Move over, Al Gore. Step aside, Greenpeace. There’s a new eco-activist in town with a message as old as Genesis.
Over the last few years, the politics of environmentalism has become so divided that the government’s ability to tackle intractable problems like climate change has been undermined. Faith-based organizations are responding to this stalemate by turning away from affairs of the state and toward their core values as a beacon for healing the planet.
“Almost all of the world’s religions understand the Earth as sacred and created by the divine entity,” says the Rev. Alan Jenkins, founder of Earth Covenant Ministry, a Presbyterian-based organization in Atlanta that aims to green the city. “In the Judeo-Christian tradition, there is a strong link between redemption, healing and salvation, not only within people but along with the rest of the creation.”
Jenkins has been sharing this message with parishioners since 2005 by highlighting concerns close to home.
For example, water is a highly politicized and critical issue in Georgia due to its 20-year water war with Alabama and Florida over federal rights to the Chattahoochee River. The state’s recent drought increased the stakes. “We’re helping congregations make the theological connection to the centrality of water and call for conservation and frugal use of water,” Jenkins says.
On the other side of the country, Sally Bingham, a priest at San Francisco's Grace Cathedral and president and founder of Interfaith Power and Light — a nonprofit organization started in 2001 to promote renewable energy and energy efficiency in light of climate change — is also speaking for the Earth.
“It was startling to me that every mainstream religion mandates respect and care for the Earth yet we were trashing it,” Bingham says. “It made sense that we should be leading the environmental movement, not dragging it behind,” continues Bingham, who believes that faith-based organizations will be the tipping point between environmental destruction and healing.
History of activism
“If you look at the civil rights movement or the abolition of slavery, they wouldn’t have happened without the religious or moral voice,” Bingham says. “Anybody who calls themselves a person of faith has even more of a responsibility than an environmentalist or Democrat and should be leading the charge on climate protection.”
That’s exactly what’s occurring, and not only in relation to climate change, but also mountaintop removal, water conservation, energy efficiency and pollution.
More than 80 percent of U.S. inhabitants — nearly 259 million people — identify with a major organized religion. Of these, 61 percent, or 155 million people, believe that stricter environmental laws and regulations are worth the cost. That’s according to a survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life conducted in 2007. Simply put, communities of faith are changing the face of environmentalism.
“I think they’re having a measurable impact on elected officials’ understanding that it's not just mainline traditional environmentalists who are concerned about the environment; it’s also people who might never identify themselves as environmentalists or tree huggers,” says Jerry Lawson, national manager of the Environmental Protection Agency's EnergyStar and Congregations Network, a division of EPA that helps congregations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. “I consider this very significant.”
Equally significant may be the re-examination and recasting of the Bible’s own teachings.
In the late 1960s, Lynn White, a historian from the University of California, published an article in Science magazine titled The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis, blaming Christianity for environmental destruction by pointing a finger at its dominant attitude toward nature and belief that nature solely exists to serve mankind. The proof was in the early verses of Genesis where God gave mankind dominion over all the Earth.
Yet, says Bill Brown, a professor of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Ga., the definition of dominion is much closer to the word "stewardship" than the word "exploitation."
"The church is realizing there is another way to talk about creation,” Brown says. “We can now say that we don’t own the world, God owns the world, and so we acknowledge that we are the tenants of creation. That in and of itself means that we have the unique responsibility of ensuring that life flourishes.”
Some call it the “green awakening of the church”; others the “green revival.” Either way, it could make all the difference.
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