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Laurie Zoloth Calls American Academy of Religion to Account

By Ruth Broyde Sharone


In an impassioned, eloquent plea in San Diego last month, Laurie Zoloth, newly appointed 2014 president of the Academy of American Religion (AAR), called for a conscious “interruption” in our lives to take into account the dire climate crisis and to make substantial changes in our daily behavior.

Dr. Laurie Zoloth – Photo: GTU.org

Dr. Laurie Zoloth – Photo: GTU.org

The AAR, the largest academic religious association in America, annually hosts some 10,000 professors and graduate students for a week. Zoloth, a bioethicist at Northwestern University, used her leadership role to bring a greater, more pronounced emphasis on the philosophical and practical connections between religion and ecology. Her lobbying and influence as AAR’s vice president since November 2011 was clear this year in San Diego, with a third of the plenary sessions and workshops ecologically oriented.

This new emphasis in AAR’s syllabus and public face echoed the Religions for the Earth conference held in New York last September, sponsored by Union Theological Seminary. Clearly, there is no going back. Ecology has become an intimate part of the religious community’s ongoing pubic dialogue and seems to be uniting religious communities in unprecedented new ways. We all face the same consequences of the world’s climate crisis, regardless of our religious beliefs and practices, or our race, ethnicity, or economic status.

In her address, “Interrupting Your Life: An Ethics for the Coming Storm,” Zoloth began by quoting the November 2 report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). It lays out the deleterious effects of human beings on climate change “already occurring on all continents and across the oceans.” UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon notes: “Science has spoken. There is no ambiguity about the message. Time is not on our side.”

Human influence on the climate system is unequivocal, Zoloth emphasized, noting that greenhouse gases are at their highest level in human history.

. . .The gathering risks of climate change are so profound that they could reverse generations of progress against poverty and hunger. If greenhouse gas emissions continue at a runaway pace, the groups of scientists and other experts found, society faces food shortages, refugee crises, the flooding of major cities and entire island nations, the mass extinction of plants and animals, and a climate so drastically altered it might become dangerous for people to work or play outside.”

A Prophetic Challenge Here and Now

In spite of dire predictions, Zoloth noted that people seem reluctant to change their habits. “But we have gotten that IPCC warning letter, and for scholars of religion, we hear this as a prophecy: A storm is coming, it is already on our own horizon,”she underscored.

Professor Zoloth went on to develop the theme of “interruption” as both religious theology and obligation.

We are interrupted by the insistent call of God, and when we respond rightly, it is prayer, it is action for the widow and the orphan, it is standing and saying – a hineni (Hebrew for “I am here”). Yet, it is hard to respond rightly, and from this we flee in terror … into work, meetings, netfliks, grant applications.
A theology of interruption demands that we attend to the interruption as if the interruption were the Real, and the other stuff of our lives, the distraction. How to live such a theological ethics – attention to the call of the other, and alert, always, to the call of God, without seeming like a madwoman or a religious fanatic? What would such a life look like?

 Zoloth proposed “interruption” as a sacred obligation. 

To be interrupted is to acknowledge the power of the other over your being, to see the interrupting, messy, needy other as entitled to your full attention. But because we do not have a clear account of how one ought to live, to live as a good person at a time of climate chaos, and because full attention is so hard, we struggle to defend what looks like a series of affections or hobbies. Is there a way to articulate a foundational theory behind actions of this sort? 
To argue for the need for interruption is to advocate for a moral chronology. We are beings who not only live in particular locations; we live within a time that we order and sort, another sort of accountancy. How we order time, how we understand ourselves as having a past that leads to a present, that promises a future is always an interpretive moral choice.

What might interruption look like in the future of AAR?

Zoloth described how the AAR and its members might set an example for other major organizations. She suggested that just as ancient Israel declared Shmita, a sabbatical for the land for a full year every six years, that AAR could minimize its carbon footprint by creating an AAR Sabbatical Year.

It means that once in every six years, we would pause. Following the Biblical cycle, we could choose to not meet at a huge annual meeting in which we take over a city. . . . What if instead of coming together, we spread out over the land, as it were, and read out papers to one another at our own universities, and we could meet, each of us in our own city and turn to the faces and the needs of our fellow citizens.
What if, on that day, we taught the poor, in local high schools, community colleges, or the prison, the hospital, the military base, the church, mosque, synagogue or temple, at a place that is not your own, worked at planting an orchard, or a garden, served food to the poor, offered our teaching, offered to learn. What if we turned to our neighbor – the women who cleans the toilets, the man who sweeps the sidewalks – and included them in the university to which we are responsible? We would then be actively making an interruption in our lives, saying by this act: I will sacrifice to save my planet. 

Zoloth also suggested “tithing time” as another form of interruption. She proposed that every member of AAR dedicate some time in each of their classes or lectures to discussing the ecological crisis.

Again she quoted the IPCC report to drive home the urgency of this mission:

"The mass die-offs of forests, the melting of land ice around the world, an accelerating rise of the seas that is leading to increased coastal flooding, and heat waves that have devastated crops and killed tens of thousands of people: all happening already, not a generation from now, but now.”
Bill McKibben – Photo:  ecowatch.com

Bill McKibben – Photo: ecowatch.com

350.org founder Bill McKibben, a tireless environmental activist and journalist, also addressed the conference. He used power point and powerful storytelling to emphasize the dire nature of current climate crises and drought being experienced around the globe. McKibben observed that 99.5 percent of the people suffering from fossil fuel use are not the ones using the fuels. “In fact it is Westerners who have caused this crisis through greed and hyper-consumption, but it is the rest of the world that is suffering the consequences of our excesses.”

Inviting McKibben to keynote was certainly a clear message that this venerated guild of interreligious scholars is ready to take climate change seriously. Ultimately, however, it was the voice of AAR President Laurie Zoloth that captivated the crowd of scholars and academicians. Her teenage daughter and her mother attended, three generations of women in one family serving as intergenerational witnesses to the mischief, narcissism, and negligence demonstrated by human beings, the so-called “caretakers” of our earth.

Zoloth’s final words, in the tradition of the biblical prophets, warned of what might happen if we do not pay heed:

I wanted to be a president who took seriously the prophetic duty of my field, bioethics, to warn, to speak of the possibility of our power and our responsibility, who interrupted you and told you to let the call of the stranger stop you in your tracks and the brokenness of the earth call you to action. I wanted to be the one who said to you, stop. Stop and start. And now all of this, this world, this organization, this, the greatest moral question of our time, it is completely in your hands. I know your power and what we can do. Stand with me. Let us begin.