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Faith and the Environment
Address as Prepared for Delivery
to the Religion Communicators Council
By Dr. Bob Edgar
Indianapolis, Indiana
April 24, 2003

Greetings to all the members of the Religion Communicators Council gathered here today for your annual meeting. I want to applaud you for the work you do individually and as a group to promote excellence in the communication of religious faith and values. I also understand that you are an interfaith organization that encourages understanding among religious groups. Your work in this area has never been more important than it is today. May God bless all your efforts.

As general secretary of the National Council of Churches, one of the best parts of my job is getting to know wonderful sisters and brothers of all faiths as I travel around the country. In fact, I have come to this meeting in Indianapolis by a circuitous but very rewarding route-one that has relevance for our topic today on faith and the environment.

I’ve just come from a visit with the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, where I had a tour of their newly renovated motherhouse just south of Detroit. And when I say renovation, we’re not talking about new curtains and a coat of paint.

The sisters have overseen the transformation of a 376,000-square-foot building that was constructed in 1932 into an earth-friendly, sustainable structure. They’ve just won a well-deserved EPA award in the category of "community development and redevelopment" for their effort, which is the largest residential project of its kind. Imagine a building that retains its historic character with all the wonderful woodwork, but it’s heated and cooled with a geo-thermal system that draws on the earth’s underground heat. And behind the house are three acres of wetlands that have been created to receive used water and cleanse it before it is cycled back into the house. The sisters have said they wanted their house to be kind to the earth.

It’s pretty amazing. It also a microcosm of what could happen globally when we fully realize that God’s earth, our home, is a unique community of life. If we fail to care for our individual homes, the roof or the plumbing can spring leaks. If we neglect our earthly home, the leaks become floods and other calamities caused by global warming and toxic waste. We need to protect our home and restore it.

I have no doubt that the idea to create wetlands behind the motherhouse owes something to the work of the late John Tillman Lyle. He was a leading thinker in the area of ecological design: creating landscapes that function like natural eco-systems. I knew him when he headed the Center for Regenerative Studies at the University of Pomona.

We in the faith community have our own form of centers for regenerative studies-places where we delve deeply into our faith and what it has to say about protecting and healing the environment-what has become widely known as creation care.

One of the centers where regenerative thinking is taking place is the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, in which the National Council of Churches is one of four founding members. The Partnership has taken a major role in organizing this event today, along with the National Council of Churches Communication Commission, and I want to take a moment now to recognize them for their work on today’s program.

In addition to the National Council of Churches, the Partnership includes the U.S. Catholic Conference, the Coalition on Environment and Jewish Life, and the Evangelical Environmental Network. The partnership works because we have something in common, in that our care for the earth is a part of who we are as religious people. It also works because each of the four partners expresses that care in their own unique way.

The partnership is ten years old, and in that short span has accomplished much. It has commissioned scholarly studies on faith and the environment. It has equipped clergy and lay people to become involved. It has also launched public policy campaigns and much more.

These achievements come out of a renewed interest in faith and the environment, or as theologian Larry Rasmussen calls it, "earth-friendly religion," which is our topic today. Earth -friendly religion really came into its own in the 1990s, although it has longer roots. Today, regenerative work is being done in so many places.

People of faith have accompanied the journey from the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992 to the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg last year. The Ecumenical Patriarchate, to which Orthodox Christians globally look for spiritual leadership, issued a comprehensive statement on the environment and Orthodoxy in 1990. The World Council of Churches and their member communions, the Pope, the Parliament of the World’s Religions and others all have issued landmark statements.

In this climate, groups like Earth Ministry, based in Seattle, have sprung up that promote simple living over consumerism. They and others ask, Why not give up the "goods life" for life abundant? And for a most current example of work, the 2003 Earth Day Sunday materials have been made available to tens of thousands of congregations by the National Council of Churches Eco-Justice Working Group. Over the last decade the Working Group has played a key role in making the link between justice and the environment, and in cultivating awareness as well as communicating with public officials about the urgency of mitigating global climate change.

All this work is vibrant and growing-I can only touch on it today-but it still comes as a surprise to many people. They don’t necessarily connect faith and the environment. They don’t visualize green threads woven throughout the fabric of religious life.

As communicators, this poses a wide-open challenge to you -one that you may wish to explore, each in your own tradition. You do have some precedents. You may have known George Cornell in his lifetime. George was religion editor of the Associated Press and known nationally as the dean of religion writers. I have been told that George once said: "Creation was the only real news story. All the rest are follow-ups…follow-ups…"

Considering the challenge that you and that all of us face, I want to explore two basic questions that I think are of interest to religious communicators, people in the pews and the wider public.

First: Why should environmentalists or anyone who cares about the environment pay attention to what religious people think? And second: Why should people of faith pay attention to the environment?

In answer to the first question, Does it matter to anyone else what faith says about the environment? I would say unequivocally Yes!

