What makes a sermon about climate change “pastoral” or “prophetic”? How should preachers address climate grief? Why should we preach about voting, and what’s the difference between partisan and political activity?
These questions and more were discussed by the Rev. Dr. Jim Antal and the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas in a climate preaching webinar on September 15, 2022, co-sponsored by the two Episcopal dioceses in Massachusetts and Southern New England Conference, United Church of Christ. This text is based on our conversation. A 30-minute video is available here. Passcode: 05@=u87H
Opening prayer (by Jim)
Good and gracious God,
We give thanks that you have called us to proclaim your Good News in a time of great challenge. Grant us your assurance that we have been given everything we need to inspire both courage and conviction in the communities you have given us to serve. May our time together in the coming hour open us to the opportunity to amplify our witness on behalf of restoring your creation. With grateful hearts we pray. Amen.
Overview (by Jim)
First, we’ll provide some context for our conversation, including brief updates on the state of God’s creation and humanity’s collective response.
Then, Margaret will share her experience and insights on how to address the climate crisis in a pastoral way, drawing on spiritual and theological foundations as we enter the Season of Creation. Margaret will also offer some guidance on the relationship between grief and activism.
Then, I’ll provide some guidance on how we can speak a prophetic word about engaging the climate crisis in a way that our congregants welcome as an opportunity. I’ll share how climate change reveals all justice issues to be intersectional, and I’ll share why we should preach on the importance of voting and the difference between being partisan and being political in our preaching. Then, we will field questions.
Context of our conversation: National and international (by Jim) I’ll begin with three examples of Good News:
First, in less than a year, Congress has committed OVER HALF A TRILLION DOLLARS to address the climate crisis and energy transition.
My second illustration comes under the heading “WE CAN DO THIS!” Thanks to the relentless efforts of scientists and engineers, by 2030, electricity from solar, wind, and water could provide all the electricity the world needs. And by 2035, renewable energy could also be the sole energy source for all the world’s heating, cooling, transportation, and industry.1 Furthermore, making this transition will pay for itself in only six years.2 Not only that, but as we make this transition, we can address economic and racial inequities – and by doing so, we will reap benefits far greater than the costs.
The headline for my final illustration is, “WE CAN ADAPT!” While Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is horrific, one of Germany’s responses has been to drop its dependence on natural gas by 90%. And here in the U.S., President Biden invoked the Defense Production Act to build millions of electric heat pumps that will reduce dependence on oil and gas.
Of course, the past few months have brought plenty of bad news as well:
We now know that air pollution caused by the burning of fossil fuels kills almost 9 million people a year.3 That’s more than malaria, HIV-AIDS, and tuberculosis combined. And that doesn’t even include the lives lost due to the impact of increased global warming. A 2021 study4 reports that if global warming exceeds 1.5ºC (2.7°F), the world’s tropics could become uninhabitable. 2.5 billion people live in the tropics.
In other words, the past decade has been the hottest decade since records have been kept5– and the past decade will be the coolest decade your children and your grandchildren will ever experience.
It’s not only heat. You probably heard that one-third of Pakistan is under water and 32 million people are displaced.6 Were you aware that between mid-July and mid-August (2022), five states here in the U.S. experienced 1-in-1,000-year rain events?7 Imagine 9 months of rain in a single day. And it’s not just deluge – it’s also drought. That’s why we call it climate chaos. Europe’s drought is the worst in 500 years.8 And the American west is experiencing what some experts call a once-in-a-thousand-year drought.
Now I’ll turn things over to Margaret for some additional Good News!
Context of our conversation: Massachusetts (by Margaret) Earlier this summer, after weeks of speculation that he would veto it, our Republican governor in Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker, signed into law what’s being called a landmark climate bill. Among other things, this sweeping climate legislation gives a major boost to renewables, including offshore wind. After an intensive push by climate justice advocates, it also clarifies that biomass is not a renewable energy source. That win was particularly sweet to me, because incentives for biomass are what spurred a proposal for a dirty wood-burning plant in Springfield, an environmental justice community located close to where I live. Following the lead of California, the bill also bans the sale of new internal combustion-powered vehicles by 2035 – to put it another way, all new vehicles sold in the Bay State must be EVs or hydrogen-powered by 2035. The legislation also allows 10 municipalities to ban new fossil fuel infrastructure, which is a first for the state.
The bill isn’t perfect – there’s still work to be done – but we hope that it will spur the next administration to take further steps to address climate emergency.
