Category Archives: Faith

Confessions of a Global Warming Alarmist

Last week, I was sobered to read a note of sincere concern from a close friend who – like me – belongs to the American evangelical movement. In reference to my increasingly shrill warnings about the consequences of climate inaction, this person wrote, in effect: “The only note you can sound right now is the Chicken Little note.”

Chicken Little. The sky is falling. Global warming alarmist.

Well, let’s be thankful for all God’s blessings, however they might sometimes seem to sting: It is rare to find a friend who loves you enough to tell you the truth as he or she sees it. But if your friends don’t share your sense of alarm, it’s also important to recognize this truth: Like my honest friend, they probably believe you’re a little nuts. You’re a climate fundamentalist. Of course, they are kind enough to tolerate you – as one would with a conspiracy theorist or a grouchy old uncle. But you’re still an alarmist.

As you alone know, they don’t recognize the agony you’ve gone through not to yield to the hopelessness of the unfolding data. This is the tortured debate among climate communication experts: How do you speak the scientific truth without causing everyone to simply give up and wait for the end to come? You see it in virtually all climate reports. Regardless of the factual content, the final narrative will always be the same: We can still solve this! The time to act is now!

What’s the point of reporting the factual implications if they push us over the brink into tomorrow-we-die fatalism? So you try to soften the implications of your words. And yet, your witness seems impossibly dour to people who don’t spend their time digesting the implications of our abuse of the creation, as you do. Your friends and your family think you’re Chicken Little.

So, with my friend’s letter in hand, I read with renewed interest an article in last week’s New Yorker magazine by Pulitzer-Prize winner Elizabeth Kolbert, dealing with the technical matter of “carbon dioxide removal” or “negative emissions” – the mostly theoretical idea of sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere and storing it safely forever. (Note: This isn’t the same as carbon capture and sequestration [CCS], which pulls the carbon out of smokestacks. This is full-bore geo-engineering, where vast infrastructure parses through the entire atmosphere to hunt down and trap excess carbon, and store it away forever out of reach of the earth’s climate systems.) This is truly radical stuff.

Reading about “negative emissions,” my interest was piqued, not by the technology, cost or logistical hurdles, but by the unspoken hopelessness of the facts that served as the backdrop for the discussion. We are now discussing “negative emissions,” not because it’s a terrific – or even feasible – idea, but because we can’t imagine a survivable world without this technology. Consider with me a few of the facts presented by Kolbert:

“Catastrophe,” while once cited in hyperbole, now occupies a prominent place in the scientific lexicon. Kolbert recounts the facts: “This past April, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reached a record four hundred and ten parts per million. The amount of CO2 in the air now is probably greater than it’s been at any time since the mid-Pliocene, three and a half million years ago, when there was a lot less ice at the poles and sea levels were sixty feet higher. This year’s record will be surpassed next year, and next year’s the year after that. Even if every country fulfills the pledges made in the Paris climate accord—and the United States has said that it doesn’t intend to—carbon dioxide could soon reach levels that, it’s widely agreed, will lead to catastrophe, assuming it hasn’t already done so.

“As the world warmed, it started to change, first gradually and then suddenly. By now, the globe is at least one degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than it was [at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution], and the consequences are becoming ever more apparent. Heat waves are hotter, rainstorms more intense, and droughts drier. The wildfire season is growing longer, and fires, like the ones that recently ravaged Northern California, more numerous. Sea levels are rising, and the rate of rise is accelerating.”

In light of what we have already done, there is nothing we can do to stop the earth from warming at least to levels targeted as dangerous by every country under the Paris Acord: “Meanwhile, still more warming is locked in. There’s so much inertia in the climate system, which is as vast as the earth itself, that the globe has yet to fully adjust to the hundreds of billions of tons of carbon dioxide that have been added to the atmosphere in the past few decades. It’s been calculated that to equilibrate to current CO2 levels the planet still needs to warm by half a degree [in addition to one degree already in the books]. And every ten days another billion tons of carbon dioxide are released. Last month, the World Meteorological Organization announced that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere jumped by a record amount in 2016.”

Few voices are telling us how radical are the personal and societal changes needed to salvage a world whose climate can support its species, including humanity: “When the I.P.C.C. went looking for ways to hold the temperature increase under two degrees Celsius, it found the math punishing. Global emissions would have to fall rapidly and dramatically—pretty much down to zero by the middle of this century. (This would entail, among other things, replacing most of the world’s power plants, revamping its agricultural systems, and eliminating gasoline-powered vehicles, all within the next few decades.) Alternatively, humanity could, in effect, go into hock. It could allow CO2 levels temporarily to exceed the two-degree threshold—a situation that’s become known as ‘overshoot’—and then, via negative emissions, pull the excess CO2 out of the air.”

The odds against us are more daunting than climate communication experts will ever advise us to admit: “The I.P.C.C. considered more than a thousand possible scenarios. Of these, only a hundred and sixteen limit warming to below two degrees, and of these a hundred and eight involve negative emissions. In many below-two-degree scenarios, the quantity of negative emissions called for reaches the same order of magnitude as the ‘positive’ emissions being produced today.”

