Rising with Christ: Confronting climate change

By Margaret Bullitt-Jonas
Posted May 8, 2013

[Episcopal News Service] In one historic week, the Episcopal Church participated in two significant ecumenical events about climate change.

On April 27, 2013, the Climate Revival in downtown Boston gathered clergy and hundreds of Christians from across New England to participate in a morning and afternoon worship service in two historic churches – Old South Church and Trinity Church. Billed as “an ecumenical festival to embolden the renewal of Creation,” the Climate Revival traced the arc of the story of Lazarus as we listened for God’s consoling, chastening, and encouraging Word in relation to the climate crisis. Bill McKibben and Archbishop Desmond Tutu joined us by recorded video, and Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori preached an extraordinary sermon about the raising of Lazarus.[1]

Not willing to waste a minute, between the services we scheduled a round-table conversation with writer and activist Wen Stephenson and four panelists, including our presiding bishop. We held an educational fair, in which local churches and environmental groups shared their work on addressing climate change. And we released an ecumenical climate statement, “Lazarus, Come Out: A Shared Statement of Hope in the Face of Climate Change,” which was signed by or on behalf of the national leaders of three Churches – the Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ, and the American Baptist Churches USA – as well as by a diverse group of other denominational leaders, including the Greek Orthodox Metropolitan of Boston, who signed on behalf of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew.

Only a few days later, on May 1-2, the Episcopal Church took the lead in a second major ecumenical event. Co-sponsored by the Episcopal Church and the [Lutheran] Church of Sweden, a climate summit convened in Washington, D.C., titled “Sustaining Hope in the Face of Climate Change: Faith Communities Gather.” A second strong ecumenical climate statement was signed, this time by the national leaders of the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and the Church of Sweden.

Episcopal News Service produced several articles about the D.C. conference,[2] including videos and texts, all of which would reward congregational study. As one of the organizers of the Climate Revival in Boston and as a panelist at the climate summit in D.C. – charged with speaking about how local churches can respond in hope – I’d like to offer some reflections.

We live in an unprecedented moment in human history. In just 200 years, human beings have pumped so much heat-trapping carbon dioxide (CO2) into the air that atmospheric levels of CO2 are higher today than they have been for at least 800,000 years. “We are breathing from an atmosphere that none of our ancestors would recognize,” commented climate scientist Dr. Kevin Noone at the D.C. summit.

The body of God’s Creation is rapidly deteriorating. Countless species are going extinct, and the air, earth, and oceans are being degraded before our eyes. As Bill McKibben pointed out in a recent article,[3] “…the Arctic – from Greenland to its seas – essentially melted last summer in a way never before seen. The frozen Arctic is like a large physical feature. It’s as if you woke up one morning and your left arm was missing.”

The ongoing existence of life on earth is not at stake – as in past extinction events, life will find a way to rebound over the long span of geologic time – but the future of human civilization is uncertain.

It is difficult to face the grief, helplessness, and fear that our situation evokes. Most of us are not climate skeptics; most of us do not deny outright the conclusions of science – but, as Dr. Willis Jenkins remarked at the D.C. summit, most of us do engage in a kind of everyday denial: we try to avoid the anxiety of thinking about climate change, so we change the subject and focus on more manageable things.[4]

Churches and people of faith have a crucial role to play in confronting this crisis.

— As individuals and congregations we can find ways to pray that melt our apathy, break through our numbness, and allow us to experience and express the depth of our anger, fear, and grief within the embrace of a loving God.

— As individuals and congregations we can explore forms of contemplative prayer that invite us to find God in periods of darkness, emptiness, and impasse.

— We can offer a moral perspective.  Climate change is not simply a scientific, political or economic issue – it is also an issue of justice.  Its devastating effects are felt first and most strongly by the poor, who are least equipped to adapt to it.  As keynote speaker Dr. Mary Evelyn Tucker remarked, climate change also raises the acute moral issue of biocide and genocide.

— We may have power to open political gridlock.  Lobbying from a faith perspective can change the dynamics of a stuck political system.  When we speak to our elected officials about climate change as a religious and moral issue, we have a chance of reaching them; unlike the Sierra Club, we are not the “usual suspects.”

— We can reach out in love to our neighbors, building the connections that make a community resilient.  Many congregations and dioceses, and even an entire Province (Province 4) are preparing for how to respond to the natural disasters and extreme weather events that are a consequence of a warming world.

— We can participate in – and help to lead – the grassroots climate justice movement that is springing up around the country.  In August 2011, in the largest act of civil disobedience in a generation, 1253 people were arrested in front of the White House to protest the Keystone XL pipeline, which would develop the second largest carbon deposit on earth.  In November 2011, 10,000 people encircled the White House to protest the pipeline.  In February 2013, 40,000 to 50,000 people gathered in Washington, D.C., for the largest climate rally in U.S. history.  Episcopalians were among those arrested and among those attending the rallies.  As my friend and fellow climate activist Rev. Dr. Jim Antal has said, within our lifetimes we need to make mountaintop removal, fracking, and drilling for oil as unthinkable as it would be to own slaves.[5]  The battle to stabilize the climate has begun.

In a moving address that opened the climate conference in D.C., the Presiding Bishop described our world’s collapsing life-systems, and asked, “Can you hear the hoof beats of the four horsemen of the apocalypse?  We know that famine, drought, and pestilence often lead to conflict and war. The ensuing death and destruction are immense and tragic.” But perhaps those apocalyptic horses can become vehicles of grace.  The Presiding Bishop went on to say that if we choose to “remember who we are, whose we are, and why we are here,” we can “ride to the aid of others, responding to the disaster already emerging.”

In this decisive moment of human history, we need divine guidance, protection, and inspiration.  I take heart that in the space of less than a week, so many Christian leaders gathered to speak with one voice and to commit to the mission of limiting climate change.  I take heart that so many people of faith are rising up to bear witness to the Risen Christ.  As I found myself saying at the end of the roundtable, “It is an exciting time to be alive.”

— The Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas of Grace Church, Amherst, was part of the team that planned the Climate Revival, along with the Rev. Jim Antal (minister and president of the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ), the Rt. Rev. Bud Cedarholm (retired suffragan bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts), and the Rev. Stephanie Johnson (Province I energy stewardship minister), who was also a principal organizer of the D.C. climate summit. Margaret’s forthcoming article in Anglican Theological Review reviews the history of the Episcopal Church’s response to climate change. Her website is available at http://holyhunger.org.

[3] http://billmoyers.com/2013/04/08/is-the-keystone-xl-pipeline-the-%E2%80%9Cstonewall%E2%80%9D-of-the-climate-movement “Is the Keystone XL Pipeline the “Stonewall” of the Climate Movement?,” by Bill McKibben, April 8, 2013 (This piece was first published on TomDispatch)

[4] Jenkins referred me to this fascinating article: “The everyday denial of climate change,” by Kari Marie Norgaard, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 5 July 2012, http://www.thebulletin.org/web-edition/op-eds/the-everyday-denial-of-climate-change.

[5] Wen Stephenson, “The New Abolitionists: Global warming is the great moral crisis of our time,” The Phoenix, February 12, 2013, http://thephoenix.com/boston/news/151670-new-abolitionists-global-warming-is-the-great/#ixzz2Ko44Pxre