Truth-telling, Inequity, and Christian Action

Professor Cynthia Moe-Lobeda gave this address at “This Fragile Earth: The Church Responds to Climate Change,” a conference held at CDSP on October 22. 

We begin with a word of gratitude to the people who created this day of reflection and inspiration, including Jennifer Snow and her beautifully competent team of planners. I dedicate my comments this morning to the amazing students, faculty, staff, administration, alumna and supporters of this school – past and present – and your dedicated witness to the God of boundless justice-seeking, Earth-honoring love. Thank you in particular for your emerging leadership in bringing care of creation into the life and ministry of the church.  Finally, I thank you too for the splendid spirit and warmth with which you welcomed me in my first year here at the GTU.

It is an astounding moment in time to be people who serve the God revealed in Jesus. We who stake our lives on the promises of this God have been given truths that shake the foundations of the world:

–       The first — or beginning point — is God’s love. Nothing is surer, no truth stronger than this breath-taking claim of Christian faith: that God — the Light of life…the creating, liberating, healing, sustaining Source – loves this world and each of us with a love that will not diminish, a love more powerful than any other force in heaven or earth.

–       And next, this God is at play in the world, breathing life into it. This Spirit is present within, among and beyond us.

–       But that is not all. We  human creatures  are created  and  called to recognize this gracious and indominatable love,  receive it, relish it, revel in it, and trust it.

–       And finally, after receiving and trusting God’s love – being claimed by it – we are then to embody it in the world by loving as God loves.  We are beckoned to join with God’s Spirit of justice-making Earth-relishing Love in its steadfast commitment to gain fullness of life for all. 

According to widespread understanding of the Christian story, this is the human vocation, our life’s work. We are called and given this reason for being. Two millennia of Christians and the Hebrew people before them have sought to heed this calling: “to love the Lord your God” (Deut. 6:5),” and “to love your neighbour as yourself” (Lev. 19:18). “Our responsibility as Christians,” Martin Luther King, Jr. declared, “is to discover the meaning of this command and seek passionately to live it out in our daily lives.”[1]  What love is and requires in each new time and place is the great moral question permeating Christian history.

What does loving mean for the world’s high consumers if, through climate change, we are threatening Earth’s God-given capacity to generate life?  Never before in this three or four millennia old faith tradition have the stakes in heeding our calling been so high.   What do I mean?

That, by the way, was “Part One” of my comments.  Its subtitle — if a written text — would have been:  “God’s Beloved Human Creatures – Called to Love”

And now for Part Two: Truth-telling

I am haunted by the contradiction between this reason for being – to love as God loves — and the hidden realities of our collective lives, what some call structural sin, especially in relationship to climate change.  In our minutes together this morning, daring to heed this contradiction draws us into a stark, seemingly godforsaken, landscape….a terrain from which I for one would far rather flee. 

But first hear me well: we will not stay in that stark terrain.  We will move from it into life-giving hope.    So we step with courage to look briefly at the unprecedented moral crisis now facing the generations of people here gathered, as a consequence of our collective lives.

The intimate Mystery that we call God must have an insatiable hunger for life and, moreover, for life that creates ever-more abundant and complex life.  Indeed, the monotheistic traditions hold in common one reality:  God created a fruitful Earth…. a planet that spawns and supports life with a complexity and generosity beyond human ken. Fundamental to Christian and Jewish faith is the claim that it is “good” (Genesis 1).  According to Genesis’ first creation story, “God saw that it was tov.”  The Hebrew tov, while often translated as “good,” also implies “life-furthering.”   And God said time and again that this creation was tov — a good that is life-furthering.

Herein lies a harrowing theological problem. The primal act of God – creation — is not merely to create a magnificent world. This God creates a magnificently life-furthering world. The scandalous point is this.  We are undoing that very “tov,” Earth’s life-generating capacity. We — or rather, some of us — have become the “uncreators.”[2] Indeed, one young and dangerous species has become a threat to life on Earth. The credible scientific community is of one accord about this basic reality, and hundreds of its widely respected voices have been for over two decades.

Less widely accepted, however, is a corollary point of soul-searing moral import.  It is this: The horrific consequences of climate change are not suffered equally by Earth’s people.  Nor are the world’s people equally responsible. Those least responsible for the Earth’s crisis are suffering and dying first and foremost from it.   

Some time ago, I was invited to India to work with church and seminary leaders on matters of eco-justice. They gently taught me to re-see climate change as “climate colonialism.” “Climate change,” declared one Indian church leader, “is caused by the colonization of the atmospheric commons…. the powerful nations and the powerful within [them] continue to extract from the atmospheric commons disproportionately. In that process they have emitted and continue to emit green house gases beyond the capacity of the planet to withstand. However the…communities with almost zero footprint…bear the brunt of the consequences….” 

