By Paul Chaffee
Interfaith Environmental Activism
Historian Lynn White, Jr. kick-started a discussion of religion and the environment in 1967 with an article in Sciencetitled “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis.”Environmental disasters were accelerating in the sixties in America and helped establish an annual Earth Day celebration in 1970. White, a distinguished professor at UCLA, laid the blame for an uncaring, abusive, destructive attitude towards nature on Christianity’s door. White’s brilliance and the audacity of the claim gave rise to a host of discussions, approving and disapproving, that eventually led in many different directions.
Thirty years later Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim put “religion and ecology” on the map through a series of ten conferences between 1996 and 1998 at Harvard University’s Center for the Study of World Religions. These landmark gatherings generated a series of books along with an internet portal, The Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale, which remains one of the best sites available for exploring the relationship between religion, its practice, and the Earth.
Today the continuing acceleration of natural disasters and the scientific community’s increasing clarity about human-induced climate change have raised the stakes enormously. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, a Christian clergyperson, writing about Earth Day last month in the Washington Post, charged, “It’s time for a change. No more flowers and beach balls that look like the earth. In Christian theological terms, it is time for righteous anger and judgment on the way in which the continued willful destruction of the planet’s ecosystem is causing widespread suffering and loss.”
Taking Local Responsibility for the Mess
Most religious groups today have begun to champion better care of the Earth, and you’ll find some of the most creative work going on at the grassroots. Clergy and lay leaders from a variety of faiths founded the Chesapeake Interfaith Environmental Group three years ago. Their mission – “to celebrate the gifts of God’s creation through worship and putting our faith into action for the care of the earth” in their region near Washington, DC. William Hathaway, a Presbyterian minister who co-chairs the group, told local reporter Lara Lutz, “Religious people, scientists, and environmentalists need to be working together.” (Chesapeake Bay Journal) And they are.
Ten years ago, when Nathan Kyamanywa became an Anglican bishop in Uganda, he gave a tree seedling to each of his 55 parishes, and the planting has never ceased. Two-thirds of Uganda’s forests have been leveled in the past 20 years, the population is growing, and wood and charcoal are the only inexpensive sources of energy. Deforestation has increased Ugandans vulnerability to climate - related extreme weather. Today Muslims, Catholics, Coptics, as well as Anglicans and other religious groups are working to regreen the country. Bishop Kyamanywa recently gave 60,000 seedlings to a secular environmental group. In crisis, they have become ‘one family’ in the quest to save the land where they live.
The Bigger Picture
Clerics and lay leaders from dozens of traditions have begun publicly lobbying legislators on behalf of the Earth. Four years ago leaders from different faiths launched the Australian Religious Response to Climate Change and have racked up significant achievements. More recently, Interfaith Moral Action on Climate launched a call which can be found in this issue of TIO; IMAC is developing a detailed lobbying strategy.
Within most traditions today you’ll find a profusion of activity. Do a Google search by adding “green” to Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jew, Mormon, Muslim, Pagan, or the religion of your choice, and then start to scroll. If we could only get them all networked – what synergy!
The missing link in this story is any significant international interreligious summit to align religious communities from all traditions to face the growing consequences of global warming. The Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development, based in Jerusalem, is making a valiant attempt to start such a movement. Two months ago they held their second international gathering to build agreement among Abrahamic religions and others about better protecting the earth. One reporter, Miriam Kresh, suggested that the hierarchs’ meeting showed “great willingness to learn, but little to go on,” and the title of her story is “Interfaith Eco-Conference Reveals Need to Educate Religions Leaders.”
A much more robust, constructive gathering is next month’s RIO + 20, the short name for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, June 20-22, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Twenty years ago the first such conference also met in Rio.) Next month’s gathering is expected to attract 50,000 participants including 150 heads of state, along with legislators, academics, civic leaders, business people, community organizers, and, of course, religious leaders. This largest gathering ever planned by the United Nations will be thoroughly interfaith simply because of who is attending. Participants will be focused on two themes: a green economy in the context of sustainable development poverty eradication and the institutional framework for sustainable development. Seven special issue areas will be: decent jobs, energy, sustainable cities, food security and sustainable agriculture, water, oceans, and disaster readiness.
The Temple of Understanding, a pioneering international interfaith organization, in conjunction with the Interfaith Consortium for an Ecological Civilization, has been preparing and networking religious leaders taking an active role at RIO + 20.
The issues before us and the difficulties they generate are nothing new. Buddhism’s most influential convert, the Emperor Ashoka, worked to discourage deforestation, reduce the consumption of meat, and promote other ‘sustainable development’ notions 2200 years ago.
What has changed are the stakes, so much higher for the human race today. Perhaps the most encouraging observation is this: during a crisis, like Uganda’s deforestation, we tend to set aside our differences more easily and go to work for what is important to us all. The question for us today – How much can be done before things get much worse?
A final word needs to go to traditions which are variously called Aboriginal, Earth-based, Indigenous, and Pagan, traditions that haven’t shown up so far in this essay. In part that is because they tend to be less institutionalized, less listened to. What they do have to offer, however, is a deep, complex sacred sense of nature and Mother Earth that is absent in so much religion today. Though often bullied and abused historically by the dominant institutional traditions, they have retained their wisdom and stand ready to share what they know about spiritual practice and living on this Earth. Protecting the Sacred in a Shattered World by Phil Lane, Jr. in the last month’s TIO is a good starting place.
Exemplary Resources for Interfaith Environmental Activism
Anyone interested in religion and the environment has a host of internet sites to visit. How to choose? The three resources profiled below, very different from each other, are examples of the best you can find: an online, open-source curriculum – an interactive film – and a secular agency helping religious, spiritual folk with environmental information and advice, besides hosting a raft of its own projects.
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Religion, Environment, and International Relationships is a course overview and syllabus written by Cynthia Sampson. It is one of several online open-source curricula focused on religion and peacemaking developed by the University of Denver’s Center for Sustainable Development and International Peace. Any serious student of these issues will find a wealth of information in all of them.
RENEWAL is a 90-minute feature which can also be viewed as eight 9-to-15 minute stand-alone documentaries about religious environmental activists. Terrific to watch all the way through, and a great tool for a series of classes.
Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC) was founded by HRH Prince Philip of England, then president of the World Wildlife Federation. In 1986 he gathered leaders from five religions to Assisi, in Italy, to discus how their faiths could help save the natural world. The discussion continued, more faiths joined, and in 1995 ARC was launched. It is a secular body that helps the major religions of the world develop their own environmental activities, based on their own core teachings, beliefs and practices. It helps religions link with scientists and key environmental organizations – creating powerful alliances between faith communities and conservation groups.