Once upon a time, when Unitarian congregations in America were coming to terms with a post-Civil War society, when they were both overwhelmed by the social impact of industrialization and intrigued the modern conveniences made possible by it, there arose a new way of describing their faith. It was nicknamed the Unitarian covenant, and was drawn from a sermon by James Freeman Clarke in 1886. You can still find it carved into the stone walls of many of our congregations. This covenant proclaimed faith in “the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, the leadership of Jesus, salvation by character, and the continuity of human development in all worlds, or, the progress of mankind onward and upward forever.”
Looking back, this covenant does seem overly optimistic. Forever? Really? No limits? Straight to the top with no setbacks? Hmmm. Perhaps we can see how that optimism came to pass in our Unitarian ancestors, at least in those who were white and middle class. I have preached before and will again about African American Unitarian and Universalist ancestors of the 19th century, whose insightful theological statements were more realistic. But among the people in Unitarian national and congregational leadership, Clarke’s statement really caught on.
For people of means in the late 1800’s, history might have seemed like a continuous march of progress toward ease and intellectual accomplishment. There were goods from around the world being served in their art and literature salons. There were factories and trains. Surely, as society advanced, people would have the time to perfect their character and draw closer to God through personal growth and development. What was less obvious to many was that this whole system of expansion was built on exploitation: exploitation of labor, and extraction of natural resources beyond what was sustainable. Because the people who were doing the preaching and the thinking and the policy making benefited from this economic system, its flaws were more difficult to see.
In her book, After the Good News: Progressive Faith Beyond Optimism, my colleague the Rev. Nancy McDonald Ladd talks about the heritage of 19th century utopian communities and intellectual movements, and how we need to sing a new song if we are to be truthful and useful in the world as it is. She writes:
The great modernist churches of the mid-twentieth century were tied to the concept of unending societal progress birthed after the industrial revolution. That vision of unending societal potential was in turn tied to patriarchal and racially unjust systems that benefited from the oppression they decried.
The prevailing cultural and socioeconomic ethos of this gospel of unending progress was built by and for white men with significant power. They exercised that power through seemingly benevolent dominion over the earth, its peoples, and its mysteries alike. So, that explains a lot of things. (p. 35) (So ends the quote)
Everything is connected here: gender oppression, racism, economic injustice, exploitation, and, most pressingly as we approach the Climate Strike this Friday, the future of our planet.
The economic systems that led us to where we are in the current climate crisis, the systems that viewed our living planet and exploited labor as raw materials for the gain of a few, are tangled up with some of the theological ideas that were foundational to our faith movement at the end of the nineteenth century.
McDonald Ladd goes on to say that a movement that recognizes the world as it is must follow the leadership of people rooted in marginalized communities. We must listen to those who know that the myth of unending progress is not a universal truth. We cannot stick with the narrative that things will get better if we just hang in there.
Our theological heritage of “onward and upward forever” has had some good points. It has helped us to see the positive potential of humanity and not just the depravity. It has encouraged our curiosity and our development of the very science that helps us describe where we are with truth and data. It has affirmed character traits like generosity and kindness. Yet the pursuit of endless expansion, either for personal gain or in the growth of industrial corporations, comes at a price. The story we have been telling ourselves for the last hundred years about inevitable, linear, and upward human progress has gotten us into trouble.
Disentangling our life-saving, humanity-affirming, earth-respecting faith from economic inequality and environmental destruction is possible, but it won’t be easy. We need to rethink our expectations about what our lives will be like, how our congregations should operate, and what it means to search for spiritual grounding.
With some understanding of how the economic, social, and spiritual thinking of the past led to our current crisis, the next project is imagining how to re-order our lives, our congregations, and our society for long-term resilience. An economic system that sees human capital and natural resources as inert things that can be fed into a machine of wealth expansion has been good for a few and disastrous for many.