It matters because of the power of religious ideas to shape life on earth including strong effects on the natural world. It is our religious worldview that tells us what value to place on the natural world and according to what values we may use Earth’s precious resources and myriad species. What other sphere is so comprehensive as religion, affecting every aspect of life? Other fields and disciplines tell us much about pieces of our world, but their scope is limited. How telling it is that if someone is completely caught up in one area of knowledge or skill we say that he or she is making a religion out of it.

Unless the power of religious faith is tapped, I believe that the environmental movement will fall far short of its goals, to the detriment of us all. But this is not at all to say that religion should serve the goals of the environmental movement. There is something deeper here that says that care of creation is essentially a spiritual, moral and ethical issue. We can move from the religious ground of our being to gather the scientific, environmental, and social expertise needed to protect and heal creation and to make alliances with mature environmentalism.

The moral and spiritual vision is primary, while the science is necessary but not sufficient. Dr. David Orr, who chairs Oberlin’s Environmental Studies Program, has pointed out that it was Ph.D.s and highly trained engineers who designed the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Need I say more?

Our second question: Why should people of faith pay attention to the environment?

Well certainly there is one reason that we share with all humanity. We should pay attention because the environment is in crisis and threatens human society as we know it. We hear that so often, however, that surely some of us are jaded. We’ve been hearing it at least since Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring way back in 1962 and still we are not fully mobilized. It takes a stronger and stronger wake up call to rouse us. I opened my eyes wide when I heard such a warning expressed by Daniel Maguire, a Professor of Ethics in the Theology Department of Marquette University, who has written extensively about faith that is concerned about consumption, population, and the environment. He simply says, "If current trends continue, we will not."

We should also pay attention to the environment because our faith impels us to do so. That mandate has always existed in our sacred writings and moral teachings, but until the last decade or so it has not been a topic of wide conversation. So, what faith says about the environment is not really new. What is new is the dawning realization that faith speaks a word of hope in the midst of the environmental crisis. Or to use another metaphor, what faith says about the natural world has been in our peripheral vision but now it turns our head. We focus on the spiritual resources that have been given to us and that can help us to come through this crisis.

This awakening is very refreshing when you consider that religion is often perceived to have worsened the environmental crisis in years past, particularly by fomenting destructive warfare-or by making people otherworldly in their outlook. With our eyes fixed on heaven, do we stumble over the land, never heeding its condition? Contrast that with Wendell Berry’s famous remark that you can only care for as much land as you can walk.

Faith is sometimes said to be concerned with the relationships of human beings to God and to each other, cutting the rest of creation out of the divine loop. Or we as human beings are seen as more special than the rest of creation and given divine right of dominion over it.

Religion is said to view the world as corrupt. As a Christian I think especially of the Apocalypse as described in Revelation, the victory of the church over the world and the vision of "a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and earth had passed away and the sea was no more." (Rev. 21:1) The real point of that closing vision is that the human city (symbolized by Jerusalem) will again become like the Garden of Eden. This message of redemption has certainly been misinterpreted all too often, leading to an attitude that makes Earth the ultimate disposable.

And it is not only Christians who sometimes view the world as corrupt or who devalue it. In other faiths there are schools of thought--teachings and methods-focused on withdrawing from the sufferings of the world.

All this and more is said of religion, and much of it may be true and/or have a basis in history. But being dynamic, all-encompassing and life-giving, faith has a way of awakening us to our responsibilities in the here and now. Today, people of many faiths on six continents are searching their traditions and finding there what is needed to respond to the environmental crisis in ways that serve both ecology and justice.

And what does our faith say to us? I want to offer just a few examples from among the world’s faith traditions. And I do this in all humility, not as a scholar of comparative religion, but to take hope from our commonalities. Each faith tradition has its own integrity; each one of us lives faithful to his or her tradition, and yet increasingly we recognize our common ground, our common values and the fact that we must preserve the earth, our common home-sharing more equitably and more carefully in all the good gifts God has provided for our use.

Monotheist religions affirm that God cares about the well-being of everykind, not only humankind; the divine purpose is to redeem the whole creation.

Participants in the National Religious Partnership for the Environment have agreed to a remarkable Judeo-Christian Affirmation on Environmental Stewardship that encompasses commonly held concepts of a Creator God who loves and cares for all creatures and finds all creation to be "good." This affirmation also speaks of the calling God has set before human beings to be earthkeepers (Gen. 2:15) or stewards for the rest of creation. It refers to our failings in that calling and our new resolve "to make our homes, faith communities and our societies centers for creation’s care and renewal, healing the damaged fabric of the creation which God entrusted to us."

So, too, in Islam, the concept of God’s creation is very important. Muslims share with others in the Abrahamic faith traditions the wonderful story of the Garden of Eden. The telling of that story differs among Islamic, Christian and Jewish renditions, but we share the central theme that God-that Allah-has created everything and therefore everything is sacred. There are many verses from the Koran, and from the statements by the Prophet, to be kind to animals, to the rivers, to the air, and to avoid abusing the fertile valleys. There is a duty in Islam to protect God’s handiwork.