Preaching a pastoral climate sermon (by Margaret)
I’d like to reflect on how we preach a pastoral sermon about climate change. That may sound like a contradiction since we usually think of preaching about climate change as likely to stir up trouble. Stirring up trouble – good trouble – is often just what the Holy Spirit calls the preacher to do, simply because most faith communities are not going to rise up to address the climate emergency until their preachers speak with the moral clarity and fearlessness of a prophet. So, in a moment, Jim will speak about prophetic climate preaching. But a strong climate sermon includes elements that are bothpastoral and prophetic.
So, let’s focus for a moment on what makes a climate sermon pastoral. What makes any sermon “pastoral”? It provides emotional, social, and spiritual support. A pastoral climate sermon does at least four things:
A pastoral climate sermon pushes back against helplessness
Our parishioners may not have told us, but many of them are already grappling with climate anxiety, grief, and dread. Clinicians are increasingly speaking about “climate distress” and “climate stress.” Even if our house hasn’t been washed away by an extreme storm or rising seas – even if we haven’t had to run from wildfires or had to breathe smoky air, day after day – even if we haven’t wondered where we – or our fields, gardens, or livestock – will find the next drink because our waterways have run dry – even if we haven’t endured a searing heatwave – we probably know people who have; we know that millions of people in this country and worldwide are enduring these conditions now; and we know that future conditions will likely become even more difficult.
It can be a relief when a preacher finally makes climate change “speakable” – something we intend to discuss and learn about and lean into together. A pastoral sermon conveys the message: you are not alone. We will support each other, and we intend to find a way forward together.
Simply gathering for worship pushes back against helplessness: we see each other’s faces, we hear each other’s voices, maybe we take each other’s hands. How do people get through tough times? We gather, we sing, we hear our sacred stories. We sense the power of being part of a community that longs, as we do, to create a better world. Entrusting ourselves to God, especially alongside fellow seekers, can overcome our sense of helplessness and release unexpected power among us to do “infinitely more than we can ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20).
A pastoral climate sermon makes space for grief
The climate crisis can make us go numb. Newspaper and media reports convey a cascade of losses every day, so it’s easy to shut down and lose heart. In our sermons, we can name, and normalize, the range of feelings evoked by climate change – grief, fear, outrage, confusion, maybe guilt or shame, dread, despair… And we can suggest practices, teachings, and rituals that help us to accept, work with, and move through the feelings that are being stirred up.
To support that process, in our congregations we might create small circles for eco-grief lament and prayer. And we might hold public ceremonies of lament outdoors. Over the years I’ve led or participated in many outdoor interfaith public liturgies about climate change. I remember, for instance, gathering in 2010 on the town common in Amherst after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico for a public ceremony of singing, speaking, and prayer. I also remember hearing about the “Requiem for a Glacier” in 2013, when 50 musicians climbed Farnham Glacier in British Columbia to perform an oratorio.
What would it be like – how might it empower us – if we took time in worship services and in outdoor public spaces to lament species that have gone extinct, forests that have burned, or reservoirs that have run dry? Daring to lament together allows us to feel our deep longing for healing and reconciliation and to experience the God who weeps with us. Daring to lament together protects our human capacity to feel our emotional responses without being overwhelmed. And it allows our emotions to become a source of energy for constructive action to address the emergency.
Making a space for grief in a climate sermon may be as simple as saying “We hold in our hearts the many thousands of people in Jackson, Mississippi, who still don’t have safe drinking water after an historic rainfall and flood.” Rather than coming at your listeners with a hard-hitting list of fact after fact, which might leave people stunned, in their heads, and emotionally defended, we are modeling how to hold traumatic events with an open heart. Or, depending on the text we’re working with, our sermon can focus on how Jesus accompanies us, shares our sorrows, and offers his strength and presence and healing.
Last point: As spiritual leaders, we need to grow our capacity to be with people who are in distress. We will only be able to do that to the extent that we’ve grown in our capacity to sit with our own distress.
A pastoral climate sermon connects deeply with Christian faith
When we step into the pulpit, we don’t have to be policy wonks or expert scientists. We are theologians and communicators who want to convey God’s unbounded love for God’s people and for the whole Creation, and God’s urgent call for us to participate in God’s mission of justice, reconciliation, and healing. So, let’s surround our sermons with prayers and hymns that make it clear that our salvation story encompasses the whole Creation, not just human beings.