Please, my friends, let that sink in. More than one thousand scientific models have been run. Only sixteen conclude that humanity can keep global warming to two degrees Celsius. Of those sixteen, only eight reach that conclusion without reliance on massive, arguably-fictional geo-engineering technologies that actually suck up and hide the pollution that we are emitting today. And, even those assume immediate Herculean efforts at every national and sub-national level – efforts that we are still refusing to adopt as a country, and perhaps as a world.

For me, this dismal narrative explains, to a considerable degree, the renewed interest in biblical lamentation among young people of faith. The prophets and psalmists saw the Babylonian exile coming; others wept in captivity as they remembered their homeland; they raised their complaint to God with bitter tears. They maintained profound hope rooted in God’s faithfulness; but sunny, can-do optimism is nowhere to be found.

And today, you share much with those prophets and psalmists. You have tasted God’s grace in creation and redemption; you have placed your hope in his love. Yet you also know that God’s love is not a magical antidote to suffering in this world, whether personal or societal. Genocide, starvation, famine, pandemic and flood afflict all of mankind, in virtually every age, regardless of faith commitments.

And yet, you pray “thy will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven.” And in this age, that might make you an alarmist, like me. We must resist the arrogance of dogmatic certainty. But some things are terrifyingly clear. Our walk of faith today is to work and to speak for those who cannot speak. And finally, to pray for faith to believe that this world’s Maker will ultimately be just, despite the calamity we are bringing upon his beloved planet.

 

Read Elizabeth Kolbert’s article here: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/11/20/can-carbon-dioxide-removal-save-the-world

How to Really Help Hurricane Harvey Victims

“American Christians are incredibly responsive when it comes to acts of mercy. You know, famines, epidemics and floods – we can be really generous.” Sitting across the lunch table from me in Philadelphia, evangelical theologian Ron Sider smiled kindly as he dwelt on the heartfelt compassion of our fellow evangelicals.

But then a more somber cloud darkened the Christian justice icon’s brow. “When it comes to structural injustice,” he said, “the economic, environmental and social systems that lurk just below the surface of human suffering – we’re not nearly so good at that.”

Ron Sider, theologian, author, activist and founder of Evangelicals for Social Action

One of the happiest associations of my life has been with Sider, a lifelong campaigner for gospel justice and founder of Evangelicals for Social Action. Like hundreds of other bit-players in his orbit, I’ve always been amazed at his gentleness toward those whom God has called him to rouse from comfortable religious slumber. But he was definitely onto something: If we evangelicals could be persuaded to care about the underlying causes of calamity, the world could be transformed for good – on earth as it is in Heaven.

As I watch the news pour in from Houston today, Sider’s words come back to me, in real time. I am dying to get in on the tangible relief. Where can I give? There’s the Red Cross, of course. (http://rdcrss.org/2xvQKd8) And there’s the Salvation Army. (http://bit.ly/2vtIdF2) I can help! Even $25 will make a difference!

My heart is pounding. I want to do something! And so do millions of other Christians. We will give. And in the coming months, we’ll pack up crow bars and hammers, and help tear out the mold and ruined wiring – just like Sider said we would.

But his words still haunt my thoughts: What about the CAUSES of Houston’s suffering?

Decades ago, Ron Sider helped to found the country’s largest evangelical network advocating for urgent climate action. He knew then, as we all know now, that virtually every coastal city will be condemned to Houston’s present fate, if we don’t overcome denial and act to preserve the earth’s climate systems. And we were recently making serious progress. We were reducing our carbon footprints. Our nation had a Clean Power Plan for low-carbon electricity. In our future were clean-running cars, and mining that cleaned up after itself. Our seas and our atmosphere were going to be nobody’s free dumping ground. And we joined with every other nation in the world in a global effort under the Paris Accord.

Today, roughly six months into the Trump presidency, every one of those initiatives is in shambles, the wreckage left by a President who has called climate change a “Chinese hoax;” an EPA Administrator who has made a career of fighting against climate action on behalf of oil drillers; and an Interior Secretary intent on throwing open Federal lands to coal mining and oil, just when our world is glutted with way too much of the stuff.

What’s the greatest threat to beleaguered Houston today? As bad as things are now – and they are awful – they could be unimaginably horrible if we don’t stop the madness. And the chaos will almost certainly be extended to Norfolk, Tampa, Boston, Miami, New York and New Orleans. (Not to bore you with Dhaka, Kolkata, Lagos, Amsterdam, London, Ho Chi Minh City, Manila, Guangzhou and Shanghai.)

And so, if you’re willing to take a word from the social conscience of the American evangelical church, Ron Sider would surely applaud your impulse to give to the Red Cross and the Salvation Army – and to sign up with All Hands Volunteers. (https://www.hands.org/) … BUT…

Let me suggest – as he would – that you also consider joining the fight against the underlying causes: the sea level rise and the heat-driven extreme weather that have caused the National Weather Service to declare Harvey “unprecedented & beyond anything experienced.”

