On October 3, 2021, I helped to lead a multifaith service of prayer, celebration, and resolve at Old South Church in downtown Boston. Organized by Rev. Fred Small, Policy Director of Massachusetts Interfaith Power & Light, “Love. Earth. Justice.” brought together representatives of indigenous, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Protestant, and Roman Catholic communities. Near the beginning of the service, I spoke about climate grief; at the end, I offered a blessing.
Lament for Creation
Friends, I want to acknowledge the courage and the tenderness in this room. 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, the 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.
Thank you for your courage, and thank you, too, for your tender heart. Thank you for all the moments – and maybe this is one of them – when you allow yourself to feel your emotional response to what we have lost and are losing as climate change accelerates and as governments in the thrall of the fossil fuel industry fail to take decisive, meaningful action to address the crisis.
Here in this quiet space and with the support of each other’s company, virtually and in person, I want to honor our tender hearts. Grief is the normal, healthy response to loss, but the culture we live in doesn’t handle grief well. Have you noticed that? Maybe we sidestep our grief because we’re afraid of looking weak, sentimental, morbid, or pathetic. Or because we’ve taken in the constricting message, “Big boys don’t cry” and “Nice girls don’t get angry.” And some of us avoid thinking about climate change because we fear that our emotions will overwhelm us.
Are we willing – can we allow ourselves – to take a moment, or maybe more than a moment, to feel our grief, fear, and outrage as parts of the world become too hot and humid for humans to survive, as children choke from asthma in our inner cities, as millions of climate migrants are displaced from their homes, or as the great redwoods burn, those ancient trees that survived for thousands of years and through hundreds of fires and could now disappear because of forest mismanagement and a changed climate?
Are we willing – can we allow ourselves – to take a moment, or maybe more than a moment, to mourn the loss of the ivory-billed woodpecker, which once thrived in swamplands down South and this week was officially declared extinct? According to the Washington Post, it earned the nickname “The Lord God Bird” “because it was so big and so beautiful that those blessed to spot it blurted out the Lord’s name.” Actually, every creature, every species, is a manifestation of God. As Thomas Berry says [The Dream of the Earth], “To wantonly destroy a living species is to silence forever a divine voice.”
And now “The Lord God Bird” is dead.
Can we feel it? Can we pause for a moment and feel it?
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, in the Psalms, in the Prophets, and in the words and actions of Jesus. 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. Lament can’t be dismissed as just self-pity or whining. Lament is a deep outpouring of sorrow to God. It means daring to share our anguish with God. It means daring to feel what is breaking God’s heart.
And lament can be empowering. 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 much 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”1 is the enemy of any 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 world that God entrusted to our care.
Where do you feel the ache of the Earth? What is breaking your heart?
Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978), 41.
Climate Change, Addiction, and Spiritual Liberation
This article by Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas was published by Religions on 1 September 2021 as part of a special issue, “Spirituality and Addiction.”
1. An Addict’s World
The addict looks away. The addict sees but does not see. She does not want to see. There is nothing to see here. Change the subject.
The addict is empty. She does not have enough. She must be filled. She must be filled right now.
The addict carries out repetitive, compulsive rituals that disconnect her from self, others, Earth, and the sacred.
The addict functions like a machine. She repeats the same behavior over and over, despite its harmful consequences to herself and perhaps to others, too.
The addict is ruthless. She dominates, forces, and exploits. The addict treats everything, including herself, as an It.
The addict is cut off from her body. Who cares what the body wants? She ignores and overrides the body, its wisdom and needs.
The addict is cut off from the rest of the natural world.
The addict lies to herself and she lies to others. (There is no problem here. Do you see a problem? I do not see a problem).
The addict is numb. She does not feel.
The addict is self-centered, isolated, and alone.
The addict is used to this. This is normal. This is the way things are. Nothing will ever change.
The addict is powerless. She is trapped. She cannot stop herself. She intends to change, she plans to change, she promises to change, she tries to change. She does not change.
The addict hates herself. Her life is unmanageable.
2. A Story of Recovery
Writing these words, I conjure up my state of mind forty years ago, when I was gripped by an eating disorder. As a teenager and young adult, I ate compulsively. To compensate for the binges, which I carried out in secret, I ran endless miles, tried every diet under the sun, and fasted for days on end. I made endless vows—this time I would not eat more than I needed; this time I would overcome my cravings—but my vows, however ardently expressed, had no power to set me free. Inevitably, I went back to the box of donuts, or the jar of peanut butter devoured hastily and with the shades drawn, lest anyone see me, lest I see myself.
My drug was food. As any addict knows, addiction distorts and numbs our awareness of the body. In those years of compulsive overeating, I paid little attention to my body’s rhythms or needs. Feelings did not matter. So what if I was sad or lonely? So what if I was angry, excited or bored? Whatever I felt, I swallowed it down with food and set out for another grueling run. Was it night-time and was my body eager for sleep? I did not care. I would stay up late, make a tour of the all-night supermarket, and eat until my stomach ached. Was I disappointed and needing to cry, or angry and needing to be heard? Quick—I would pave over those feelings and force some cheese or chocolate down my throat. Was my body aching from the abuse I dished out? Too bad. After a bout of bingeing, I would get up the next morning and go out for a seven-mile run, maybe start another fast or launch another stringent diet. Pummel and punish the body—that was my motto. Clear-cut the forest and move on.
Like every addict who has lost control, I could not stop what I was doing, and I saw no way out. At last, through the grace of God, at the age of thirty, I found a path to recovery. Now almost seventy, I sing the familiar words of the hymn “Amazing Grace”—I once was lost and now am found—and look back with gratitude to 13 April 1982, the day I walked into a Twelve-Step meeting and held up the white flag of surrender: Help. I give up. My life is unmanageable. I could not fight the battle any longer, for it was a battle I always lost. I needed help beyond myself. I needed a Higher Power. I had to make peace with my body or die (Bullitt-Jonas 1998).
That day was the turning-point of my life, the beginning of a journey to wholeness. One day at a time, I began practicing the Twelve-Step Program of Overeaters Anonymous and dug into the physical, emotional, and spiritual work of reconciling with my body, myself, and the important people in my life. I began to take responsibility for the first bit of nature entrusted to my care—my body. Day by day I began to honor its limits and listen to its needs. I met regularly with a psychotherapist and began to untangle my inner knots. Additionally, I embarked on a spiritual search. Impelled by an intense desire to know what was real, what was lasting, trustworthy, and true, I ventured back into the church I had long ago abandoned and sat in the shadowed back pew so that I could listen from afar. I longed to know who God was, and how to meet God in my own experience. I began to study and practice meditation and prayer.
My mind, it turned out, was as jumpy as water on a hot skillet. I was surprised by the inner racket: worries, memories, regrets, and plans. Arguments, scraps of music, commercial jingles. How could I love God, my neighbor, or myself if I was perpetually distracted? I learned to bring awareness to the breath and to return to the present moment, disciplining my attention so that I could perceive more accurately what was here. As my mind settled down, strong feelings surged through me. Shame, sorrow, anger, yearning— for years, they had been tamped down in my long bout with addiction, but now, here they were, roaring back to life. I sat with the feelings and breathed, learning to give them space and let them be. The feelings ebbed and flowed. They always passed. No one died. In fact, the more I allowed them to come and go, the more spacious I felt, and the more truly alive. Love kept showing up. When I welcomed everything into awareness, clinging to nothing and pushing nothing away, an unexpected tenderness would eventually rise up from within and gather me up like a child. I went off for a ten-day silent retreat at a meditation center in western Massachusetts. I followed the drill: You sit. You walk. You sit. You walk. That is 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. My thoughts lay still. 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.1 I caught my breath in recognition. Yes, that’s right. That’s just how it is.
3. Climate Change and Addiction
Two years after starting my recovery I finished what I was doing, made a swerve, and headed to seminary. I needed to know: Who is the God who just saved my life? I was ordained in the Episcopal Church in June 1988. Not two weeks later, I picked up the New York Times and was startled by its front-page headline, “Global warming has begun (Shabecoff 1988).” NASA climate scientist James Hanson had testified to a congressional committee that scientists were becoming alarmed about the so-called “greenhouse effect” of burning fossil fuels. Human activity—driven by an economy dependent on coal, gas, and oil—was pushing the planet past its limits. The relentless extraction and burning of fossil fuels was polluting the global atmosphere with heat-trapping gasses; therefore, the atmosphere was rapidly heating. Scientists were concerned that the relentless consumption of dirty fossil fuels would disrupt the fragile balance of life. Great suffering lay ahead if we did not change course. We needed to stop what we were doing.
From that day forward, I began to track news about climate change. It became increasingly clear that the society in which I lived was behaving with the reckless abandon of an addict. In the ruthless push to drill oil wells, construct pipelines, blow off mountain- tops, devour forests, and gobble up every last resource of the planet, we are laying waste to the land, air, and water upon which all life depends. The most vulnerable groups—low- income and Black, Brown, Indigenous, and people of color communities—are those hurt first and hardest by the effects of climate change, although even wealthy and privileged communities are beginning to suffer (Sengupta 2021). The resonance with addiction is haunting: as a society and a species we are caught up in highly destructive patterns of over-consumption and we have been unwilling or unable to quit.
In the months after James Hansen’s testimony, a question emerged that became the riddle of my life, a question that fuels my vocation as a faith-based climate activist to this day: If God can empower a crazy addict such as me to make peace with their body, is it not possible that God can empower a crazed, addicted humanity to make peace with each other and the body of Earth?
4. The Shock of Climate Change
When I step outside this morning, I smell smoke. Haze blurs the heated air. Plumes of wildfire smoke that traveled thousands of miles across the country have reached us here in New England. With every breath, we inhale the residue of forests burning in western North America. Traces of distant trees that were set ablaze in massive fires sparked by unprecedented drought and heat now line our lungs. We are all connected.
Midway through the tumultuous, scorching summer of 2021, the damage caused by climate change is increasingly visible. Each day brings new reports of extreme heat, drought, fire, and floods. (Extreme precipitation is linked to global warming, because warmer air holds more water and therefore deposits more water when it rains—just as a larger bucket can hold and deposit more water). The American West and Southwest are gripped by megadrought, an extraordinarily brutal and persistent drought which is draining reservoirs, withering fields, and increasing the spread of enormous wildfires. The Pacific Northwest, a usually cool and foggy part of the world, has roasted in record-setting levels of heat. Hundreds of people died in what one expert called “the most anomalous heat event ever observed on Earth.”2 North America is not the only place experiencing record temperatures—so, too, are the Middle East, South Asia, and Russia (Tharoor 2021). Meanwhile, torrential rains have drenched the mid-Atlantic. As much as ten inches of rain fell in southeastern Pennsylvania in under four hours. In China, terrified commuters riding subways stood on seats and clung to poles to avoid floodwaters from record-breaking rains.3 Flooding recently killed hundreds of people in Central Europe, Uganda, Nigeria, and Italy. Famine stalks Madagascar as a drought tied to climate change dries up waterholes and crops. In Siberia, tens of thousands of square miles of forest are on fire, potentially releasing carbon into the atmosphere from the frozen ground below.
Today’s headlines are frightening and stark, and they come in rapid succession. Fossil fuel emissions have disrupted Earth’s atmosphere and biosphere even more quickly and dramatically than scientists predicted only a few years ago. If society is an addict dependent on coal, gas, and oil, then the addiction has reached its crisis point: Will we change course or will billions of us die, taking down with us the lives of countless other beings?
In a State of the Union address delivered in 2006, President George W. Bush warned of America’s addiction to oil (Bush 2006). Of course, our dangerous relationship with fossil fuels does not function exactly like a substance addiction—we are not busily injecting oil into our veins in an effort to get high or experiencing DTs if access to coal is withdrawn. However, our society and economy—indeed, our whole way of life—does function like a person with a behavioral or process addiction: we are wretchedly, tragically—as a Christian, I would add “sinfully”—continuing to carry out activities that quickly or slowly will kill us and that are already killing countless people and other living beings worldwide. More than one Secretary General of the United Nations has called our present course “suicidal”. Another word that comes to mind is “ecocidal.” Indeed, a global panel of experts is now drafting a law to make ecocide—widespread destruction of the environment—a crime that can be prosecuted under international law (Saddique 2021; Surma et al. 2021).
5. Denial and Truth-Telling
What insights from the dynamics of addiction and recovery might inform our efforts to save what is left of the web of life and our struggle to preserve a habitable world? Six themes rise to the top: denial and truth-telling; isolation and community; grieving our losses; taking moral responsibility; praying the Serenity Prayer; and urgency, fear, and love. Let us begin with denial and truth-telling. Built into addictive processes is the addict’s insistent refusal or inability to perceive the reality or magnitude of the harm their behavior is causing themselves or others. Denial and minimization are characteristic ways that addicts avoid confronting their problem. As we wrote in Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis, when it comes to facing the truth of climate change (Schade and Bullitt-Jonas 2019, pp. xx–xxi):
The American public’s widespread denial of climate change has had a stunning run. This is understandable, given that most people want to avoid thinking about something as deeply troubling as the Earth’s climate crisis spinning out of control. We humans seem to have a built-in knack for delaying as long as possible the recognition of particularly troublesome facts. Some of us even turn denial and avoidance into a fine art. As comedian George Carlin observed, “I don’t believe there’s any problem in this country, no matter how tough it is, that Americans, when they roll up their sleeves, can’t completely ignore.”
