The Keynote Address of the Rt. Rev. Dr. Katharine Jefferts Schori to the 183rd Annual Convention.
You have all been very much in my prayers as storms have blown and drenched this diocese and your coastal neighbors. I saw Katrina’s devastation firsthand 15 years ago and I can only imagine that what you’ve seen in recent weeks stirs vivid memories as well as deep concern. Our planet is changing, its life-giving systems are struggling, and none of it bodes well for the future of the Blue Marble.
Your bishop has asked me to speak about moral leadership in the face of changing climate and environmental disasters. In Nevada, where I live, those challenges include more frequent and intense wildfire and drought, as well as the toxic legacy of mining and nuclear testing. Changing climate, intensifying weather events, and planetary pollution are the direct result of human activity, in our local contexts and around the globe. As Christians, we have a responsibility to address the suffering, injustice, and death resulting from human behavior – those things we have done and those things we have left undone.
At baptism, we promised to respect the dignity of every human being, to strive for justice and peace, and to seek and serve Christ in all persons, by loving our neighbors as ourselves. We also promised to resist evil, and to keep turning back to God when we wander. Human dignity means having the basic stuff of life – adequate food, clean water and air, meaningful work and access to healing, the freedom to learn and advocate, and the ability to nurture future generations.
The basis of human dignity lies in hope for a creative and life-giving future. In the first chapter of Genesis, God tells humankind to “be fruitful and multiply”; and “have dominion over … every living thing.” Being fruitful is about acting as God does – being creative. Multiplying isn’t simple reproduction; it means something more like ‘magnifying the Lord,’ reflecting God’s gracious, life-giving self, and growing up into the “full stature of Christ.” And having dominion does not mean domination; dominion (from domus, house) means husbanding and housekeeping work – it’s about care for other creatures, not control for selfish ends.
In that first creation story God also tells the sea monsters and birds to ‘be fruitful and multiply.’ All living things are intended to reflect God’s creativity. Think about the second creation story in Genesis, where God sets humanity in a garden, and names our vocation as “to till and keep the garden.” Tilling and keeping, the rabbis would say, is about ‘being creative, doing what’s necessary to help the earth produce abundance, so that all creatures and creation itself might thrive.’ God set us here to live in creative relationship with one another, in a community that reaches far beyond our human neighbors, a community that can only thrive when all its members are healthy and living into their own particular vocations.
Think about the earth itself, created to receive seeds that will bear fruit in due time, if they are well tended – watered, fed, and protected from harm. That tending comes from the planet’s life-giving systems – seasons of rain and sunshine in life-giving amounts, the creative recycling of dead matter in the soil – sometimes aided by human hands. Yet human action is changing the seasons and endangering the Earth’s life-giving systems.
The living things on this planet are all capable of creativity, even the ones we love to hate. Viruses and mosquitoes have an important role in the ongoing creativity of evolution, whether we think of them as pests or fearful threats. We human beings wouldn’t be here without the challenge of active encounter with threats. We can’t survive without challenge, and we can’t long survive without creatures like microbes and disease vectors. If we destroy one kind of creature on this planet, God’s creative intention means another will soon take its place. Yet we can learn to live with them through creative engagement, as we’ve learned to do with polio virus, measles, or corn borers. We are learning how to live with this new coronavirus. We’re also beginning to learn how to live creatively with rising seas and warming temperatures. Yet even with decisive action we are moving into a future vastly unlike the climate our grandparents knew – and the species being lost are not ever coming back.
Moral leadership is grounded in fostering the well-being of whole communities. Our human vocation is to tend and encourage the whole garden toward creative behavior. A city’s creativity depends on encouraging the needs, gifts, and aspirations of all its members – people of every sort and condition; trees that give shade and oxygen (and clean the air); healthy living conditions and care for all life-forms; opportunities to exercise our varied vocations; clean water for human beings, fish, frogs, and the birds descended from dinosaurs. Consider Zechariah’s vision of a holy city: “Old men and old women shall again sit in the streets [of Jerusalem], each with staff in hand because of their great age. And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in the streets.” Elders and youngsters cannot thrive where there is no health, and we’re seeing that in hospitals and schools during this pandemic. A vibrant, flourishing global community comes from loving God, loving what God has created, and loving all our neighbors as we love ourselves.
Moral leadership is about right behavior, and influencing others to choose the right path. Adam and Eve were challenged to care for the garden and its creatures, i.e., to love all of them, and help each one live its particular creative vocation. The problem in Eden was a decision based on the desires of three actors who ignored their charge to care for a certain tree. The hard part of gardening usually comes in recognizing the dignity of each and every creature – not just the neighbor who makes too much noise at night or cuts you off in traffic, but birds and trees, as well as snakes and wasps. We may find some of our fellow garden-dwellers inconvenient, yet each one plays a vital part in creation. The non-human parts of our planetary community follow their particular, creative vocations without having to choose to do so. Human vocations require choosing. We’ve been created to decide for good or ill, and each choice has expanding and often irreversible consequences. That’s what Paul is getting at when he writes “the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Choosing how to relate to other inhabitants of the garden can yield creativity or death – and we are reaping the consequences of a long series of poor and deadly choices, sometimes downright evil ones.