Unfortunately, today you can’t really fight the underlying causes in Congress. Of course, the White House isn’t listening either. But the COURTS are. And that’s where the Environmental Defense Fund (http://bit.ly/2gndzvl), EarthJustice (http://bit.ly/2xvK0eX) and even the Natural Resources Defense Council (http://on.nrdc.org/20F006z) operate. If you care for people like those in Houston, these three entities may do as much good – and perhaps much more – than the bearers of tangible relief like food and shelter.

For example, EDF is measuring how much methane (a powerful climate-warming gas) escapes from every kind of industry; and it’s fighting the President’s efforts to kill the Clean Power Plan. EarthJustice is fighting pipelines that threaten indigenous people and rules seeking to block the progress toward clean fuels. NRDC is fighting against the dirtiest fossil-fuel projects, and supporting the transition to cleaner energy sources.

So, my friends, please, go ahead. The Red Cross is working around the clock, and they need your help. But maybe, you might save some of your giving for those who labor in the courtrooms as well? Today, they may be the last, best hope for a country mired in catastrophic climate denial — and for the good folks of the Texas Coast.

My Spiritual Crisis … and Yours

People undergo crises of faith all the time. Personal suffering and loss; exposure to science and competing philosophies; misconduct by religious authorities – these and more will mark the faith of virtually every serious believer. Perhaps we come through them with a wiser, deeper, and stronger love for our Maker and our neighbor. Or perhaps we find ourselves on some spiritual off-ramp, headed toward some place called “the Nones.”

I find it fascinating how few people are willing to talk about faith crises until long after the fact, when they are safely receding in the rear view. But in America today, I wonder how any serious Christian can avoid the tectonic forces assaulting our faith. Either we are busily redacting from our religious lexicons all those “good news to the poor” and “least of these my brothers” narratives of Jesus; or we are wondering what the heck has happened to our religious tribe. Or perhaps a third response: putting our heads down, closing our eyes, and soldiering on with as little thought as possible.

Why all the gloom, you ask? Well, it’s that “81 percent” thing.

Remember? That’s how much of the white evangelical church in America voted for Donald Trump. The debate goes on whether the polls properly identified people of “real” Christian faith. But the data is pretty unambiguous: a huge majority of white people who identify with my Christian faith voted for this president.

Now, my faith affirms that something really special occurs within each person who is “in Christ,” like I claim to be. They have become new creations. “The old has gone, and the new has come!” So declares St. Paul in his famous discourse on rebirth and reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:17-19). Sure, we’re still sinners. But something dramatic and redemptive has happened to us. By God’s grace, we’re going to hold tightly to the ethic of Jesus. We’re going to love God and our fellow man; we’re going to lay down our lives for others; we’re going to see our neighbor in the face every stranger; she is going to look to us like the image of God.

That’s the theory, at least.

And yet, somehow, we voted for Donald J. Trump. In droves.

How Were We Okay With It?

Do I need to remind us of what we saw? For five solid years, Trump stoked racist and sectarian passions by swearing that the first black president wasn’t even a citizen. Instead, he was African. Worse, he might even be a Muslim. Trump’s “people,” he swore, “cannot believe what they’re finding.” When the sitting president succumbed to the humiliation and produced his official birth records, Trump spent four years calling it a fraud. And then he finally called off the dogs: nothing found; never mind.

We white Christians were okay with that. Somehow. But how, I wonder?

Then, the candidate came down the escalator, launching his campaign by calling Mexicans “rapists” and “morally corrupt” losers. Then he promised to deport the desperate refugees from the four-year Syrian war. Then he promised to deport eleven million undocumented fathers, mothers and children, tearing apart innumerable families. But we were okay with that too. Somehow.

Then he promised to ban all Muslims from entering the country. And then he proposed a Muslim registry, evoking chilled shudders from those who remember the ethnic genocides of the last century. Then he ridiculed a disabled journalist and insulted war heroes. We might have wished for better manners. But we were still basically okay with that. Somehow.

And then, women. They were fat pigs. Their value was measured by a number. If they challenged him, he called them menstrual. And he boasted of the power to grab them by their genitals. But, after some fleeting second thoughts, we found a way to hang in there. You know, us “new creations” in Christ. But how?

Then, he stoked violence among his crowds of angry white men. They chanted “Lock her up!”, while he promised to pay the legal costs of anyone assaulting protesters. “I’d like to punch him in the face,” he told his mob, lamenting the passing of the old days when protesters would be “carried out on a stretcher.” He boasted that he could shoot somebody in the middle of 5th Avenue and not lose one of our votes. And amazingly, he was right. We were okay with all of this. Somehow.