However, we cannot ascribe the robust denial of climate change among many Americans solely to a supposed national capacity for dodging reality as long as possible. Nor should we assume that the denial of climate change and addiction to oil is a purely internal, mental problem that springs from a disorder in the brain, as one science writer has proposed (Stover 2014). Nor is denial just a “defect of character”, to use the language of the Twelve-Step Program—it is actually being generated and amplified by external forces, vested interests that have been hard at work since the late 1980s, spending billions of dollars in a deliberate campaign of disinformation to keep the American public confused about the reality, causes, and urgency of climate change (Oreskes and Conway 2011; Gelbspan1997; Union of Concerned Scientists 2007).
Today, as Michael E. Mann explains in his masterful new book, The New Climate War, because the devastating impacts of climate change are now obvious in the daily news cycle, “the forces of denial and delay . . . can no longer insist, with a straight face, that nothing is happening. Outright denial of the physical evidence of climate change simply isn’t credible anymore.” As a result, fossil fuel corporations and oil-funded governments that continue to profit from our dependence on fossil fuels are shifting tactics to “a softer form of denialism” based on deception, distraction, and delay (Mann 2021, p. 3). This is what Mann calls “the new climate war,” and the planet is losing.
Breaking through denial, whether its source be internal or external, is an essential aspect of climate activism. Climate activism faces outward: we have urgent work to do on the streets, in boardrooms, and in the backrooms where decisions are made. Mobilizing an effective, systemic response to the crisis at hand requires contending with political and corporate powers that seek to mire us in denial, distraction, and delay.
However, climate activism faces inward, too, as we reckon with our own layers of denial. You do not need to be a full-fledged climate sceptic who challenges the conclusions of mainstream science to be a person who slips into denial. Kari Marie Norgaard, a Professor of Sociology and Environmental Studies at the University of Oregon, has written helpfully about what she calls “the everyday denial of climate change, (Norgaard 2012)” the way that ordinary people who feel overwhelmed by the climate crisis simply change the subject to more manageable topics rather than face their guilt, fear, and helplessness. She connects this with the work of Robert Jay Lifton and Richard Falk, who studied, in relation to nuclear peril, “the absurdity of the double life”: the way that people can live in two realities, being aware, on the one hand, of an enormous existential threat, while desperately clinging, on the other hand, to a pretense of conventional, ordinary reality.
We probably experience this cognitive dissonance in our own lives: although some part of us is aware that climate change looms over everything, we do our best to avoid thinking about it and we keep our focus on the immediate concerns of daily life. Friends of mine confess that even though they know that climate change is real, they do not pay very much attention to it: it is too painful to consider; they prefer to focus on more immediate, manageable concerns. In her brilliant novel, Weather, Jenny Offill evokes the difficulty of holding in mind both the close-in immediacy of our intimate, daily lives and the terrifying, large-scale reality of the unfolding climate catastrophe (Offill 2020).
Nevertheless, overcoming personal and collective denial is foundational to the on-going work of recovering from addiction and creating a more just and sustainable future. As a recovering addict, I know how hard it can be to face, and keep facing, the truth: I remember how, in the early months of recovery, I needed to be reminded multiple times a day that I was a compulsive overeater and that a good day was a day in which I did not hurt myself with food. Unless I stayed in touch with allies in the Twelve-Step Program and unless I used its tools and carried out its Steps, it was simply too easy to slide back into denial and into the “stinking thinking” that led to relapse.
Similarly, as a faith-based climate activist, I must renew my commitment every day to dissolve my denial and to face reality as it is, not as I wish it were. That is not easy. As T.S. Eliot put it, “Humankind cannot bear very much reality (Eliot 1971, p. 118).” Can I make daily space in my mind and heart for the reality of climate change? Can I do something each day to keep myself informed, honor my emotional response, and carry out whatever actions I can that will contribute to healing? Just as an addict must renew her commitment to her own recovery daily, can we who live in an addictive society renew our commitment to overcome denial of the climate crisis daily, and take some action, large or small, that leads to healing?
6. Isolation and Community
The Twelve-Step recovery process is carried out in community. Part of the power of the Twelve-Step model is the candor of its small group sharing: in every meeting, addicts seeking recovery share the truth of their lives and their desire to be sober (or drug-free or abstinent). We encounter each other as equals, because everyone, whether newcomer or old-timer, is in some sense a beginner and as dependent as anyone else on a power beyond themselves. In that circle of sometimes raw self-disclosure, we share our vulnerabilities and our experience, strength, and hope. Addiction is often called a disease of isolation, and by attending meetings, making phone calls, sponsoring and being sponsored, and carrying out acts of service, we gradually learn to find our place in a larger community. If, as Ann and Barry Ulanov so aptly put it, “Sin is the refusal to get our feet wet in the ocean of God’s connectedness (Ulanov and Ulanov 1982, p. 96),” then the Twelve-Step model of healing in community is a release from sin. We are pulled into a current of connectedness that empowers us to set each other free: I may not be able to stop myself from overeating, but you can help me to stop; you may not be able to stop yourself from overeating, but I can help you to stop. To an addict who has white-knuckled countless lonely, failed attempts to kick the habit, entering the stream of relationships in a Twelve-Step Program can offer what feels like a miracle: buoyed by the support we feel all around us, it becomes much less difficult—perhaps even easy—to stay sober or abstinent, one day at a time. The antidote to addiction is connection.
I have never experienced a Twelve-Step meeting organized around recovery from addiction to fossil fuels or to exploiting the Earth,4 but I understand the power of relationships to sustain my work as a climate activist. Who are the people to whom I can confess my confusion, fear, grief and outrage about the devastation of Earth and Earth’s communities, both human and other-than-human? Who are the people seeking to move through their own despair and into a life of service? Who are the people trying to amend their lives so that they live more gently on the Earth and who inspire me to do the same? Who are the people committed to making sacrifices and taking risks for the sake of keeping fossil fuels in the ground and protecting life as it has evolved on this planet? These are some of the people I want to be close to, because I can learn from them and grow with them. Even if we never sit together in one room, even if they live someplace far away—indeed, even if I never meet them and never even learn their names—they are my circle of support, allies in my own struggle to live in harmony and balance with Earth.
“Don’t talk, don’t trust, don’t feel”—those three core rules of alcoholic and dysfunctional family systems were laid out by Dr. Claudia Black years ago in her seminal book, “It Will Never Happen to Me!” (Black 1981). Some of the other rules include “don’t think” (about what is going on) and “don’t question” (what is happening). Whenever we gather to talk honestly about the climate crisis, trust each other with our truth, dare to feel our feelings, think about what is going on, and ask questions about what is happening, we transgress those dysfunctional dynamics and begin to build a more authentic and resilient network of relationships. Simply breaking the silence around climate change—speaking honestly to a friend about one’s worry or concern—can be the beginning of release from the paralyzing isolation that tells us that climate change is too big, too frightening, or too political to discuss.
Experiencing the healing power of connections extends to our relationship with the natural world. Just as addicts generally treat their bodies with violence or contempt, so most of us in today’s dominant culture were raised to override and ignore the needs of the living world around us. Nature was supposed to be at our beck and call, a limitless resource that human beings were entitled to drain—nothing more than commodities to be bought, sold, processed, consumed, and discarded. Many Westerners are only beginning to acknowledge our deep alienation from the rest of the created order and are only now discovering the deep wisdom of Indigenous traditions and our own mystical traditions, which speak of the essential interconnectedness, sacredness, and mutuality of everything that exists.
Learning to cultivate loving, life-giving relationships with other people and with the other creatures and elements with whom we share the planet is medicine for addiction of every kind.
7. Grieving Our Losses
Facing addiction requires facing grief. Addicts who are beginning their journey of recovery will likely have many losses to grieve, such as a failed marriage, a lost job, a damaged reputation, or estranged co-workers, children, and friends. Furthermore, in relinquishing their drug of choice, addicts are also losing what seemed to be their lover or best friend, the substance or behavior to which they clung—even if they hated it—in order to manage their life. Not only that, when addicts stop using their drug, the feelings that had been suppressed by their compulsive behavior will likely come surging back into awareness: grief, shame, fear, anger, loneliness, confusion, the whole nine yards. Living into recovery, a day at a time, can be an emotionally turbulent process.
Confronting the climate crisis likewise requires acknowledging grief and other painful feelings. Grief is the normal, healthy response to loss, but the dominant culture in which we live does not handle grief well. Many of us tend to sidestep or suppress our grief, fearing that we will look weak, sentimental, morbid, or pathetic. We may also avoid thinking about climate change because we fear being overwhelmed by our emotions. 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 being made extinct? Who wants to allow an emotional response to hearing that climate change is already making parts of the world too hot and humid for humans to survive (Mellen and Neff 2021)? Or that unchecked climate change could collapse whole eco-systems quite abruptly, starting within the next ten years (Berwyn 2020)? Or that the natural world is at a far greater risk from climate breakdown than was previously thought (Harvey 2020)? Stunned by the gravity of news such as this, many of us feel helpless and turn away. The scale of the problem feels too big in comparison with our one small life and our limited powers. We might as well cling to business as usual for as long as we can—drive, shop, send the kids to school, earn the promotion, fix supper, check social media—and let someone else handle the bigger problem, maybe the experts or maybe future generations. We might as well stay distracted, busy, and numb. We might as well zone out for as long as possible.
Emotional withdrawal is a natural response to trauma. We are all living in the context of ongoing and accelerating global trauma, even if our corner of the world has not yet borne the full brunt of climate change. It is understandable if we are inclined to anesthetize ourselves and shut down emotionally. However, shutting down is its own form of suffering. As Franz Kafka observed, “You can hold yourself back from the sufferings of the world, that is something you are free to do and it accords with your nature, but perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering you could avoid.”
It is easier to release into grief when we feel supported, understood, and upheld. This is where the power of community comes in. Like addicts recovering in the Twelve-Step Program, we do not have to tremble in fear or shed tears alone. A variety of circles have formed in recent years to help participants grapple with the spiritual and existential questions raised by climate emergency and other forms of collective trauma. Among others, they include The Work That Reconnects, based on the teachings of Joanna Macy; Rabbi Jennie Rosen’s organization, Dayenu; and Margaret Klein Salomon’s Climate Awakening.5 Psychological and psychiatric associations are increasingly aware of the mental health challenges posed by social and ecological breakdown and are training clinicians to address these issues in their work with clients.6 Parish leaders also have a golden opportunity to gather members of their congregation for prayerful, small-group conversations about climate change and to create communities of truth-telling that allow the honest expression of pain.
We are blessed that many faith traditions provide tools and rituals for accessing and processing grief. Learning practices of contemplative prayer and meditation can be helpful, because they give traumatized people a technique to calm down, steady the mind, and quiet the nervous system. Contemplative prayer, often defined as “a long, loving look at the real,” resonates with the Zen teaching, “Stay present to what’s happening.” In a time of emotional turbulence and agitation, contemplative prayer can help us cultivate trust and patience. We learn to sit still in the midst of uncertainty, to wait in the darkness, to relinquish our anxious and futile quest to stay in control, and to listen for the inner voice of love. To cite the psalmist: “Be still . . . and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:11).
From out of the stillness, feelings arise that may need expression—even visceral, bodily expressions, such as wailing, stamping, dancing,7 drumming, and singing. Expressive prayer is essential to articulating grief, whether we do it together or alone. Lament is an ancient form of prayer found in the Psalms, in the prophets, and in the words and actions of Jesus. 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. Lament is not self-pity nor is it simply whining. Lament is a deep outpouring of sorrow to God. Learning how to pray with painful feelings can help us to grow in intimacy with God and to experience solidarity with everyone who suffers (Bullitt-Jonas 2000). Spiritual directors with an awareness of the dynamics of addiction can help the people they guide to explore pathways of prayer that allow the expression of feelings (Bullitt-Jonas 1991).
Lament, especially public lament, can be empowering. Theologians such as Walter Brueggemann (Brueggemann 1978; Sharp 2011, pp. 179–205), drawing on the work of Dorothee Soelle, Jurgen Moltmann, and Abraham Heschel, have brilliantly shown us that lament is the beginning of criticism of an unjust social order. Articulating anguish and experiencing passion—defined as “the capacity and readiness to care, to suffer, to die, and to feel (Brueggemann 1978, p. 41)”—is the enemy of any society built on ignoring the cries of the marginalized and oppressed, the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor. Lament can end in hope or praise, because in lament we experience the presence of a living, loving, and liberating God. Lament can lead to action, because the more we experience our unshakable union with a love which is stronger than death, the freer we will be to take actions commensurate with the emergency in which we find ourselves.
The climate crisis brings us to our knees. It also brings us to our feet.
8. Taking Moral Responsibility
Basic to the process of recovery in the Twelve-Step Program is taking moral responsibility for one’s actions. Addiction is not “a moral issue,” if by that we mean that addicts are “weak” or “bad” people without moral principles; in fact, addicts are people with a complex medical disease or condition. However, addiction does have a moral dimension: you cannot be set free from addictive behavior unless you carry out a deep houseclean- ing. Seven of the Twelve Steps (Steps 4–10) engage recovering addicts in a thorough and ongoing process of growth in moral self-awareness, accountability, and responsibility.
