Ecological Faith in Action (Earth Day Service, 4-29-2019)

Sophia Geiger:

One of my favorite things about Unitarian Universalism is the unique way it approaches faith. Our worship doesn’t just live within these walls, but within the world. My worship lives in the green on the trees, stark after a dull winter, and in the cool spring breeze that makes you realize it’s finally warm enough that the wind doesn’t make you shiver.

As I see it, climate justice, and our faith are interwoven too tightly to be separated. Upholding our faith goes hand in hand with advocating for the Earth on which we live. Our 7th principle calls for us to “Respect the interdependent web of all existence.” How can we do that if we are also slowly suffocating that web, and along with it, our only home.

Our 6th principle calls for “peace, liberty, and justice for all.” How can we achieve that while pumping toxins into the air that we must all breathe? How can we achieve that when we fill our waters with plastic and pollutants? How can we achieve that when we watch ourselves steal others’ right to a livable world out from under them?

Our faith seeks to promote equality and justice, meaning that the damage climate change is causing is the antithesis to everything that we believe. Climate change is unjust, because fossil fuel burning and other types of air pollution are creating an unbreathable atmosphere and because communities of color breathe nearly 40% more polluted air than their white counterparts. Climate change is unjust because the countries that contribute the least to the human race’s carbon footprint, are the countries that are on the forefront of the disasters being caused by it. Climate change is unjust because 80% of the people displaced by climate change are women. And it’s unjust because the life that many of the most fortunate people are living now, a life with clean water, breathable air and accessible food, is a life that their children may never get to experience.

Humanity has faced many crises throughout our millenia of existence, but the climate crisis may be the most threatening yet. We consider ourselves the most intelligent species, yet it is not the whales or sea turtles filling their waters with waste, or the amazon wildlife clearcutting their forests. No other species works so actively to destroy their only home, and no other species must now work to stop it. While other species have not been able to see their extinction coming, humans have the ability to see the future, or rather the potential lack of it, if only we pay attention.

And as much as we may perceive the climate crisis as threatening the lives of children not yet born, the truth is that lives are already at risk. While we hear that we have 11 years left until climate catastrophe, the reality is that it has already started. Recently, in my life, and I believe many other people’s too, environmental issues have become increasingly present and pressing on people’s minds and hearts. Plenty of people think climate change is all ice caps and polar bears, but the reality of it is so much more. To my friends and my generation, climate change is the fear that we have no future. It’s panic attacks and depression because some believe there is no hope.

But a few months ago, I dove headfirst into a community of climate activism that I hadn’t even known existed. I’ve always known our Earth was threatened, but I didn’t understand how badly, or the power I had to do anything about it. Now that I’m in this world of climate advocacy I’m in so deep I can’t imagine my life without it, and I can’t see a future without it either. My generation is the first to truly be experiencing the horrors our lack of love for our Earth has caused, and my generation is the last with any chance of reversing the damage. 16 year old climate activist Greta Thunberg says, it’s time to act like our house is on fire, because it is. Our house is being hit by the worst hurricane Africa has ever experienced. Our house is melting, our house is flooded. The waters are rising, but so are the youth.

Although this maybe the biggest obstacle to a liveable future humanity has ever faced, it is also the best opportunity we’ve had to act in solidarity. In this time of crisis, we can be united for a common cause like never before.

This issue is important to me because I am human, and because anything that affects some of us, I see as affecting all of us. However it’s made even more important to me by the fact that I’m a UU, and environmental justice is so deeply ingrained in the way I view my faith. Because I believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person, and every living being, I believe in the commitment to the planet that houses us.

Rev. Lyn Cox:

Thank you, Sophia, for your sermon and for your public witness. I hope that your UU faith gives you not only motivation, but also support and renewal so that you can keep doing what you are called to do.

In this Unitarian Universalist congregation, we celebrate Earth Day as a religious and spiritual holiday not only because our faith speaks directly and deeply to issues of justice and interdependence, but also because faith is vital if we are going to have resilience and effectiveness at facing the facts of climate change.

Living where and when we do, some of us have been infected with a late-stage capitalist, white culture, middle-class ethic of individualism. This habit of assuming that everybody has to take care of themselves, and the best we can do is to make conscious purchases and recycle, lures us into isolation rather than bringing people together in solidarity to unmask and dethrone the corrupt powers of greed and exploitation that are doing the most harm to the environment. The dominant culture separates us into individuals with very little power. Faith helps us to dismantle that toxic, outdated idea and instead to take the risk of joining in collective liberation.

