Inescapable Lessons Offer Invaluable Opportunities – Earth Day 50th & COVID19

By Rev. Dr. Jim Antal

This is not a dress rehearsal. The entire world is immersed in unrelenting, multidimensional crises. These crises are not ideological. They are rooted in reality: nature, science, medicine, and mathematics. Suddenly, we are all living with the same mortal fear – anxiety that no ideological anger or assurance can reduce. Each of us must decide how to behave, what matters most, who we listen to, and how we can be of help.
 
In these ways and more, the landscape around us has changed, and each of us is searching for meaning. Business-as-usual is over. We grieve the loss of the familiar routines through which meaning is made.
 
Over the past many weeks, as we’ve sheltered in place, many of us have journeyed amidst the five stages of grief: denial; anger; bargaining; sadness; acceptance.  But all of us are now contending with the sixth stage – what David Kessler calls “finding meaning.”[1] 
 
The central mission of the church, synagogue, mosque, and temple is to help people find meaning – as individuals and as a society – and to advance justice.
 
As the world we once inhabited fades, here are the cornerstones upon which a life of meaning in the emerging world can be constructed. As faith communities attempt to find their bearings in this new landscape, they would do well to build their future witness upon these principles.
 
My individual actions matter… and I’m not on my own! We are interdependent! We’re all in this together!
 
Expert after expert – scientists and doctors – again and again remind us that by staying home or wearing a mask when we must go out, we benefit ourselves AND everyone else. Long after the coronavirus is no longer a clear and present danger, this cornerstone must continue to guide our actions to address climate change. No country can opt-out of compliance with the Paris Climate Accords. The coronavirus has taught us that the survival of our species doesn’t work that way. It’s also taught us that the necessity to act on climate has never been clearer – recognizing that our actions are always in concert with others.
 
Working together with others, we can change the system.
 
In only a few weeks, how the world lives from day to day has changed. As Arundhati Roy suggests,[2] this pandemic is a portal – a gateway – that can lead to a more just and sustainable world. It’s up to us, working with others, to decide what we will bring with us through that portal.
 The current crisis is a clarion call to people of every faith persuasion around the world to raise our voices and mobilize our bodies and our assets to advocate for a more just and sustainable world.
 
As the prospect of a return normalcy is dangled before us, we have the opportunity to do what climate scientists have been telling us is essential: we must change the entire socio-economic system. We have the opportunity to leave behind:

  • gaping economic inequality;
  • blatant racial inequity;
  • rampant ecological destruction;
  • ruinous extractive profiteering;
  • pervasive political corruption. 

All of these injustices are now in stark relief because they have all been amplified by this pandemic.
 
The coronavirus has also called out of us a recognition of values that are essential to constructing a more just and sustainable world:

  • the unifying power of shared vulnerability;
  • the expansive fullness of interdependence;
  • the contagious generosity of caring for the least of these among us; and
  • our universal calling to protect God’s great gift of creation.

People of every faith perspective recognize these values because they are common to every faith community. By holding these and other newfound values dear, we can change the system.
 
The coronavirus crisis and the climate crisis are intersectional crises.
 
As bad as the coronavirus is, it’s providing humanity with an opportunity for an “ah-ha” moment in relation to the climate crisis. That’s because, as Charles Kutscher points out,[3] by looking at the coronavirus crisis, we can see that we’re making the same mistakes as with the climate crisis. These mistakes are now obvious to the vast majority of Americans (and perhaps a majority of humanity):

  • We failed to heed the warnings.
  • We failed to take seriously the delay between the problem and its consequences.
  • Many leaders have been misled by disinformation, and some leaders have knowingly promulgated misinformation.
  • We failed to animate robust federal leadership.

Moving forward, having recognized these blunders in dealing with coronavirus, we have the opportunity to avoid these civilization-ending mistakes in responding to the climate crisis.
 
As trusted messengers whose role is to promote life and justice, I can already hear sermons making these connections and motivating people of faith to act on climate.
 
Another more just world is possible.
 
In a recent communication, Rabbi Arthur Waskow[4] recalls that on the seventh day of Passover, Jews ponder what it meant for the Children of Israel, fleeing slavery, to reach the Red Sea. Behind them, Pharaoh’s Army sought a return to normalcy. Before them, a “Sea of Drowning” or perhaps, a “Sea of Active Hope.”
 
As people of faith, God is calling us to recognize the present crisis as an opportunity to embrace a fresh understanding of human fulfillment and vocation. Before the human enterprise is overwhelmed by the crushing juggernaut of the climate crisis, the coronavirus has shaken us to our roots, compelling us to come to our senses. 
 
Inspired by the heroism we have all witnessed from our health care workers, in the coming months our generation must embrace an heroic calling. Recognizing that consumerism and selfishness will never satisfy our deepest longings, we must call for and insist on a new socio-economic system that values:

  • sharing in place of hoarding;
  • resilience in place of fear;
  • cooperation in place of competition;
  • interdependence in place of rugged individualism; and
  • spiritual and moral growth in place of material growth.

We are called to build a new just and resilient world in which people of every faith persuasion unite to expand the Golden Rule so that we recognize people half-a-world-away as well as unborn generations as our neighbors.
 
An exhausted world must wait for a coronavirus vaccine before the fullness of life can be restored. But when it comes to the climate crisis, we already have a vaccine![5] Over the past decade or so, engineers have dropped the price of solar panels and wind turbines by over 90%. To restore God’s great gift of creation, all we have to do is deploy the solutions we already have.
 
By including the Green New Deal as part of our next economic stimulus, not only will we begin to restore creation, we will also restore the economy by creating millions of “green jobs,” even as we address environmental injustice.
 
As people of faith who recognize the earth as God’s creation, it’s up to us to assure that the pandemic actually increases the resolve of every nation to address the climate crisis. It’s time for humanity to negotiate a new social contract with our governments[6] – one that addresses the needs of the most vulnerable, advances the common good in place of inequity, and establishes a sustainable society.  In so doing, we will bring to life the beloved community, and create the conditions in which humanity and God’s great gift of creation can flourish together.
 
Jim Antal is a denominational leader, climate activist, author and public theologian. From 2006-2018, Antal led the 350 UCC churches in Massachusetts as their Conference Minister and President. He now serves as Special Advisor on Climate Justice to the General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ. Antal’s bookCLIMATE CHURCH, CLIMATE WORLD, was featured on Earth Day in the Chicago Tribune (2018) and in Christian Century Magazine (2019).

Jim preached "at" Riverside Church in New York on Sunday, April 19. The recording can be viewed here. The focus was the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, the Coronavirus, and the Climate Crisis. 


[1] Kessler co-wrote with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief through the Five Stages of Loss. His new book adds another stage to the process, Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of GriefHis interview in the Harvard Business Review, “That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief,” is worth reading. https://hbr.org/2020/03/that-discomfort-youre-feeling-is-grief
 
[2] See Arundhati Roy: ‘The pandemic is a portal’  Financial Times 4/3/2020  https://www.ft.com/content/10d8f5e8-74eb-11ea-95fe-fcd274e920ca; and “Coronavirus Spells the End of the Neoliberal Era. What’s Next?” By Jeremy Lent, originally published by Patterns Of Meaning blog
[3] See Charles Kutscher, 4/8/2020. “The Coronavirus and Climate Change: How We’re Making the Same Mistakes,”  https://medium.com/@chuck.kutscher/the-coronavirus-and-climate-change-how-were-making-the-same-mistakes-2cd01cce2295

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