Reckoning with our moral responsibility for contributing to the climate crisis is complex (Jenkins 2008, 2013; Moore and Nelson 2010; Northcott 2007; Rasmussen 1996). Climate change is a justice issue on many levels. For starters, it is an issue of social and economic justice, because impoverished individuals, communities, and nations are those who suffer the effects of climate change first and hardest; they are the ones least able to adapt, and the ones least likely to have a seat at the table where policy decisions are made. Climate change is also an issue of international justice. As the Union of Concerned Scientists points out, “The world’s countries emit vastly different levels of heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere (Union of Concerned Scientists 2008)”. Climate change is caused mostly by the wealthy nations—developed countries and major emerging economies lead in total carbon dioxide emissions—but it is the poorer nations which are most vulnerable to its painful effects. The question of international justice becomes even more pointed when considering the per capita consumption of fossil fuels. Saudi Arabia and the United States are tied in first place for the world’s highest per capita carbon emissions, far outpacing the per capita outputs of poor nations (Statista 2021). One analysis reviewed public health studies of the effects of burning fossil fuels and concluded that the lifestyles of about three average Americans create enough planet-heating emissions to kill one person (Millman 2021).
Climate change is a matter of intergenerational justice, because right now we are stealing a habitable Earth from our children and our children’s children. If we continue with business as usual, we will leave a ruined world to those who come after us. No wonder so many members of the Sunrise Movement 8 and so many other young climate activists are angry!
Climate justice is likewise inextricably linked to racial justice. In the piercing words of Hop Hopkins, the Sierra Club’s Director of Organizational Transformation, “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 (Hopkins 2020).”
Perhaps we must speak of interspecies justice, as well, because for the first time in the planet’s history, a single species, Homo sapiens, is in the process of wiping out vast populations of other creatures, and even entire species. Driven by climate change and other pressures of human activities, the world’s wildlife populations have plummeted by more than two-thirds in the last 50 years, according to a 2020 report by the World Wildlife Fund (Rott 2020). We are also in the midst of Earth’s sixth extinction event. With dismay, scientists are describing what they call a “biological annihilation (Ceballos et al. 2017).” Recognizing that we are now in an emergency that threatens human civilization, one expert commented, “This is far more than just being about losing the wonders of nature, desperately sad though that is . . . This is actually now jeopardizing the future of people. Nature is not a ‘nice to have’—it is our life-support system (Carrington 2018).”
To push away the horror—and the responsibility—it might be tempting to shift the blame for the climate crisis onto the generations that preceded us. “After all,” we may tell ourselves, “burning fossil fuels began long before I was born; people have been burning fossil fuels since the eighteenth century, when the Industrial Revolution began.” However, adults such as me cannot get away with that attempt at moral deflection (which is so characteristic of an addict): more than half of all CO2 emissions since 1751 were emitted in the last 30 years (Stainforth 2020). That is, in a single lifetime—ours.
Clearly, the climate crisis is not only a scientific, political, economic, or technical issue — it is a moral issue, as well. What if members of a high-carbon, high-consumption society faced our guilt and took Step 4 (“Made a searching and moral inventory of ourselves”)? What if we carried out the Steps that follow and took bold, even radical action to address the moral injustice of climate change?
Taking personal responsibility means that each of us does our part to solve the problem. Many of us start reducing our personal and household “carbon footprint.” We recycle, we buy less stuff, we eat less meat and move toward a plant-based diet. We do whatever we can afford to do—install solar panels, buy an electric car, eat local, organic foods, upgrade insulation, turn down the heat, use less air conditioning. Taking these kinds of personal steps to reduce our carbon footprint is worthwhile in many ways: they align our lives more closely with our values; they can inspire friends and neighbors to follow suit, making it socially acceptable and morally normative to live more gently on Earth; and they relieve our sense of cognitive dissonance—we know that we are taking action to address an existential crisis. After all, as Lao Tzu said, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Making personal changes in lifestyle may be that vital first step on the ramp to more effective action.
However, do not be fooled—if we limit taking personal responsibility simply to changing our lifestyle and consumer choices, we are falling for the lie that individual behavior is enough. It is not. Turning off the lights and driving an electric car may be the right thing to do and make us feel morally “cleaner,” but moral action only makes a substantive difference when we join the fight for systemic change. A societal transformation from top to bottom is what is required to avert climate chaos—that is what the world’s pre-eminent climate scientists told us in the 2018 report from the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The only way to do that is to push for collective solutions, to become politically engaged, and to make it politically possible to do what is scientifically necessary to maintain a habitable world.
In the meantime, fossil fuel corporations are working hard to shift responsibility for the damage that their products cause (damage that these companies concealed and denied for decades) to individual consumers. Like drug dealers, they make a fortune by pushing a deadly product and then blame their customers if they buy it and become sick. A fascinating article by Amy Westervelt explains how, for over 100 years, various industries, including tobacco, beverage packaging, guns, and fossil fuels, “have weaponized American individualism, laying the blame for systemic issues at the feet of individual citizens.”9 Westervelt observes that BP “famously invented the ultimate tool for pinning greenhouse gas emissions on individual consumers: the carbon footprint calculator.10 As she points out:
This rhetorical framing flourishes not only because it taps into America’s individualistic identity, but also because it presents easy solutions: simply buy different things in your own life, walk or bike a bit more, and everything will be fine! It also provides a purity test that no climate activist can possibly pass. It’s the perfect setup for oil companies: The problem is consumers, not industry, and no consumer can ever reduce their carbon footprint enough to be a credible critic. (Westervelt 2021)
Framing the climate crisis in moral terms gives us an opportunity to understand that effective moral action includes collective moral action. To be blunt, do not be a consumer, be a citizen.
The scope and speed of the climate crisis require more than personal changes in behavior—they require collective action and a push for policies such as pricing or regulating carbon, eliminating fossil fuels subsidies, providing incentives for clean renewable energy, and ensuring that historically marginalized communities enjoy the benefits of clean energy. Climate scientists are increasingly concerned that if global warming continues unchecked, the Earth will soon pass so-called “tipping points” beyond which possibly irrevocable disaster will ensue (Harvey and Agencies 2021). Is it possible to create a social tipping point that would propel a swift transition to clean energy? According to one study (Otto et al. 2020), providing a moral framework for the climate crisis would contribute to a social tipping point and help activate “contagious and fast-spreading processes” that lead to global decarbonization. Using a term from the field of addiction, the study argues that revealing the moral implications of fossil fuels is an “intervention” that would accelerate a rapid global transformation to carbon-neutral societies. Let us start this addict on the road to recovery.
9. Praying the Serenity Prayer
Like most recovering addicts in the Twelve-Step Program, I frequently turn to the Serenity Prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” Based on a longer prayer by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, these words have helped countless addicts to search their minds and hearts as they sort out what to hold on to and what to let go, what is theirs to do and what is not. Implicitly, the prayer invites us to rein in our compulsive craving for control and to find peace even in the midst of trouble. It rouses us from passivity and inertia so that we change what we can (and should) change. Additionally, it recognizes that we do not see these things clearly, and need to ask for God’s help.
The prayer is immensely useful for everyone concerned about climate change. What is it that I need serenity to accept? What is it that I need courage to change? How do I know which is which? The questions themselves drive me into prayer, and the answers change over time as I listen and learn. I pray for serenity to accept the reality of the climate crisis and the painful manifestations of that crisis which emerge every day—and I find my way to serenity only as I pray my way through outrage, fear, and grief. I pray for courage to change the things I can—and I find that courage only as I keep entrusting my actions to God. I pray for the wisdom to know what is and is not mine to do—and I try to forgive myself when I get that wrong. The Serenity Prayer is pithy, enigmatic, and as pure as prayer comes—it does not give answers; it simply opens a door to God.
We bring into prayer what we know about the world, so it is good to be aware that many internal and external forces are at work, insisting that there is little we can do to slow climate change. I will mention only two. One is external: fossil fuel corporations are eager to amplify our supposed helplessness to quit using their products. They are delighted when “collapse-aware” people throw in the towel and accept that we are doomed, that it’s too late to take effective active to stave off climate catastrophe. As Michael Mann explains, “Doomism potentially leads us down the same path of inaction as outright denial of the threat.” He adds, “The surest path to catastrophic climate change is the false belief that it’s too late to act (Mann 2021, pp. 179, 223).”
A second message that dampens courageous action is internal: without knowing it, we tend to accept an increasingly degraded natural world as normal. It has been called “shifting baseline syndrome” or “sliding baseline syndrome”: each generation adapts to worsening circumstances over time, disregarding the abundance that previous generations knew, while peacefully accepting what remains as fine, or to be expected. We slowly adjust to unthinkable circumstances. As David Roberts explains, the scariest thing about global warming is that we could grow accustomed to it—grow used to massive fires, severe flooding, killing levels of heat—and never experience a moment of reckoning. We could sleepwalk our way to catastrophe (Roberts 2020; Campbell 2020).
Humans have been a successful species partly because we are so adaptable, but the capacity to adapt can also be a moral and even mortal liability. I think of the bitter comment uttered by Raskolnikov, the anti-hero of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment: “Men are scoundrels; they can get used to anything (Dostoevsky 1989, p. 22)!” I also think of the less bitter, but still bracing quote attributed to Thomas Merton: “The biggest human temptation is to settle for too little.”
When does our purported serenity to accept the things we cannot change in fact mask our apathy and amnesia? When does serenity camouflage the refusal to care—what Fr. James Keenan calls “the failure to bother to love”? Rabbi Abraham Heschel insisted that “Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism, falsehoods.” Subversive prayer breaks through cheap serenity. True serenity springs not from choosing comfort and avoiding conflict, but from the desire to seek only God’s will, to abide in God’s love, and to carry out what love requires, even when doing so is costly or difficult.
Once upon a time in the United States, people accepted many things as normal—slavery, Jim Crow, child labor, 80-hour work weeks, the disenfranchisement of women and African Americans, the indiscriminate use of DDT, and so much more. What awoke them from their “serenity” was the persistent, massive, collective efforts of countless ardent people who were unwilling to settle for so little. What is it that we, too, must refuse to accept as normal? Are we willing to join the movements now rising up around the world—the climate justice movement, the human rights movement, the Indigenous rights movement, and the coalitions—both faith-based and secular—that are pressing to eliminate dirty emissions, restore a safe climate, reverse the sixth mass extinction of species, and create a just society that works for everyone?11
10. Urgency, Fear, and Love
People suffering with addiction do not walk casually into a Twelve-Step meeting. We are not there to pass the time. We are not there to virtue signal. We are not there to pass a purity test. We are there to save our lives. Urgency is what drives a person into recovery. We have reached the point of admitting, as the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous puts it, that “half-measures availed us nothing”12—not launching another diet, not drinking only on weekends, not shooting up just once in a while. We need a thorough makeover, a transformation which is physical, emotional, and spiritual.
Urgency is what today’s climate prophets are conveying. Scientists speak with alarm about the very short time we have left in which to safeguard a stable climate; they speak about the urgent need for “rapid and far-reaching (United Nations Sustainable Development Goals 2018)” changes in all aspects of society. We cannot miss the urgency of Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teenager with the round face, straight blonde hair, and fierce, un- yielding eyes, who spoke with such intensity to the U.S. Congress, the U.N. COP meeting, and the World Economic Forum, telling the world, telling the adults who failed to take action: “The house is on fire.” Our planetary home is on fire. It is going up in flames.
It is a precious moment when an addict listens, grasps the urgency, feels the heat, and makes the decision to choose life. It is a precious moment when an addict admits that their life is unmanageable, that they need help beyond themselves, and that the time has come for decisive action. It is a precious moment when an addict realizes that the old way of life has to die in order for new life to be born. Will our generation be able to look back with gratitude one day and sing “Amazing Grace”?
Fear is what forced me into recovery, and fear may be what forces society to awaken to the climate crisis at last. Given the predicament in which we find ourselves, we have good reason to be afraid. However, fear cannot sustain us over the long haul—only love can do that.
Therefore, I thank God for all the people who are willing to face their fear, to empathize with other people’s fear, and to stand together. I thank God for all the people who refuse to turn away from each other or against each other, but who decide instead to turn toward each other, to join forces and join hands. I thank God for the deep message of all the world’s religions: we are interconnected with each other and with the web of life.
As an addictive society wakes from its restless, deathly sleep, faith communities can help to restore our capacity to love God and neighbors. In a sermon, D’var Torah, and dharma talk; in prayer groups, worship services, and meditation groups; in pastoral care, outreach, and bold public advocacy, communities of faith and spiritual practice 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 closing their eyes to a crisis or going mad with hatred and fear, only love can restore us to sanity.
We can be more than addicts on a self-destructive path. Additionally, we can be more than chaplains at the deathbed of a dying order. We can be midwives to the new and beautiful world that is longing to be born.
One very interesting initiative that weaves together addiction/recovery, Christian faith, and care for the Earth is EcoFaith Based in the Pacific Northwest, EcoFaith Recovery is “a leadership development effort grounded in the Christian tradition and welcoming all who seek recovery from societal addictions to unsustainable ways of life. Our recovery begins as we come out of isolation and rediscover our relatedness to God, ourselves, each other, and the entire earth community of which we are a part.” See: http://www.ecofaithrecovery.org/ (accessed on 31 August 2021).