The fruitful garden remains central to our vision of the right path God intends for creation. Loving the garden doesn’t mean exterminating creatures we consider pests, or limiting gardening to a single crop, or even harvesting every last plant or seed in the field (remember the charge to leave the edges of the field for the poor?). The right human path cooperates with the garden and its possibilities, rather than pursuing the idiosyncratic images of perfection we hold dear. God’s dream of perfection is always more diverse and surprising than human imagination; and it’s definitely not going to be a monoculture. Any farmer can tell us that planting the same crop in a field year after year quickly requires far more pesticide, herbicide, and manure than rotating the particular crop planted each year – and letting the land rest periodically so that it can ‘re-create.’ Fallowing and sabbath rest are part of the covenant with all creation – God created, judged all of it very good, and rested on the seventh day. In a fallow field, that re-creative rest will include a bunch of different plants springing up, and what some see as unwanted weeds will actually help to refresh and re-create the soil.
Human societies have the same challenge. The diversity of human community, and the diversity of gifts created in each and every person, are essential to human flourishing. We have a tragic history of judging some human beings as better or less than others, almost exclusively based on external characteristics. We have categorized skin color, language, gender, age, land-holding, education, and skills along a supposed ladder of perfection – and that ladder is usually designed to privilege whoever’s “in charge.” We’ve inherited that kind of unclimbable staircase from forebears beyond this land and throughout our history. Jacob dreams of a different kind of ladder, with God’s messengers continually moving between heaven and earth. When Jacob wrestles with one of those angels, he’s blessed to hear that his expanding family will bless all humanity, not just his close relatives.
The biblical tradition is our foundation for moral leadership – and it shares similar attitudes toward right behavior with almost every other great religious tradition: treat others as you wish to be treated. The challenge is always about who counts. Mr. Rogers taught us, “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood” – when we can begin to see the creative, life-giving potential in every one around us. That is how God relates to creation – abiding with us and in us. Neighborliness is part of being made in the image of God. Can we see the creative, life-giving potential in snake and rabbit, orca and jellyfish, yeast and mold, even fire and storm and virus? We may admire or fear different parts of creation, yet we can respect the dignity of stinging jellyfish and spreading viruses by acknowledging the challenge they bring, and acting accordingly – wearing a wetsuit or staying out of the water when Portuguese man-of war are present, or wearing a mask and seeking a vaccine when a new virus is making the global rounds. Each species has creative work to do, and part of the current virulence of each of these two creatures is the wages of human changes to the planet.
The errors of Eden continue. Human beings have thought we alone were the masters of the garden, able to dominate and control the garden’s creativity. Human systems have often tried to master and dominate other human groups, with similarly destructive results. Our mutual flourishing depends on serving the whole created community – human and otherwise. A fruitful garden grows in the greening presence of divine creativity, and it dies in the face of attempts at any kind of supremacy.
Moral leadership expects truth-telling. That’s where prophets begin – lamenting or complaining about injustice, when the right road isn’t being taken. Nothing changes until the truth comes out. We know that truth-tellers aren’t always popular – as Garrison Keillor said, “nobody wants a prophet at your birthday party.” Right speech names injustice, suffering, destruction, and evil. And true prophets go on to paint a vision of a healed, life-giving, creative future. They tell the truth of what’s possible in God’s garden. Truth-tellers tell it like it is, they tell us what could be, and give hope that the dream will indeed come to be. That’s the creative, life-giving Word of God in action, from God speaking the world into being to Jesus alive in human flesh to Holy Spirit prodding and encouraging human hearts to turn God-ward, speak truth, and act with hope.
So what does truth-telling have to do with our environmental crisis, or racial reconciliation, or this pandemic? The central part is twofold: acknowledging our own sin or selfishness – telling the truth about the brokenness within us – and equally acknowledging our creative capacity to look for, and work toward, more abundant life. We have to do that kind of fearless confession: naming both our lapses and our hopes, personally and in community. We have personal restoration to seek, and we have healing work to do in community. If this reminds you of Alcoholics Anonymous, you’re on to something. 12-step spirituality has roots in our Anglican tradition, and it’s a wonderful, practical example of the healing that’s possible when we acknowledge both fault and faithful hope, on the right road of love.
Let’s name some of the particular ways we’re failing the garden, and how we might help it be more creative.
Our current spate of supposedly ‘natural’ disasters, like intensifying hurricanes on this coast and the fury of forest fires in the West, is directly related to warming climate and shifting weather patterns. The warming is the result of more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and the oceans. Those gases come from burning fossil fuels, from agriculture and livestock production, from refrigerants (like the now-banned Freon), and increasingly from decomposing organic matter in landfills, drying wetlands, and previously frozen soil.
