This op-ed, co-written by Leah Schade and Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, was published in newspapers in Louisville, KY; Frankfort, KY; and Northampton, MA(December 18, 2019).
The picture of Greta Thunberg on the cover of Time magazine as its 2019 Person of the Year is both inspiring and sobering.
Standing on an outcropping of rocks at the ocean’s edge, she gazes toward the sea. The splashing waves at her feet are a poignant reminder that signs of the climate crisis are all around us.
The world’s oceans are rapidly losing oxygen — it’s as if they are beginning to suffocate. Many of the oceans’ vital ecosystems are at risk of collapse. And new research indicates that rising seas due to global warming could affect three times more people by 2050 than previously thought. Some of the world’s great coastal cities will likely be erased, sending the number of climate refugees into the millions.
Given this dire projection, along with news about wildfires, hurricanes, droughts, floods and mass species extinction, the effects of climate change have reached biblical proportions. This is why Greta Thunberg is a prophet for our time.
In August 2018, at age 15, this teenager stood with her sign, “School strike for the climate,” on the steps of the Swedish Parliament. Since then, her lone voice has struck a chord that has reverberated around the world. She has inspired young people across the planet to organize climate strikes calling on adults to take action on global warming.
Millions of students have mobilized in protests worldwide. Her stirring speech at the United Nations was a prophet’s call to repentance for the ecological sins we have committed against this planet and those who will inherit the mess we have made.
Of course, she is also vilified by many, including the presidents of Brazil and the United States. They mock her, attack her and ridicule her. That’s what happens when prophets speak truth to power. But people are listening to her message. World leaders are paying attention. She is cutting through the hubbub of noise, distraction, and lies, and telling the truth without apology.
This is exactly the time for faith communities to step up alongside Greta and the climate generation to offer support and leadership during this climate crisis.
More and more people are asking: “What can we do?” Through collaboration and community-building, houses of worship can help their neighbors find innovative answers to that question.
Pastors, priests, imams, rabbis and spiritual leaders of the world’s religions are perfectly situated to address these issues from a theological and scriptural perspective in order to galvanize the faithful to respond. Just as churches and synagogues were the moral engine that powered the civil rights movement, so now are houses of worship needed to harness the energy of the faithful to act.
In many ways this is already happening. Organizations such as Greenfaith, Interfaith Power & Light, ecoAmerica’s Blessed Tomorrow, and the Poor People’s Campaign are reaching across religious and political divides to educate and activate people of faith.
Churches are installing solar panels. Mosques are planting community gardens. Synagogues are hosting sessions on community organizing around climate change. People of faith are protesting pipelines, willing to be arrested for their nonviolent civil disobedience.
This is a moment when the faith community must not stand on the sidelines. If you are a member of a congregation, encourage your faith leader to preach and teach about what your scriptures say about this good Earth. If you are a faith leader, talk with your colleagues about how you can spark the sacred fire that has the power to ignite a revolution of justice.
This is an issue that affects every person on our planet, especially “the least of these” who bear the brunt of the effects of climate change. The climate crisis is a global, national, state and local issue, and faith leaders must not only become well-informed and well-read on this topic, they must also be bold prophets for justice.
The climate emergency offers the opportunity for new life to be breathed into community movements as people of faith join efforts to combat climate change.
AsGreta has shown us — it’s time for us all to be prophets.
What a joy to be with you! I serve as Missioner for Creation Care in both the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts and the United Church of Christ in Massachusetts. In this ecumenical role I travel from place to place, sometimes (as you can see) far beyond Massachusetts, speaking about the Gospel call to protect God’s Creation. If you’d like to hear what I’m up to, please take a look at my Website, RevivingCreation.org. I know you’re already taking steps as individuals and as a congregation to safeguard what our Prayer Book calls “this fragile Earth, our island home,” so even though we’ve never met, I feel as if I’m among friends.
We have a fine text to reflect on this morning, the passage in Deuteronomy where Moses speaks to his community and gives them a choice. “I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of God, by loving God and walking in God’s ways, then you shall live and God will bless you. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish. Today I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.”1
This is one of those familiar passages that most of us have probably heard many times and considered mildly interesting in an abstract sort of way. “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live” (Deuteronomy 30:20). Today, however, that summons could not be more apt or timely or clear. We live at a pivotal moment in human history. Humanity stands at a crossroads where the choices we make going forward will make all the difference to the well-being of our children and our children’s children, and to the life (or death) of billions of people and non-human species around the world. What will we choose? Will it be life or death, blessing or curse?
By now we’ve all heard about the drastic effects of continuing to burn fossil fuels, such as monster hurricanes like Dorian, which has decimated the Bahamas and also marks the first time in history that a Category 5 hurricane has hit the Atlantic four years in a row. Here in California, on the other side of the country, I know you’ve had your own encounters with a changing climate. I recently finished Bill McKibben’s new book about the climate crisis, Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? He quotes from an article by my friend Nora Gallagher2– a member of this parish – which describes what it was like last year to endure record heat and dryness and blazing wildfires, followed by heavy rains and massive mudslides and debris flows. My heart goes out to all of you.
And our hearts go out to all the people and creatures around the world where fires are ablaze right now – in the Arctic; in central Africa; in Indonesia; and in the Amazon basin, where the rainforest that’s often called “the lungs of the planet” is on fire and close to crossing a tipping point into which it begins to self-destruct, die back, and release vast quantities of greenhouse gases.
