Friday, February 01, 2008

Jews, Christians, and Climate Activism

This week, Antioch University New England joined with over 1,400 colleges and universities across America that offered a coordinated national teach-in on how to address global warming and move toward meaning climate protection solutions. I was very honored to have been asked by Antioch’s Focus the Nation Organizing Committee to host the week's final event, which took a close look at climate protection activism through the eyes of the Jewish and Christian faith traditions.

This is more than an academic concern for me. I come to my own work as an activist and as an activist trainer from the faith tradition of Quakers, also known as the Religious Society of Friends. In my faith tradition, we have long tried to follow the call of the Spirit, the early Jewish prophets, and Jesus to do God's will "on Earth as it is in heaven." For us, this not only means working hard to support peace and justice among people, but also to live in loving "unity with creation."

Right at the beginning of my talk, however, I had to acknowledge an elephant in the room. Over the years, there have been many in the field of Environmental Studies, and within the environmental movement itself, who have assumed that devout Jews and Christians either have nothing special to add to the environmental cause, or are actually a big part the problem.

The claim here is that the natural world is given very little moral consideration in the Jewiah and Christian traditions, or, even worse, that the natural world is actually seen as a God-sanctioned target of human domination, exploitation, and greed. When people try to make this case against both Christianity and Judaism, they usually point to a very specific passage in Genesis, which has God talking to the earliest humans. The verse goes like this:
And God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth."
What my colleagues often miss about this verse is that there are two very different intretations of the passage. One can interpret the word “dominion” as oppressive domination, which leads down one particular path of behavior, or one can interpret “dominion” as loving influence and stewardship, which leads down a very different path of behavior.

I personally believe that there is much to justify and recommend this second interpretation if we take into account the whole thrust of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. In many, many passages in the the Torah, for example, it says that the Earth is a gift from God, that it does not belong to any human being, that we can work the land for the benefit of all humanity, but only if we take loving care of it and respect God’s creation and God’s other creatures. People are often surprised when I point them to the many biblical passages that read like passionate love poems to the natural world, that clearly state that God dearly loves all of creation and calls on all human beings to love and be just stewards of the earth.

In my talk, I argued that if non-Jewish and non-Christian environmentalists can open their minds to this bigger picture, the possibility of new alliances begins to come into focus. Yet, I said that it is also true that many Jews and Christians have not fully embodied the creation care ethic embedded within their own faith traditions. The sad fact is that many Jews and Christians need to acknowledge and repent that all too many of us have missed the mark, both in how we think about humanity’s “dominion” and in how we treat the natural world--or let others treat it. There are some important germs of truth in the environmental critique of the Jewish and Christian traditions as we have lived them over the centuries. It is easy to miss the mark, to be guilty of the sin of abuse, exploitation, and selfish disregard for the Earth and all its human and non-human inhabitants. I believe that is all too easy to twist things around and say that God is on our side, when we should be seeking to be on God’s side and love what God loves.

One of the most hopeful things I’ve noticed in the last couple years is how the US evangelical community is now awakening to the moral and spiritual importance of addressing climate change in a very deep and repentant way. One of the breakthrough events in this great shift was in February 2006, when 86 major evangelical leaders calling themselves the Evangelical Climate Initiative came out with a powerful joint statement making the biblical case for fighting global warming. I think their four core claims open up the possibilities for powerful new political alliances and making real progress in climate protection activism in the coming decades.

The first claim is that human-induced climate change is real. As they put it in their statement:
Since 1995 there has been general agreement among those in the scientific community most seriously engaged with this issue that climate change is happening and is being caused mainly by human activities, especially the burning of fossil fuels. Evidence gathered since 1995 has only strengthened this conclusion.
Their second claim is that consequences of climate change will be significant and will hit the world’s poor the hardest. As they argue:
Even small rises in global temperatures will have such likely impacts as: sea level rise; more frequent heat waves, droughts, and extreme weather events such as torrential rains and floods; increased tropical diseases in now-temperate regions; and hurricanes that are more intense. It could lead to significant reduction in agricultural output, especially in poor countries…. Millions of people could die in this century because of climate change, most of them our poorest global neighbors… (This is not even to mention the various negative impacts climate change could have on God’s other creatures.)
Their third big claim argues that one of the core biblical convictions of their faith is that any damage that we do to God’s world is an offense against God, God’s creation, and God’s people. Here they review the many biblical passages that provide the spiritual mandate for Christians and Jews to join the fight for climate protection. As they argue:
Noting the fact that most of the climate change problem is human-induced, [we] are reminded that when God made humanity he commissioned us to exercise stewardship over the earth and its creatures. Climate change is the latest evidence of our failure to exercise proper stewardship, and constitutes a critical opportunity to do better. Love of God, love of neighbor, and the demands of stewardship are more than enough reason for evangelical Christians to respond to the climate change problem with moral passion and concrete action.
Their final claim is also extremely important--that the need to act now is urgent; that governments, businesses, religious congregations, advocacy organizations, and individuals all have a role to play in addressing climate change—"starting right now." In this section, these religious leaders repent that their faith communities have been sleeping giants on this issue for so long and have now committed themselves to concerted individual and collective action for climate protection.

This is good news for the world. Whenever religious communities and institutions join social movements for positive change, the chances for success go up. Religious groups offer volunteers, meeting places, office space, funding, and, very importantly, a moral framework that can help spark the passionate feeling and concrete action among the general public that is always needed to drive successful social movements forward. This is one major way that people of faith can help foster what Martin Luther King so often called the Beloved Community. Environmentalists of whatever faith, of whatever religious belief or unbelief, can and should work together to protect this wonderous blue-green planet.

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