In 1992, Joanna Macy brought the Elm Dance to people living in areas that had been poisoned by the Chernobyl This simple circle dance, now associated with The Work That Reconnect, is intended for all who experience collective trauma, https://workthatreconnects.org/resources/elm-dance/ (accessed on 31 July 2021).
The Sunrise Movement is a youth movement to stop climate change and create millions of good jobs in the process, https://www.sunrisemovement.org/ (accessed on 31 August 2021).
(Westervelt2021). In The New Climate War, Michael Mann addresses this topic in a chapter entitled, “It’s YOUR Fault,” pp. 63–97.
See, for instance, The Climate Mobilization, Indigenous Environmental Network, 350.org, Poor People’s Campaign, Sunrise Movement, Extinction Rebellion, Mothers Out Front, Interfaith Power & Light, GreenFaith, The Shalom Center, Dayenu, and many others.
Ceballos, Gerardo, Paul R. Ehrlich, and Rodolfo Dirzo. 2017. Biological Annihilation via the Ongoing Sixth Mass Extinction Signaled by Vertebrate Population Losses and Declines. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 114: E6089–E6096. Available online: https://www.pnas.org/content/114/30/E6089 (accessed on 31 July 2021). [CrossRef] [PubMed]
Dostoevsky, Feodor. 1989. Crime and Punishment, 3rd ed. Edited by George Gibian. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.
Eliot, T. S. 1971. “Burnt Norton”, in “Four Quartets”. In The Complete Poems and Plays 1909–1950. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, p. 118.
Gelbspan, Ross. 1997. The Heat Is on: The Climate Crisis, The Coverup, The Prescription. Cambridge: Perseus Books.
Northcott, Michael S. 2007. A Moral Climate: The Ethics of Global Warming. Maryknoll: Orbis. Offill, Jenny. 2020. Weather. New York: Knopf.
Oreskes, Naomi, and Erik M. M. Conway. 2011. Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. New York: Bloomsbury Press.
Otto, Ilona M., Jonathan F. Donges, Roger Cremades, Avit Bhowmik, Richard J. Hewitt, Wolfgang Lucht, Johan Rockström, Franziska Allerberger, Mark McCaffrey, Sylvanus S. P. Doe, and et al. 2020. Social Tipping Dynamics for Stabilizing Earth’s Climate by 2050. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). February 4. Available online: https://www.pnas.org/content/117/5/2354 (accessed on 1 August 2021).
Citation: Bullitt-Jonas, Margaret. 2021. Climate Change, Addiction, and Spiritual Liberation. Religions 12: 709. To view the article as published in Religions or to download a pdf: https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12090709
Academic Editors: Bernadette Flanagan and Noelia Molina
June 30, 2020
This is the third in a series of six sermons on the theme “Faith for the Earth,” delivered by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas as chaplain for the first week of the inaugural session of CHQ Assembly, the new online summer program of Chautauqua Institution in NY.Hosea 4:1-3
Faith for the Earth: What is breaking our hearts?
We spoke yesterday about God inviting us to listen deeply, especially to voices that have long been silenced or ignored – to the voices of the poor, the voices of black and brown and indigenous peoples, and to the voices rising from the living Earth itself – for if we listen with the ear of the heart, surely we can hear, as the prophet Hosea puts it in today’s reading, that the land itself is mourning, “and all who live in it languish; together with the wild animals and the birds of the air, even the fish of the sea are perishing.”
How do we pray with all this? How do we pray with the things that are breaking our hearts – the dying coral and acidifying oceans, the animals that are leaving us, and the web of life that is unraveling before our lives? Scientists say that unless we change our way of living fast, entire eco-systems could begin to collapse, starting in the next ten years. What do we do with this information? Do we shrug it off (I can’t deal with that! That’s someone else’s problem!)? Do we shut down inside, go numb and slip into despair? It’s difficult to face the predicament in which we find ourselves, and our culture gives us endless opportunities to turn away and distract ourselves with mindless consumption and entertainment. Still, I don’t think any of us have found that shopping or snacking or swilling alcohol can ease the anguish we feel inside.
In my view, one essential remedy is prayer. Bold action is urgent and necessary, but action alone won’t give us the strength or wisdom to sustain the hard struggles ahead. And if Hosea got it right – if what’s ultimately wrong with the world is that there is “no knowledge of God in the land,” if he’s right that the ultimate source of our troubles is spiritual disconnection – then surely part of the remedy is prayer. For, as Hosea says, when there is “no knowledge of God,” then “swearing, lying, and murder” break out among human beings – “bloodshed follows bloodshed” – and the land mourns, and wild creatures languish and perish. Hosea understands that a broken relationship with God leads to a broken relationship with each other and with the Earth. If we abandon the love and justice of God and get locked into patterns of abusing each other and abusing the land, the remedy is repentance and amendment of life. The remedy is to dismantle the systems that exploit people and the planet. The remedy is to restore our connection to God, to our souls, to each other, and to the Earth upon which all life depends.
So I’m all in with Hosea. The climate crisis is not just a scientific or political or economic crisis – it’s also a spiritual crisis, one that summons us to do everything we can to restore within ourselves – and to encourage in our communities – a lively, vital relationship with our divine Source who brings courage where there is despair, love where there is hate, and inspiration when a path forward is hard to see. In these challenging times, we need spiritual resilience. We need to connect with the divine lover of our souls. We need to root ourselves in the presence of a Higher Power so that we can rise up to take effective action.
Last year, a book I co-edited with a friend of mine, Leah Schade, was published. It’s an anthology of essays by 21 colleagues in the faith-and-climate movement who speak about the spiritual practices and perspectives that sustain us as we work to create a more just and sustainable future. The book is titled Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis, and I’d like to read a short excerpt from my chapter, for it’s all about prayer.1In times like these, our prayer may need to be expressive and embodied, visceral and vocal. 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? …It’s important to protect our human capacity to feel our emotional responses to the crisis, for that is how we stay inwardly vital and alive. Just as important, our emotions can become a source of energy for constructive action to address the emergency. Prayerful lament and protest can be an act of resistance, a way of shaking off the dominant consumer culture, which prefers that we stay too busy, dazed, and distracted to feel a thing.My prayer takes many forms. Recently a company began cutting down trees in the woods behind my home, clearing space for co-housing, an intentional neighborhood of private homes that share a common area and develop a strong sense of community. I’m all for co-housing and I’ve met some nice people who plan to live there, but, honestly, I grieve the trees. They have been companions to me, and sources of beauty. They are living presences that I know play a vital role in keeping life on Earth intact. Scientists tell us that we can’t stabilize the climate unless we save trees. Preserving forests is critical to combating climate change.2Because of all this, I’ve taken to praying outdoors. I go outside, feel the good earth beneath my feet and the wind on my face, and I sing to the trees, to oak and beech, hemlock and pines. Making up the words and music as I go along, I sing my grief to the trees that are going down, and my grief for so much more – for what we have lost and are losing, and for what we are likely to lose. I sing my outrage about these beautiful old trees being cut to the roots, their bodies chipped to bits and hauled away to sell. I sing my fury about the predicament we’re in as a species. I sing my protest of the political and corporate powers-that-be that drive forward relentlessly with business as usual, razing forests, drilling for more oil and fracked gas, digging for more coal, expanding pipeline construction, and opening up public lands and waters to endless exploitation, as if Earth were their private business and they were conducting a liquidation sale. I sing out my shame to the trees, my repentance and apology for the part I have played in Earth’s destruction and for the part my ancestors played when they stole land from the Native peoples who lived here and chopped down the original forests. I sing my praise for the beauty of trees, and my resolve not to let a day go by that I don’t celebrate the precious living world of which we are so blessedly a part. I’m not finished until I sing my determination to renew action for trees and all of God’s Creation.I feel God’s presence when I pray like that. I dare to believe that the Spirit who longs to renew the face of the Earth is praying through me. Praying like this leaves me feeling more alive, more connected with myself and with the world I love.
What kinds of prayer restore your connection with God? These days many people across the country are praying in the streets, propelled by love and a fierce need for public mourning and public lament.3 Some people are praying alone in their rooms and in silence, listening to the inner voice of love that is always sounding in our hearts, listening to their breath as they breathe God in and breathe God out. Some people find that music helps them pray, and I commend a new piece called “A Passion for the Planet,” a climate oratorio composed by Geoffrey Hudson, which, broadcast free on the internet, in less than one hour carries the listener through the wide range of feelings evoked by the climate crisis. That can be another way to pray.
I encourage all of us to pray, to find ways, as Hosea might put it, to restore knowledge of God in the land. Prayer is what leads us, alone and together, into an unshakable union with a love that is stronger than death. Trusting in that love, guided by that love, we will know what is ours to do and, God willing, may be led to take actions commensurate with the emergency we are in.
1. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, “Love Every Leaf,” Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis(Rowman & Littlefield, 2019), 175-76.
2. “We Can’t Save the Climate Without Also Saving the Trees. Scientists agree: Preserving forests is critical to combating climate change,” by John J. Berger, Sierra Magazine, October 29, 2018.
3. Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, “Accepting Death is Not an Option, Anymore,” a sermon preached at Washington National Cathedral, June 14, 2020
“Do not let your hearts be troubled”:
Searching for steadiness in a precarious time
Today’s Gospel – and the Gospel readings for the next two Sundays – are from the section of John’s Gospel called Jesus’ “farewell discourse.” It is the night of the Last Supper, and Jesus is saying goodbye, telling his disciples that even though he will soon leave them physically, his presence and power and spirit will come to them and remain with them always. Jesus says to his friends: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also’” (John 14:1-3).
The passage goes on from there, but my attention was grabbed by the very first sentence. “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” How do we make sense of those words – how do those words resonate within us – in a time of such enormous uncertainty, loss, and fear? Here we are, in the midst of a global pandemic. Our lives have suddenly turned upside down and we are acutely aware of our vulnerability to suffering and death. People we know and love may be sick or may have died. Businesses have closed, the economy is teetering, and not far behind, coming on fast, we know that an even larger crisis is bearing down upon us, the climate and ecological crisis. Week by week the news from climate science seems to get more dire: this year is on track to be the warmest on record, and the risk of climate breakdown is much greater than we thought. This week, scientists reported that 50 years from now as many as one-third of the world’s people will be living in areas too hot to inhabit. I can only begin to imagine the poverty and famine and the numbers of desperate migrants on the move. Meanwhile, another new study shows that unchecked climate change could collapse entire eco-systems quite abruptly, starting within the next ten years.
This precious blue-green planet is reeling – and we reel with it as we face the threat of social and ecological collapse. Yet Jesus tells us: “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” What can this mean when we live in such a troubling time? Is he counseling avoidance and denial? Is he urging us to go numb – to repress and push away our anger, grief, and fear? I can’t imagine that to be the case, for the Jesus I meet in the Gospels and in prayer – and who is with us right now – is a man of deep feelings, a man who was not afraid to enjoy a good laugh and relish a good party, a man who sometimes got angry, who wept when his friend Lazarus died and who wept over the city that would not listen to him. The Jesus I love is a man who was open to the full range of human emotion and who experiences our sorrows and joys.
Last week I woke up in the middle of the night, feeling as if I were covered by a great blanket of sadness, as if the sorrow of the whole world were weighing me down. Nearby the sorrow was fear: fear of death, fear that everything is unraveling, fear that life on Earth, including human society, is coming apart. So, what did I do? I prayed. I turned to Jesus and prayed for mercy, guidance and help. It wasn’t just my own sorrow and fear that I brought to him: I felt as if I were bringing with me all the world’s sorrow and fear and placing it in his loving arms: Here, Lord, over to you. Share it with me. Help me bear what I cannot bear alone.
As I lay there in the dark, praying the world’s anguish, sorrow, and fear, it seemed to me that I was not alone: I was praying with, and for, all my brother-sister beings – for the dying coral and the seas choked with plastic, for the forests going up in smoke and for the children who look to us with their innocent, wondering eyes, hoping against hope that good, and not ill, will be done to them. And it seemed to me that Jesus was with me and with all of us, sharing our pain, and I felt as if I were touching into the peace that passes understanding and into the love that will never die.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled.” When Jesus said this, he wasn’t denying the reality of suffering and death. He wasn’t repressing his emotions or dodging painful facts: he knew full well that he was on the brink of being arrested, tortured, and killed. Yet he was able to say to his friends, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” How? Because he was rooted in the love of God. Because he knew that nothing could separate him – or us – from that love. Because he knew that through the power of his Spirit, we would be drawn, as he was drawn, into the divine life that circulates at the center of everything and that can never be destroyed.
That is the great promise of today’s Gospel passage: at the deepest level of our being we belong to God; we abide in God and God abides in us.
This precarious time of coronavirus and climate crisis is also a holy time: a time when all of us are invited to deepen our spiritual lives and to grow up to our full stature in Christ. So, I want to suggest three practices as we shelter in place, three practices that I hope will attune us to the presence and power of Jesus as we try to chart a path to a more just and sustainable future.