I’m excited to introduce a new ecumenical liturgical resource for Creation Season. Last July I worked on it with a colleague in the Diocese of Western Massachusetts, the Rev. John Elliott Lein, and it’s been authorized for public use this season by at least four Episcopal dioceses (Season of Creation: An Ecumenical Celebration).
Let me quickly sketch what you’ll find there.
A primer on Creation care theology describes the urgency of the climate and ecological crisis and provides seven theological touchstones to guide your thinking and preaching about climate. It also names some of the key solutions for addressing the crisis.
It goes through the lectionary for the 5 Sundays of Creation Season, providing prayers and non-biblical readings and giving preaching suggestions on some difficult texts.
It concludes with a large collection of resources – prayers, blessings, readings, hymns – from a wide range of ancient and contemporary sources, which take us from Kenya and New Zealand to England and the Iona community – from poets and early Christian mystics to Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew – from William Wordsworth to Wendell Berry and Robin Wall Kimmerer.
I hope it will be helpful for both Episcopal and UCC preachers – helpful for Episcopal liturgists, because this resource takes us far beyond the bounds of the Book of Common Prayer and invites us to imagine a God who loves and saves every inch of creation, and helpful for UCC liturgists because it is well crafted!
My favorite part: John Lein examines the prayers of the people in our prayer book. He suggests: When we pray for the suffering and the dead, why don’t we pray for the wellbeing of all creatures and mourn the extinction of other species? When we bless all whose lives are closely linked with ours, why don’t we explicitly bless all living beings and ecosystems whose lives are closely linked with ours? At least for me, once you start praying in that expansive way and open your prayers beyond human concerns to the concerns of the rest of Creation, there’s no going back!
A pastoral climate sermon includes at least one thing we can do
The way to build hope is to take action. A pastoral sermon conveys a message of agency, a message of empowerment – through the grace of God, we intend to do everything we can to protect what remains and to fight for a just and habitable world.
In my talks right now, I mention Faiths 4 Climate Justice, GreenFaith’s global campaign, between Oct. 2 and Nov. 6 (the eve of the next U.N. climate talks at COP27), in which people of faith around the world will proclaim that the Earth and all people are sacred. Among other things, in prayer vigils and protests we will call for an immediate end to new fossil fuel projects, an end to deforestation, and an end to related financing.
A pastoral sermon emphasizes that everyone has an active role to play, and a preacher can help listeners to find their place in the movement.
Comment on Margaret’s presentation (by Jim)
Thanks for your excellent guidance, Margaret. I want to amplify two things you said.
First, you said we need to make space for grief. Along with that, we need to do everything possible to assure that our congregation is a safe-enough place for honest conversation about grief over the loss of the world we have to let go.
You also suggested that churches might dare to lament. I just want to add that our lamentation is part of living the truth. As children of the Creator God, faithfulness demands that we tell the truth about the desecration of creation, and as we do, a liturgical expression of that truth is lamentation.
Preaching a prophetic climate sermon (by Jim)
Just as we are called to be pastoral in our approach to preaching on the climate crisis, we must also be prophetic. In my book, Climate Church, Climate World, my chapter on prophetic preaching offers many suggestions about how, as preachers, we must free ourselves from fear so that we can respond to God’s call to engage the climate crisis as “opportunity.”
Prophetic preaching requires preparation. Amidst all the demands on our lives, we must create the space to allow ourselves to fully take in the wonder of creation. And we must have the courage to experience the grief we feel when we truly acknowledge the destruction caused by humanity’s greed and selfishness.
And as we do, we might find ourselves in the company of Esther, confronted with the realization that perhaps we were born for just such a time as this (Esther 4:14). Perhaps our generation was born to put an end to three interconnected systemic injustices:
the subjugation of other humans who are not our color;
the colonization of land, sea and air that is not our own; and
the extraction of nature’s wealth that we did not create.
In our preaching, we need to name what is creating the problem. Environmental giant Gus Speth famously identifies the cause as “selfishness and greed and pride.” Fletcher Harper is a little more specific. He points to the supply side of the problem, naming “ExxonMobil, BP, Shell, and other oil and gas companies [who] are systematically destroying the planet” – along with “financial giants like JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, BlackRock, and Vanguard [who] are bankrolling the destruction.”