Warming creates a feedback loop, so that higher temperatures release more gases from those carbon-holding soils. Warming means more melting at the poles, where darker waters absorb more heat than ice reflecting the sun’s energy back into space. All of this is ultimately the work of human beings.
Alongside the warming crisis is a pollution crisis – from plastics everywhere across the planet (10,000 particles per liter of Arctic snow) to poisonous smoke from wildfires to excess nutrients (from agricultural and sewage runoff) that produce dead zones in the ocean, like those just beyond the Mississippi Delta. Mining waste and industrial lands create and release toxins that move from those local sites into the bodies of human beings and every creature on the planet.
Human activity is destroying the life-giving, creative capacity of this fragile earth, our island home. This blue marble has a distinct smoke ring that’s choking the life out of creation. We have only a decade to turn the warming rate in a more hopeful direction. A decade in which to turn the furnace down, slow the melting, and yield a climate that might still be reasonably hospitable to human life.
There is hope, particularly among the young prophets who can see what’s on the horizon. Their elders are sometimes a bit less clear-eyed, but the Greta Thunbergs of this age are telling the truth about the legacy we are leaving their generation. There is hope among scientists and technologists, working to shift energy systems toward sustainable sources. There is hope among farmers transitioning to more sustainable methods, hope in more local food sources, and cities that foster food forests rather than food deserts – fruit and nut trees as landscaping, and community gardens linked to parks. Hope in rain gardens and permeable roadways that help recharge aquifers instead of sending excess nutrients downstream into dead zones.
There is hope in household level accounting: e.g., examine your garbage, what can be recycled, reused, repurposed, or not purchased in the first place? Do an energy audit, explore solar panels, solar water heating, heat pumps, and renewable energy sources. How does the food you eat impact our warming planet? Check out The Episcopal Church’s carbon tracker for down to earth help with the particulars. https://www.sustainislandhome.org/
We have opportunities in the larger community as well. I hope you’ve been thinking about how your vote will impact our environmental crisis, our need for racial reconciliation, and the suffering caused by this pandemic. Learn about civil discourse and engage your neighbors about challenging issues; seek new and creative ideas rather than intractable conflict. What can your neighborhood do together to help this planet be more life-giving and creative? Community solar installations make renewable energy available to people who don’t have a place for panels or the funds to buy them. When you go out for a walk, take a bag and a pair of gloves and leave the sidewalk or roadside cleaner than you found it. Consider how your community’s transport needs could be greener: bikepaths? a trolley? electric vehicle carpools? Might your congregation steward a watershed, or build community gardens, or advocate for permeable walkways or community-wide composting? Teach each other about all these and more.
Louisiana has a climate response treasure – close to half the wetlands in the lower 48 states. Restoring and maintaining the peat bogs, swamps, marshes, wet prairies, and estuaries of Louisiana could not only keep greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere, but expand the ability of those living communities to sequester far more carbon. Restoring and stewarding those ecosystems would make a massive contribution to the climate crisis.
That wetland work is high on Project Drawdown’s list of ways to heal the planet. Drawdown is a creative, large-scale review of multiple ways to help the global garden heal and thrive. The possibilities include everything from renewable energy, to asking indigenous peoples for their particular expertise in local land management, to alternative cements. Potential transformations can be fostered by a range of communities, from households to cities, nations, and global alliances. Interfaith Power & Light is sponsoring a Drawdown webinar for congregations on 16 Nov, noon CST. Watch for registration info.
Drawdown is aligned with the sustainable development goals (update of MDGs) that TEC has been teaching for 20 years. The development goals are fundamental to human justice across the world – educating girls, eliminating hunger and poverty, ensuring access to clean water and energy, and seeking peace everywhere through strengthening human dignity.
The World Council of Churches offers a roadmap for moving toward God’s dream for this planetary community.
Moral leadership requires taking a fearless moral inventory AND fearlessly dreaming God’s intended future for the entire garden. Dreaming includes getting down and dirty with the tilling and keeping work of respecting the dignity of God’s creation. Go boldly into God’s future, and the harvest will be abundant, the workers will all be paid, and there will be a banquet for all on the holy mountainside – a banquet of rich foods and well-aged appropriately attractive beverages for every creature.
I’m going to leave you with some questions to explore in your fearless moral inventory and your fearless dream of God’s future. I’d suggest you give roughly equal time to both lament and dream-casting, and there’s a slide of questions for each. 2 images Think of these questions as compost for the garden – ultimately they’re intended to re-create and foster more abundant life, rather than guilt and looking backward. Look for God’s creativity in turning waste and refuse into fertilizer to produce that banquet.
When your discussion time is over, there’s a prayer for you to share. God bless you all, fear not, and look for resurrection!
The Rt. Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, Ph.D.
XXVI Presiding Bishop, resigned
IX Bishop of Nevada, resigned