First, I hope we will take regular time to pray in silence. Solitude and silence can create a wonderful context for prayer. As Meister Eckhart, the great mystic, once said, “There is nothing so much like God in all the universe as silence.” As we sit alone in silence, we listen to the inner voice of love that is always sounding in our hearts, although we are usually too busy or too distracted to hear it. We pay attention to our breathing, receiving each breath as the gift that it is, a gift from a loving God who breathes God’s Spirit into us and whose Spirit we offer back to God as we breathe out. And if – in the quiet – strong feelings arise, we welcome them and let them move through us, whatever they are – sorrow, fear, anger or joy – knowing that in our vulnerability we find strength and that the God of love is always with us. This kind of quiet, solitary prayer is where we can gradually develop a trusting and very personal relationship with Jesus, as we disclose what is on our hearts.
Second, I hope we will take regular time to go outside and connect with the natural world. The love of God extends not only to us, not only to human beings – it extends to the whole created world and to its weird and wild diversity of living creatures. Our planet’s living systems are in peril, so it is good – actually, it is essential – to reclaim our God-given connection with the Earth, to move, as Thomas Berry would say, from a spirituality of alienation from Earth to a spirituality of intimacy. So, go outside and encounter the God who shines out in the blooming magnolias and azaleas, in the breeze on our faces, in the cry of the blue jay, in the touch of bark or stone against our hand and in the sprouts coming up in our garden. Whatever we’re worried about – be it climate change, coronavirus, or anything else – spending at least 20 minutes a day in a peaceful place can help restore our soul.
Third, I hope we will make time to educate ourselves about the climate crisis and to take every step we can toward effective climate action. When the pandemic has passed and the lockdown is over, we simply can’t go back to business as usual, for business as usual is killing the planet. As a society we have to change course. Depending on non-renewable energy and resources is by definition unsustainable. Consuming more resources than the planet can provide is by definition unsustainable. Wiping out wilderness habitat and the innumerable species upon which our species depends is by definition unsustainable. Producing a killing level of greenhouse gases is by definition unsustainable. We are living beyond our ecological means.
The good news is that when it comes to climate change, there is so much we can do! Individual changes are important, but because of the scope and speed of the climate crisis, we need more than individual action – we need systemic change. So, we’ll need to use our voices and our votes, and make it politically possible to do what is scientifically necessary. I hope that many of you will join 350Mass for a Better Future, our local grassroots climate action group, whose MetroWest node includes Lincoln. There are other groups that we can be grateful for, too, and find ways to support, such as Poor People’s Campaign, Sunrise Movement, Extinction Rebellion, and Environmental Voter Project. Together we need to grow the boldest, most visionary, wide-ranging, powerful, hope-filled, hands-on, feet-on-the-ground, shoulder-to-the-wheel political and social movement that humanity has ever seen.
I pray that we followers of Jesus will take our place in that movement, maybe even be out in front sometimes, singing and praying, maybe risking arrest, as we give glory to God, whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20).
In a time of pandemic and climate crisis, the risen Christ is among us and within us. Do not let your hearts be troubled.
Sermon for the Convention Eucharist, Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts, held at Tower Square Hotel, Springfield, MA November 9, 2019
Delivered by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas
“To live, we must daily break the body and shed the blood of Creation. When we do this knowingly, lovingly, skillfully, reverently, it is a sacrament. When we do it ignorantly, greedily, clumsily, destructively, it is a desecration. In such desecration we condemn ourselves to spiritual and moral loneliness, and others to want.”
— Wendell Berry, The Gift of Good Land: Further Essays Cultural and Agricultural (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 1981), 281
A sacramental life: Rising up to take climate action
Friends, it is a blessing to be with you. Before I say another word I want to thank the many people who helped turn this windowless hotel room into a sacred space. Because of their creativity and generosity, we have four stunning new banners that represent elements of the natural world – banners that we hope you will borrow to use in your own church1 – and we have a baptismal font adorned with nature’s beauty. Thank you – and thanks to everyone who had a hand in creating this service. I especially want to thank Geoffrey Hudson, composer of “A Passion for the Planet” and the musicians and members of Illuminati Vocal Arts Ensemble who are here to bring this music to life.
I am particularly moved to see the image of Earth placed on our altar. As you may remember, this photograph was taken in December 1972, by the crew of the Apollo 17 spacecraft on its way to the moon. It’s called the “Blue Marble” because when the crew looked out the window, around 18,000 miles from the surface of the planet, the Earth was about the size of a marble. You could cover it with your thumb. Everything we know and love, every part of human history and experience is on that precious marble whirling in the darkness of space. That photo gave us our first glimpse of Earth as a whole, allowing us to see for the first time its unity, its fragility and vulnerability, and its preciousness.
This flag has traveled with me to countless climate marches and rallies, and it touches me to bring it home to this altar, to lay it on this table where in every Eucharist we remember “God so loved the world” (John 3:16) that God loved into being, redeems in Jesus Christ, and sustains by the power of the Holy Spirit!
This is a good time to uphold the Earth in prayer, for we know that the living world is in a precarious state. Last year the World Wildlife Fund released a report showing that globally the number of animals has plummeted by over half in less than 50 years. Humans have wiped out 60% of the world’s mammals, reptiles, amphibians, birds, and fish since 1970. We are in the midst of what alarmed scientists are calling a “biological annihilation.” One expert commented: “This is far more than just being about losing the wonders of nature, desperately sad though that is…This is actually now jeopardizing the future of people. Nature is not a ‘nice to have’ – it is our life-support system.”
Then came a major report from the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which showed that planetary warming is well underway and that time is running out to avert climate catastrophe. Because of the burning of coal, gas, and oil, and the logging of forests, our planet keeps breaking records for heat. Of course it is the poor and racial minorities and the historically marginalized that suffer first and hardest from the shocks and disruptions of climate change, although in the end, all of us will be affected. Earlier this week more than 11,000 scientists from around the world issued a report that warns of “untold suffering” if we don’t change course fast. Scientists are generally a cool-headed, understated lot, right? So it’s worth noticing when for the first time a large group of scientists calls climate change an emergency. Last year’s IPCC report told us that in order to avoid runaway climate change we must carry out a radical transformation of society, from top to bottom, at a scale and pace that is historically unprecedented: today we have maybe eleven years in which to set a new course and to cut our emissions in half from their levels in 2010. Never before in human history has our species changed its way of living that dramatically and that fast.
So that’s where we find ourselves: on a beautiful, precious, but ailing planet, with the web of life unraveling before our eyes and only a short time in which to heal our ecosystems and create a more just and sustainable way of life. Well, when you hear stark news like that, it’s easy to shut down. It’s hard to face the grief, helplessness, and fear that our situation evokes. When we feel powerless to imagine, much less to create, a better future, we tend to put our heads down and carry on with business as usual, even if business as usual is wrecking the planet.
I’m very interested in how we move out of fear, inertia, and despair and into the movement to tackle climate change and social inequality – so interested, in fact, that a friend and I asked colleagues in the faith-and-environment movement to write about their sources of spiritual strength. What gives them courage? What gives them hope? Our anthology of essays, Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis, has just been published. So I ask you: Where do you find courage to take action, even when the forces against us are great? What are your sources of strength and resilience in a perilous time?
As for me, I draw strength from the living presence of Jesus Christ within us and among us. “I came that they may have life,” Jesus says to us today, “and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). That’s a mission statement: he came then and he comes now to bring life – and not any old life, but a life that is lit up with meaning and purpose, a life that is animated by a fierce love that seeks to create a beloved community in which people live in harmony with God, with each other, and with the whole of God’s Creation.
Jesus, the Good Shepherd of our souls, lived close to the earth. He walked in the desert and along the shores of a lake. He felt the wind on his face and he watched the night stars. He climbed mountains to pray, and in his teaching and parables he used earthy images of vines and bread and seeds, of lilies and sheep. Jesus was steeped in the rhythms of the natural world, and maybe it’s no accident that when Mary caught her first glimpse of the Risen Christ, she mistook him for the gardener.
In a time of climate crisis, we are blessed to meet the Good Shepherd in every celebration of the Eucharist. This is where we find strength for the journey and where our moral courage is renewed. Maybe we should think of Holy Communion as our superpower. God has so much to give us and to show us in this sacrament!
For starters, Communion is good practice for living well on the Earth.2 As we heard in the reading from Wendell Berry, everyone lives by eating. The question is whether or not we ruthlessly grab and grasp, turning into greedy “consumers” who must constantly replenish ourselves with material things in order to reassure ourselves that we’re powerful, that we matter, and that we exist.
Holy Communion is a radically counter-cultural practice that can heal unholy consumerism. We savor a morsel of bread, take a small sip of wine, and in our attentive reverence to Christ’s presence, we are filled. We share one loaf and one cup, and there is enough for everyone. In every Eucharist we discover to our amazement that in taking only what we need and in sharing what we have, our hearts our satisfied.
What’s more – every Communion also reminds us how much God loves the whole Creation, not just human beings – as if we happen to be the only species that God cares about. When the celebrant lifts up the bread and wine during Holy Communion, all of Creation is lifted up. When the celebrant blesses the bread and wine, all of Creation is blessed. The consecrated bread that is placed in our hands is made of wheat, earth and sunlight, of rainwater and clouds, of farmers’ hands and human labor. When we stretch out our hands to receive the bread, we take in what is natural and we take in Christ.
The bishops of New England described it like this in a Pastoral Letter3 a while back: when “we nourish ourselves at the Eucharistic table… Christ gives himself to us in the natural elements of bread and wine, and restores our connections not only with God and one another, but also with the whole web of creation.”
We are making that crystal clear in our prayers today, so you will notice that in the prayer after Communion, we have added five words. We will pray, as we usually do: God of abundance, you have fed us with the bread of life and cup of salvation; you have united us with Christ and one another; and you have made us one with all your people in heaven and on earth, and then come five new words: “and with your whole Creation.”
Why is this important? Because we come to this table so that everything in us and around us can be lifted up and blessed, so that everything in us and around us can be caught up in the redeeming love of God – not only we ourselves, and not only the bread and the wine, but also the whole of God’s Creation, every leaf of it and every speck of sand. In every Eucharist we bring the Earth to the altar. We offer the world to God. And when we leave this table, we’ve been filled with the divine love that reconciles all things on heaven and Earth and that strengthens us to join God in healing and protecting our precious, wounded world.
When it comes to tackling the climate crisis, there are many actions that we can take as individuals and as communities of faith! I’m not going to list them here, because we’ve distributed a handout of suggestions and because the resolution we’ll discuss this afternoon is also full of suggestions. But I will say this: Now is the time to preach boldly about the climate crisis. Now is the time to take clear and courageous action to safeguard the web of life that God entrusted to our care. Now is the time to join the climate justice movement and to bear witness to the Christ who bursts from the tomb and who proclaims that life and not death will have the last word.
“I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
Will we be successful? Will we avert runaway climate change? I don’t know. But I do know that every choice matters. Every degree of temperature-rise matters. I’m told that “even a tenth of a degree Celsius means the difference between life and death for millions of people.”
I may have the title, “Missioner for Creation Care,” but I hold that title on your behalf. Each of you – everyone in this room, every single one of you – you too are missioners for Creation care, because you, too, are fed at this table where we meet the life-giving and liberating and reconciling presence of Jesus Christ.
I’d like to end with a story about risking arrest for the first time and what it taught me about the Eucharist. Back in 2001 I was desperate to find a way to address the climate crisis, and I decided to join a new interfaith group, Religious Witness for the Earth, which was gathering in Washington, D.C., to protest the Administration’s energy policy and its plan to drill for more oil in the Arctic.
Here’s what happened: 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. I’ll read from an essay I wrote4 about what that was like.
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 law-breaker 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.
I invite you to take a moment to remember a time when you took a brave step toward fullness of life, a time when you made a decision to do the right thing, even though you knew it would be difficult or costly. Who inspires you to be bolder than you thought? With whom do you hold hands, literally or figuratively, when you step out to make a difference in the world? And if you knew you could not fail – if you were set free from fear – what would you do for the healing of our world?
1. If your church in the Diocese of Western Mass. would like to borrow the banners, please contact the Dean of Christ Church Cathedral, the Very. Rev. Tom Callard (413/736-2742, ext. 1; email: tcallard (at) cccspfld.org).
2.This and the following three paragraphs are adapted from “Second Friday of Advent,” Joy of Heaven, To Earth Come Down: Meditations for Advent and Christmas, by Margaret Bullitt-Jonas (Cincinnati, OH: Forward Movement, 2012, 2013), 35-36.
3. “To Serve Christ in All Creation: A Pastoral Letter from the Episcopal Bishops of New England,” issued February 2003.
4. Adapted from “When Heaven Happens” by Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, in Heaven, ed. Roger Ferlo (NY: Seabury Books, 2007), 74-85.
Here we are this afternoon, gathered from our different neighborhoods, towns, and faith communities, like embers coming together to build up a fire. If you scatter the embers of a fire, they fizzle out. But if you bring them together, maybe blow on them a little, maybe add more fuel, before long you’ve got a roaring blaze. So let’s talk about fire.
Fire is on our minds these days. Many of us have watched videos of Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teenager with the round face and the straight blonde hair and those fierce, unyielding eyes, speaking with such intensity to the US Congress, to the UN COP meeting, to the World Economic Forum, telling the world – telling the adults who have failed to take action – “The house is on fire.” Our planetary home is on fire. It’s going up in flames.
