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.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Advent 3: Visions of Hope

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God. Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.” (Isaiah 35:1-4)

Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. (Matthew 11:4-5)

Each week seems to bring new information about climate change, its effects, and the pace at which those effects are unfolding. How hopeless is it?

This week’s climate news included a report of a research project by a US Navy scientist that predicts an ice-free Arctic Sea by fall of 2016 (plus or minus three years -- which means sometime between now and 2019). How hopeless is it?

We know we have passed the point where lowering our emissions of greenhouse gases can prevent global warming. The warming that has already taken place has set feedback loops in motion that will cause some level of warming to continue even if we suddenly do the politically improbable and manage to lower the level of greenhouse gas emissions by a significant amount. The aim now is mitigation: lessening global warming and its effects as much as possible given the physical and chemical reality of our situation. 

Sign on the way to church last Sunday
Our lesson from Isaiah (Isaiah 35:1-10) for the Third Sunday in Advent describes a beautiful time when all of nature is full of joy, when flowers bloom in the desert and God’s unmistakable presence fills the world. It describes not a picture of what is but a vision of God’s possibilities. The prophetic visions of Scripture came to men and women well aware of the realities of their times and places. There are words of warning as well as words of promise. The visions were not a denial of reality; instead, they were rooted in that reality, a reality that the prophets saw more clearly than those around them. The prophetic visions provided a dream of new possibilities and an ideal by which to measure the present reality. The prophetic visions were an opening up of a new reality that could begin to unfold if people radically changed their way of life and returned to true worship that would remove the internal and external barriers to the unfolding of the vision.

While visions of hope are hard to find in climate science reports that document an accelerating warming and predict catastrophic results if we remain on our current path of greenhouse gas emissions, there are signs of change. In Jesus’ time and place, there was plenty of sickness, poverty, and oppression even though Jesus was healing. John the Baptist asks whether Jesus is the one they've been waiting for or if there is another. Jesus says (Matthew 11:4), “Go and tell John what you hear and see”, and lists signs of hope. We can look at signs of something changing – e.g. several coal-fired power plants shut down various places including Massachusetts and Chicago, solar energy use on the increase worldwide, decreasing use of automobiles in younger Americans, the wind- and solar-powered barn built in the path of the Keystone XL pipeline here in Nebraska. These things alone aren't enough to prevent catastrophic warming, but they may be signs of bigger changes that are coming to be.

This Third Sunday of Advent there is hope. We don’t know what shape hope takes in our generation. Authentic hope is not na├»ve; hope doesn't say everything will be fine, and it certainly doesn't say that everything will be just the way it was before humankind spewed enough greenhouse gases into the atmosphere to warm the planet to the point where feedback loops accelerate the warming.

Our hope means that we know that God is with us and God is faithful. It means that there is a bigger picture we simply cannot see from our little corner of the universe and our tiny point in history. It means that there are visions of what might be that we might be able to see if we turn away from our accustomed way of living and open ourselves to something new. As we are reminded especially during Advent, hope means God is with us no matter what.