Another goal of prophetic preaching is to remind people that we are not called to stand idly by as countless examples of injustice continue to frame the status quo. In our preaching, we must help our congregation envision “a still more excellent way” (1 Corinthians 12:31) in which all of God’s creatures can celebrate our interdependence. And then we must invite our congregations to assess all the gifts, the abilities, the assets God has given them and commit their lives to helping our town, our state, our nation, our world, move in that direction.
Another feature of our prophetic preaching is to help our congregations understand that the climate crisis is not one crisis among many. Every congregation I’ve ever known treats its various missions and benevolences as silos. Often, there’s a particular individual in the congregation who is the champion of a particular cause. But the more you learn about the climate crisis, the clearer it becomes that every justice issue you care about – hunger, poverty, homelessness, racism, immigration, disease, lack of access to clean water and education – these justice issues are intersectional – they are not separate and distinct from one another – and climate change is making every one of them worse.
The only way humanity can address these intersectional challenges is by coming together. That’s why the actions of governments are so important to anyone concerned about justice. And that’s why it’s important for clergy to encourage their congregations to name and embrace their sacred responsibility to vote. It’s an act of faithfulnessfor churches to discuss the issues on the ballot and encourage people to vote.
Voting is the means by which we elect leaders and advance laws that can and should underwrite at least the following five principles:
addressing the needs of the least of these among us;
assuring and advancing justice;
promoting the common good;
telling and adhering to truth;
and preserving and restoring the integrity of Creation.
These five principles are supported by every faith tradition I know of.
In our preaching, particularly in an election year, pastors need to help their congregations understand the distinction between being partisan and being political. To put it simply, there is no place for partisan activity in the life of the church, synagogue, temple, or mosque. What do I mean by partisan activity? Endorsing a candidate, supporting a political party, or fundraising for a candidate or a political party.These partisan activities have no place in the life of the church.
But examining how our community, our state, and our nation: address the needs of the least of these among us; how we assure and advance justice; how we promote the common good; how we tell and adhere to the truth; and how we preserve and restore God’s creation – the means by which all of these values are upheld are political.
Think about it. In almost every chapter of each of the four Gospels, we see Jesus urging the community to address the needs of the least of these among us. We hear Jesus passionately advocating for justice and promoting the common good.His commitment to truth is unwavering. And throughout scripture, God calls upon the faithful to preserve and restore creation.
All these activities are political because they involve how people relate to each other; how they govern their life together. In his ministry, Jesus tells the truth as he seeks to amplify love and expand justice in families, in towns and throughout the empire.
We are now in the Season of Creation, and we are also within two months of an election. Every congregation and every clergy leader now have an opportunityto identifythe values and principles that guide us as people of faith when we consider our “life together” as residents of our state or country – and as stewards of God’s creation.
I recognize that all of this may come across as utterly foolish or impossibly challenging or something else altogether. Whatever your response to what Margaret and I have shared, I hope that we can go deeper in our time of discussion, and I very much look forward to hearing what’s on your mind and in your heart.
After discussion, we closed with prayer.
Closing Prayer (by Margaret)
Source of life, heal and redeem the wounds of your creation, and visit the places and people who suffer from our indifference, neglect, and greed. Creator of earth, sea, and sky, kindle the fire of your Spirit within us that we may be bold to heal and defend the earth, and pour your blessing upon all who work for the good of the planet. In the Name and power and presence of Jesus, we pray. Amen.
(Adapted from “Honoring God in Creation,” as cited in Season of Creation: An Ecumenical Celebration)
ThirdAct.org, the new network, founded by Bill McKibben, for people over 60 who wish to leverage their money and experience to push for democratic social change and to preserve the planet. You can sign one of two banking pledges: “If by the end of 2022, Chase, Citibank, Wells Fargo, or Bank of America are still funding climate-destroying fossil fuel projects, I pledge to close my account and cut up my credit card. If I don’t bank at these institutions now, I pledge I won’t do so in the future.”
The joy in climate justice: How we pray, learn, act and advocate for God’s Creation
Rev. Margaret gave a 45-minute keynote presentation in June for the 2022 annual meeting of Province One Episcopal Church Women, followed by Q&A. She told the personal story behind her ministry, shared a brief PowerPoint on the ways that Christian faith informs our work to safeguard the web of life, and explained how we can pray, learn, act, and advocate for God’s Creation – with joy.