The web of life is unraveling before our eyes. “There are half as many wild animals on the planet as there were in 1970,”3 a fact that 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.”
So, my friends, are we afraid? You bet we’re afraid, and if we’re not, we ought to be. As David Wallace-Wells says in the opening sentence of his new book about climate change, The Uninhabitable Earth: “It is worse, much worse, than you think.”4 Fear is appropriate and fear can be worthwhile, propelling us to take urgently needed and long-delayed action. But fear can also freeze us in our tracks, so that we get paralyzed and stuck in inertia, wondering if it’s worth doing anything at all. We say to ourselves, “Maybe it’s too late to change course and maybe we’re too far gone. Besides, what difference can one person make?” Paralyzed by fear, we can close down, put up our blinkers, and carry on with business as usual, even if business as usual is wrecking the planet. And fear can separate us from each other, so that we push each other aside and build walls to keep each other out and keep each other down. Fear can lead us to oppress and dominate each other, and it’s fear that drives the politics of “divide and rule.”
I’m very interested in what helps us to move beyond fear, inertia, and despair and to throw ourselves wholeheartedly into the movement to address climate change – so interested, in fact, that a friend and I asked colleagues in the faith-and-environment movement to write about their sources of spiritual strength. What gives them courage? What gives them hope? Our anthology of essays will be published this fall and it’s called Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis.
What gives you 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 who is with us as we listen to Scripture, who comes to us as we sing and pray, whose love is poured into hearts through the power of the Holy Spirit, and who feeds and strengthens us when we stretch out our hands to receive the bread and wine of the Eucharist. Our fears can be strong, and the powers-that-be in this world are surely doing everything they can to stoke our fears of each other and to pull us apart, but Jesus’ words and presence convey bracing good news: we are infused and surrounded by a divine love that holds us together and that will never let us go. God loves us, and loves all Creation, with a love that nothing can destroy. As we breathe in that divine love and breathe it out in acts of healing and justice and compassion, our courage and strength are renewed.
That is the 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. We don’t have to settle for a life that is undergirded and overshadowed by fear. As the Persian poet Hafiz once put it, “Fear is the cheapest room in the house. I’d like to see you in better living conditions.”5 When we move out of fear and into God’s love, we know in our bones how precious we are, how precious our neighbors are, how precious this whole, beautiful planet is, and we rise up to say that we will not settle for a death-dealing way of life – we will not settle for wrecking the planet. We hear God’s summons and we intend to be a blessing on the Earth, not a curse. We intend to choose life.
When it comes to climate change, there is so much that 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. As the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change makes clear, we need to transform our society and economy at a scale that is historically unprecedented, and do so in a very short span of time.
So we’ll need to use our voices and our votes, and make it politically possible to do what is scientifically necessary. Here are three ideas.
One: We can support the Green New Deal, the first resolution to address the climate crisis with the urgency, focus, and comprehensiveness that the situation requires. The Websites for GreenFaith and for Interfaith Power & Light offer statements for us to sign, to show that people of faith support the values and goals of the Green New Deal.
Two: We can support non-profit groups like Corporate Accountability that are working to push the fossil fuel industry out of international climate talks and to hold it accountable for its decades of deception about the causes of the climate crisis.
And three: we can support the weeklong Global Climate Strike, which begins on September 20. I see that here in Santa Barbara, a climate strike will be held on September 27 at 12 Noon on the plaza in front of City Hall. Put it in your calendars. Make a plan to take part. Last year a teenaged girl walked out of school, sat down in front of the Swedish Parliament with a handmade sign, and demanded climate action. Back then Greta Thunberg, according to one reporter, was “a painfully introverted, slightly built nobody.” Greta similarly describes herself as “always [being] that girl in the back who doesn’t say anything. I thought I couldn’t make a difference because I was too small.’” Well, today, one year later, Greta Thunberg’s quiet, relentless, and disarming protest Friday after Friday, week after week, has drawn the world’s attention and sparked a vast and growing movement of student strikes around the world.
Starting on September 20, people everywhere – all kinds and ages of people, not just students – will engage in a Global Climate Strike as we use our collective power to stop “business as usual” in the face of the climate emergency. This could be the biggest climate action the world has ever seen, and countless people of faith will take part – including Episcopal bishops at the House of Bishops meeting in downtown Minneapolis, led by our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry.
As Greta Thunberg said several months ago in a speech at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum: “Our house is on fire… We have to stop our emissions of greenhouse gases. Either we do that or we don’t… Either we prevent 1.5C of warming or we don’t… Either we choose to go on as a civilization or we don’t… We all have a choice. We can create transformational action that will safeguard the living conditions for future generations. Or we can continue with our business as usual and fail. That is up to you and me.”
Hear again with me the words of Moses: “Today I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.”
What will you choose? If you chose life, what would you do now? What would you do next? May God give us the strength and courage we need to rise up and choose life!
1. Paraphrase of Deuteronomy 30:15-20.
2. Bill McKibben, Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2019), 32-33.
3. McKibben, 12.
4. David Wallace-Wells, The Uninhabitable Earth (New York: Tim Duggan Books, Penguin Random House, 2019), 3.
5. Hafiz, quoted by Jack Kornfield, The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness, and Peace (New York: Bantam Books, 2002), 83.