its needs, and live within its limits, I also began to connect with the natural world. I began to see that God loved not only my body – God also loved the whole “body” of creation. My prayer began to change. It was like turning my pocket inside out: whereas once I had found God mostly in silent, inward contemplation, now God began showing up around me – in the pond, the rocks, the willow tree. If you spend an hour gazing at a willow tree, after a while it begins to disclose itself, and to disclose God. I began to understand the words of poet Gerard Manley Hopkins: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”
For those of us who follow Jesus, it’s worth noting that Jesus lived close to the Earth. In the Gospels we find him walking along the seashore and up mountains, taking boats out on the lake, and spending weeks praying alone in the wilderness. His parables and stories are full of natural images: sheep, sparrows, seeds, lilies, water, fire, vines, and rocks. Jesus recognized the inherent sacredness not only of human beings but also of the whole created world, all of lit up with the presence of God. I wonder what it would be like to reclaim the kind of intimacy with the natural world that Jesus knew – to know, as he did, that “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows [God’s] handiwork” (Ps. 19:1).
St. Francis of Assisi followed in his footsteps, spending time in such intimate relationship with the elements and creatures of the natural world that he famously spoke of Brother Sun and Sister Moon. He knew that our identity doesn’t stop at our skin. Our boundaries are porous. My body is part of the Earth; the Earth is part of my body – a reality that Thich Nhat Hanh calls “inter-being.” Similarly, Robin Wall Kimmerer speaks eloquently about the reverence felt by Native Americans for the living world, “a world of being, full of unseen energies that animate everything.”17 We live in a sacred world of interrelationship and interdependence. We belong to each other. We depend on each other.
It’s easy to romanticize and sentimentalize St. Francis, but in an increasingly degraded natural world, what would it mean to take our place as humans who experience this kind of intimate connection with wild creatures and plants and all the elements that together create a balanced and healthy eco-system? Now is the time to reclaim the ancient understanding (which was never lost by indigenous peoples or by so-called “pagans”) that the natural world is sacred, that it belongs to God and is filled with God. Now is the time to dismantle the fossil-fuel mindset that treats the natural world as inert material, an object to exploit. The Earth, in fact, is a primary locus for our encounter with God. Such is the testimony of generations of Christian mystics and theologians, beginning with St. Paul (Romans 1:20). Destroying Earth is therefore a desecration, a sin against the Creator.
3. Third arrow: Wepractice sorrow, practice joy. Keeping our inner landscape alive is an essential spiritual practice when we’re tempted to shut down emotionally. Last March, when a front-page headline in big font reported that some scientists believe that a branch of the Gulf Stream is starting to weaken,18 I dropped what I was doing, lay face-down on the living room floor, and spent an hour weeping, arms outstretched. I knew that this announcement mattered. Twenty years before, at a weekend conference on climate change, I’d learned that the slowing or stopping of the Atlantic Ocean’s “conveyer belt” of currents is one of the tipping-points that could trigger far-reaching, dramatic, and very rapid changes in the Earth’s temperature, precipitation, and sea levels. Apparently, that moment had come. I needed to extend my arms over God’s good Earth. I wept with sorrow for her and for all of us.
Giving ourselves permission to experience our emotional response to a dying world is a basic practice to keep ourselves inwardly vital and alive. The Atlantic Ocean’s currents may be shutting down, but I don’t want to shut down! Falling in love with life, and with God, means consenting to be vulnerable. As C.S. Lewis points out, “To love at all is to be vulnerable.” So, we tune in to our own suffering and to the suffering of other beings – the suffering caused by injustice and cruelty, by climate change and ecological devastation. Clear-cut forests and forests going up in flames. Extinct species. Insect apocalypse. Vanishing topsoil. Disappearing wetlands. Areas of the Amazon rainforest that no longer sequester carbon but actually release it. Ocean dead zones and stalling currents. Tipping points that threaten to propel us into chaos.
How do we pray with this? Our broken-hearted prayer may need to be expressive and embodied, visceral and vocal. We may need to drum, stamp, or wail. How else can we pray with our immense anger and grief? How else can we pray about ecocide, about the death that humanity is unleashing upon Mother Earth and upon ourselves? How else can we break through our inertia and despair, so that we don’t shut down and go numb?
