“Confronting Michigan’s Climate Change”
15th Annual Keep Making Peace Conference
Saturday April 1, 2017
I am pleased to be here with you today. Thank you for this invitation. This is your 15th annual “Keep Making Peace” conference, and we know that the call to be peacemakers is deeply rooted in our Christian faith, as it is in many other religious traditions. We are people who carry with us the image of beating swords into plowshares, and who hear the echo of the words of Jesus, “blessed are the peacemakers.”
As a United Methodist bishop, I am deeply rooted and grounded in my faith. I am also someone who grew up in the popular culture of my day. I know movies and television and music, and sometimes find that as I am preparing to speak, the jukebox of my brain reminds me of songs.
Here are some songs that might fit today’s topic, “Confronting Michigan’s Climate Change”: “Heatwave” (a good Motown song), “Too Hot,” or if you want to reach back long ago, and among the music I love is jazz, there is the Fletcher Henderson song, “Hotter Than ‘Ell.”
With only a slight pun intended, climate change remains a hot topic. Just this week the president signed executive orders rolling back portions of the previous administration’s clean energy plan. Exxon-Mobile issued a statement in favor of the Paris Climate Agreement. Climate change has become deeply politicized in the United States. In her recent and highly-regarded book about the political landscape in the United States Strangers in Their Own Land, sociologist Arlie Hochschild writes, “politics is the single biggest factor in determining views on climate change” (7).
I have been asked to provide a United Methodist Church perspective on climate change. While I will be referring to a number of our denominational statements, I want you to know that some of what I am going to say is simply this United Methodist’s perspective on climate change. My perspectives are rooted in my denominational tradition, but also in the wider Christian tradition – making use of Scripture and reason and experience. Though this is a hot political topic, I want to focus on the spiritual dimension. To be sure, the spiritual, the moral and the political overlap. My Ph.D. dissertation in Christian ethics focused on theology, ethics and democratic political theory. The spiritual, the moral and the political overlap, and my focus is on the spiritual and moral, though the political cannot be simply bracketed off.
In Psalm 134, the writer poses the question, “How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” (7). It is a heart-cry from a people in exile. How do we sing the songs of God in a strange place, or perhaps in a strange time? I desire to speak of the spiritual and moral dimensions of climate change when speaking about climate change and the environment have become embroiled in partisan politics. I am 57, and I remember a time when the environment was not a partisan issue. Ad campaigns ran on television raising awareness of pollution and of the human impact on the environment. Richard Nixon was president when the Environmental Protection Agency was formed. The times have changed and become strange. How might we sing the songs of God in this strange time? How do we move the songs currently be sung about climate change in a different direction? The prevailing songs have become songs about jobs versus the environment, about human economic well-being above the well-being of owls. Arlie Hochschild writes poignantly about the people of Louisiana whose livelihoods seem to depend upon the very industries that have polluted the bayous that the people love.
We need a new song, rooted in spirituality. For the rest of my time I want to develop two themes that I think are an important part of a spirituality as we confront climate change, two themes that are an important part of the song of God for our time.
The first is probably quite uncontroversial among we who have gathered here today. Care for creation is an important element in our spiritual lives. If an important indicator of one’s spiritual condition is the fruit one’s life produces, one important such fruit is caring for creation. As United Methodists we know the mission of the Church: to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. We have not spent enough time on digging deeper into what we mean by disciples, or what disciples look like. I think creation care is integral to discipleship. Being a disciple is about growing in God’s love, about enlarging our hearts, widening the circles of compassion to include more people and to include creation itself.
The theme of caring for creation can be found throughout the Christian Scriptures, from the first book to the last. The beautiful image from Genesis 2 is that of the human put in the garden to “till it and keep it.” In Revelation 11 there is an image of warning, those who destroy the earth will themselves be destroyed. Years later the image of St. Francis inspired Christians to care for the good of creation, of “all creature of our God and King.” Caring for creation is a prominent theme within The United Methodist Church. Here I am going to regale you with quotations from United Methodist documents that remind us that care for creation is an integral part of Christian spirituality.
In 2009, The Council of Bishops of The United Methodist Church issued a pastoral letter and accompanying document entitled, “God’s Renewed Creation: Call to Hope and Action” in which the bishops stated: We believe personal and social holiness must never be separated…. We practice social holiness by caring for God’s people and God’s planet and by challenging those whose policies and practices neglect the poor, exploit the weak, hasten global warming, and produce more weapons.
Our United Methodist Social Principles state: All creation is the Lord’s, and we are responsible for the ways in which we use and abuse it. Water, air, soil, minerals, energy resources, plants, animal life, and space are to be valued and conserved because they are God’s creation and not solely because they are useful to human beings. God has granted us stewardship of creation.