Climate change, I learned, may be the most far reaching manifestation of white privilege and class privilege yet to face humankind. What do I mean? Climate change is caused overwhelmingly by the world’s high-consuming people who are disproportionately descendents of Europe. Yet, climate change is wreaking death and destruction first and foremost on impoverished people who also are disproportionately people of color.[3] 

To illustrate: Countless reports link climate change to hunger. Oxfam’s “Climate Change vs Food Security” declares: “one of climate changes most savage impacts on humanity” will be increased hunger.[4]  Let it sink in: With global warming, dry places will beome dryer and wet places wetter.  With drought, if “free market” rules govern food prices, the poorest starve.

Add to this the rising seas that could threaten more than 25% of Africa’s people[5]  and drown some island states and low-lying coastal areas. This means 100s of millions of climate refugees, largely people of color.[6] [7] [8] Indeed, the now nearly 25 million climate refugees are primarily Asian and African.  No less alarming: Desertification, which will strike hard in the Arab world and southern Africa, provokes war. It was a factor in the Darfur conflict.[9]

Within the U.S. too, economically marginalized people – who are also disproportionately people of color – are most vulnerable to on-going suffering from the extreme storms, illness, and food insecurity brought on by climate change. The Oakland Climate Action Coalition warns that 3 – 5,000 “Oakland residents live in areas likely to be flooded with a 1.0 and 1.4 meter rise in sea levels.” Nearly 90 percent live in areas that are low income, non-white or non-English speaking.[10] Environmental racism and white privilege strike again in climate change.

Look…the catalog of climate change damage to the world’s already vulnerable people will blow your mind.    Yet the cause of this disaster is the uncontrolled burning of fossil fuels, especially by high consuming  societies…and that, dear friends, is us.

Truth-telling reveals the unthinkable, the unbearable:  just by housing, feeding, clothing and transporting ourselves, we cut down the life chances of countless neighbors.  By doing nothing or little, we actively bring on the catastrophe. Do not think for a moment that people of Africa, Asia, Europe, and Latin America are not fully aware of the role we play. Many voices of the Global South recognize this as climate debt.

Enough enough enough you cry! As do I. Enough…Say no more, see no more!

But truth telling demands digging deeper. That some cause climate change while others suffer most from it is but the first layer of the travesty. Jesus cries out: “Have you not eyes to see?” A people freed in Christ to serve and love our neighbor, is called to see more deeply. The second layer is no less horrific. Climate-privileged societies and sectors – like us — may respond to climate change in ways that protect us from its worst impacts while relegating others—the most “climate vulnerable”—to devastation.[11] The third layer I learned again from India:  measures to reduce carbon emissions designed by privileged sectors may further damage “poor and marginalized communities.”[12] To illustrate: food is lost when crops go for bio-fuel instead of food. In short, the climate crisis reinforces the very forms of injustice that neighbor-love calls us to dismantle.

But wait ….danger lurks.   Facing realities such as these breeds despair and powerlessness. To acknowledge the widespread suffering that may be linked to my material abundance would be tormenting. How could I live with the knowledge if I truly took it in? And if I dare to see, then I view also the power and complexity of structural injustice. Where would I find the moral-spiritual power to transgress tidal waves of political and economic force lined up to maintain those complex systems that benefit a few while damaging so many? A sense of inevitability may suck away at hope.

I speak straight from the heart here. As a young person I first learned about structural injustice through my church youth group. At is regional convention, I saw a film portraying the brutal exploitation of workers in the Dominican Republic that was committed by large global corporations in the quest of maximizing profit. Soon I began to learn more and more about structural injustice, especially economic exploitation. Utterly appalled, I became involved organizing teach-ins, demonstrations, and projects to address hunger. I hungered for the churches to be involved and – by the time I had finished high school – I was deeply discouraged by what I felt was untenable disinterest on the part of the church.  To make a long story short, I fell into profound despair that lasted for years. I will say more later about how the Sprit , working in the church, saved me from that despair, but the point here is to say how viscerally I know the despair that can come from looking honestly at structural sin and our engulfment in it.

However —  and this is crucial – an alternative, justice-making response to the climate catastrophe is utterly possible.  This crisis could catalyze far more equitable, democratic and compassionate ways of living and organizing our life in common.  If the body of Christ on Earth has any calling – and it does – it is to insist with prophetic fervor and fierce love that our societal response to the climate crisis serves the good of the vulnerable rather than furthering climate injustice. This will mean faithful resistance, revisioning and rebuilding.