When the world’s most eminent Christian, Pope Francis, called such conduct “not Christian,” we paid no heed. When the world’s most dangerous dictator endorsed him, we admired the strongman’s respect.  When he was forced to pay $25 million to defrauded students, we called it “business.” When he cast racial and ethnic aspersions on the Hispanic judge overseeing that case, we shut our eyes tight. When he undermined faith in our electoral system by calling it “rigged” with massive voter fraud, we gave him the benefit of the doubt. And when he became the first candidate since Richard Nixon to refuse to disclose his tax filings? Meh.

And then…. And then, we voted for him. In huge numbers.

How Do We Remain Silent?

You might think that that would be the heart of the story: We – we white Christians – put into office a man most closely representing the antithesis of our supposed Master, Jesus of Nazareth. But it didn’t end there. Because now, he is president. He is president, and we are silent.

We have been silent as he has muzzled government scientists, and censored their websites. Silent when he ordered a Muslim and refugee ban. Silent when he attacked the judicial independence of courts that have stood in his way. As he has fired top law enforcement officers, and kept in place a National Security Advisor known to have lied about ties to Russia.  As he has cancelled environmental reviews, and ordered that highly controversial pipelines be built. Silent when we learned that he asked the FBI Director to drop an investigation into appointees and demanded his personal loyalty. And when that failed, we were silent when he fired him.

In Ohio, preachers prayed against “Satanic attacks.”

We’ve remained silent through it all. Somehow.

He rescinded some of the most important environmental safeguards in place for our country and world: the Clean Power Plan, the Waters of the United States rule, the Methane rule, and the CAFE auto-efficiency standards. Then he made us the only nation in the world (other than Assad’s Syria) to renege on the global Paris Accord, vital to preserving a livable climate for every country. Then he abandoned the two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Then he proposed putting our national parks up for sale. But we kept silent.

And we kept our silence through the sleaze. When fact checkers told us that seven out of ten presidential statements were lies (eight if you include half-truths), we held our tongues. When he treated the Boy Scouts like a modern incarnation of the Hitlerjugend, and told them raunchy stories of sexual debauchery, not a peep from us. He appointed his family members to high office, and they used those offices to enrich the family businesses. Maybe we said a little prayer, or something.

Then he championed plans to deprive 23 million poor and older Americans of health care while cutting taxes on the rich by $800 billion. When that effort stumbled, he advocated throwing 32 million Americans off of health care by “repeal without replacement.” Then he appointed a panel to search for evidence of voter fraud, since he lost the popular vote. Then he prioritized friendship with the Russian dictatorship, and refused to reassure our democratic allies of our commitment to mutual defense. And he labeled inquiries into Russian electoral interference a “witch hunt.” And we were still silent.

Through it all, we are still silent.

What are the Consequences?

It’s tempting to imagine that our white American Christianity was in great shape prior to this train wreck; that we have suffered moral collapse in the span of only a year or two. But in fact, Donald Trump has not created the monster we now witness. Rather, his unapologetic crudeness and blatant disregard for the most minimal ethical standards have merely unleashed what was already there, waiting for someone to normalize our worst impulses. But it is now on display for all the world to see, awakening from remission with a vengeance.

Others have attempted to explain how this has happened to us. I will settle for something much less ambitious: I see three inevitable results of what we have become.

First, recall that Jesus told his followers to “let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). Note the connection: Good deeds, shining as light in darkness, result in faith on the part of many, and glory to God. But it follows that the opposite is also true. Allegiance with or acquiescence in evil – whether racism, xenophobia, scorn for the weak, lying, or violence – destroys faith, and mars God’s glory. We are now destroying faith. Many who would call themselves Christians are now on a path toward doubt, confusion, and ultimately rejection of a faith that appears to be in league with forces of hatred. The “Nones” are growing fast. We are at least part of the reason.

Second, in America, the name “Evangelical” has now lost any and all practical meaning. To argue otherwise is laughable to anyone not already part of my tribe. The very term means that we bear “good news.” Jesus launched his ministry on earth by adopting the term for himself: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach GOOD NEWS to the poor … the prisoners … the blind … the oppressed…” (Luke 4:18). He was the bearer of good news to the least of all people, the outcasts of the earth. And we had the honor of adopting the title. Evangelicals. Bearers of good news to the poor. Like Jesus.

Today, however, only the most credulous Americans can imagine the poor and oppressed greeting white “evangelicals” as bearers of anything other than Trump-like disdain and disregard. Without a message of good news, and with faith-destroying conduct, we have virtually assured the decline and eventual end of Christianity as a dominant influence upon our culture, other than as a fading memory.

Finally, the crisis of faith we have unleashed will certainly lead to an explosion of theological experimentation. I note that a number of thoughtful conservative religious commentators have bemoaned the apostasy of white Christianity in the age of Trump, as I have; but often their lament merely assumes that we have strayed off the narrow way in practice. The path of individualist, personal, other-worldly salvationism was just fine. Our creeds and confessions are spot on. But we ourselves made some mistakes along the way.

But this, of course, is absurd. How could it possibly be that people who read those texts daily and listen to those sermons weekly would have become more likely than their secular counterparts  – not even equally so – to worship at the altar of Babylon? No, this crisis of faith will lead to a new wave of fresh-minted seekers.