A presentation by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas for Creation Justice Ministries on March 24, 2022. Facilitated by Avery Davis Lamb, Co-Executive Director of Creation Justice Ministries, this online workshop was part of CJM’s ongoing exploration of how the church might become a hub of resilience in the midst of the spiritual and physical storms of the climate crisis. A recording of this conversation, along with CJM’s other workshops on climate resilience, is available on their YouTube channel. A PDF is available for download.
Let’s begin by taking a quick pulse.
How many of you have heard a sermon about the climate emergency and our moral obligation as Christians to tackle it? Please raise your hand.
How many of you preachers – lay or ordained – have preached a sermon about the climate emergency and our moral obligation as Christians to tackle it?
How many of you preachers intend to preach a climate sermon sometime soon, and how many of you non-preachers will give them your full support when they do?
I hope everybody’s hands went up that time!
For a while now I’ve been traveling around, preaching about climate change, and you’d be amazed how many times I’ve asked a group of parishioners whether they’ve ever heard a sermon about climate change, and no one raises a hand. So, let’s talk about preaching resilience and cultivating climate justice from the pulpit.
I want to be real. I want to acknowledge right off the bat that it can be hard to preach about climate emergency. Preaching of any kind is challenging but preaching about climate emergency is especially difficult. Why is that? What are we afraid of?1
Maybe we fear being ill-informed (I don’t know enough science).
Maybe we fear provoking division in the congregation (Climate change is too political).
Maybe we fear stressing out our listeners (Daily life is hard enough; why add to their worries?).
Maybe we fear our parishioners won’t be able to handle the bad news (If I do mention climate change, I’d better tone it down and underplay the dire science).
Maybe we fear that climate preaching is not pastoral (People come to church for solace, not to get depressed).
Besides, we may tell ourselves, preaching about climate change should be someone else’s responsibility (Climate change isn’t really “my” issue; someone else should deal with it).
A preacher’s fears may cut close to home (I could lose pledges; I could even lose my job).
And climate preaching may require a painful and very personal reckoning with oneself that the preacher would prefer to avoid (How do I preach resurrection when watching the web of life unravel before my eyes fills me with despair?)
Reckoning with ourselves may also be difficult as we admit our own complicity and consumerism. Years ago, a friend of mine, a suburban priest in a wealthy parish, confessed to me, “How can I preach about climate change when I drive an SUV?”
No wonder so many preachers delay addressing the climate crisis – most of us weren’t trained for this, we don’t want to stir up trouble, and we face an array of fears. As a result, many of us kick the can down the road, perhaps waiting until the lectionary provides the supposedly “perfect” text.
Well, I think it’s fair to say that the time for shyness about preaching on climate change has long since passed. It’s high time for us preachers to overcome our fears and step into the pulpit to preach a bold message of Gospel truth and Gospel hope, because climate change is bearing down on us fast. The winds of war are howling. We live amidst a war against Ukraine that is underwritten by oil and gas, and a relentless war against Earth herself as coal, gas, and oil continue to be extracted and burned. This week the U.N. Secretary General warned that the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius is “on life-support.”2 He went on to say: “Last year alone, global energy-related CO2 emissions grew by 6% to their highest levels in history. Coal emissions have surged to record highs. We are sleepwalking to climate catastrophe. Our planet has already warmed by as much as 1.2 degrees, and we see the devastating consequences everywhere. … If we continue with more of the same, we can kiss 1.5 goodbye. Even 2 degrees may be out of reach.”
So, do we need to preach and practice resilience? You bet we do. Do we need to wake up and quit sleepwalking? You bet we do. For a long time, we may have been sitting on the sidelines, telling ourselves: Things aren’t that bad. The scientists are exaggerating. Or: If I don’t pay attention, it will go away. But eventually our efforts to ignore the reality of a rapidly changing climate can’t help but fall apart. One too many reports of melting glaciers and bleaching coral reefs, one too many accounts of withered fields and bone-dry reservoirs, one too many stories of massive downpours and flash flooding, one too many experiences of devastating wildfires and record heatwaves, and it becomes impossible to suppress awareness of the climate crisis. Our defenses crumble. And we experience what journalist Mark Hertsgaard calls the “Oh, shit” moment we all must have. Climate change is real. It’s here. It’s accelerating.
The truth is that if we keep burning fossil fuels and stick to business as usual, by the end of century, average global temperature will rise 4.2 degrees Celsius (= 7.6 degrees F). Human beings simply can’t adapt to a world that hot.
