Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Unholy Silence

The noon Eucharist at Trinity Cathedral in Omaha today used the propers for 19th-century abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison and Maria Stewart. Shortly before going to the chapel for Eucharist, I read a disturbing piece by Kieran Cooke, Reigniting the climate change debate, about climate change communication. Among studies it referenced was a Yale University survey that found that “only 8% of respondents said they communicated publicly about climate change, while nearly 70% said they rarely or never spoke about it.”

What really struck me about this piece, though, was an account of George Marshall’s description of his efforts to engage people in conversation about global warming. Marshall is a co-founder of the Climate Outreach and Information Network (COIN) in the UK, an organization that specializes in climate change communication. Marshall says he always tries to introduce the topic casually --  “after all,” he says, “no one wants to find themselves sitting next to a zealot on a long-distance train journey.” He continues:

 But I need not worry because, however I say it, the result is almost always the same: the words collapse, sink and die in mid-air and the conversation suddenly changes course…it’s like an invisible force field that you only discover when you barge right into it. Few people ever do, because, without having ever been told, they have somehow learned that this topic is out of bounds.

I know this experience very well. It does seem that global warming /climate change has become something one does not discuss in polite company. [i]How is it that the issue that will have the most impact on human life in the 21st century has become unmentionable in polite company? And how do we respond? Do we keep our silence because speaking about climate change makes people uncomfortable, or do we ignore the social taboo and speak plainly because our very lives depend on our thinking about climate change and talking about climate change and figuring out how best to live given its reality?

With this on my mind, when Dean Loya shared the stories of William Lloyd Garrison and Maria Stewart finding ways to communicate the urgency of the need to end slavery in the United States, their words resonated with me. Evidently William Lloyd Garrison was criticized for being too “severe” in his language; it seems he was expected to be politely moderate about ending human slavery. The Lectionary website shares this quotation from the first issue of Garrison’s anti-slavery newspaper The Liberator:

I am aware that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity? I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, or to speak, or write, with moderation. No! no! Tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen; – but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest – I will not equivocate – I will not excuse – I will not retreat a single inch – AND I WILL BE HEARD. The apathy of the people is enough to make every statue leap from its pedestal, and to hasten the resurrection of the dead.

Like slavery, climate change is an issue that impacts too many human lives too terribly for us to sit by quietly and allow it to happen. What will the people still living at the end of this century think if they have a way of knowing that politeness kept us from doing what we could have done? And how are we the Body of Christ if we allow politeness to trump alleviation of human suffering and the deaths of entire species of animals and plants?

[i] Holiday social tip: Unless you really want to know what work engages the people you meet at holiday parties, don’t ask. Some of us are engaged in some form of climate activism, and if the conversation dies the moment we reveal what it is that we do, it’s hard to keep up social chit-chat. Similarly, if an intelligent observation about what’s making our weather so strange this winter is something you would find socially embarrassing, don’t wonder aloud about what the cause might be, as there might be someone at the party who knows the answer.

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