I don’t presume to offer theological alternatives. Only this: dismayed Christians will look in many directions to find a new spiritual reality – a faith that moves toward justice and reconciliation in a broken and unjust world. Many will wander in their search. This is inevitable.

During the campaign, Candidate Trump promised evangelical leaders – Falwell, Jeffress, Dobson and their fellow religious courtiers – “you’ll have great power to do good things. And religion will start going, instead of this way — I mean, Christianity, when you think of what’s happening, you look at the numbers … the power you have is so enormous.”

Well, it may have been clearer in person, hand gestures and all.

But you get the message: I’ll give you POWER! It was the second temptation of Jesus all over again: I will give you all authority, if you worship me! (You may recall that the Lord thought that was a lousy deal.) But we, my fellow evangelicals, we got the power, or as much of it as can be bestowed by the kingdom of Babylon. And what did it get us? If I’m right, it brought us near to the end of whatever faith we may have ever had. It cost us much of the remaining good news we had to offer. And it is now leading to a diaspora of seekers from our own pews.

So on a personal basis, how are you managing your crisis of faith? Are you reinventing Jesus so that he has nothing to say about hatred of other religions, refugees, the poor and marginalized? Or are you looking around at your brethren in confused anguish, wondering where you and they have gone wrong? Or, perhaps, are you keeping your head down – as the German resistance preacher Helmut Gollwitzer said – “in the stupid hope that everything will get better on its own without our having to become courageously involved ourselves?”

Friends, our faith is in crisis. Which kind of crisis is yours?

Was That Jesus I Saw on Independence Avenue?

The alarm went off at three. It seemed like I had hardly gotten to sleep. But Washington is a pretty fair hike from New Jersey, and Barbara and I – together with two dear friends – needed to be on the National Mall by ten. The Women’s March on Washington was waiting for us.

We could tell something special was brewing even before we crossed into Delaware. Every rest stop in New Jersey was packed with buses. Inside, women sporting pink knit hats were everywhere. Long lines of women snaked slowly into the women’s bathrooms – and the men’s as well. I learned, to my sorrow, that there would not be any real men’s rooms between New York and Washington.

By sunrise, we reached the northernmost station of the DC Metro rail system – usually a quiet spot with plenty of parking. We managed to find one of the remaining spaces for the car, and then squeezed into the station to find a sea of humanity slowly inching toward the dozen-odd ticket machines. Packed trains, packed sidewalks, packed avenues.  Crowds everywhere. Smiles everywhere. The air bristling with excitement.

Independence Avenue and the Mall were jammed from the Capitol to the Smithsonian

The members of our little band were Christians. Christian creation-care advocates for that matter. Coming out of our environmental silo to stand in solidarity with women who had endured a level of misogyny not seen in my lifetime.

We thought that we would be treated to a day full of “women’s issues.” So imagine our surprise as speakers and musicians raised their voices for vilified Muslims, immigrant families fearing being torn apart, the mothers of unarmed young black men gunned down by police. They spoke for climate change action. They spoke for sick people faced with losing their health care.

And, yes, they spoke for gender equity, equal pay, family leave, and access to women’s reproductive services. In my experience, when we come alongside the marginalized, we don’t get to pick and choose from an ideological menu. We had to be prepared to offer solidarity to those raising their voices against the darkness that threatens to engulf their lives – without adding all of our qualifications.

So where was Jesus Christ in all this? As a Christian, I wondered, as I prayed my way up Independence Avenue, where I would see his loving hand at work. We knew of nuns and friars who would be there. We heard some from the podium, in fact. But as we marched toward the Capitol, I looked around me for people of faith. Did God send more than than a few of us into this unnumbered throng?

Suddenly, up ahead I spied a cluster of banners with bible verses on them. Christians! Yes! And they even had their own loudspeaker system! But as we drew nearer, I caught my breath. Something was horribly wrong.

“Murderers!” “Shame on you!” “Murderers!” the loudspeaker thundered. The hateful speech was matched by their banners, now in full view. “Black Lives Matter Are Thugs.” “AIDS: Cure or Judgment?” “Got AIDS?” We hurried on past. We didn’t know what to say. We were ashamed.

The loudspeaker of hate kept going for hours. We could hear it blocks away, despite a crowd around us estimated at more than a half million souls. Around this pocket of condemnation, six or seven concentric circles of women had formed, chanting their own responses: “Love Trumps Hate!” “Black Lives Matter!” “God is Love!” It seems they spent their entire day in an uneven struggle to match amplified vituperation from the handful of religious prosecutors.

Daughter of Latino immigrants addresses the march

I’m afraid that this was what hundreds of thousands got to see of the Prince of Peace that day. This was their image of the Friend of Sinners – sinners like us. Screaming epithets at women marching for their vision of a better world.