I am thankful to Joanna Macy for encouraging us to honor our pain for the world and to realize that our pain springs from love. The symbol in Christianity for the meeting-place of pain and love is the Cross: crucifixion is the place where evil, malice, ignorance, and confusion are perpetually met by the love of God. So, one place I go in prayer when I am overwhelmed by the pain of the world is to the cross of Christ. As I experience it, the cross of Christ is planted deep within me, and at the cross I can pour out everything that is in me – anger, fear, grief, guilt – for I trust that at the cross, everything is met by the forgiving love of God.
Crucifixion is the place where God breaks through our numbness and denial. At the foot of the cross, we can finally face and bear all that we know about the pain of the world, and where God in Christ can hold and bear whatever we cannot bear ourselves. I imagine this practice being something like the practice of tonglen in Tibetan Buddhism: I breathe in the pain and, breathing out, I release it into the cross of Christ.19 I can’t bear the pain, but Christ can bear it. I can’t forgive it all, but Christ can forgive it. Whatever I need to feel and express, all of it is met with compassion. Along the way, everything transforms, as if becoming good compost. In this time of ecological crisis, Christians may need to take hold of the power of the cross as never before.
We are blessed that many faith traditions provide rituals and practices for accessing and processing grief. In my own tradition, lament is an ancient form of prayer found in the Book of Lamentations, the Psalms, the prophets, and the words and actions of Jesus. “Blessed are those who mourn,” he says in one of his great teachings, the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:4), and several Gospel stories portray his grief. He wept at the death of Lazarus, he wept over the city of Jerusalem, and he cried out to God on the cross, using the lament of Psalm 22. When we lament, we share our anguish with God, and we dare to feel what is breaking God’s heart.
And lament can be empowering. Jewish and Christian theologians from Abraham Heschel to Walter Brueggemann (and many more) point out that lament is the beginning of criticism of an unjust social order. The powers-that-be would prefer that we stay too busy, too distracted and numb to feel our emotional responses to what unjust systems are doing to human beings and to the planet on which all life depends. What Brueggemann calls “the capacity and readiness to care, to suffer, to die, and to feel”20 is the enemy of a society built on refusing to hear the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor. Grieving is how we begin to challenge an unjust social order, cultivate hope, and open a space for bold actions commensurate with the crisis we are in.
So, let’s dare to lament! Let’s tell the truth: our hearts are breaking, because that’s how fiercely we love this beautiful, broken world that God entrusted to our care. And let’s dare to rejoice, as well! Let’s celebrate joy, wherever we find it – in the curl of an autumn leaf; in a word of appreciation, given or received; in the sensation of bare feet on soft grass or the sound of a loon letting loose her wild call. The practice of joy balances the practice of sorrow, keeping our hearts wide open, making room for everything.
4. Fourth arrow: We take bold action for healing. The U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change asserts that, in order to preserve a habitable, governable world, we must transform our society and economy away from fossil fuels at a scale and speed that are historically unprecedented. Energy companies already possess a pool of fossil fuel that is five times larger than the amount of fossil fuel that would catapult the global climate into catastrophic, runaway change if that fuel were burned. We must fight to keep that carbon in the ground, where it belongs, for the only way to avoid shooting past that 1.5º or 2º degree Celsius cap that protects us from runaway climate change is to keep 80% of known reserves of coal, gas and oil in the ground, to transition quickly to renewable sources of energy like sunshine and wind, and to protects forests, which sequester carbon.
Hearing this, we may shrink back, telling ourselves: That will never happen. We’re too far gone. It’s too big for me to deal with.
There is a Bible passage, often read at weddings, which Christian mystics interpret as God speaking to the soul. It begins like this: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away” (Song of Solomon 2:10). Like a tenacious lover, God summons us: “Arise.” From what must we arise? Maybe we hear: Arise from apathy, numbness, and fear. Arise from hopelessness: I will give you strength. Arise from loneliness: I am with you. Arise and come away: leave the cult of death. Leave the path of folly. Abandon the lie that your efforts are useless. Come with me and join the dance of life. Come be a sacred warrior, a warrior for the common good. I will help you find your place in the great struggle to protect life and to build a more just society.
“But” we may protest, feeling helpless before the horrors of the world, helpless before injustice and needless suffering. “Who am I? I have no power.”
“What can I do? What can any of us do? It’s too late to make a difference!”
“I don’t have time. I don’t have energy. I’ve got other things to deal with.”