PART THREE: Seeds of Hope and Moral Power. 

How then shall we live? Wherein lies the moral courage to face the truth and not run from it, the vison and wisdom to repent and change direction? Wherein lies the moral-spirit power to embody neighbor-love in the world today? 

At this – the testing point of human history—something new is asked of humankind: to forge ways of living that serve and protect garden Earth and that enable  all to have the necessities for a fruitful life.

Where something new is asked of humankind, something new is asked of religion: to plumb the depths of our traditions for wellsprings of moral-spiritual vision, hope, and courage, and offer these to the broader public. Christian traditions are fertile with theological seeds of this hope and moral-spiritual power. 

Since I am a teacher, I would like to ask you wise and experienced people to name these resources in a collaborative effort.  But this is a lecture short on time, not a sophisticated pedagogical moment in a three hour class, so instead I will just share with you three seeds of hope. They are only a beginning; there are SO many more. 

First is the resurrection promise: life in God is more powerful than all forms of death and destruction.

I speak very personally here. I am tempted toward despair when I acknowledge the insidious nature of climate injustice and its consequences. A subtle voice within me whispers that things will continue as they are despite our best efforts.  However, the cross and resurrection defy that voice and promise otherwise. This I believe with my whole being.

I mentioned earlier my own journey into despair as a young person when I became aware of structural injustice and its pernicious impacts. I did not tell you how my hope was restored.  I realized that I needed to talk with someone who was deeply aware of structural injustice and the massive suffering it causes, and yet who maintained hope, active efforts at social transformation, and a sense of joy in living. I thought of one person, a Lutheran pastor who  was a leader in religious resistance to the Trident nuclear submarines that were stationed in Puget Sound. (I was living in Seattle at this time.)  He – along with his 85 year old mother! — had been in one of the small boats that were symbolically blocking the passage of the submarines across the Sound. When I poured out to him my pain and despair, and asked him how he maintained his hope and laughter, his response was life-changing for me. He said, “you know, Cindy, I know the end of the story.”  Instantly I knew what he meant: God’s life-saving justice-seeking love is stronger than all else. In some way that we do not grasp, the last word is life raised up out of death. God “will not allow our complicity in…evil to defeat God’s being for us and for the good of all creation.”[13] We have heard the end of the story. In the midst of suffering and death—be it individual, social, or ecological—the promise given to the Earth community is that abundant life in God will reign.  So speaks the resurrection.

In all honesty, I do not know what this promise means for Earth’s community of life.  It does not lessen our call to build a more just, compassionate, and sustainable world; it does not, that is, allow us to sit back and let God do the work.  That conclusion would be absurd, because God works through human beings.  Nor does resurrection hope ensure our survival as a species in the face of climate change.  It does ensure that the radiant Good beyond comprehension that is above, beyond, under, and within all, ultimately will bring all to the fullness of life.  We are to live trusting in that promise and allow ourselves to be God’s “rusty tools” (the term is Luther’s) in fulfilling it.

A second wellspring of hope is the keen sacramental notion of creation that is central in Anglican tradition and in a number of other Christian traditions.

Indeed some streams of Christianity, from its earliest centuries, have affirmed that God, the One who is saving and has saved, — this God — inhabits all of creation. This claim is particularly striking when uttered by theologians not commonly recognized for it.  Luther is one.  “…The power of God,” he writes, “must be essentially present in all places even in the tiniest leaf.”[14]  “Christ…fills all things….Christ is…present in all creatures, and I might find him in stone, in fire, in water…”[15]  In these claims Luther is by no means alone.  The assertion of God abiding in all of creation has been present in Christian theology since its beginning.

Fascinating to me and relevant here are the implications for moral-spiritual power.  We know that the Spirit of God wherever it is, is saving and renewing the world.  If God is present within the trees, waters, winds, and creatures – human creatures  included – then God is at play within us and our earthy kin to save and renew the world.   We are called to hear the healing, liberating, and transforming Word of God in Earth’s creatures and elements. Stop for a moment to take this in.  Close your eyes simply to contemplate what it might mean to take seriously the Christian claim that God lives within the creatures and elements of this good Earth. 

What better place than an Episcopalian seminary on the west coast to explore prayerfully and gratefully, humbly and jubilantly this faith claim.  How will we prepare leaders of the church to learn from a cosmos animated by the Spirit of the Living God?  How will we – who may never have sought God’s saving presence in the trees and waters – cultivate that capacity in the leaders of the church?  For now let us say this:  If Christ indwells the Earth, then our hope and power for the work of radical love may be fed by God incarnate in the created world.

