The second of two excerpts from Jim Antal's recently released book Climate Church, Climate World. The first excerpt shared a fictional letter set in the year 2070. The letter painted a bleak picture of world thrown into climate chaos and despair. What follows offers a scenario that indicates future suffering as well hopeful possibilities.
The year is 2100. You’re sitting in a hot arena with about five thousand others. The air conditioners, powered by solar energy, have reduced the outside temperature by 25°F to the standard setting of 88°F. Like everyone, you travelled to this event in an electric vehicle charged by solar or wind power. While travelling long distances is rare, you were willing to sacrifice to attend this gathering convened by the World Council of Churches. Millions of others from all over the Earth are participating in the conference electronically. It promises to be a wonderful celebration of the enormous progress made over the past eighty years. The opening speaker is a teenage girl.
IMAGINE: A MESSAGE TO THE CHURCH—PRESENTED BY A TEENAGER IN 2100
Thank you. . . . My name is Evergreen Suzuki. Over one hundred years ago, my great-great-grandmother, Severn Cullis-Suzuki, addressed the 1992 Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit. I know I’m young, but she was only twelve. For six minutes, the 172 governmental representatives sat in silence, listening intently. She spoke on behalf of generations to come. She spoke on behalf of countless animals dying across the planet. She spoke of extinction. She reminded the adults of their limits—and reminded them that they had to follow the same rules they had taught their children for generations: not to hurt other creatures, to share and not be greedy. For six minutes those leaders were attentive and remorseful. When she finished, their gathering seemed to generate momentum. In decades past, when world leaders gathered at Kyoto, Copenhagen, and then Paris, they struggled to come to terms with the most obvious realities: the sacrifice of creation at the altar of material progress, our unchecked greed, our resistance to change, and our refusal to share.
Fortunately, enough people knew what needed to be done and took action. Our forebears in the faith crafted the Earth Charter. Rooted in “global interdependence and universal responsibility,” it offered a set of sixteen principles that together required a “change of mind and heart.”
I don’t have to tell you that change is hard—and revolutionary change is much harder.
But somehow, after Hurricanes Katrina, Sandy, Harvey, Irma, and Maria, people were ready for change. They were beginning to connect the dots between unprecedented catastrophe and climate change. When Houston, America’s fourth largest city, flooded, they glimpsed what the horrific future would involve: tens of millions of climate refugees worldwide. Of course, that was only the beginning.
A tipping point was when scientists, activists, and children sought justice from the courts. They demanded justice for unborn generations, for marginalized communities of color, for indigenous communities, and for poor white communities. Not only did the attorneys general of several states go after fossil fuel companies, but Our Children’s Trust captured the attention of the country and the world. It was when kids—like me—faced down the most powerful and well-funded forces in the world that hope began to emerge. Once the highest court in the land recognized that children had a right to grow up on an Earth not wrecked by the grownups who lived before them, momentum grew. These kids made America realize that our country had been sleeping through a revolution—as Martin Luther King Jr. warned—and that it was time to wake up. Can we recognize their courage with applause?
We could name so many others whose voices and vision helped America reimagine new possibilities. Not a kid grows up in America today who doesn’t learn about the contributions made by James Hansen, Naomi Oreskes, Wangari Muta Maathai, Lennox Yearwood, Rachel Carson, Elon Musk, Pope Francis, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, Katharine Hayhoe, and Bill McKibben.
The church finally woke up at the end of the second decade of the twenty-first century—and that’s why I’m here today. Just when fewer and fewer people were going to church, and the prospects for God’s creation were growing dim, something happened. Our forebears in the faith realized that if they loved God, they had to protect creation. They put their bodies on the line. While we don’t know their individual names, we know them as legion. Once a few thousand of them courageously resisted the powers and principalities, many more followed.
