Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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Earth Day, 2010
. . . What should we be without the dolphin’s arc, the dove’s return,
these things in which we have seen ourselves and spoken?
(Richard Wilber, Advice to a Prophet, 1959)
What do twenty-nine dead miners in West Virginia and the dying island nation of Kiribati in the Pacific have in common? Cheap energy. It’s true. Mining has always been a dangerous business. But much of the danger could be abated if mine safety rules and regulations already in force were followed. The fact that union mines have a better safety record than non-union mines suggests that when someone is looking out for the welfare of the miners, even when federal and state inspectors are relatively impotent, fewer deaths occur. But safety slows production at mines run by companies like Massey Energy, owner of the Upper Big Bend Mine. And slower production interrupts the flow of coal to fuel the electric power plants that send us relatively cheap energy. (It might even eat into the $17.3 million compensation package reportedly earned by Massey’s CEO last year.) Would we be willing to pay a little more every time we flip the switch in order to help avoid the kind of tragedy we witnessed in West Virginia this month?
Thousands of miles away in the Pacific Ocean another kind of death is taking place. Kiribati is a small nation straddling the equator half way between Hawaii and Australia. It is comprised of thirty-two atolls and one island, most of which have an elevation at their highest points of less than six to ten feet. Rising sea levels due to global warming in Kiribati, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands threaten hundreds of thousands of people. A year ago at the Central Committee meeting of the World Council of Churches, a church leader told me that contingency planning is already under way to relocate the entire population of Kirbati to New Zealand or Australia by the middle to the end of this century. Kiribati, along with other Pacific nations, is literally drowning. Is it any wonder the leaders of these small island nations watch with rage as the leaders of the industrialized and newly developing nations block meaningful efforts to slow global warming? Reducing carbon emissions will make the energy that fuels our economies more expensive leading to all kinds of economic ripple effects. Sure, it’s complicated. But in the end, whether it’s a miner dying instantly in an explosion deep underground in West Virginia, or an island out in the Pacific slowly being submerged, it does come down to our desire for cheap energy.
Today is the fortieth anniversary of the first Earth Day. Forty years ago, thanks to the work of people like Rachel Carson, we were becoming aware of how we were despoiling the air, rivers, lakes, and oceans of our planet and how the damage we were doing to our physical home was diminishing life for every species that inhabits the earth. Forty years later much has changed. We are driving more fuel efficient cars. Recycling has become second nature to most of us. We can swim and fish in places that used to be off limits. Toxic brown fields in our cities have been cleaned up, at least some of them. Acid rain has been reduced. Our churches have green committees. Wind turbines have started to dot the landscape. This month construction begins on CTS’s new LEED certified building. We’ve come a long way.
But the road ahead gets much steeper. The important steps we’ve taken thus far have demanded little sacrifice from us. We’ve changed some behaviors, paid more for gas, though far less than others around the world, and have begun to make investments in conservation. Cleaning up our North American room in this global household – still a work in progress – is not enough, as long as we send our carbon emissions into the sky and treat other parts of the world as our municipal dump. Merely putting our recycling bins in the driveway every week will not suffice as long as we expect to pay a pittance every time we turn on the hair dryer or fire up the microwave. Real sacrifice is required, and soon, lest we consign more miners to their coal black tombs and islands to their watery graves.
Eastern Christianity has tended to see all of creation as the object of God’s redemption. For them, creation inspires awe. Western Christians have tended to see creation as the arena of our redemption. For us, creation has signaled opportunity. It’s the difference in being a part of, and apart from. The Biblical evidence, of course, is all on the side of our Eastern friends, and we are starting to get it, theologically if not behaviorally. About the time the first Earth Day was being observed, Lutheran theologian Joseph Sittler was prodding Protestants to rethink their view of creation. “What could. . . eternal life with and in God possibly mean for a person whose personhood came to be, and is, as a total function of residency in the total creation?” Sittler asked. “It follows,” he went on, “that the entire creation – within which and as a part of which I am, have an identity, and without which I cannot conceive of being an identity at all, but only an emptily potential entity – must be the sufficient object of the divine redemption,” (Joseph Sittler, Essays on Nature and Grace, 1972).
If the entire creation must be the sufficient object of the divine redemption, then it’s not just about taking care of creation, but about identifying with it. Just as we are intimately linked to a miner in West Virginia and to an islander on Kiribati, so we are linked in some strange way to the coal in that mine and the ocean surrounding that island. Misuse that leads to the death and dying of persons, oceans, and islands is sin; it diminishes us and dishonors our Creator. Our neighbors may join us in wetlands clean up and recycling projects. Public servants who share our values may work at the level of policy and enforcement to make mines safe and reduce carbon emissions. But for the church, this is also a vocation. So when you flip a switch today, or participate in an Earth Day event, pause to consider your deep connectedness to all of humanity, and of the creation that is just as much a part of God’s redemption as you are.