And let’s not forget that, depending on their social location – on their race and class – people experience ecological breakdown differently. As the saying goes: “We’re all in the same storm, but we’re not in the same boat.” Low-income and low-wealth communities, racial minorities, and the historically underserved are those hurt first and worst by a changing climate, those least able to adapt, and those least likely to have a seat at the table where decisions are made.
This is where preachers have an essential role to play. This is where preaching resilience, preaching justice, preaching faithfulness to the crucified and risen Christ becomes crucial. Why? Because the more that people know about the social and ecological breakdown going on worldwide – and the more they experience it directly, in their own lives – the more they may feel overwhelmed, hopeless, or depressed. That’s why a message of urgency needs to be accompanied by a message of agency, a message of empowerment and strength: God is with us, we’re not alone, and there’s a lot we can do.
Here are nine things I try to do when preaching on climate.
Push back against helplessness
That’s one of the main functions of good climate preaching: push back against helplessness. Your parishioners might not have mentioned it to you, but it’s likely that many of them are grappling with climate anxiety, grief, and dread. A national survey recently conducted by Yale Program on Climate Change Communication reports that seven in ten Americans (70%) say they are at least “somewhat worried” about global warming and that one in three (35%) are “very worried” about it – numbers that have reached a record high.3 It can be a relief when a preacher finally names and addresses their fears, makes climate change “speakable,” and pushes back against the helplessness and “doomism” that suck our spirits dry. That’s why preaching about climate emergency can be deeply pastoral, an act of kindness to your congregation.
Simply gathering for worship can also push back against helplessness: we see each other’s face, we hear each other’s voices, maybe we take each other’s hands. How do people get through tough times? We gather, we sing, we hear our sacred stories, we raise our spirits together. We sense the power of being part of a community that longs, as we do, to create a better world. Entrusting ourselves to God, especially alongside fellow seekers, can overcome our sense of helplessness and release unexpected power among us to do “infinitely more than we can ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20).
Enable people to face hard facts
Like all spiritual seekers, Christians are committed to the search for truth, to cutting through fantasy and self-deception. So, in my sermons I share some facts about climate science. As climate preachers we need to know the basics: climate change is real, it’s largely caused by human activity, it’s gotten worse in recent decades, and it will have disastrous effects unless humanity changes course fast. Basic information is available from many sources, such as NASA or reputable environmental groups like Natural Resources Defense Council.4 For up-to-date climate information, I subscribe to daily news from Climate Nexus.5
So – we share some science, but we don’t have to worry that we need to be a scientist. In preaching, I keep my science comments short, brisk, and sober. To summarize the big-picture effects of a changing climate, I often quote a couple of sentences by Bill McKibben from his book, Eaarth: “We’ve changed the planet, changed it in large and fundamental ways… Our old familiar globe is suddenly melting, drying, acidifying, flooding, and burning in ways that no human has ever seen.”6 Then I cite specific examples that resonate most strongly with the local congregation. In California, I mentioned drought, wildfire, and mudslides; on Cape Cod, I mentioned rising and acidifying seas, and threats to fishing and groundwater.
When so much misinformation is being spread and funded by fossil fuel corporations and by the politicians in their pockets, faith leaders need to be resolute in speaking hard truths. A religion that directs our gaze to a suffering, dying man on a cross is surely a religion that can face painful facts.
Offer a positive vision of the future
Climate science has done its job, reporting on the catastrophic effects of burning fossil fuels. But facts aren’t enough to persuade people to take meaningful, concerted action. For that, we need vision – a shared goal and purpose and values. That’s what preachers do: we lift up a vision of people living in just and loving relationships with each other and with the whole Creation, a vision energized by a deep desire for God’s love to be fully manifest in the world.
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry observed, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” How do you build resilience? By lifting up God’s vision of a Beloved Community and by inviting everyone to join God’s mission of reconciling us to God, each other, and the whole Creation. This is the mission that Archbishop Desmond Tutu called the “supreme work” of Jesus Christ.
Explore ethical questions and provide a moral framework
The climate crisis forces upon us existential questions about the meaning, purpose, and value of human life. What is our moral responsibility to future generations? What does it mean to be human, if human beings are destroying life as it has evolved on this planet? How do we address the anger, self-hatred and guilt that arise with this awareness? Are we willing to radically amend our personal patterns of consumption and waste? What does a “good” life look like, once we know the deadly consequences of over-consumption, inequitable distribution of resources, and being part of an inherently unsustainable, extractive economy that depends on fossil fuels and unlimited growth?