Three kinds of fire
Last week I listened to Naomi Klein speak about her new book, On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal (NY: Simon and Schuster: 2019), and what I want to say is inspired by her remarks. Naomi Klein pointed out that actually we are dealing with two fires: one is the fire of a scorching planet as the climate crisis deepens. We know what that looks like: extracting and burning fossil fuels is warming the global atmosphere and setting new records for heat, month after month. Climate disruption is sparking wildfires in the Arctic and around the world; it’s causing massive droughts and record floods, monster hurricanes and rising seas. Parts of the planet will soon be too hot to inhabit, and the space in which human beings can survive is contracting. Last year the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported that in order to avert a catastrophic level of climate change, anything beyond a 1.5 degree Celsius rise in global temperature, we have only a short span of time – at this point, maybe eleven years – in which to initiate a transformation of our society and economy at a scale and speed that is historically unprecedented.
That’s Fire Number 1, the fire studied by climate science. Fire Number 2 is the fire of hatred. When people feel threatened, they can turn to a “strong man,” an authoritarian figure who promises to keep them safe by denying the humanity of other groups of people, by “othering” people who are weak or vulnerable or historically marginalized, the people who are not like us. This second fire is also raging, jumping from country to country: it’s alight in Brazil, in Turkey, and here in the U.S. Hatred says that some people are more worthy than others, that some people – the other people – should be left to drown or starve or die of heat – that’s not our problem, since we are the winners and they are the losers. Hatred is the voice of white supremacy and of every form of domination, greed, and exploitation.
So two fires are ablaze around the world, and feeding each other, but Naomi Klein pointed out that there is a third fire, too: our fire, the fire of our movement coming together at last – the youth climate strikes, the indigenous rights movement, the fossil fuel divestment movement, the climate justice movement, the frontline movement – and, I would add, the faith and environment movement – all of us coming together to douse the first two fires, and forge a path to a better future.
Naomi Klein didn’t say this, but I would call the third fire, the fire of love. This is where communities of faith have a vital role to play, for our task as faith communities, our vocation – indeed, our very reason for existence – is to tend and build the fire of love. How do we access that fire? How do throw off our helplessness, inertia, and despair, reach into our deep reserves of wisdom and courage, and rise up to take part into the movement to heal the web of life? I’m very interested in that question – so interested, in fact, that a friend and I asked colleagues in the faith and environment movement to write about their sources of spiritual strength. What gives them courage? What gives them hope? Our anthology of essays will be published on November 15 and it’s called Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis.
Three ways to build love’s fire
I’d like to name three ways that individuals and communities of faith can build the fire of love in this precarious time.
First, we can teach practices that nourish the heart. For instance, go outdoors and fall in love again – or for the first time – with the natural world. Let the wind or the tree, the hoot of an owl or the shining face of the moon – let them speak to you of the love of God. The natural world saves us just as much as we save the natural world – the healing is mutual, for we belong to each other; we are kin.
Rediscovering the sacredness of the web of life can nourish the heart.
So can the practice of gratitude, the discovery that everything is gift – this moment, this breath – ah! It’s all gift! What a blessing to be alive just now, and at a time when our choices make such a difference!
Or again, we nourish the heart when we move through each day mindfully, paying attention, remembering that every person we meet is precious in God’s sight and worthy of care and respect.
That’s the first great gift that communities of faith can give the world in such a frightening time: practices of prayer and community, practices of meditation and story-telling, practices of singing and ceremony, that connect us with a sacred, loving Power beyond ourselves. Sharing practices that nourish the heart – that’s the first thing we can do to tend the fire of love.
Second, we can create spaces and ceremonies that allow our hearts to break. All of us need to grieve. We have lost so much, and we face more loss ahead. How do we pray about ecocide, about the death that humanity is unleashing upon Mother Earth and upon ourselves? The climate crisis can overwhelm us and make us go numb. But it is important to protect our human capacity to feel our emotional responses to the crisis, for that is how we stay inwardly vital and alive. What’s more, our emotions can become a source of energy for action to address the emergency.
So I’ll tell a story about grief that I included in my chapter for Rooted and Rising.
Recently a company began cutting down trees in the woods behind my home, clearing space for co-housing, an intentional neighborhood of private homes that share a common area and develop a strong sense of community. I’m all for co-housing and I’ve met some nice people who plan to live there, but, honestly, I grieve the trees. They have been companions to me, and sources of beauty. They are living presences that I know play a vital role in keeping life on Earth intact. Scientists tell us that we can’t stabilize the climate unless we save trees. Preserving forests is critical to combating climate change.1
Because of all this, I’ve taken to praying outdoors. I go outside, feel the good earth beneath my feet and the wind on my face, and I sing to the trees, to oak and beech, hemlock and pines. Making up the words and music as I go along, I sing my grief to the trees that are going down, and my grief for so much more – for what we have lost and are losing, and for what we are likely to lose. I sing my outrage about these beautiful old trees being cut to the roots, their bodies chipped to bits and hauled away to sell. I sing my fury about the predicament we’re in as a species. I sing my protest of the political and corporate powers-that-be that drive forward relentlessly with business as usual, razing forests, drilling for more oil and fracked gas, digging for more coal, expanding pipeline construction, and opening up public lands and waters to endless exploitation, as if Earth were their private business and they were conducting a liquidation sale. I sing out my shame to the trees, my repentance and apology for the part I have played in Earth’s destruction and for the part my ancestors played when they stole land from the Native peoples who lived here and chopped down the original forests. I sing my praise for the beauty of trees, and my resolve not to let a day go by that I don’t celebrate the precious living world of which we are so blessedly a part. I’m not finished until I sing my determination to renew action for trees and all of God’s Creation.
I feel God’s presence when I pray like that. I dare to believe that the Spirit who longs to renew the face of the Earth is praying through me. Praying like this leaves me feeling more alive, more connected with myself and with the world I love.
Here’s a third way that faith communities can tend the fire of love: we take up actions to heal the planet as a form of spiritual practice. When it comes to climate change, there is so much we can do! Maybe we can plant trees. Save trees. Recycle more. Drive less. Drive electric. Eat local, eat organic, eat less meat and move to a plant-based diet. Maybe we can support local farms and land trusts. We can fly less – and, if we must fly, buy carbon offsets. Maybe we can afford solar panels and move toward a carbon-neutral home. If we have financial investments, we can divest from fossil fuels. If we’re college graduates, we can push our alma mater to divest, as well.
Individual changes are important, but because of the scope and speed of the climate crisis, we need more than individual action – we need systemic change. So we’ll need to use our voices and our votes and make it politically possible to do what is scientifically necessary. Now is the time to join the climate movement that Naomi Klein described – we might start by signing up with 350.org, the world’s first global grassroots climate network. Because of the fire in our hearts that burns for a better world, a world in which our children and all beings can thrive, we may feel called to carry out acts of civil disobedience to interrupt the runaway juggernaut of “business as usual” that is wrecking the planet.
Everything we do for Earth and her communities, human and other-than-human, can become a spiritual practice – something we do mindfully, gratefully, and with love for God and God’s whole Creation.
So let’s do it, friends. Let’s make it happen. Let’s set the world on fire.
“We Can’t Save the Climate Without Also Saving the Trees. Scientists agree: Preserving forests is critical to combating climate change,” by John J. Berger, Sierra Magazine, October 29, 2018 (https://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/we-can-t-save-climate-without-also-saving-trees).
This is the text of the keynote address that Margaret gave at the forum,”Reality, Hope and Action in an Age of Climate Change,” organized by Inter-Religious Eco-Justice Network and held at St. James Episcopal Church, New London, CT, on October 20, 2019.
Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, April 7, 2019
Delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas at First Congregational Church, Lebanon, CT
“Lazarus, come out!” Christianity and the climate crisis
Today’s Gospel reading brings us to the turning point in Jesus’ ministry. Raising Lazarus is the crowning miracle or sign that reveals Jesus as the giver of life, and that also precipitates his death. The raising of Lazarus provokes a meeting of the Sanhedrin, the official Jewish court, which reaches the decision that Jesus is dangerous and must be killed. And so next week we come to Palm Sunday and begin the anguish and ultimately the joy of Holy Week.
Today’s story begins in a place of desolation, loss, and despair. Lazarus has died; he has been dead for four days; and his sisters Mary and Martha are in distress, grieving with family and friends. The story begins right where we are: in a world that is full of death, full of grieving, full of loss. Mary and Martha know the wave of sorrow that can wash over us in the middle of the night. They know the anguish that can drain life of its zest and meaning.
This morning you and I may find our selves in the same place in which Mary and Martha begin this story, for there is plenty of death in the air these days. I’ll take just a moment to sketch what’s going on – and I’m sorry: it’s intense. Last fall, World Wildlife Fund released a report showing that the number of animals around the world has plummeted by over half in less than 50 years, mostly by the development of huge swaths of land and the destruction of habitat. Humans have wiped out 60% of the world’s mammals, reptiles, amphibians, birds, and fish since 1970. We are on the brink or in the midst of the world’s sixth extinction event and alarmed scientists are describing what they call a “biological annihilation.” One expert commented: “This is far more than just being about losing the wonders of nature, desperately sad though that is…This is actually now jeopardizing the future of people. Nature is not a ‘nice to have’ – it is our life-support system.”
And there’s more bad news: related to species extinction is our changing climate. Because of the relentless burning of coal, gas, and oil, and the logging of forests, our planet is breaking records for heat, month after month. The New York Times reports that: “The five warmest years in recorded history were the last five, and…18 of the 19 warmest years have occurred since 2001.” The oceans are also breaking records for heat and heating much more rapidly than many scientists had expected, with drastic effects on marine life and sea-level rise. This week a report on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef shows that climate change is pushing coral ecosystems toward “ecological collapse.” Lead author Andrew Baird told the New York Times, “We never thought we’d see this happen…We thought the Barrier Reef was too big to fail, but it’s not.”
Meanwhile, extreme storms are growing more severe. A humanitarian catastrophe is unfolding right now in Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe, after a devastating cyclone produced nearly a year’s worth of rain in just a few days. In a perfect illustration of the fundamental injustice of climate change, which hurts poorest communities first and hardest, nearly 3 million people have been affected across this region of Africa, which is one of the poorest in the world. The U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that we have only a very short span of time – maybe 12 years – in which to avert a catastrophic level of global warming.
So that’s where we find ourselves: on a beautiful, precious, but ailing planet, with the web of life unraveling before our eyes. When we hear bad news like this, it’s very easy to shut down. It is difficult to face the grief, helplessness, and fear that our situation evokes. Most of us aren’t climate skeptics; most of us don’t deny outright the conclusions of science – but most of us do engage in a kind of everyday denial: climate change can make us feel anxious and helpless, so we change the subject and focus on more manageable things. When we feel powerless to imagine, much less create, a better future, we tend to carry on with business as usual, even if business as usual is wrecking the planet. It’s as if we fall under a spell and make what former U.N. Secretary General Ban-ki Moon calls a “global suicide pact.”
That’s where our gospel passage begins: in darkness, in the pit, in the valley of the shadow of death. Martha and Mary are bereft. And then – something changes. Jesus arrives. When he sees Mary weeping, and the crowds around her weeping, Jesus is “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved” (John 11:33). As if the gospel writer wants to make the meaning perfectly clear, a few verses later we come to the shortest verse in all of Scripture, a verse that is often translated by just two words: “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). He wept. Here is no distant God, no far-off deity untouched by grief, but a God who comes as one of us, a God who meets us in our suffering, a God who shares in our pain. When we feel anguish, it’s easy to look for someone to blame, to conclude that God isn’t real, that God is punishing us, or that God has abandoned us. But gazing at Jesus in this story reveals something different: when our hearts are breaking, God’s heart is breaking, too.
It is a heart-opening, mind-opening revelation to discover that when we weep for the Earth, when we feel outrage and protest, God is grieving with us and through us. God is bearing what we cannot bear alone. The fact that Jesus wept suggests that the first step in healing, the first step in birthing new life, comes when we step toward the pain, not away from it, and when we do so in the presence of God. The God who enters into our suffering knows that new life begins only when we are willing to feel pain. And when we grieve in God’s presence, we move out of numbness, out of inertia, out of the denial that pretends that everything is fine.
So, as the wise Buddhist teacher Joanna Macy puts it, “Don’t ever apologize for crying for the trees burning in the Amazon or over the waters polluted from mines in the Rockies. Don’t apologize for the sorrow, grief, and rage you feel. It is a sign of your humanity and your maturity. It is a measure of your open heart, and as your heart breaks open there will be room for the world to heal.”1
So I want to ask you: Where do you feel the pain of the earth and its creatures? Where do you hear the groaning of God’s creation?
And I will add this, too: the unjust powers of this world don’t want us to grieve or protest. They don’t want us to feel outrage and sorrow when we face the deathly patterns that are part of this society: the racism and militarism, the abuse of the helpless, the poisoning of air and water, the relentless assault on the web of life. The powers-that-be would much prefer that we stay numb – zombies who are too busy or bored or distracted, too defended to feel the pain that allows something new to be imagined, something new to be born. “Jesus wept,” and in that weeping begins the healing that leads to new life.
In the vulnerability of his open heart, Jesus opens to a power greater than himself. “Take away the stone,” he says to the astonished crowd. Can you imagine what the throng of people must be thinking just then? Probably something along the lines of, “Hey – is he nuts?” But reluctantly or eagerly, maybe shaking their heads in bemusement, maybe daring to hope against hope, some folks move forward. They lean their weight against the stone and push it away from the entrance of the tomb.