No doubt, there were thousands of faithful Christians among our fellow marchers, acting in faith without religious display. But what might the non-Christian world have gleaned about Jesus at the march? Or at least, what did they learn about the kind of people they would have to become, should they ever decide to follow him?

I think that they would be surprised, if they ever read the biblical accounts of the real Jesus. The real Jesus defined his mission in the first sermon he ever preached. “The Spirit of the LORD is upon me,” he began, “to preach good news to the poor.” The poor would be Jesus’ people. But he added more: freedom for prisoners; sight for the blind; and release for the oppressed. The poor, the prisoner, the blind, the oppressed. Care for them would be the marks of his mission. (Luke 4:14-21)

After an election campaign that gave center stage to the darkest impulses of the American soul, I had hoped our presence would accomplish something redemptive. The women marching around me had endured a season stained by racism, xenophobia, sexual assault, lust and lechery, demonization of the press, military jingoism, torture, hatred of sojourners and a parallel universe of imaginary facts.

And we had hoped in some small way to offer the tiniest dose of healing to a world of people who can no longer recognize Jesus – Jesus of the losers, Jesus of the refugees, of the hungry, the sick and the abused.

Did we hope for too much? Maybe we did. But I cannot stop hoping.

Climate Orphans: What You Did For Fokandraza, You Did For Me

“As Donald Trump Denies Climate Change, These Kids Die of It.”

That’s the title of an article written last week by Nicholas Kristof, op-ed columnist for the New York Times. For the article and related video, Kristof travels to Madagascar, the enormous island off the coast of eastern Africa, pictured as a lush paradise in the popular animated children’s movie series. Now, southern Madagascar is little more than a desert wasteland. Major rivers are reduced to muddy puddles. Forests and farm fields are now dust spotted with cactus, where starving children nibble around sharp thorns to put something in their bellies.

So, meet two little boys, Fokandraza and Foriavi, among the millions now dubbed “climate orphans” – their parents having left long ago to find work and money in desperate hopes of feeding the family. They live with their aunt, who can’t afford to feed her own children, let alone Fokandraza and Foriavi.

“If I were smart, I’d go and find a better life,” says the starving boys’ aunt. “But these kids are so sweet, I can’t leave them.”

Kristof asks the boys: “Have you eaten anything today?”

Fokandraza’s stick-thin arms hang limply at his sides. “No.”

Kristof: “Have you drunk water today?”

“No.”

Foriavi can’t even stay awake during the interview.

Kristof: “I don’t blame the aunt. The situation is more my fault than hers. Here’s the paradox of climate change: It’s mainly caused by affluent people. People like us. And those who suffer the most are the poor and vulnerable.”

So maybe we don’t care all that much about climate change here in affluent America. Our president elect certainly doesn’t, and has promised to gut all global and national efforts to deal with the crisis. But now we know Fokandraza and Foriavi, the faces of a world facing runaway climate chaos.

Remember their names: Fokandraza and Foriavi. We will certainly hear them again, when the Son of Man comes again in his glory. “What you did for Fokandraza and Foriavi, you did for me. And what you did not do for them, you did not do for me.” (Adapted from Matthew 25: 31-46)

How will we answer, brothers and sisters? How will we answer?

What to do? For starters, go to the Climate Caretakers website and take the climate pledge — to learn, pray and act on climate. Every week, you’ll receive an email helping you in your prayers. This week, you’ll be praying for Fokandraza and Foriavi, and for Donald Trump.

Standing Rock Reflections: On Courage, Cowardice and Criminal Activity

Earlier this month, I returned from several wintry days at the Oceti Sakowin Camp of the Standing Rock Sioux in North Dakota. What might drive an aging Jersey boy from the comforts of home to the frozen buttes of the Dakotas? Pretty simple, actually. I was delivering warm clothing and supplies, praying with those who call themselves “water protectors,” and to serving in any way that the Lakota elders might direct.

It sounds so mundane, doesn’t it? Prayer, warm clothes and a bit of labor. There was a problem, however. It was – I was told – a criminal enterprise. I was on my way to commit a crime.

There could be penalties for my misdeeds. But I could deal with them, I thought: a few thousand dollars of fines, a couple days or so in jail, some spots on my record. I’ve been arrested before. Not serious problems. I’m old, and white. In America I’d be okay.

But in the days leading up to my visit, reports began to surface of brutal police tactics. Militarized units were training water cannons in sub-freezing winter conditions on unarmed women and men in prayer. Pepper spray, tear gas and rubber bullets were being fired at them. A concussion grenade nearly blew the arm off of a young woman, who, like me, had come from afar to support the resistance. As I felt my way across South Dakota through bitter winds and unremitting snowfall, I began to picture myself under the boot of the men in black Kevlar.

Police fire tear gas point-blank at water protectors in river ceremony.

North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple had just issued an executive order mandating evacuation of the very encampment that I was struggling to reach. Not only that, his order threatened criminal penalties against anyone heading for the evacuation zone, or even “encouraging” others to remain. Word was out on Facebook that the county sheriff was fining incoming helpers $1,000 for carrying supplies to the camps. My car’s trunk was packed with scores of winter hats, gloves, thermal socks and more. This would be hard to explain, I was sure.

