Protecting the Earth Through Interfaith Education and Activism
by Yonatan Neril
The Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison tells the following story: A young girl with a bird in her hands went to a wise person. The child asked the wise person, “Is the bird in my hands alive or dead?” If the answer was “dead,” she would open her hands. If the answer was “alive,” she would close her hand and kill the bird. The wise person, sensing her intention, responded, “I cannot say whether the bird is alive or dead, but I can say that the fate of the bird is in your hands.”
Today we have in our hands not one bird, and not just all birds, but all living beings on our planet, including seven billion human beings.
I grew up on an acre of land in California with a large orchard and organic garden. In my BA and MA studies focused on global environmental issues, I conducted research in India on renewable energy and in Mexico on genetically modified corn. I came to see first-hand global environmental changes that humanity is effecting on this planet.
Following these studies and research, I studied for a number of years in a rabbinic program. Because of my environmental background, I encountered traditional Jewish texts from a particular lens, and realized that my own tradition offers profound teachings that relate to environmental sustainability. I also came to realize that other faith traditions — Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and others — also speak deeply about the roots of and solutions to our environmental challenges. Based on this understanding, I founded The Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development to access the collective wisdom of the world’s religions to promote co-existence and environmental sustainability through education and action.
The Center is engaged in several exciting initiatives. First, in March 2017, together with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, we organized an Interfaith Climate and Energy Conference in Jerusalem. It featured world and Israel-based religious leaders speaking out on the ethical imperative and religious basis for action on climate change and use of renewable energy. Through extensive media coverage in 30 media outlets internationally, the conference promoted action on climate change by leveraging the moral authority of religious leaders. It also featured the launch of our Interfaith Seminary Students Sustainability Project, bringing together Christian, Jewish and Muslim seminary students in the Holy Land for a series of seminars on faith and ecology.
Second, our video “One Home” includes world faith leaders speaking out on environmental sustainability. The unique video campaign features major religious figures, including the Dalai Lama, Patriarch Bartholomew, and Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks delivering a message of hope and inspiration on the importance of protecting the Earth, our common home. They offer a fresh perspective on ecological issues that is not often heard in discourse on ecology. Several weeks after being launched, the video had been seen by viewers in more than 60 countries. The video was produced based on the support of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and the Julia Burke Foundation.
In addition to this video, the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development has created the world’s most accessible and comprehensive video collection of major world religious figures speaking and teaching on ecology. Containing hours of content from religious leaders and teachers of the world’s major faiths, the collection is available online.
Third, the Center has educational and eco-tourism branches. Jewish Eco Seminars delivers Jewish environmental programming to groups and educators in North America and those visiting Israel. It engages and educates the Jewish community by revealing the powerful connection between modern Israel, ecological innovation, and Jewish values. Another branch, Eco Israel Tours, promotes eco-tourism options in Israel to a wide range of groups.
Thousands of scientists the world over warn of rainforests shrinking, deserts expanding, storms intensifying and the planet heating. In an open letter addressed to the religious community, scientists wrote, “Problems of such magnitude, and solutions demanding so broad a perspective, must be recognized from the outset as having a religious as well as a scientific dimension. Mindful of our common responsibility, we scientists, many of us long engaged in combating the environmental crisis, urgently appeal to the world religious community to commit, in word and deed, and as boldly as is required, to preserve the environment of the Earth...”
At a deeper level, why is the religious community so important in this regard? Because the environmental crisis conveys a deeper message: the widespread human degradation of the natural world indicates that our way of life is out of balance. Thus the environmental crisis is also a spiritual crisis, of the human being and how we live as spiritual beings in a material world. Ecological disruptions reflect the inner imbalance within billions of human beings. The change required of us to correct this is primarily of a spiritual nature.
This is where religions come in, to be a force for positive change in the world. People of many faiths can draw inspiration from their respective traditions to live sustainably, and these efforts cross-pollinate each other and encourage co-existence on our shared planet and in this land. The Earth can be in balance, and a more conscious, aware human society is key to making the change.
The organization Religion for Peace notes:
“As some of the most numerous and well-organized members of civil society, religious communities have a key leadership role to play. Not only do religious communities have ethical and moral principles to draw from, they also possess multiple assets and networks for practical action. They are also significant landholders, operate millions of schools, run media outlets and hold billions of dollars in financial assets. Using their broad networks and influence, religious leaders and communities have the potential to mobilize millions of people and influence policy makers to address climate change.”
Ensuring our children inherit a livable planet is an issue on which we can all come together. Our local and global environmental challenges represent an opportunity for people of faith to unite in a new way and put aside our differences.
A crisis created by humanity which will affect all of humanity demands a coordinated response from the faith communities around the world. Please join us by visiting our website and learning more about our work.
Header Photo: Huffpost