And then comes Jesus’ voice. In the midst of weeping, there comes a voice. “Lazarus,” he cries. “Come out.” It is a voice of power, a summons, a command, and it addresses us by name. You’ve heard that voice before, and I’ve heard it, too. Deep inside us is a presence, a voice, a Someone who calls us to quit hiding in a deathly place and to step out into fullness of life. We can go for a while, maybe a long while, not engaging with reality, not engaging with the climate crisis, and just laying low, hiding out, ducking from everything that seems too hard to face, too hard to bear. The powers-that-be want to keep it that way. They murmur, “That’s OK. Get comfy in that little tomb. Make peace with it. Decorate it. Stay small.”
But then comes that insistent, disturbing voice, calling us by name. “Phil,” it says. “Come out. Carla, come out. Ted, come out. Wolfgang, come out. Will, come out. Margaret, come out.”
“I love you,” God says to us. “I want you to be fully alive, not just partially alive, not just going through the motions. I want you to grow up into your full stature in Christ. I loved you into being, I sent you into the world to fall in love, and I call you now to serve love without holding back. So come out of your hiding place. Come out of your helplessness. Come out of your fearfulness, and join the struggle to save life on this sweet Earth. The resurrection life that I give you doesn’t start beyond the grave. It starts right now. I didn’t create you to live in a tomb.”
When I look around, I see a planet at risk of catapulting into runaway climate disruption. But I also see person after person hearing – and answering – a deep call to step out and to engage in the struggle to protect life.
On a practical level, what can we do? As individuals, we can drive less, use public transportation, and if we can afford it, buy an electric car. Maybe we can buy “green” electricity that comes from sun and wind. We can put on a sweater and turn down the heat, ignore the dryer and hang up our laundry on a clothesline, buy carbon offsets if we have to fly, eat less red meat or no meat, eat local foods, recycle, and so on.
But the scope and pace of the climate crisis require change on a much broader scale. Thanks be to God, coalitions are building among people of faith and good will who care about the Earth, about poverty and economic justice, about racial justice, about immigration and human rights – for all these issues connect. Many people of faith are excited about the Green New Deal, which is the first resolution to address the climate crisis with the urgency, focus, and comprehensiveness that the situation requires. Both GreenFaith and Interfaith Power & Light have statements on their Websites that we can sign, to show that people of faith support the goals and values of the Green New Deal.
Will we be “successful”? Will we avert runaway climate change? I don’t know. But I do know that every choice matters. Every degree of temperature rise matters. I’m told that: “Even a tenth of a degree Celsius means the difference between life and death for millions of people.”
The Church was made for a time like this. God is calling us out of the tomb of inertia and despair and into the whole-hearted, joyful, justice-seeking, Spirit-led, unstoppable movement to protect the world that God entrusted to our care.
Jesus is calling: “Lazarus, come out!”
What will you do as you answer that call?
Joanna Macy, World as Lover, World as Self (Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 1991), 187.
By GRETA JOCHEM
NORTHAMPTON — The Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas’ home office has a cross on the wall and titles such as “God’s Politics” and “The Water Will Come” — a book about sea level rise — lining her bookshelf.
Since 2014 she has been the missioner for creation care for the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts and the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ, a job that sends her preaching about the environment and theology in western Massachusetts and around the state.
She’s led retreats and preached in Massachusetts and beyond in Vancouver, San Francisco and British Columbia, and has a history of environmental activism — like being arrested in front of the Department of Energy in Washington, D.C. in 2001 when George W. Bush wanted to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refugee.
Underneath a small table in her office, she has a stash of magazines with environmental cover stories, such New York Magazine’s “The Doomed Earth,” and the New York Times’ “The Insect Apocalypse Is Here.”
She stashes the overwhelming stuff here, she said.
Like those magazine headlines denote, climate change can be depressing. Bullitt-Jonas is interested in what gives people courage in the face of climate change. For the past few years she’s been co-editing a book “Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis,” due out in November from Rowman & Littlefield.
Edited with the Rev. Leah Schade, who works in Lexington, Kentucky, the book asked writers questions about how they find hope and courage in the face of climate change.
The Gazette talked to Bullitt-Jonas about her upcoming book and her experiences as an environmentally-focused priest.
(Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Tell me about the book you’re co-editing.
We have 21 contributors from a wide range of social locations. They’re all people of faith, they all are committed to trying to build a more just and sustainable world and to address the climate crisis. And they have very different perspectives on it. We asked each of them to reflect on: What do you do with your despair? What do you do with your grief? What gives you hope? What gives you courage?
What did writers focus on?
One of the contributors is Reverend Lennox Yearwood, who is the head of the Hip Hop Caucus. The Hip Hop Caucus has inspired I don’t know whether it’s thousands or tens of thousands of young African-Americans to register to vote and get politically engaged.
Rev. Yearwood is eloquent about the climate crisis as being today’s civil rights issue, human rights issue. He spoke just so beautifully (saying) every activist needs to be anchored somewhere. If you are not anchored somewhere you’re going to get blown away because the forces against you are so big.
So find your anchor — whether it’s loving your children, or being committed to a better future or loving God, find your anchor.
What are some other topics people wrote about?
I talked in my own essay about being very interested in how do we keep our inner landscape vibrant and alive so that we don’t close down, go numb, space out?
One of the examples I gave is they’re building a co-housing community behind this house and co-housing is a wonderful concept and I know some really nice people who are going to be moving in there, but in order to build the co-housing, they had to take down a beautiful little stretch of woods. I grieved the trees.
I talk about going outside to sing to the trees, and sing out my sorrow and sing out my anger. I sing out my guilt because I’m complicit in a society that’s taking down life. But there was something about standing outside with my two feet planted on the ground, singing — making it up as I went along — to the trees that left me feeling more alive and more connected with the God of life. I’m very interested in what kind of prayer helps people stay alive.
I think many of us need rituals, we need collective practices, not just solitary practices but collective practices that help us move from despair to a sense of feeling empowered and strong.
Are there any pieces that made you change the way you think in some way?
There’s a powerful essay by a man named Tink Tinker, who is a Native American and writes very starkly about what it’s like to be part of a culture that was so torn apart by an incoming flood of white people. Having the voice of a Native American in the book is very powerful — realizing the land on which this house sits was originally Native American land.
There’s an essay by Tim DeChristopher who interrupted an auction of leasing rights of oil and gas in Utah. He bid as if it was a legitimate bid. And he won bids, and he was doing it to save the land from being drilled. He got arrested and spent two years in prison for what he did. He has a very strong essay about Easter Island and how that civilization collapsed and contrasting that with another civilization that did not collapse because the people were willing to bury their idols, their images of God.
They were willing to let go — metaphorically — of the things they were clinging to that no longer served life and then moved on and created a new civilization. It was a wonderful image inviting us to ponder what we need to let go: greed and treating our neighbor as less than.
How did you come to the intersection of climate and religion in your career and life?
It’s not what I would have expected. I had a food addiction for years as a young person. I got in recovery when I was 30 and with a lot of support made peace with my body and then I was so amazed by this God. I experienced that healing and that reconciliation of body, mind and spirit only through coming back to prayer. It was through the 12-step program, which is very much about turning your life over to a higher power, however you want to define higher power.
So, I finished up a Ph.D. in comparative literature and went straight to seminary, because I wanted to know: Who is this God that just saved my life?
I happened to be ordained in June of 1988, which was the month that James Hansen, the NASA climate scientist, was testifying to the U.S. Senate on what he was calling the greenhouse effect. I took that to heart and the question that emerged pretty soon in my mind was if God can heal one addict like me and help me live in the right relationship to my own body, is it not possible that God can help humanity learn to live in the right relationship with the body of the earth?
How do we access a higher power, a deeper power, a greater power, something beyond our little, ambitious, greedy, worried egos? We need a power beyond ourselves. Clearly, on our own, we are not doing a good job at all. We are destroying life on earth.
What does it mean to be missioner for creation care?
The main things I do, one is I preach. I’m trying to help people understand that placing care for God’s creation needs to be at the center of our moral and spiritual concerns. If we consider ourselves Christian, we care about the fate of the planet.
I remember the first sermon I ever preached about the earth was in 1989. It was right after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, all these millions of gallons of oil spilled onto the coast of Alaska. I was shocked. I preached the first sermon I had ever preached and the first sermon I had ever heard about why it’s a sin to destroy the earth and that God actually cares about the earth.
At the end of the sermon, a woman came up to me and said, “Thank you for preaching that but I really don’t understand. What does religion have to do with ecology? What does Christianity have to do with caring about the natural world?”
I realized we have a lot of educating to do. That’s been part of my work really since my ordination in 1988 is trying to help myself and help other people understand that caring for the earth is it’s not an extra — it’s not ancillary to being a Christian or a person of faith — it’s actually central.
There’s also an activist side, where I’m trying to mobilize action. I begin with Christians and then it enlarges to people of all faiths and people of no faiths but people of goodwill. I am trying to awaken a movement so that we can take concerted, effective action to address the crisis.
The IPCC, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, says we have just a very short window of time in which to take effective action. There’s so much that we have already lost and are losing, but there’s so much we can save if we take action now. Because the scope, the scale and the pace of the climate crisis is so vast, we also need systemic change. As I said in my sermon on Sunday, we need to make it politically possible to do what is scientifically necessary.
So what made you want to do a sermon about the environment in the first place if you hadn’t before?
The Exxon Valdez oil spill happened on Good Friday. It was on Good Friday. For a Christian, that is a powerful day, that’s a day when you’re looking at the suffering of God — the son of God is loving us so much he is willing to die showing us the nonviolence of God. I couldn’t help putting it together — we are looking at the crucifixion of the earth. The innocent earth is being crucified, and we’re doing it. So, I took it very personally as a spiritual meaning.
Greta Jochem can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
This article was published by Daily Hampshire Gazette (Northampton, MA) on 3/12/2019 3:02:46 PM A link to the article (which includes photos) is here.
This essay is based on opening remarks by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas at a Community Forum, “Tackling the climate crisis now,” held at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Sandwich, MA, on November 4, 2018. The other speakers were Dr. Philip B. Duffy (President and Executive Director, Woods Hole Research Center) and the Rev. Dr. Paul Minus (Co-Chair of the Cape & Island Faith Communities Environmental Network). The event was part of a new initiative in Massachusetts to bring together scientists and faith leaders in a shared effort to address the climate crisis.
I brought two props with me: a globe and an icon. The globe represents the world outside us: the precious living planet into which we were born, with its complex eco-systems, its lands and waters, its diverse multitude of creatures, and its delicate balance of gases that make up the global atmosphere. The globe represents the outer landscape – what science studies.
The icon represents the world we carry inside us: how we make meaning, what we value and consider important, what motivates us, what we feel, what we long for, how we choose to act. The icon represents the inner landscape – what religion explores.
Scientists have done their job – they’ve conducted research, carried out experiments – and now they are speaking with increasing alarm about threats to the web of life and to human civilization. In the last few weeks we’ve experienced a one-two punch. The World Wildlife Fund just reported that 60% of mammals, birds, fish and reptiles have been wiped out since 1970. This massive annihilation of wildlife now threatens human civilization, which depends on a healthy natural world. And several weeks ago the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a major report that shows that planetary warming is well underway and that time is running out to avert climate catastrophe: we have maybe ten or twelve years. To avoid runaway climate change will require a radical transformation of society from top to bottom at a scale and pace that are historically unprecedented: never before in human history has our species changed its way of living that dramatically and that fast.
The question is how we will respond. This is where communities of faith have a vital role to play. In order to mobilize an effective response to the climate crisis, we need hard science and we need deep faith; we need facts and we need a moral compass; we need clear heads and we need open hearts.
We need the wisdom of our whole selves, and we need the help and skills of every sector of society if we are going to preserve a habitable planet for our children’s children.
I’d like to name four of the many roles that faith communities can play:
People who are secretly worried about climate change often don’t take action because they feel helpless and overwhelmed. It’s easy to shut down, throw up our hands and call it quits. “It’s too late,” we tell ourselves. “What difference can I make? It’s not my problem. Someone else will have to deal with it. Besides, the world is cooked. We’re done for. I might as well put my head down, go shopping, check the score, grab a beer.” It’s easy to collapse into fatalism or despair. Strictly speaking we may not be climate skeptics – we do respect climate science, we do understand that burning fossil fuels is disrupting the global climate and threatening the whole human enterprise – but most of us engage in a kind of everyday climate denial: we don’t want to talk about it, we don’t want to think about it, we don’t know what to do about it, and we surely don’t want to feel the emotions that this crisis evokes.
Faith communities address helplessness in many ways. When we gather for meditation or worship, we see each other’s faces, we hear each other’s voices, and we can take hold of each other’s hands. We feel the power of a community that longs, as we do, to create a better world. And we place ourselves in the presence of a Higher Power (Great Spirit, God, Creator) in whose presence we are uplifted and to whom we are accountable.
2) Offer rituals and practices of prayer and meditation that transform minds and hearts and set us on a good path Taking action is essential, but in order to discover what we are called to do – and to find the strength to do it – we need to open ourselves to a power and wisdom that is greater than our own. We need help. We need guidance.