Such questions may hover in the background or roar to the foreground. Congregations provide a context for grappling with these questions, and preachers can offer moral grounding and guidance, reminding their listeners of such old-fashioned values as compassion and generosity, self-control and selfless service, simple living, sacrifice, justice, forgiveness, and non-violent engagement in societal transformation.
Climate change has become a deeply divisive political issue – so polarizing that people may fear to mention the subject to family members, co-workers, and friends. Sermons can open a space for conversation, and congregations can follow up by providing settings for difficult conversations and active listening. If we can express compassion while also holding groups and individuals morally accountable, we can create possibilities for reconciliation and collaboration that otherwise might not exist.
Jim Antal points out in his seminal book, Climate Church, Climate World, that “truth and reconciliation” groups could be modeled on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that was formed in South Africa in the 1990’s after the abolition of apartheid. Antal writes: “Initiating Truth and Reconciliation Conversations could well be the most important contribution of the church to creating a world able to undergo the great transition we are now beginning. For many generations we have sought to conquer, dominate, and exploit nature. Now we must seek intergenerational and cross-species atonement. It seems to me that if the church, the synagogue, and the mosque are to offer meaningful hope in the years ahead, they must host such personal and communal, transparent and sacred conversations.”7
Provide opportunities for emotional response
The climate crisis can make us go numb. Why think about the enormous stretches of coral reefs in Australia that died in less than two months? What can we possibly feel in response to the acidifying ocean, the children choking from asthma in our inner cities, the rising seas, the ever-increasing droughts and floods, and the cascade of species going extinct? It is hard enough to face our own mortality or to mourn a loved one’s death. How do we begin to explore our fear and grief in response to the ecocide going on around us – much less express it? How do we move beyond despair?
Preachers can offer practices, teachings, and rituals that allow us to feel, accept, and integrate the painful emotions evoked by climate change. We can create small circles for eco-grief lament and prayer. And we can hold public ceremonies outdoors. Over the years I’ve led or participated in many outdoor interfaith public liturgies about climate change. Some were held after environmental disasters such as the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines; others were held before significant environmental events, such as Pope Francis’ visit to Washington, D.C., and the U.N. climate talks in Paris. Preachers and congregations can create public spaces for expressing grief, naming hopes, and touching our deep longing for healing and reconciliation. We can protect our human capacity to feel our emotional responses without being overwhelmed. Our emotions can become a source of energy for constructive action to address the emergency.
Build hope by taking action
How do we maintain hope? That’s a question many contributors address in the anthology I co-edited with Leah Schade, Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis. One author, Tim DeChristopher, is a Unitarian Universalist who spent two years in federal prison after disrupting an oil and gas auction in Utah. When someone asks him, “What gives you hope?” Tim replies, “How can anything ‘give’ me hope?” He writes: “Hope is inseparable from our own actions. [Hope] isn’t given; it’s grown. Waiting to act on climate change until we have hope is like waiting to pick up a shovel until we build callouses on our hands. The hope never arrives until we get to work.”8
In my climate sermons I include suggestions for action, such as cutting back sharply on our use of fossil fuels, moving toward a plant-based diet, going solar, protecting forests, and planting trees. Individual actions to reduce our household carbon footprint are essential to our moral integrity and they help to propel social change. Yet the scope and speed of the climate crisis also require engagement in collective action for social transformation. As environmental justice activist, Mary Annaise Heglar, puts it: “I don’t care if you recycle. Stop obsessing over your environmental ‘sins.’ Fight the oil and gas industry instead.”9
So, in my sermons I encourage parishioners not only to live more lightly on Earth but also to use their voices and votes to make it politically possible to do what is scientifically necessary. We can support the growing movement to push banks to stop financing fossil fuel projects. We can lobby for policies that support renewable energy, clean green jobs, and a just transition that addresses the needs of poor and low-wealth communities and communities of color, and the needs of workers in the fossil fuel industries as we transition to a clean energy economy. If we have financial investments, we can divest from fossil fuels. If we’re college graduates, we can push our alma mater to divest. We can support 350.org, ThirdAct.org (a new climate action group led by Bill McKibben for people over 60), Sunrise Movement (a climate action group led by people under 30), Extinction Rebellion, and other grassroots efforts to turn the tide. We can put our bodies on the line and risk arrest in non-violent resistance to fossil fuels. By inspiring significant action, preachers can challenge the deathly status quo of “business as usual” and rouse society out of apathy and inaction.