Elaborating upon the UMC Social Principles, are resolutions which continue to emphasize the importance of care for creation.
“Caring for Creation: A Call to Stewardship and Justice”: Our covenant with God calls us to steward, protect, and defend God’s creation…. The story of the garden (Genesis 2) reveals the complete and harmonious interrelatedness of creation, with humankind designed to relate to God, one another, and the rest of the created order.
“Environmental Health”: God gave us a good and complete earth. We must care for that which is around us in order that life can flourish. We are meant to live in a way that acknowledges the interdependence of human beings not just on one another but the world around us, the mountains and lilies, the sparrows and the tall pines which all speaks of the nature of God.
One final statement – “Climate Change and the Church’s Response”: The natural world is a loving gift from God, the creator and sustainer, who has entrusted it in all its fullness to the care of all people for God’s glory and to the good of all life on earth now and in generations to come.
One has to turn a bit of a spiritual blind eye to not see how important the theme of caring for creation is in Christian faith and spirituality. One task of the church in our time, as we confront climate change here in Michigan and around the world, is to remind each other of a shared concern within the Christian tradition of caring for creation. Perhaps such conversations can help move us beyond thinking of climate change and environmental care in narrowly partisan terms.
One has to turn a bit of a spiritual blind eye to not see how important the theme of caring for creation is in Christian faith and spirituality – and that brings me to my second theme that is an important part of the spirituality of confronting climate change, vision. How often in our Scriptures is the metaphor of vision used to describe the spiritual journey – blindness as missing the mark and sight as God’s healing grace made real. If we are to sing a new song, God’s song in this strange time, we need new sight, new vision. I am sorry for mixing my sensory metaphors.
Part of our spiritual problem in confronting climate change is not simply a lack of care, but it is a lack of sight, and often even a willful blindness. Part of the reason some may not care as deeply about the environment is that they fail to see the interrelatedness of creation, the interdependence of human beings not just on one another but the world around us, the mountains and lilies, the sparrows and the tall pines which all speaks of the nature of God. Certainly part of the reason some may not care about climate change is the failure to see – to see its reality, though study after study confirms that something is happening to our climate, and our own experience tells us the same – three years in a row of record average warm temperatures.
Let’s admit that seeing something as abstract as climate change can be difficult. Let’s admit that a part of the reason some don’t want to see is that this is a difficult truth. So much of our economy, our “way of life” is intertwined with the use of fossil fuels, and we are concerned for what change might mean. Might we even admit, among those of us gathered here at a conference on climate change, that there is a part of us, something inside of us, that wishes it were not true, that climate change isn’t happening and isn’t the result of our activity?
In the recently published book, Days of Awe and Wonder, a collection of writings, speeches and interviews of Marcus Borg, Borg reminds us of the rich roots of the Christian concept of repentance. Looking at the roots of the Greek word translated “repentance” Borg asserts that “to repent” means “to go beyond the mind that you have” (129). A Christian spirituality confronting climate change is a spirituality that encourages us all to go beyond the mind that we have. It seeks to sing a new song in this strange and difficult time, a song that celebrates the interconnectedness of all creation and roots our care for it in that celebration. We need a new song that acknowledges our connections with each other as human beings and our willingness to do the difficult work of persuasion, not from the heights of our own self-righteousness but in recognition that we are all in the process of going beyond the minds that we have in some way or another. Persuasion is not all the work we have to do. There is political work, for instance, but the work of persuasion is vitally important. We need a new song that always sings us forward to God’s new creation.
One form of song is poetry, and as part of the work of helping us go beyond the minds that we have, I would like to share with you, in closing, a poem by Denise Levertov – “Tragic Error.”
The earth is the Lord’s, we gabbled,
and the fullness thereof –
while we looted and pillaged, claiming indemnity:
the fullness thereof
given over to us, to our use –
while we preened ourselves, sure of our power,
willful or ignorant, through the centuries.
Miswritten, misread, that charge:
subdue was the false, the misplaced word in the story.
Surely we were to have been
earth’s mind, mirror, reflective source.
Surely our task
was to have been
to love the earth,
to dress and keep it like Eden’s garden.
That would have been our dominion:
to be those cells of earth’s body that could
perceive and imagine, could bring the planet
into the haven it is to be known,
(as the eye blesses the hand, perceiving
its form and the work it can do).
Can we sing a song that helps us see ourselves as those cells of the earth’s body that perceive and imagine, that dresses and keeps created by God for just such tasks, and out of this new mind work to confront climate change? May it be so.