Sept. 15, 2019
At what point does a crisis become an emergency? At what point will the environmental crisis be declared an emergency?
Jonathan Franzen poses this outrageous question in this week’s New Yorker, “What if we stopped pretending that climate change can be stopped,” thus declaring this is an emergency.
Who will be the one to reach out and break the emergency glass? There is only one person in a position to do that in this country, and he—who will go nameless—has not done it.
We have watched, literally watched, as global warming has increased unabated and planetary conditions have gradually worsened over the last 30 years since the day when Bill McKibbon published The End of Nature in 1989. In the 30 years since then, the crisis has attained world-wide attention, and international conferences have successfully led to changes in national policies and individual behaviors. In these 30 years in the U.S., a new and widespread interest in renewable energy, illustrated by Eliot Church solar project, has taken hold. (Cindy and I had solar panels installed on our home in Lee seven years ago.) The Green New Deal, the manifesto of one political party, has become current in the national consciousness.
Nevertheless, these and other advances have not been enough to abate the rise of global temperatures that are already causing storms of increased intensity, flooding, melting of polar icecaps, and fires.
I guess you could say a crisis has become an emergency when a 17-year-old girl takes a sailboat powered only by wind across the Atlantic Ocean to tell us so. Greta Thunberg, from Sweden, endured a two week trip to get here with ZERO-carbon emission and will address the United Nations Climate Summit in one week, on Monday September 23. You can get a preview of what Greta Thunberg will say if you go to TedTalks and listen to her 10-minute block-buster speech spoken barely above a whisper.
Whether we declare an emergency and break the glass depends, I guess, on when enough Americans are flooded or burned out of our homes. It does not appear that all the scientific, meteorological and natural indicators are enough for this country collectively to break the emergency glass yet.
Maybe the emergency will be declared when enough parents get the reaction from their children that happened to the Lutheran pastor who told us at the Interfaith Newton Clergy Association meeting last Wednesday that her daughter burst into outright tears at the breakfast table one morning when she read the Globe headlines announcing the United Nations report—she said to her parents, you will be dead and I’ll still be around when this all crashes down on us!
It’s not just us parents, but every American who should hear what the children are saying. And I do wonder what they say to each other, don’t you, in their social groups, their classes, in their private conversations with friends and intimates—what do they share privately about their personal decisions, their work and family aspirations, their plans for travel and adventure?
Will they engage with their world, or retreat, especially when they see the disconnect between plain facts and our national policies?
Will they engage with their world, or retreat, when they see that what is going on at the U.S.’s southern border and at entry points from the stricken Bahamas—and see that is all just a rehearsal for the day when climate refugees from around the world arrive to knock on our government’s door?
And what of us, what of our instinctive role to protect our children, which doesn’t go away even when they’re out of the house, married, with three children of their own? Will the money we leave them be worth anything?
We are relatively secure, so far, compared to those made instantly and permanently homeless, by a Dorian, by California wildfires. Who will take these people in the next times? And at what cost?
Are we prepared for the inevitable—“massive crop failures, apocalyptic fires, imploding economies, epic flooding, hundreds of millions of refugees fleeing regions made uninhabitable by extreme heat or permanent drought” [Franzen].
Not in this country—on the contrary, we are retrenching as a country, for which there is no warrant in U.S. popular opinion.
If it doesn’t seem likely to be our national leadership that breaks the glass, maybe a child, like Greta Thunberg, will lead them! Then we damn well better follow.
Greta Thunberg and her generation have called for a Strike against business as usual for Friday, Sept. 20. Strikes are good—they apply pressure. Demonstrations are good—pressure matters.
Then, once that is past, what should we do?
I can tell you—Eliot Church must form common cause with synagogues and temples and mosques and go about writing a new Earth Ethic. It’s time now to augment conservation and sustainability with a religious template for living under duress, living with the limits our circumstances place on us, living in an emergency. All three traditions already have that—it’s called the religious life given to us in sacred scripture.
The new Earth Ethic we need is already there in our scriptures—it’s in the Book—it entails no adaptation or updating. Evidences to that effect can be found in our two scripture lessons this morning, the story about Noah and the flood sent by God, and Jesus’ warning about the end of times.
These stories, and the Bible as a whole, were written exactly for us in this emergency, because it was written for people in “limit situations,” people at their limits, the limits of capacity, limits of endurance, limits of sanity.
The Bible was not written for the middle class; over the last three centuries, middle class Christian societies have adapted the scriptures to fit us comfortably. But the Old Testament, for instance, emerged out of a slave population who then became conquerors and who themselves, at their peak, were conquered and dragged off into exile. The Israelites suffered because they lost the faith, despite many, many, many warnings—Amos, Hosea, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Isaiah—!
They ignored the signs. The message is very simple and obvious and irrefutable—this is a world of consequences.
In the Noah story, the degradation of human society prompts God to destroy all humanity except for a single righteous family who are instructed to build an ark to save nature. Whenever the Bible speaks of God “punishing” us, as in the Noah story (legend), it must not be understood as divine judgment on human sin.
The principal characteristic of God in the Bible is of mercy towards us and eternal loving kindness. So what’s with all the punishment language? (Insurance companies perpetuate the problem by calling natural catastrophes “acts of God.”)
It’s manner of speaking, a figure of speech conveying the spiritual truth that while God forgives our sins, God cannot save us from the consequences of our sins. Jewish and Christian commentators say that in that story society has, in effect, destroyed itself.
Reckless, heedless policies, be they be sins of commission or omission, all have consequences, and nature will have its way with us—cause and effect are merciless tyrants in this universe.
So, when Jesus tells the disciples to heed the signs and yet not to worry, it is because he has equipped them (us) to endure our limit situations—living with “wars and rumors of wars, floods, earthquakes.”
Scholars call this part of Mark’s gospel “the little apocalypse” because of its similarity to other alarmist writings of Jesus’ day. But Jesus has had something else in mind—he preached an alternative lifestyle amply available to us in the gospel record—he says here that the worrisome signs ahead should awaken us to realize that we have a life to live, yes even an abundant life, even though we may have insufficient control to avert the approaching deprivation, dislocation, food and water scarcity.
That’s what is meant by a limit situation, and until you are in it, you will never understand the Bible.
Jesus prepares us to embrace the world and love it, as it is, notwithstanding the horrors societies and people have perpetrated on each other.
Church, we only have to see ourselves as leaders and become leaders of a church for the world.
Eliot Church, I give you three actions we can take for this emergency--
- Build up this Sunday School, and youth group, not for the future of our church, but for the sake of the children’s future.
- Provide a place for the public expression of our grief (that’s what has infected everyone, whether we know it or not): give people—say, young people, young adults, a platform, a budget and permission to express themselves--expression is the bridge to action.
- Write new liturgies for Sunday morning that bring together straight talk and jubilant hope.
Indeed, people are asking openly, where IS the hope? People worry that everybody will just give up hope and quit the efforts at conservation and sustainability if we stopped pretending that climate change is reversible and declared an emergency.
But not here at Eliot Church, where Christ is leading us to re-prioritize our lives!
Let’s start looking frankly at everything through the lens of our new limits. And let’s start believing that accepting our responsibility during this emergency actually is our hope.
We can’t be waiting for somebody (you know who) to finally break the glass! That is just going to have to be our job!
Richard Chrisman, September 15, 2019