Deepen reverence for nature
Our society treats the natural world as an object to master, dominate, and exploit, and preachers can call us to reclaim the sacredness of Earth. After all, nature is a place where humans have always encountered God – so say generations of mystics and theologians, including Moses, Jesus, and St. Paul (Romans 1:20). As poet Gerard Manley Hopkins puts it, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” Destroying Earth is therefore a desecration, a sin against the Creator.
So, in addition to preaching reverence for God’s creation, maybe we can plant a community garden in the vacant lot behind our church. Maybe we can support land trusts to preserve farms, woods, and open space; maybe we can partner with organizations to bring inner-city children into natural settings; maybe we can sponsor retreats, hikes, and worship services that explore the wonders of Creation. Step by step we can begin to reclaim what traditional indigenous societies have never forgotten: the land itself is sacred. Discovering this for ourselves will affect our behavior: we only fight to save what we love.
Which brings me to my final aim in preaching:
Cultivate love. That really should be Point #1! Whenever I preach, I try to evoke the presence of a God who loves us beyond measure, a God who heals and redeems, who liberates and forgives. I preach about a God who honors and shares our climate grief, a God who weeps with us. I preach about a God who understands our outrage, fear, and sorrow as the living world around us is destroyed; a God, in the words of Peter Sawtell, who calls us “to active resistance, not to quiet acceptance.”10 I preach about a God who knows our guilt and complicity in that destruction and who gives us power to amend our lives. I preach about a God who longs to create a Beloved Community that includes all beings, not just human beings. I preach about a God who sets us free from the fear of death and who gives us strength to bear witness to a love that nothing can destroy. When people are going mad with hatred and fear, only love can restore us to sanity.
When we deliver a strong climate sermon and we trust in the power of the Holy Spirit, we’re like the boy in the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand (Jn. 6:1-14): we put our words in Jesus’ hands. Through his grace and power, maybe our small offering will become a catalyst that enables a crowd to be fed. Maybe our words, like those of Ezekiel, will be infused with Spirit-power to enliven that valley of dead, dry bones and breathe life into a multitude (Ez. 37:1-14). Maybe that homily – that word of challenge or encouragement – will contribute to a social tipping point that releases rapid societal transformation.
Holy Week, Easter, and Earth Day are all approaching, and this year we have a special opportunity to amplify the power of our witness: we can register our climate sermons and prayer vigils with GreenFaith’s global initiative, Sacred Season for Climate Justice. All five of the world’s major religions celebrate a holy day or season between now and early May, and faith communities around the world will hold special events and services that proclaim one urgent message: climate justice now! So, when you preach a climate justice/climate resilience sermon sometime this month, as I hope you will, please be sure to register your service with Sacred Season for Climate Justice.11
The Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas is an Episcopal priest, author, retreat leader, and climate activist. She has been a lead organizer of many Christian and interfaith events about care for Earth, and she leads spiritual retreats in the U.S.A. and Canada on spiritual resilience and resistance in the midst of a climate emergency. Her latest book, Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis (2019) is a co-edited anthology of essays by religious environmental activists. She has been arrested in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere to protest expanded use of fossil fuels. She serves as Missioner for Creation Care in the Episcopal Diocese of Western Mass. and Southern New England Conference, United Church of Christ, and as Creation Care Advisor for the Episcopal Diocese of Mass. Her Website, RevivingCreation.org, includes blog posts, sermons, videos, and articles.
1. This section is drawn from “Preaching When Life Depends on It: Climate Crisis and Gospel Hope,” by Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Anglican Theological Review (Spring, 2021, Vol. 103, 2), 208–219, https://revivingcreation.org/preaching-when-life-depends-on-it-climate-crisis-and-gospel-hope/
5. To sign up, send an email to: email@example.com.
6. Bill McKibben, Eaarth (New York: Times Books, Henry Holt & Co., 2010) xiii, book jacket. The title is deliberately mis-spelled in order to signal that the planet onto which you and I were born is not the same planet we inhabit today.
7. Jim Antal, Climate Church, Climate World: How People of Faith Must Work for Change (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018), 77.
8. Tim DeChristopher, “Working Up Hope,” in Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis, ed. Leah Schade and Margaret Bullitt-Jonas (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2019), 148.
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.