Author Barbara Ballenger is a Board Member of PA Interfaith Power & Light, and Associate for Spiritual Formation and Care at St. Martin-in-the-Fields Episcopal Church, Philadelphia.
The recent march of white nationalists and KKK members upon the city of Charlottesville, and the accompanying terrorist attack upon counter demonstrators, has again placed racism in the public eye.
At the moment, there are some things we cannot un-see: a car driving directly into Black Lives Matter members, killing one and injuring 19. White nationalists armed more heavily than the police. Young polo-shirted men marching with swastikas and shields.
The racism that undergirds our national infrastructure, and the bigotry that keeps it in place, is not a simple thing to dismantle. Just removing the monuments that celebrate its architects and defenders brings out the torches.
But while our eyes are open, it’s important that white people engaged in justice work take a hard look at the racist infrastructure itself, not just at its staunchest defenders. Because those of us with white privilege also benefit from that architecture. It shapes white-normed organizational systems, including how they are led, and who tells the story about what the world is like. That’s why white supremacy, which is invisible to too many, often undermines the effectiveness of organizations’ best efforts, leaving many of us scratching our heads about why the movements aren’t more diverse and leading many to jump to the wrong conclusions about why more people of color aren’t involved in the efforts.
This is true for climate justice organizations, whose leadership and membership remain predominantly white.
“Given the environmental threats posed by a Trump administration, it’s more crucial than ever that Americans work together to fight climate change. And in order to achieve broad, collaborative action, the mainstream environmental movement will need to take a hard look at how its overwhelming whiteness has thus far hobbled its efforts,” four University of Oregon journalism professors write persuasively in an article for Quartz.
The authors further point out that people of color are very much concerned with, conversant about and active in addressing climate disruption. Yet large-scale climate justice efforts do not reflect their leadership or membership.
Pennsylvania Interfaith Power & Light has also struggled with being a far less diverse organization than we hope to be. We have been noticing and naming the dominance of white voices leading and engaging our work—people of faith responding to climate disruption as an urgent moral issue. We know, too, that wrestling with the legacy of white domination and supremacy is also a growing priority for many of the congregations and denominations involved in our work. This is a key moment for climate justice and racial justice to meet at the crossroads and begin speaking to each other.
In both of these movements there is great urgency and imminent threat. At the same time, there are no quick solutions to undoing the legacy of racial exclusion and distrust that white-dominated justice movements have inherited and perpetuate.
But there are some immediate actions that we need to take. The first is that white people in the environmental movement must make it a priority to explore how the white privilege and supremacy learned from infancy affect the ability to be racially competent in addressing a crisis that affects many people of color first and worst. As a black colleague puts it: “When white people do their work, I am safer.”
When white people do racial work with mindfulness—listening more than talking, learning what it is to be an effective ally, making space for long-silenced voices and experience—our hope and prayer is that environmental justice work will be done differently: in ways that shift power dynamics, that amplify voices that typically go unheard and quiet those that dominate, and that make visible the experiences of climate disruption that have gone unnoticed and unnamed.
The evidence of things hoped for, substance of things unseen, is the very definition of faith. As an organization committed to bringing people of diverse religious traditions together in common cause around environmental justice, a shared faith in the dignity and gifts of one another may be just the thing to help us keep our eyes open in the days ahead.
Carol Zandieh offered the following reflection on the glory of God and creation at the Spiritual Assembly of Baha’is of Harrisburg, a PA IPL member congregation.
The Words of God in the Baha’i Holy Scripture as revealed by Baha’u’llah, meaning the Glory of God, teaches that:
God created the universe and all of its creatures. To every creature, He has given one of His attributes, that is why we see His signs in every created thing. But He has given all of His attributes to humans and has commanded us to be the custodians of the earth. Now I would like to share a passage with you.
“All praise to the unity of God, and all honor to Him, the Sovereign Lord, the Incomparable and All-Glorious Ruler of the universe, Who, out of utter nothingness, has created the reality of all things, Who, from naught, has brought into being the most refined and subtle elements of His creation, and Who, rescuing His creatures from the abasement of remoteness and the pearls of ultimate extinction, has received them into His kingdom of incorruptible glory. Nothing short of His all-encompassing grace, His all-pervading mercy, could have possibly achieved it. How could it, otherwise, have been possible for sheer nothingness to have acquired by itself the worthiness and capacity to emerge from its state of non-existence into the realm of being?
“Having created the world and all that liveth and moveth therein, He, through the direct operation of His unconstrained and sovereign Will, chose to confer upon man the unique distinction and capacity to know Him and to love Him—a capacity that must needs be regarded as the generating impulse and the primary purpose underlying the whole of creation…Upon the inmost reality of each and every created thing, He has shed the light of one of His names, and made it a recipient of the glory of one of His attributes. Upon the reality of man, however, He has focused the radiance of all of His names and attributes and made it a mirror of His own Self. Alone, of all created things, man has been singled out for so great a favor, so enduring a bounty.”
Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 64-65
I would like to end with a prayer that was revealed by Baha’u’llah, especially for all parts of the earth, to remind us that we are the custodians and keepers of the earth.
“Blessed is the spot, and the house, and the place,
and the city, and the heart, and the mountain,
and the refuge, and the cave, and the valley,
and the land, and the sea, and the island,
and the meadow where mention of God
hath been made and His praise glorified.”
Baha’i Prayers, title page
The reflection was offered in December 2015, and shared here in 2017.
On November 15, 2015, Board Member Susan Frant offered the following d’var (sermon) at a board meeting of Congregation Beth David in Gladwyne, Pennsylvania. The Torah portion for that week was Toldot, Genesis 25:19-28:9. In Susan’s teaching, she focuses on Genesis 25:27-34, which centers on Esau spurning his birthright. How does this relate to climate disruption and our need to act? Read on to find out.
When Isaac’s twins grew up, Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the outdoors; but Jacob was a mild man, who stayed in camp. Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the open, famished. Many translate this as “tired” or “exhausted,” not “famished.” And Esau said to Jacob, “Give me some of that red stuff to gulp down, for I am” tired. Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.” So he sold his birthright to Jacob. Jacob then gave Esau bread and lentil stew; and he ate and drank, and he rose and went away. Thus did Esau spurn the birthright. (Genesis 25:27-34)
Certainly there were benefits associated with the birthright, but there were also responsibilities. From Rashi we learn that Esau’s exhaustion is more spiritual than physical. He is tired of the obligations of family life, tired of the responsibilities associated with Jewish living, and weary of the limitations placed on him daily by his pledge to the future. Would it not be easier simply to ignore tomorrow and live only for today? And so, with the stew as collateral, Esau abandons his future.
Many commentaries point out that Torah admonishes us not to live exclusively for the moment lest we forget that tomorrow will bring new challenges and new blessings. The Torah portion Toldot highlights the struggle between this instant and the thousands of tomorrows that follow.
I relate this Torah portion to the very serious issue of climate disruption where birthright is a sustainable, livable—that is, inhabitable, G-d given planet. Related to this we could talk about farmers who allow fracking to “save the farm” when fracking leads to contaminated water and earthquakes. We could cite drivers who buy gas guzzling vehicles when driving them leads to an increase in greenhouse gasses that contributes to climate disruption. We could point to eating red meat where it was reported in 2012, that the world’s 1.5 billion cattle contributed nearly 18% of all greenhouse gases, more than cars, planes and all other transportation put together. We could talk about powering our digital, electronic world with fossil fuels where wind and solar power do not emit greenhouse gasses and therefore, the total cost to humankind is much less than burning fossil fuel. We could go on. But I won’t.
Rather, let me conclude by asking you to raise your hand if you believe you are a contributing member of the society. Look around. We are the people that are referred to in the statement that says: we are the FIRST generations to witness and feel the effects of climate disruption AND the LAST generations to be able to take actions that will have a significant impact on mitigating the magnitude of what is to come. Let me repeat: the first to witness the effects and the last to be able to take significant action.
I hope when our children or grandchildren ask what we did to change the trajectory of global climate disruption, to preserve their birthright of a sustainable, livable, beautiful G-d given world, I hope our answer doesn’t include that we were busy eating stew! Thank you.
Things to read and to watch:
This Changes Everything* by Naomi Klein
The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Colbert
Merchants of Doubt* by Eric M Conway and Naomi Oreskes
On September 25, 2016, Rev. Alison Cornish, Executive Director of Pennsylvania Interfaith Power & Light, delivered the following sermon to University Baptist and Brethren Church in State College, PA.
Today’s scripture reading, the parable often called ‘The Rich Man and Lazarus,’ gifts us with a perfect, albeit miniature, 3-act drama, so beautifully wrought that it’s not difficult to picture it in our minds in full and resplendent color – and, to translate it to our own times.
Act I: Our narrator describes the nameless Rich Man, living luxuriously essentially in a gated community, surely surrounded by others like him, and securely protected from others that are not. His very costume exudes wealth – purple and fine linen – and we can picture him sweeping by Lazarus, lying right at the foot of the gate. Lazarus is poor – he has no food – and unwell – he is covered with sores. He must have been a sight to behold – except, as far as we can tell, the Rich Man simply didn’t see him. It’s the narrator here that’s telling us the story, and as far as we know, there was never any interaction between the two men. A gulf, a chasm, between two people, living literally side-by-side, but in completely separate worlds. Lazarus was clearly aware of the Rich Man’s existence, as he ‘longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table,’ but, then – as now – it is a privilege of the rich to look past the existence of the poor. Different lives, nothing to do with one another.