A third seed of hope is grounded in CDSP’s commitment to community building and to cultivating a “relational culture.”

This seed is theological anthropology. Do not be put off by the word. It means of course the question of “who are we?”  Who we think we are matters. 

Who are we? The people gathered in this place….who are we? The Bible teaches that we humans are – in the words of my favorite second century theologian, Irenaeus of Lyon — “mud creatures,” crafted from soil (humans from humus, Adam from adamah). [16] (Incidentally, in the biblical texts, this adamah the SAME soil from which other animals are made.) Science confers; we are children of stardust — the very elements that spewed forth some 15 billion years past in the birth of the cosmos.

Yes, this is crucial. We will understand ourselves as a part of Earth’s community of life – rather than apart from it — or we will not live long as a species. We are community beings or we are dead.

Moreover we are an utterly dependent species. Take a moment to consider your dependent status. Let us give humble thanks to the countless creatures who enabled you and me to be here today:   You might close your eyes for a moment:  We give thanks for the tiny animals that live in our guts……our tear ducts……..our scalps…….We give thanks for the breathing trees (our external lungs, you might say) that give us oxygen. Without them neither you nor I would not have awakened this day. And thanks be to the thousands of organisms in the square foot of soil that grew the grain that became our Eucharistic bread.

But who are we as moral beings?  Theologies throughout the ages teach that we are paradoxically two opposing things at one time. 

  1. We are sinners, in bondage to sin, including structural sin.
  2.  And we are body of Christ on Earth, called to love as God loves. We are lovers. The God whose life giving love is more powerful than all else abides within and among us. Said differently, we are bearers of the divine Spirit – Ruach in the ancient Hebrew — that force of God’s being that God pours into the human creature despite whatever else we are.

Now, hear this clearly – biblical faith insists that this face of our being (body of Christ on Earth) is more truly us, and ultimately will prevail. This is an ancient faith claim. That God’s love in Christ lives in and among us as justice making, self-respecting, earth-honoring love.  This love is the counterpoint of structural sin including climate sin.  This is a Word hope for us given the irrefutable perils of climate change and our implication in it. 

For us who are both structural sinners and bearers of divine love, the way forward is to feed and water one side of our being while we repent of the other. For this feeding and watering, I offer an image, again from the second century Irenaeus of Lyons.  According to Irenaeus, our task as mud creatures is to remain moist with the dew of the Holy Spirit so that the two hands of God – Word and Wisdom – can mold us, and through us all of creation, into our destiny of union and communion with God.  In our congregations and communities, we will ask: What practices of liturgy, prayer, eating, transportation, organizing, Bible study, community-building, advocacy, celebrating, and more will keep us moist and feed our being as God’s beloved who love with God’s love? We will not do so alone, but rather as communities….people working as a body. I no longer think about what I can do, but rather about what “we” can do.                                   

Christian traditions offer countless seeds of hope and moral spiritual power. We have noted this morning three:

  1. God’s liberating and healing love, made flesh in — but not only in — a dark-skinned Jew on this fragile planetary speck called Earth, is more powerful than all forms of death and destruction.
  2. God’s life–saving presence is coursing through all of creation.
  3. While we are indeed complicit in structural sin, we also are – as communities – the abode of God’s justice-making Earth-honoring love.

Let these promises flood over you, fill every cell of your body, embrace you. For this we know: “neither death nor life, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God.” 

In Closing

Our moment in time is breathtaking….pivotal. The generations alive today will determine whether life continues in ways recognizably human on this beautiful and broken planetary home called Earth.  May this extraordinary seminary – CDSP — bring the gifts of Anglican tradition to the great moral-spiritual challenge of the 21st century:  forging ways of living on Earth that Earth can sustain and that build justice among Earth’s peoples.  This will mean holding raw anguish and joy in one breath. It will mean seeing good and evil tangled up together with no person or system being all good or all bad. And it will mean savoring the sensuous delights of life, while letting holy rage serve the call to love.

[1]  Martin Luther King, Jr., “Strength to Love,” A Testament of Hope: the Essential Writings and Speeches of M. L. King, Jr. (San Francisco: Harper, 1991), 48.  Here King is speaking specifically of the commandment to love enemies.

[2] Another illustration of humans “uncreating” the life-furthering capacity of life is the “Terminator Seed.” It was developed by Monsanto, one of a few companies that control a large part of the world’s “seed business.” The terminator seed is designed to be incapable of reseeding itself.  It enables a company to make more profit from small subsistence level farmers around the globe. The company buys up a seed supply, and genetically alters it to be unable to reseed itself and to require chemical inputs. Each season, instead of planting seeds saved from the previous year, the farmer who has been sold the terminator seed must rebuy seed from Monsanto as well as the chemical inputs that it now requires. This practice was part of what drove many Indian farmers into unsufferable debt and then to suicide.  