I told myself that Gov. Dalrymple’s order couldn’t really be legal in a free society. It’s a crime to bring help to unarmed people? Impossible. Furthermore, some of the encampments were actually legal, located on the Standing Rock Reservation. Who could say whether I was headed to a legal camp, or an illegal one?

I began to rehearse the denials in my head. “I’m going to the Sacred Stone Camp of the Standing Rock Sioux. That’s perfectly legal,” I muttered to the silence of the car around me.

It was totally unconvincing. Maybe I was lying. Maybe I really would opt for the legal encampment. How could I know for sure?

My musings were suddenly shattered by the flashing strobe of police lights in the rear-view. Oh God. Here we go. The tires crunched as I pulled over into the thick snow on the shoulder.

“You know, sir, you were doing 43 in a 30 zone?”

“No officer. I’m sorry. I guess I lost my concentration.”

Speeding. A mere traffic violation! I sighed deeply with relief. $85 and a ten-minute delay, and I was on my way again. Of course! This is still SOUTH Dakota. They’re not really gunning for us down here, are they?

I stopped for gas and a sandwich. Rumor had it that these places were on the lookout for people like me. Strangers with coastal accents and out-of-state plates. They would be sending word to the local sheriff. I came and went quickly, and spoke to no one.

Several hours later, I made it to the Standing Rock encampments. Tents, teepees and sheds stretched as far as I could see. My first stop was Sacred Stone, the legal camp. The entrance was down a steep embankment, glazed in ice from a three-day blizzard. I looked at my rental car, a small two-wheel-drive sedan, and then back at the chute into Sacred Stone.

“Is there easier access anywhere else?” I asked the gatekeepers. They pointed to the far side of the bridge across the Cannon Ball River.

“Oceti Sakowin. The main camp.”

I figured I’d never make it back up the slippery bank out of Sacred Stone. So I pulled slowly across the bridge. I was now breaking the law. Trespassing on Army Corps land. I was going where Governor Dalrymple had forbidden. Oceti Sakowin, the illegal camp, was now my home.

Unarmed Standing Rock protesters shot with water cannons in sub-freezing conditions.

On the ridge ahead of me, the reddish glare of construction lights cast an eerie glow on the low clouds and relentless snow. I was at the very edge of the Dakota Access Pipeline construction. This was the front line of resistance. Helicopters crossed the camp overhead, and returned to re-cross every few minutes.

After dark, I huddled alone in my tiny tent to the voice of the local sheriff on his loudspeaker. “You are breaking the law. You say you are peaceful, but you don’t know the definition of ‘peace.’ You can’t be peaceful while you defy the law. You are lawbreakers.”

North Dakota’s incarnation of Tokyo Rose carried on this dystopian serenade for about an hour. But he was armed, in the dark, and I had no idea how near.

I have been reading a book titled “Preaching in Hitler’s Shadow,” a fascinating account of Christian pastors in the Third Reich who stood up to the Nazis. Some survived the war. Many did not. Their bravery is deeply inspiring to me. I had assumed that bravery comes naturally.

It does not. As I lay in my tent, my spirit wavered. Am I really a criminal? Why did I decide to cross the Cannon Ball, anyway? Do I really have to confront the pepper spray and rubber bullets tomorrow? Can’t I help in some, you know, more appropriate way? After all, I’m way older than most people here.

Most conservative Christians I know take a dim view of law-breaking resistance. We are okay with the rebels of an earlier age. John Adams, Paul Revere and George Washington – we practically idolize these icons of our nation. And we have no quarrel with Corrie Ten Boom and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, as they stood against the murderous Nazis. But Rev. Martin Luther King, or Dr. Daniel Ellsberg, or Fr. Daniel Berrigan – these contemporary outlaws of conscience – make us a little uneasy. Don’t they know about “submitting themselves to governing authorities?” This is a democracy; why don’t they change things from the inside?

And yet, even a cursory reading of the Gospels confronts us with a Savior who, time and again, paid little heed to the prevailing law. He violated the Sabbath; he dined with traitors; he proclaimed a kingdom in direct challenge to the emperor of his age. He even declared that he had a counter-weapon that would overwhelm the power of tyrants: You may think you can kill me, but I will rise again from the dead. Your one special trick – the power to kill – has now been rendered obsolete.

Is it really surprising that virtually all of his disciples ended up on the wrong side of the law?

Pepper spray victim receiving treatment from Sioux camp medics

And now, we consider the phalanx of powers arrayed against much that is sacred in our day. What will soon be the presidency, the Congress, and the judiciary – all aligned against almost anything resembling “good news to the poor,” Jesus’ self-proclaimed mission. All committed to the unfettered exploitation of God’s creation. All intent on casting off constraints on polluters. All eager to undermine global efforts to resist ecological chaos.