Now we move to Act II – and the narrator informs us that both the Rich Man and Lazarus have died, but here is a bit of a twist. When Lazarus died, he was carried away by angels ‘to be with Abraham,’ which we know is the sign of the highest bliss, the greatest honor. The Rich Man was buried. Period. No angels. No Abraham.
On to Act III – a shift of scene, to Hades and Paradise, and now not just a narrator speaking, but dialogue, a conversation. Now we can actually imagine not just what these men looked like, but what they sounded like, too. We learn that the Rich Man, tormented by the heat of Hades, actually knows Lazarus’ name, and though he doesn’t address him directly, calls to Abraham to have Lazarus quench his thirst – as an act of servitude? Compassion? Could be either … And to Abraham falls the task to gently point back into the past – when the Rich Man had good fortune, and Lazarus suffered, and announce the ‘reversal:’ it’s now the Rich Man’s turn to experience something of the agony Lazarus once lived. The Rich Man seems to quickly accept his fate … but then appeals to Abraham again, this time imploring Lazarus to travel from the world of the dead to the world of the living, bringing to his brothers a message of warning, giving them an opportunity to repent and change their ways, so as to save them from the fate that has befallen him. Abraham again (patiently? Pointedly?) says all the information for his brothers to live faithfully is available to them – always, has been, always will be – but the Rich Man seems to know his brothers well, and nothing short of someone returning from the dead will get their attention. Abraham is unconvinced, and the curtain falls on what must now be a devastated Rich Man, consumed not only by his own agony, but with the specter of his brothers eventually joining him in the same fate.
A beautiful, elegant illustration of God’s favor not for those who expect it – the rich and successful – but the poor and sick. But also a provocative story for our times, in at least a couple of ways.
I see first the economic chasm that separated the Rich Man and Lazarus in life, of which Lazarus was so clearly aware, and the Rich Man had the privilege to ignore – and how, in the Rich Man’s mind, they could be so completely disconnected – so disconnected that the Rich Man may never need contemplate how the wealth he so enjoyed was in any way related to the poverty Lazarus experienced. For though we don’t how the Rich Man’s wealth was connected to Lazarus’ poverty, we can surely conclude that it was, because it doesn’t matter whether we are all living equitably or with vast differences in wealth and poverty, we are all interconnected. Was the Rich Man one of the .1% controlling the same amount of resources that 50% of the poorest in his city had access to? Did he see any connection between their stories? Was there anyone ‘connecting the dots’ that extreme wealth is accumulated from somewhere: by not paying a living wage, by not investing in a public infrastructure to care for the poor and incapacitated, by systems of oppression and power that keep whole populations ‘in their place,’ dependent on scraps from the table?
And I see, too, in the drama – in the separation between the Rich Man and Lazarus – the gulf, the nonexistence, really, of compassion – the result of hardened hearts, of not seeing – of being insulated from – another’s pain, which is far too much with us still today.
But, given the work that I do today with communities of faith and climate change, I see another, perhaps less literal, way of looking at this story of the Rich Man and Lazarus. Looking through this lens, when the curtain rises on Act I, the personification of a certain (over) developed country – let’s just say the U.S. – is at the center of the scene. Its wealth is conspicuous, particularly in the powering of our economic engines with fossil fuels. Blithely we consume, combust, and spew forth more ‘absolute emissions’ in tons of CO2 than any other country on the planet, save China.
And who is it that sits at our gates, our ‘borders?’ Those countries who are far less developed, consuming, per capita, far less of the total ‘carbon budget’ – the oil, coal and gas that spew GHG into the atmosphere we all share. And, not inconsequentially, who are also the first to experience the effects of rising temperatures and sea levels, warmer oceans, changing weather patterns, intensified storms, and altered migration routes. Those at the gates are indeed suffering.
Like the Rich Man, the U.S. and other heavy fossil fuel users are going about business as usual, just living out their lives. Quips, like ‘we earned our prosperity’ and ‘we’re not hurting anyone, just doing what we do,’ and ‘no one is going to take away our way of life’ are heard coming out of that gated community. And we burn fossil fuels with abandon, as if there are no consequences, because we’re not connecting our way of life with those who are suffering. It takes connecting the dots to realize that our voracious appetite for our carbon-fuel-based economy is pouring CO2 into the atmosphere, allowing the planet to warm, and putting life for everyone in peril. It takes recognizing that those at our gates are real.