After a while, America began to catch the dream that motivated these people of faith. A new kind of candor crept into our personal and national conversations. Some churches began to practice a new sacramental act that made use of the ground as the principle element. Sometimes, the ritual helped people connect with the Earth. Other times, it empowered people to muster the courage to bear witness to the need to keep fossil fuels in the ground. Some newly called ministers insisted that their ordination vows include an additional vow that if they or their partner became pregnant, during those nine months, each of their sermons would speak of God’s covenant with all of creation and our obligations to future generations. These younger pastors often attracted numerous younger people who heard about these sermons. Gradually, churchgoers came to be seen throughout the community as creation protectors. They actually borrowed that phrase from the courageous witness of thousands of native peoples in 2016 at Standing Rock, South Dakota; those brave and intrepid visionaries called themselves water protectors.
In 2010, Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett initiated The Giving Pledge, challenging the richest people in the world to commit to give away at least 50 percent of their wealth to good causes before they died. When this initiative began, it puzzled many who thought “the person who dies with the most toys wins.” But in the third decade of the twenty-first century, after over one thousand billionaires had made the pledge, these billionaires made a collective decision to set aside half of their collective philanthropic funds to endow all the national parks of fifty-three countries. As a result of their action, humanity began to embrace a new attitude toward nature. The Parliament of the World’s Religions played an important role in extending the impact of this commitment. For years, the Parliament had been developing materials helping people of every faith perspective to realize that every religion embraces the Golden Rule, and that each religion needed to extend the Golden Rule to include all future generations and all creatures as our neighbors. Endowing the world’s national parks inspired the next several generations to embrace a new understanding of life’s meaning—one that was both interdependent and intergenerational.
By the third decade of the twenty-first century, humanity began to speak with a single voice, recognizing that this was the only Earth, our only home. Those who promoted the colonization of other planets as a way to assure humanity’s survival were sidelined. Also silenced were those who “transcended” Earth’s problems by assuming “human consciousness” could continue eternally in the form of ones and zeros (the singularity). At about that same time, the church amplified Jesus’ call to build the Kingdom of God on Earth, reminding us that Jesus offered us a building plan, not an evacuation plan. By and large, the church abandoned the idea that life’s purpose and reward was to get into a future Heaven. People embraced Jesus’ Good News: Heaven is right here, right now, everywhere and always.
People also began to see that narcissism and self-dealing was a bankrupt way of living. Believers of the so-called prosperity gospel realized that its “God” was nothing more than a creation of self-promoting pastors. In contrast, new leaders emerged, leaders who manifested generosity, generativity, and a willingness to accept boundaries and limits. These leaders showed us that we could be satisfied with enough, and still be full of gratitude and joy. People listened to those leaders.
It certainly wasn’t easy. In fact it was devastating when over a billion people had to relocate. Generations later, we continue to mourn the hundreds of millions who died as climate refugees. India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh were hit especially hard. However, Muslim and Hindu leaders were able to make major improvements by helping people to realize that their religious perspectives were not in conflict with one another, and that they could honor and support one another.
In these and many other ways, the twenty-first century underwent a moral revolution that birthed a new moral era. Thought leaders like Thomas Berry, Joanna Macy, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Diana Butler Bass, Brian McLaren, and David Korten set the stage by imagining a way forward. Tens of thousands of people risked their freedom to protect the Earth, inspired by Tim DeChristopher, the Valve Turners, and the courageous actions of those who led the 1982 Warren County Civil Disobedience Campaign (523 of whom were arrested for exposing environmental racism).
Today, this planet—our home—is so much less hospitable to human life than was the Earth on which my great-great-grandmother Severn was born. The dream of that Earth has long since faded. But a new dream has emerged. Thanks to your religious witness, our political, corporate, and cultural leaders are now acting in morally accountable ways. Over the past fifty years, our common crisis has brought humanity together. There are so many ways in which we are now beginning to bend the moral arc of the universe toward justice.
Let us thank our forebears in the faith for rising above their despair to imagine that another world was possible. And let us praise the high resolve, courage, and ingenuity they persistently tapped to demonstrate their love of God, and the wondrous gift we have been given.
The Reverend Dr. Jim Antal serves the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ as the Conference Minister and President.