Theologian Sharon Welch — building on the work of feminist, Black liberation, and womanist theologians — makes a distinction between an ethic of control and an ethic of risk. The ethic of control will feel familiar to many people, though perhaps not by that name. This worldview claims that we have to be individual pioneers, mastering ourselves and our surroundings, and that the highest aspiration is to be in charge; to control our environment, control the people around us, control our emotions, control the outcomes we are headed toward. On the other hand, the ethic of risk asks us to be part of a collective; to respect different ways of knowing and unknowing; to realize that solidarity, realistic assessment, and openness to heart and spirit mean letting go of attachment to outcomes. In the ethic of risk, we dig deeply into the messy work of building community, of listening with humility, of doing the next right thing without assurances of success. Grounding in pluralistic community is essential. This is theological work because it reminds us that we are not God, and because it holds us accountable to our spiritual vision of interdependence. Living into an ethic of risk is unpredictable and difficult. It is embodied faith in action. We take chances, make mistakes, and get messy. ( )

In witnessing and working for the planet, one of the ways to take chances is to join in coalition with other institutions, organizations, faith communities, and constituencies; particularly those who are most affected by pollution, environmental peril, and climate change. The ethic of risk comes into play in letting go of our ideas about the “right” way to do things, or the most important steps, or who should naturally be in charge. I have experienced this in staying connected to the Poor People’s Campaign, where people of faith and leaders from the most impacted communities come together to bear witness to environmental devastation, institutional racism, the war economy, systemic poverty, and the connections between all of those things. I and the lay leaders in several congregations I have served have offered prayers, hosted meetings, loaned our voices in song, and showed up to send messages to legislators. UU’s and people of many faiths who are poor and/or People of Color and/or disabled have found their voice and their place in a way that has not always been welcomed in other movements. For those of us with relative privilege, it is not our leadership, or our strategy, or our knowledge that is most needed. It is our support and our attention.

So, for me and for the lay people of relative privilege who have been in the Poor People’s Campaign even more deeply than I have, mostly we have listened. We have listened to leaders from predominantly Black and Latinx neighborhoods describe their resistance to putting trash incinerators near their schools or allowing oil trains along the tracks than run past their homes. We have listened to veterans, many of them recruited from poor communities with few employment options, describe the long-term health effects of chemical warfare and of working in military shipyards. We have listened to refugees, asylum seekers, and undocumented immigrants who have fled from places where climate change has exacerbated water shortages, crop failures, economic collapse, and violence, only to find human rights violations against immigrants here. We have listened, and we have followed the leadership of the people most impacted by the four systemic evils of our time.

Listening and following has not always been easy when some to us have been trained for our entire lives to take charge, to interrupt, to assume our education makes us the experts. The Poor People’s Campaign might comment on specific opportunities or trends, but the focus is usually on a broad vision of the society we could be rather than on specific legislation. That is a different way of working than some of us are used to.

Those who are motivated to show up because environmental devastation is close to our hearts are asked for solidarity. For instance, we are asked to show up to fight for a living wage and the right to organize a union, because we can’t carry each other into a more sustainable world if some of us can’t feed our families, and because environmental issues and poverty issues are linked in the way Sophia described. For those of us used to concentrating on one issue, that kind of coalition building can be hard.

The Poor People’s Campaign agenda is ambitious, and we are not guaranteed to achieve it. The same goes for any of a number of coalitions and organizing collectives —  Action In Montgomery, Gamaliel Network, PICO National Network — there are many good people working across divisions for a better world, and they all have worthy and ambitious agendas. Showing up anyway when we don’t know what will happen can be hard. The ethic of risk asks us to let go of control, to be more of a “we” than a “me,” to take a chance on liberation because none of us is free until all of us are free.

When it comes to action for the planet, this spiritual discipline of humility becomes very important for adults. Young people are bringing commitment and a sense of urgency to prophetic witness that is very much needed. Young people are telling hard truths. It is incumbent on those of us who are older to work alongside and in support of young people who are responding to climate change, not to talk over them. Their experience matters. Age is one of the privileges we need to be conscious of as we build our coalitions.

Unitarian Universalist congregations are, as institutions, communities of relative privilege. Not all of us are white, not all of us are wealthy, not all of us are able-bodied, not all of us are educated, but because we have among us a higher than average level of all of those privileges, we collectively have power that we can either harness effectively or dissipate into denial, despair, and isolated efforts. We leverage our collective power when we are generous with our gifts of time, talent, and support; when we are able to let go of individual whims in order to channel our collective power toward our shared values; when we can put enough trust in the institution of the congregation that we have something to bring to the table in our interfaith organizing; when we follow the lead or our interfaith partners who are most impacted by threats to planetary health and human dignity.
Our living religious tradition reminds us that we are in this life together. Unitarianism suggests that we are one in the spirit, and Universalism suggests that our destinies are all intertwined. The mystery of the interdependent web is that what any one of us does affects of all, yet you as an individual need not take sole responsibility for the fate of the world. Whether your gift in community is advocacy in the halls of power, or building coalitions, or creating inspiration with art and music, or sustaining a place that can provide spiritual and emotional renewal to those bringing their work into the world, bless you. Remember to stay connected to this faith. Remember to risk collaboration, humility, and uncertainty. Remember to return here as we care for one another in the midst of transforming ourselves and the world.

So be it. Blessed be. Amen.