As Sophia Geiger has reminded us many times, our work for climate justice must be inclusive of the leadership of people who are most at risk from the impact of climate change. Hurricanes, droughts, wars over limited natural resources, and the dangers caused by melting glaciers and rising sea levels are devastating to all of us, yet it is the poorest and most vulnerable who will bear the worst of the impact. To start figuring out how to live differently, we can listen to the people who experience some of the most severe effects of the climate crisis.
The demands of the Climate Strike this Friday, September 20, include respect for indigenous land and sovereignty. We’ve seen vicious government and corporate attacks against the Standing Rock Water Protectors protesting the Dakota Access (oil) Pipeline in our own country; and similar attacks against indigenous activists trying to protect their home in the Amazon. We have seen the injustice against Aboriginal people in Australia, whose treaty rights are being ignored in order to sell their tribal lands to a coal mining corporation. All over the world, respect for indigenous people is set against resource extraction that degrades our planet. Indigenous people are among those whose survival is most affected by the changes to our planet, among those whose human rights are most threatened by the exploitative systems that got us in this mess, and among those who are most organized for resistance. The strike demands respect for their sovereignty.
The Climate Strike also demands “A transition that invests in prosperity for communities on the frontlines of poverty and pollution,” and “Welcoming those displaced by the … effects of the climate crisis, economic inequality, violence, and lack of opportunity.”
Again, those who are marginalized by disinvestment in their neighborhoods, by environmental racism, by working class jobs that expose them to toxins — leaders of these communities have been organizing for years, and have direct experience to share about what our society could do differently.
Refugees and migrants, people whose livelihoods or safety have been interrupted by climate crisis and by the operations of global capitalism that sees them as easy to sacrifice, their humanity and worth must be centered as we enter this new world of disruption and disaster.
Naomi Klein, in an interview with the Guardian newspaper, links the fear of environmental refugees with the resurgence of white supremacy and anti-immigrant nationalism, calling it “climate barbarism.”
Klein goes on to say that individual choices will not solve the climate crisis. She says we’ve been trained to think of ourselves as consumers before thinking of ourselves as humans. As humans, we need a chance to grieve together, to notice our feelings and process our experience, to connect face-to-face, to experience ourselves as living beings who are part of the natural world, and to band together for winnable struggles.
Now we are talking theological language again. How are we to relate to one another and to the living ecosystem of which we are a part? That is a spiritual question. How do we lament, make amends, and turn again toward right relationship? That is a religious question. How do we stay committed to our understanding of ourselves in community, not as isolated beings or lonely fighters against the world, but as responsible and responsive to that which is larger than ourselves? That is an eternal question.
It is time to reorganize our congregations, our communities, our governments so that right relationship with our planet and with human beings, starting with the most vulnerable among us, is more important than the values that underpin colonialism, extractivism, and endless consumption. I don’t have all the answers for how we do that, but I am planning to listen to the people who have been organizing for a long time across lines of geography, race, and class; to listen to people who build communities that take care of each other and move in solidarity with each other rather than trying to live single-issue lives (which Audre Lorde told us a long time ago was impossible); to listen to youth leaders, who will be dealing with this mess long after I am gone, and who are past ready to stop engaging in business as usual.
I don’t believe we can put our planet back to the way it was. I do believe that everything we do to mitigate the effects of climate change even a fraction of a percent matters, and that we have to move forward in a way that helps us care for and follow the lead of the people who are most vulnerable to the effects of climate crisis. I believe we can change how we understand what it means to be human.
For some of us, that is going to include participating in the Climate Strike, and in other direct actions. Others of us might organize to disrupt business as usual in other ways. We might sustain urban cooperative farms, or community canning kitchens, or networks of neighbors who check in when the for-profit healthcare system leaves people behind. We might participate in clothes closets or food gleaning projects or resource centers for reclaimed building materials. We are humans, not mere market units. Whatever we are doing to re-orient our society toward climate justice, whether that is advocacy or care giving or developing new ideas, let us do it in community, remembering that to be human is to be in relationship.
The challenge facing us is vast. Our response must be on the same scale, and it must be infused with compassion and humility. We are called to transformation. Let’s follow this calling together. So be it. Blessed be. Amen.