In a time of climate crisis, we 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.
We also need to meditate and pray, recognizing, in the words of Terry Tempest Williams, “that we exist by the grace of something beyond ourselves.” What we consider prayer can take many forms. In times like these, our prayer may need to be expressive and embodied, visceral and vocal. How shall we pray with our immense anger and grief? How do we pray about ecocide, about the death that humanity is unleashing upon Mother Earth – and upon ourselves? The climate crisis can make us go numb. But it is important to protect our human capacity to feel our emotional responses to the crisis, for that is how we stay inwardly vital and alive. What’s more, our emotions can become a source of energy for constructive action to address the emergency.
So I’ll tell a story. Over the past month a company has been cutting down trees in the woods behind our house, clearing space for a new co-housing development. I’m all for co-housing, and I’ve met some nice people who plan to live there, but, honestly, I grieve the trees. So I’ve taken to praying outdoors. I go outside, feel my feet on the good earth, feel the wind on my face, and I sing to the trees. I sing my grief to the trees that are going down, and my grief about so much more: about what we have lost and are losing and are likely to lose, making up the words and the music as I go along. I sing my rage about these beautiful old trees going down and about the predicament we’re in as a species, my protest of the political and corporate powers-that-be that drive forward relentlessly with business as usual, cutting down forests, drilling for more oil and fracked gas, digging for more coal, expanding pipeline construction, and opening up public lands and waters to endless exploitation, as if the Earth were their private business and they were conducting a liquidation sale. I sing out my shame to the trees, my repentance and apology for the part I have played in Earth’s destruction. I sing out my thanks, my praise for the beauty of trees and my resolve not to let a day go by that I don’t celebrate the preciousness of the living world of which we are so blessedly a part.
Our prayer may be noisy and expressive, or it may be very quiet, the kind of prayer that depends on listening in stillness and silence with complete attention: listening to the crickets as they pulse at night, listening to the rain as it falls, listening to our breath as we breathe God in and breathe God out, listening to the inner voice of love that is always sounding in our heart.
Experiencing our unshakable union with a love that is stronger than death guides us to actions commensurate with the emergency we are in.
3)Provide moral leadership
Climate change is obviously a scientific issue, an economic issue, a political issue, but it is also a moral issue, an issue of justice. The poorest nations and the poorest citizens in each nation are those most vulnerable to climate change, because of flooding, food shortages, and the loss of clean water. The front-line communities most affected by fossil fuel pollution are often low-income communities and communities of color.1 The poor are often the people least responsible for causing climate change, the people least equipped to protect themselves from its effects, and the people least likely to have a say in how decisions get made. Pope Francis’s landmark encyclical, Laudato Si, makes it crystal clear that healing the climate is closely connected with securing social justice, racial justice, environmental justice, and economic justice. And climate change is about intergenerational justice, too, for right now we are stealing a habitable Earth from our children. What is our moral responsibility to future generations? This weekend, Christians around the world are celebrating All Saints Day, and as I said in my sermon this morning, our task is to be a good ancestor.
4)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.
I’d like to mention one important new interfaith initiative: Living the Change. At LivingtheChange.net you can commit to making personal changes in the three key areas that most affect our personal carbon footprint: transportation, household energy use, and diet. (It turns out that eating less meat or no meat, and shifting to a plant-based diet, is one of the most climate-friendly things we can do.)
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.
The climate emergency is propelling people of different faiths to lobby for strong legislative action, such as putting a fair and rising price on carbon, and to join the divestment movement. In the footsteps of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., countless people of faith have been arrested in recent years in acts of non-violent resistance to fossil fuels. I have been arrested several times in interfaith protests against fossil fuels, and I consider those experiences some of the high points of my life. By engaging in civil disobedience, faith communities challenge the deathly status quo of “business as usual” and rouse society out of its apathy and inaction.
I am thankful for 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 take action — even if success is not assured — bearing witness to the presence and power of a love that abides within and around us and that nothing can destroy.
Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter, April 15, 2018
Delivered by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas at Federated Church of Orleans, East Orleans, MA
Acts 3:12-191 John 3:17Luke 24:36b-48
“You are witnesses of these things”
Today we are deep into the Great Fifty Days of Easter, and I want to share a story told by an Episcopal bishop about leading worship one Easter morning. Bishop Mark Macdonald was preaching to a congregation in the middle of Navajo Nation. When the time came to read the Gospel account of Jesus’ resurrection, Bishop Macdonald stood up and began reading in Navajo: “It was early in the morning…” Almost before the words were out of his mouth, “the oldest person there, an elder who understood no English, said loudly (in Navajo), ‘Yes!’”
The bishop remarks that “it seemed a little early in the narrative for this much enthusiasm,” so he assumed he had made a mistake – maybe he had mispronounced the words in Navajo. So he tried again: “It was early in the morning…’” This time he heard an even louder and more enthusiastic Yes. After the service, the bishop went up to one of the lay leaders and asked if he had pronounced the words correctly. Oh, she said, looking surprised, of course. Well, asked the bishop, then why was the older woman so excited? Oh, he was told, “The early dawn is the most important part of the day to her. Father Sky and Mother Earth meet at that time and produce all that is necessary for life. It is the holiest time of the day. Jesus would pick that good time of day to be raised.”1
Bishop Macdonald realized that while the early dawn is certainly the best time for new life, he had never thought about the possibility that this “observation about the physical word could be theologically and spiritually revealing, that it suggested a communion between God, humanity, and creation that is fundamental to our… existence.” It took him a while to absorb this. He writes: “An elder with no formal schooling had repositioned the central narrative of my life firmly within the physical world and all its forces and interactions. It was,” he says, “an ecological reading of a story that, for me, had been trapped inside a flat virtual world misnamed ‘spiritual’.”
Today, on the Third Sunday of Easter, we celebrate Christ’s resurrection and the sacred power of the natural world. Like Bishop Macdonald, today we remember and re-claim what he calls “a primal, long-ignored layer of spiritual consciousness that [is] also an ecological consciousness.”2
I don’t know about you, but I grew up thinking of “spirituality” as completely ethereal. The God I grew up with had no body. Being a good Christian was all about distancing oneself from the body and transcending the body – both one’s own body and the “body” of the natural world. The natural world and its wild diversity of buzzing, blooming, finned, and feathered creatures was essentially irrelevant and dispensable, just the backdrop to what was really important: human beings. Since the time of the Reformation, Christianity – at least in the West – has had little to say about the salvation of the natural world and the cosmos, as if only one species, Homo sapiens, is of any real interest to God.
So what a healing it is, what a restoration of the ancient biblical understanding – an understanding that has never been forgotten by the indigenous people of the land – to know that the Earth is holy. Its creatures are holy. The whole created world is lit up with the power and presence of God.
Our Gospel story this morning is full of meanings, but surely one of them is that the Risen Christ is alive in the body, in our bodies, in the body of the Earth. While the disciples were talking about how they had seen Jesus risen from the dead, “Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost” (Luke 24:36-37). But Jesus doesn’t come as a ghost. He doesn’t come as a memory, as an idea, or as something from “a flat, virtual world misnamed ‘spiritual’.” He comes as a living body, a body made of flesh and bone that can touch and be touched, a body that can feel hunger and thirst and that wants to know, “Hey, isn’t there anything to eat around here?” Scripture tells us that the Messiah is born, lives, suffers, dies, and rises as a body, and that says something about how much God cherishes the body and wants to meet us in and through the body – through our bodily senses of sight and sound, through taste and touch and smell, in this very breath. Scripture tells us that for forty days the disciples met the living Christ through his risen body. And then, when he ascended into heaven, Jesus’ body withdrew from the disciples’ sight, so that his living presence could fill all things and so that all of us can touch and see him, if our eyes are opened.
What this means is that when you and I go out into nature, when we let our minds grow quiet and we simply gaze at the white pine, the first blooms of forsythia, the seashell on the shore – when we gaze with a quiet eye, not grasping for anything and not pushing anything away, we begin to perceive that a holy, living presence fills everything we see. Wherever we gaze, the Risen Christ is gazing back at us and his presence is flowing toward us. “Peace be with you,” he is saying to us through wind and tree, through cloud and stars. “Peace be with you. I am here in the needles of the pine tree beside you that flutter in the breeze, and in the bark overlaid with clumps of lichen, each one a tiny galaxy. I am here in the ocean waves that form and dissolve on the shore, in the sand under your bare feet, in the sea gull that is crying overhead. Peace be with you. I am here, and you are part of this with me, and you are witnesses of these things.”
This morning I brought with me an icon of the Risen Christ.3 The icon imagines Christ as a Native American figure whose body shines out from every habitat and every creature – from the sky above to the water below, from mountains, field and buffalo. The God who created all things also redeems all things and fills all things. Through the crucified and risen Christ, divine love has woven together the human and natural worlds into one inter-related whole.
When our inward sight is restored and our eyes are opened to behold Christ in all his redeeming work, the Earth comes alive and we perceive Christ in every sound we hear, in every handful of dirt that we hold and in every bird we see. We are witnesses of these things.
In our first reading this morning, Peter speaks about God’s power to heal and to bring forth new life, and he says, “To this we are witnesses” (Acts 3:15b). Our Gospel passage ends with the risen Christ speaking about God’s power to bring new life out of suffering and death, God’s power to reconcile and forgive and heal. Jesus says, “You are witnesses of these things” (Luke 24:48).
Today more than ever we need witnesses to the love and power of God and to the divine love that fills the whole Creation, for God’s Creation is in the process of being recklessly assaulted by an economic system that is based on limitless expansion and dependent on the relentless burning of fossil fuels. Countries around the world agreed in the Paris Climate Accord that we must limit the rise of the global average temperature to no more than 2 degrees Celsius, and ideally to no more than 1.5 degrees. The national proposals of the Paris Accord help get us part of the way there, but only part of the way (3.3 C, or 6 F), so we must rein in dirty emissions even more boldly than that. If we stick to our present course and keep going with business as usual, global temperatures will skyrocket by the end of this century, raising temperatures an average of 4.2 degrees Celsius (or 7.6 Fahrenheit). Human beings simply can’t adapt to that level of heat. We would be living on a different planet.
Thank God, there is a lot that we, as individuals, can do. Maybe we can plant trees. Save trees. Recycle more. Drive less. Eat local, eat less meat, and move to a plant-based diet. Get our home insulated and get LED lighting. Support local farms and land trusts. Fly less – and, if we must fly, buy carbon offsets. Maybe we can afford solar panels and move toward a carbon-neutral home. I was thrilled to see the solar array behind the church. That’s the first time I’ve ever seen solar panels behind a nice white picket fence!
Individual changes make a difference, but because of the scope and speed of the climate crisis, we need more than individual action – we need systemic change. To do that, we’ll need to become politically engaged, to confront the powers-that-be, and to push our elected leaders to awaken from the fantasy that we can continue with business as usual. So some of us carry out peaceful, disciplined actions of civil disobedience to stop construction of new fossil fuel infrastructure and keep fossil fuels in the ground, where they belong. Some of us push for policies that support the development of clean renewable energy, since that is where our future lies, if we’re going to have one. Some of us join Citizens Climate Lobby and advocate for a national carbon tax, or support legislation right here in Massachusetts that would put a price on carbon. Those of us who are white and privileged listen to the voices of racial minorities, indigenous peoples, and the poor, knowing that they are God’s beloved and that they are the ones hit first and hardest by climate change. Together we intend to build a world in which everyone can thrive.
Here on Cape Cod you are fortunate to have a local node of 350Mass for a Better Future, the grassroots, climate action group that is working hard to build political will to stop new pipelines and move the Commonwealth to 100% clean energy. I hope you’ll sign up with 350Mass and check out a local meeting. Our state politicians may see what’s needed, but they are not moving fast enough to stop the damage.
What motivates us to join the struggle to protect life as it has evolved on this planet? As followers of Jesus, we take action not only out of fear, although we do fear for the future of our children and our children’s children if we leave them a scorched and barren world beset by climate disruption. We take action not only because we’re angry, although we are angry, and refuse to allow political and corporate powers to dismantle the web of life for the sake of their own short-term profit and greed. We take action not only out of sorrow, although we do grieve for all the species we have already lost and will lose, grieve for the dying coral and vanishing bumblebees, grieve for the climate refugees, the vulnerable poor, and all the innocents who are already suffering and whose lives and livelihoods are being destroyed.
Fear, anger, and sorrow – all these feelings may galvanize us to act. But stirring beneath them all is love, love for each other, love for the Earth entrusted to our care, love for the God whose mercies cannot be numbered. We were made for communion with God and each other and God’s Creation, and we put our trust in the power of God to work through us to heal and reconcile and save. I don’t know if in the end we will be successful, but I do know this: we intend to be living witnesses to the power of a living God until the day we die.
1. Mark Macdonald, “Finding Communion with Creation,” in Holy Ground: A Gathering of Voices on Caring for Creation, edited by Lyndsay Moseley and the staff of Sierra Club Books, San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 2008, pp. 150-151. Macdonald is the former bishop of Alaska, and now serves as the National Indigenous Bishop of the Anglican Church of Canada.
2. Ibid, p. 151.
3.“Mystic Christ,” by Fr. John Giuliani, Bridge Building Images, Inc.