The voice of love is like that. It may be soft, difficult to hear in a noisy world, but it is persistent. It may be subtle, but it never goes away. The love that created the universe, the love that stirs in our depths, the love that awakens our hearts – that holy love sends us out into the world to become beacons of light, warriors for truth, and protectors of life. I may have a thousand and one reasons to dodge love’s call, but then it comes again, that voice: Arise. I love you. I need you. I am calling from the trees, from the wind, from the very stones beneath your feet. I am calling from the orcas and the salmon, from the black bear and the mountains, from the fig trees and the vines. I am calling from the people already suffering from a wounded Earth and a changing climate. I am calling from the future, from those who will inhabit this planet long after you are gone and who depend on you to leave them a habitable world. Arise, my love, and join the effort to save our precious planet. Arise!
Roused by that holy voice, we receive fresh strength to renew the face of the Earth. And we arise, joining with indigenous leaders to protect the water and the land, joining with activists to stop new pipelines, joining with city-dwellers to renew communities crushed by poverty and racism, joining with young and old to plant new forests. We use our voices and our votes as we fight to make it politically possible to do what is scientifically necessary. We support the movement to hold polluters like Exxon and Koch Industries financially and legally liable for the damages they knowingly caused and continue to cause. We lobby for policies that support renewable energy, clean green jobs, and a just transition that meets the needs of poor and low-wealth communities and communities of color. If we have financial resources, we divest from fossil fuels. If we are college graduates, we push our alma mater to divest. Maybe we join the growing numbers of resolute people who carry out peaceful civil disobedience and we put our bodies on the line. Together we need to grow the boldest, most visionary, inclusive, powerful, hope-filled, hands-on, feet-on-the-ground, shoulder-to-the-wheel political and social movement that humanity has ever seen.
I am strengthened when I remember that I and other Christians are called to bear witness to resurrection, to a love that transcends death. In our baptism, we are immersed in the waters of death. We die in Christ and we die with Christ. And then we rise with Christ: from now on, our death is done with. It is behind us. We have died with Christ and are now alive in Christ. To whatever extent we can take this in, we are set free from anguish and anxiety, set free to love without grasping, possessiveness, or holding back. In the early centuries of the Church, Christians were called “those who have no fear of death.”21 That inner fearlessness, rooted in the love of God, empowered the early Christians to resist the unjust powers of the state: early on they were charged with “turning the world upside down” (Acts 17:6) and “acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor (Acts 17:7). Their inner liberation gave them courage to resist the forces of death and destruction, and to obey God rather than any human authority (Acts 5:29).
I don’t know if we will avert climate chaos. But I do know that every degree of temperature-rise matters; indeed, every tenth of a degree of temperature-rise matters. So, we throw ourselves wholeheartedly into serving life, and, whatever comes, we put our trust in the divine love that never dies. As one ancient Hebrew prophet put it: “Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vine; though the produce of the olive fails, and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold, and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will exult in the God of my salvation. GOD, the Lord, is my strength” (Habbakuk 3:17-19a). The same conviction is expressed in a prayer in the Episcopal burial service: “All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”22
I stake my life on love’s four arrows: love within, love beyond, love that willingly suffers, and love that takes action and refuses to settle for a killing status quo. These four arrows pull us out of the box of ordinary consciousness, the box of business as usual, and into a larger, more connected space: a space of healing and transformation.
1. Leah Schade and Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, ed., Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2019). The book includes study questions and spiritual practices.
7. Charles Wesley, “Love divine, all loves excelling,” Hymn 657, The Hymnal 1982 (New York: The Church Hymnal Corporation, 1985).
8. Anthony, quoted by Athanasius of Alexandria, in The Roots of Christian Mysticism, Olivier Clément (London: New City, 1993), 204.
9. Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection, The Practice of the Presence of God, translated with an intro. By John J. Delaney (Garden City, New York: Image Books, Doubleday, 1977), 68, 69.
10. To be more exact, “An Outline of the Faith” in the Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer defines sacraments as “outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace” (New York: The Church Hymnal Corporation, 1979), 857.
11. Jean-Pierre de Caussade, The Sacrament of the Present Moment, trans. by Kitty Muggeridge, intro. by Richard J. Foster (New York: HarperCollins, 1989).
12. Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World (New York: Crossroad, 1992).
19. In my book, Christ’s Passion, Our Passions (Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 2002), pp. 9-13, I describe a way of prayer I call “Grounding in the Cross,” based on Macy’s presentation of tonglen.
20. Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978), 41.
21. Olivier Clement, The Roots of Christian Mysticism (London: New City, 1993), 107.