And against this massive force, can we possibly maintain a degree of loyalty to Messiah without risking the wrath of our nation’s law? Can we be faithful to God and neighbor while always playing by the rules of those in power?

In earlier days, pioneering leaders have modelled for us new methods of peaceful resistance. Gandhi, MLK, Mandela and Walesa have shown us what is possible when courage displaces violence. Today, I believe that the Standing Rock Sioux have taken their place among them in the pantheon of peaceful resistance.

Prayer, courage, compassion and kindness as tools of change. It’s on display at Standing Rock. Can we find a way to bottle it for use among the rest of us? By God’s grace, we must try.

Prior Standing Rock posts:

Standing Rock Reflections: Pray, pray, pray…

“Get up everybody! It’s a beautiful day! Get up! Come to the sacred fire!”

The voice on the loudspeaker carries over the frozen camp, the dawn little more than a gray blush on the eastern horizon. Teepees, tents and campers are still mostly dark. The wind howls. It’s still snowing. This is definitely not a beautiful day.

“Get up! Come to the fire and pray. Come and pray! That’s what we’re here for!”

Aceti Sakowin Camp before dawn, lit by DAPL pipeline construction lights

The inside walls of my little tent are glazed with a solid sheet of ice. The moisture from my breath in the night now fused with the structure of my little home. I cinch down the drawstring of my mummy bag tighter around my face, and close my eyes.

“Get up, my relatives! Get up Christians! It’s time to pray!”

Now that’s not entirely fair. I’m a Christian, and the voice is basically calling me by name. So this old white man groans and struggles to unzip the cocoon of warmth that has swaddled him through the night, and reaches for the stiff, icey trousers frozen to the tent floor.

The Oceti Sakowin Camp of the Standing Rock Sioux sprawls along the Cannon Ball River and the Dakota Access Pipeline construction route for what seems like a mile or more. For some reason, I have pitched my little tent a long, long way from the “sacred fire,” where the morning Prayer Circle meets. So by the time I slip and stumble my way to the gathering crowd, the prayers have begun. An elder of the Lakota Sioux – the voice that aroused me from sleep – is still speaking.

“Mother Earth, she is hurting right now. She is hurting. She needs us to help her. You know, we now have earthquakes all the time. This is not good. And I hear that up north, the ice and snow are melting, and flowing into the oceans. The sea creatures are being harmed, and the water is rising.”

This is what I have come to expect from Sioux elders. Concern for the whole earth. Concern for the local ecosystem. A keen sense of our place in the larger creation.

“Governor Dalrymple tells us we’re breaking the law. But we’re protecting the earth. They think that they can take, and take, and take from Mother Earth. But you can’t only take, without injuring the creation. At some point, you have to stop taking, and give something back….”

Then he begins to pray. I don’t understand a word. He sings. The notes are unfamiliar to me. I’ve heard these sounds in film – the eerie tune, the drums. They are foreign. This is not my religion. He’s praying to an indigenous God, no? Still, I try to remain in the spirit, praying as best I know how in my own language, in my own faith.

Suddenly, the speaker turns to English: “Our Lord Jesus Christ! We thank you for your love and grace! We praise you! We call on you to protect the earth that you love…”

Whoa! What’s going on here? I had thought….

“… In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.”

The prayer service is not nearly over. We are given tobacco, cedar leaves, sage, and small cups of water from many other rivers. We are marching in procession to the Cannon Ball River, to bless the waters, and to pray for them. Eventually, it is my turn at the river’s edge. As the women sing, I kneel in the snow, and reach out over the water.

“The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it; the world, and all who live in it,” I recite as I offer my tobacco and cedar leaves to the icy waters. “For he founded it upon the seas, and established it upon the waters.” I pour out my little cup of waters collected from afar.

“Get up and pray! That’s what we’re here for!”

I am finished. I struggle to my feet, and the singing women smile as they offer me their hands to keep me from falling. I reach for them gratefully.

If you are looking for theological answers from this post, I’m so sorry. You will be disappointed. But theology tends to be challenged and refined by the rough and tumble of life, doesn’t it? I have said that I have come back from Standing Rock believing that Christians must engage with indigenous spirituality, without fear, without prejudice, and with confidence in the presence and guidance of the Holy Spirit.

I believe that. I don’t fully understand it, however. But this I do understand: The apostle Paul tells us in that most famous of gospel passages – Romans 8 – that the groaning creation “waits with longing for the sons of God to be revealed.”

Who, today, are the sons of God bringing relief to the groaning creation in the Dakotas? Who are these sons of God? Up on the distant ridge are the armor-clad police, the massive earth movers and drilling machinery. Overhead, the planes and helicopters, keeping an eye on our every move. Here, by the river, are the Lakota Sioux, praying, singing, preparing to confront the engines of the petro-state.

Who are the sons of God? Who are the ones bringing good news to the creation?

A singing woman meets my eyes. I smile weakly as I take her hand, and steady myself for the climb back up the riverbank. There is much work ahead today.

Note: This is the third in a series of Standing Rock Reflections. Prior posts are