Just as in our parable/play, all the information is there. It’s been here all along. The scriptures that that tell us that Creation is a gift to be treasured and cherished and treated with care. The still small voice within, our conscience, that knows when we are in right relationship, caring for life, and when we have fallen short of the mark, sinned against God and fellow earthly travelers, including the flora and fauna. The science that documents the massive changes to our air, water and soil, directly connected with soaring GHG emissions from the age of industrialization. Just as in the parable, no presence returning from the dead is going to give us a stronger message than what is right in front of us, accessible each and every day.
But, somehow, we refuse to listen. Our ears are stopped up, our eyes closed. And our hearts are hardened. We are not getting the message.
Which makes me wonder if the parable-as-play needs a fourth act – always needed one, really, but today, truly needs another piece, another chapter. Because to leave us at the end of the story as it is, with the Rich Man bereft, and Lazarus in the bosom of Abraham, with the wide, uncrossable chasm between them, leaves us, where? What will change? What can change?
If I were to write another few verses, if the curtain were to rise again, I would give the next lines to the voices of the not-yet born, the future generations, the great great grandchildren of Drew Dellinger’s poem. They would perhaps appear and speak to the characters in their dreams – that’s a good biblical literary device – and speak to those both behind the gates and at the gates and perhaps even to the Rich Man’s brothers. And their voices in the dreams would be so compelling, so moving, that the separation of the gate would fall away as people recounted to one another the remarkable dreams they had – and wanted to share with everyone they encountered.
These dreams would carry the voices of future generations because I don’t know who else has the capacity to stir us to action. It would be in their voices because keeping their interests, their questions for us, before us, might help us keep perspective as we try to figure out, day-by-day, what it is we’re here for. For them, for their well-being, we might be willing to make the sacrifices we must make. If we remember that they are coming, we might find within us untold reserves of creativity and perseverance and stamina. Just thinking about them, hearts might be made less hard. Perhaps their voices would be strong enough for us to say, without equivocating, that what we face isn’t a matter of left or right or progressive or conservative or rich or poor or black or white but a matter of life and death like no other our species has ever faced. The dreams would be in their voices, because nothing else seems to be working. And the dreams would carry the words of future generations not because they will actually be alive on the planet – that’s something we can’t actually know but … because of how they might shift our own awareness. In other words, we might, finally, get the message.
And, what would the message be? What could they whisper into our sleepiness to awaken us in all the ways we must be stirred?
They would remind us that we are God’s treasured and beloved people, gifted with such extraordinary powers – foremost amongst them, to be fully aware of the preciousness of life, to love living beings, and feel the call to protect and preserve them.
Those voices would recognized the times we are living in are so difficult – to live, every day, with the knowledge of the damage the planet is experiencing – the loss of species – the poisoning of air, water and soil. And their voices would offer compassion across the gulf of time.
Those voices would remind us of the strength, courage and perseverance that are a part of who we are – that we have brought to bear in other crises – that moved us past obstacles and discouragements – and are always available to us.
And, they would remind us that we are all interconnected, with one another, even with them – the not-yet-born.
And, before the curtain falls on this ‘new’ last act, I can imagine the newly awakened – those from behind-and-at-the-gate – the Rich Man’s brothers – all together speaking this prayer, from Joanna Macy, as a chorus, as one –
O you who will walk this earth when we are gone, stir us awake. Behold through our eyes the beauty of this world. Let us feel your breath in our lungs, your cry in our throat. Let us see you in the poor, the homeless, the sick. Haunt us with your hunger, hound us with your claims, that we may honor the life that links us.
One of the ways that some religious communities are taking action to protect life and care for creation is to transition away from support of fossil fuels at a policy and governance level.
In August 2016, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America voted at its Churchwide Assembly to move “Toward a Responsible Energy Future.” Read the full text of the statement on page 5 here.
In July 2015, the thirtieth General Synod of the United Church of Christ (UCC) approved a resolution calling for its pastors, conferences, and members to advocate for a swift transition away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy.
“It is our belief,” the resolution states, “that the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy is among the most compelling and urgent issues of our times.” Further: “…If we do not immediately decrease our use of these fuels and completely eliminate them by the year 2014 all life on earth will likely experience previously unknown devastating results including drought, wildfires, extreme precipitation and cyclones, drinking water scarcity, diminished food production, population migrations, human mortality, violent conflicts, and species extinction, thereby upsetting the whole ecology of Earth.”
In June 2014, the Unitarian Universalist Association approved a resolution calling for divestment from fossil fuels at its annual General Assembly. It says, in part: “The climate crisis threatens Earth systems through warming, destabilization of the atmosphere and climate, sea level rise, and the acidification of the oceans, of which the brunt of the burden has fallen and will fall on the poorest people in the world, who are least responsible for the crisis.”