[3] For Example: The estimated 600 million environmental refugees whose lands will be lost to rising seas if Antarctica or Greenland melt significantly will be disproportionately people of color, as are the 25 million environmental refugees already suffering the consequences of global warming. So too the people who will go hungry if global warming diminishes crop yields of the world’s food staples – corn, rice, and wheat. The 40% of the world’s population whose lives depend upon water from the seven rivers fed by rapidly diminishing Himalayan glaciers are largely not white people. As recognized in “The Future We Want,” the outcome document of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20), climate change “represents the gravest of threats to the survival” of some island nations, some of which could cease to exist as countries as a result of rising sea levels.  It goes without saying that these nations are composed of people who are predominantly not white.

[4] Oxfam International  5 September 2012.

[5] Juma, M. (2010) “Security and regional cooperation in Africa: how can we make Africa’s security architecture fit for the new challenges” in Heinrich Böll Foundation, Climate Change Resources Migration: Securing Africa in an uncertain climate, Heinrich Böll Foundation Southern Africa, Cape Town, pp. 16 – 25, cited in Oxford Report.

[6] In the Caribbean, too, “sea level rise is a huge concern, endangering the future of small islands, and in the shorter term affecting their trade and tourism capabilities.” Hannah Brock for the Oxford Research Group, “CLIMATE CHANGE: Drivers of Insecurity and the Global South.” 2012

[7] Even the target of 2 degrees celsius warming, discussed at the recent Summit, may be a death sentence for some island peoples. Yet, warns the World Bank report, “we’re on track for a 4 degree warmer world” which would inundate many coastal areas including parts of California.

[8] As global warming approaches and exceeds 2°C, there is a risk of triggering nonlinear tipping elements. Examples include the disintegration of the West Antarctic ice sheet leading to more rapid sea-level rise, or large-scale Amazon dieback drastically affecting ecosystems, rivers, agriculture, energy production, and livelihoods. This would further add to 21st-century global warming and impact entire continents.

[9] Gambari, 2011.


[11] “Climate vulnerable” refers to nations and sectors that are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. As defined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), “vulnerability” refers to “the degree to which a system is susceptible to, or unable to cope with, adverse effects of climate change.” IPCC Working Group 2, Third Assessment Report, Annex B: Glossary of Terms (2001), I use “climate privilege” to indicate nations and sectors most able to adapt to or prevent those impacts, or less vulnerable to them.

[12] Soumya Dutta, Soumitra Ghosh, Shankar Gopalakrishnan, C. R. Bijoy, and Hadida Yasmin, Climate Change and India (New Delhi: Daanish Books, 2013), 12. This study notes that climate change has “two sets of impacts” on vulnerable sectors. One is the actual impact of climate change. The “second set of impacts originates from actions that our governments and corporate/industrial bodies undertake in the name of mitigating climate change. This includes large-scale agro-fuel and energy plantations in the name of green fuel . . . extremely risky genetically modified plants (in the name of both mitigation and adaptation to climate change), more big dams for ‘carbon-free’ electricity,” and more.

[13] Christopher Morse, Not Every Spirit: A Dogmatics of Christian Disbelief (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1994), 249.

[14].  Martin Luther, “That These Words of Christ, ‘This is My Body,’ etc.  Still Stand Firm Against the Fanatics,” Luther’s Works 37:57.

[15]. Martin Luther, “The Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ—Against the Fanatics,” Luther’s works 37.  Luther also writes: God is “present in every single creature in its innermost and outermost being….” (Martin Luther, “That These Words of Christ, ‘This is My Body,’ etc.  Still Stand Firm against the Fanatics,” Luther’s Works 37:58.)   God “is in and through all creatures, in all their parts and places, so that the world is full of God and He fills all….” [Martin Luther, Weimar Ausgabe 23.134.34, as cited by Rasmussen, “Luther and a Gospel of Earth,”  22, citing Paul Santmire, The Travail of Nature: The Ambiguous Ecological Promise of Christian Theology (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), 129.]       “…everything is full of Christ through and through….” (Martin Luther, “Confession Concerning Christ’s Supper,” Luther’s Works.]  “…all creatures are …permeable and present to [Christ].” (Ibid., 386.)

[16] Adam and adamah are the Hebrew words in Genesis’ second creation story translated respectively as “Adam” and “soil