“We haven't been reading the instructions, the operating manual of the planet, and that's why we're mucking it up,” exclaims Rabbi Andrea Cohen-Kiener.
Is there really a set of cosmic directions for the care and maintenance of our world? As spiritual leader of Congregation Pnai Or of Central Connecticut, and director of the Interreligious Eco-Justice Network, Cohen-Kiener claims the major faith traditions offer not only clear instructions but also an urgent mandate to do something about them.
In Claiming Earth as Common Ground: The Ecological Crisis through the Lens of Faith, Cohen-Keiner lays out a multi-denominational religious case for environmental conservation and activism. With her own writing, and the contributions of fellow faith-oriented environmental (and social) activists, she puts forth recurring themes of environmental stewardship and justice.
It was a project Cohen-Keiner says came together from insights she found readily available. After lecturing at a conference of the religious-based advocacy group Call to Action, Cohen-Kiener says she was urged to turn her remarks into a book and the ideas came flowing in “nice large chunks.”
Mother Nature Network: What is happening in the faith community when it comes to environmental issues?
Rabbi Andrea Cohen-Kiener: People don't go to church or synagogue for the same reasons. Most of us go to our places of worship because something feels alive in us. That is the very same organ of our bodies that perceives grief and despair because of the destruction that we are causing with our very heavy footprint on the planet. It becomes a point of self-examination and questioning our values. When that is felt, people look for others — a committee or a “green team” or an “Earth ministry” group. They begin to envision together how they can be effective change agents in their own life, and their congregational life, and in the wider community.
The involvement of some faith leaders in environmental activism is not new, but now you have prominent leaders such as Pope Benedict speaking out as well. Is there now more of a “mainstreaming” of that kind of involvement?
Oh yes. Every single religious tradition names this [issue] and values this. But now there is a burgeoning and a widening of this conversation. So you have your Pope Benedicts and the various leaders saying, "This is really important." But there's also a trickling up in this push to be truthful right now. The urgency and the mandate to act are becoming obvious. People can look out the window and see that we have changed the climate. I look out my window and we have never seen this much rain in Connecticut in June. There are new bugs. There are new birds. There are new animal and plant species. We can look out a window and see that we’re causing species migration.
Do you worry about the discussion veering into the political?
I think we are bringing something very good and necessary. When politicians start hearing from their ministers about taking care of creation, we’re not really saying “vote this way” or “vote for that candidate.” We’re saying that this is a concern of ours so please bring that commitment to the future generations to your conversations and to your legislative activity.
I think, because we’re very nonpartisan, that it's actually very safe for us to bring our concerns to the political front. And I think we are effective because we’re not the usual suspects down at the legislative office building.
You do have what might seem a case of some strange bedfellows with an activist community, not necessarily always closely tied to faith groups, but sometimes hostile to them. What has happened to that relationship in the course of this discussion?
Since the first generation of activists was mostly either very spiritual Catholic people, or very secular activists, there was a little bit of a speed bump there inside the faith community. Sometimes they’d look around the corner and say, "You don't have any agnostics out there with you, do you?"
I think we're past that speed bump now. The conversation between faith and science has changed. There are faith-based scientists that are bringing this information back into their communities. And they’re saying, “This depletion at the rate that we’re doing it is like ripping pages out of the Bible.” When people hear that message from their own communion, it reaches their consciousness.
How do secularist environmentalists view us? Well, one of the first times we went to the [Connecticut] legislative office building, one of the gals was a choir director. She got us all standing around together and singing some kind of psalm about the creator and the creation. Well, legislators and staff assistants came running to see "who is singing in the rotunda?" And the other environmental folks kind of looked at each other and this light bulb went off over their heads and they said, "We have got to get us some of that!" Just the vibe, the tools, that we brought to it were so much sweeter, so much more inviting, so much more celebratory than the kind of doom and sturm und drang and dry science that the secular activists were bringing. So they welcome us with open arms. We each do what we do well.
Is the involvement of the faith community changing the conversation around climate change in the public square?
I want to say it’s the reality, the facts on the ground. The conversation that concerns me more now is "do we have the political will to do as much as the science is telling us we need to do?” That transition is going to be expensive. We bring that “common good” priority to the conversation. The truth is that climate change as an issue is connected to taxes, agriculture, transportation, green buildings, dignified jobs, urban planning, fuel sources, to name a few. I think many of us are using climate change as a core language right now because it's a big international problem. But, many of us have particular ministries in the areas of transportation, food, toxins, localization, green buildings. We are very solution oriented. We are not waiting for stuff to come out of Washington to do that. We are not waiting.