Baha’i sacred writings include this passage: Nature is God’s will and is its expression in and through the contingent world. It is a dispensation of Providence ordained by the Ordainer, the All Wise. The earth is but one country and mankind its citizens."

The Baha’is’ emphasis on unity undergirds their activities at the United Nations and elsewhere to improve cooperation on the environment and other issues. Oneness, they point out, is critical to the establishment of sustainable development in the world.

Meanwhile, the world’s indigenous peoples have a spiritual heritage that is rooted in the earth, cares deeply for place, and values animals as kin.

The East Asian religions -Confucianism and Daoism-seek to harmonize self- community, nature, and heaven in their complementary interrelationships. Positive expressions of environmental responsibility can also be found in the ancient religions of South Asian origin - Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. They feature an appreciation for the continuity of all life, an ethic of non-harming, and the ascetic ideal of a simple life.

A Hindu prayer for peace from the Atharva Veda offers this plea:

"Supreme Lord, Let there be peace in the sky and in the atmosphere, peace in the plant world and in the forests; Let the cosmic powers be peaceful; let Brahma be peaceful; Let there be undiluted and fulfilling peace everywhere."

Faith moves people to act in relation to the environment, in ways that are innovative and ways that are traditional. I think, for example, of my friend the Rev. Sally Bingham of the Episcopal Church’s Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. At first, you might not think that such a thing as the deregulation of electricity would be high on the cathedral’s agenda. But Sally is the environmental minister at Grace and she saw deregulation as an opportunity for Episcopal churches to come together and use their buying power to negotiate with energy suppliers that use renewable resources. The result: Episcopal Power and Light and a way to ease the burden of pollution on the earth. And there are people like Sally at work in creative ways in congregations and ecumenical and interfaith groups across the country.

I think of the ancient Orthodox tradition of blessing the waters every year at Epiphany. I think of the Jewish Sabbath, when Jews cease all productive work. That not only renews the observant individual. It also is interpreted as a weekly reminder that there are strict limits on the human right to produce energy and goods from nature’s resources. I think of traditions of fasting have always had relevance for reflecting on the fact that rich or poor, we are all God’s people. How do we fast now in the awareness of levels of consumption in the industrialized world that are unparalleled in human history? And there is so much more that could be said.

I believe there is a handful of world issues that present the possibility for people of faith everywhere to make strong common cause. Certainly the environmental crisis is one. The others are issues of peace and war and of poverty. And of course they are all related.

I have not mentioned the war in Iraq-and the build-up to war that riveted our attention for months. But it is never far from my mind or I suspect from yours. In this setting it would be more than appropriate to talk about the links between the Iraq war and the environment. War has causes and consequences that relate to the environment.

Probably most of us have seen the placards carried by peace demonstrators that say "How did our oil get under their sand?" Other rationales for going to war with Iraq have been advanced. Perhaps the so-called "smoking gun" will still turn up. There is more than a broad hint that larger geo-political aims are involved. But who can credibly argue that some degree of control over oil was not a factor in our going to war? In general, oil greases the machinery of war. For example, fuel-inefficiency in the cars we drive not only pollutes and destroys God's creation; it also contributes heavily to our dependency on oil and thus fuels war and conflict in many areas of the world. Nigeria is electing a new government this week, but you may recall a former Nigerian government’s execution several years ago of leaders of a grassroots movement opposing the activities of international oil companies in their country. Oil is an issue in Africa, in Nigeria and most certainly in Sudan. It is of course a factor in the Middle East and other troubled areas around our world, a world that grows ever more closely interrelated economically, politically and socially.

That reality, along with devastating impacts on the environment, drives interfaith efforts for fuel efficiency and other energy-related campaigns. You may have heard of the effort last November when an interfaith delegation traveled to Detroit to approach the auto industry on improving fuel-efficiency standards. Our group represented the National Council of Churches, the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, and the Evangelical Environmental Network. Each of us speaks to our constituents in our own idiom, but at that November meeting there was a mad-cap interfaith moment. It occurred when the Catholic sisters, whom I mentioned at the beginning of my talk, chauffeured our delegation to meetings in a fleet of energy-efficient Prius cars. So you had the sisters driving a rabbi, an Evangelical leader and a Methodist minister in cars festooned with signs that asked "What Would Jesus Drive?"

I also mentioned the issue of poverty. Time does not permit me to explore this topic at any length. But I think we are all aware of the links that chain poverty and environmental degradation together. Our holy books call us to defend the poor and do justice to the needy. Yet it is the most vulnerable who get sick and die from air pollution. Children in racial/ethnic ghettos suffer more from asthma and lead poisoning than do other children. It is poor people who are most negatively affected by toxic dumps, and folks living on undesirable low-lying plots of land who are wiped out by storms and floods that increase in ferocity with the climb in global temperature.

The current Administration has given us the term axis of evil, by which it means Iraq, Iran and North Korea. I believe that an axis of evil exists, but it is not these three countries that define it. William Sloane Coffin, whom perhaps the nation knows best for his activism during the Vietnam War, is still a light in the peace movement. He said recently that the real axis of evil is:


How will the faith community respond?


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