The Unthinkable

June 6, 2019 at 9:37 am | Posted in Climate Change | 1 Comment
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Here’s my review of Bengali novelist Amitav Ghosh’s splendid book on climate change, The Great Derangement. The review appeared in a recent of issue of the monthly newsletter of the Grail in the US.

 

The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, by Amitav Ghosh. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016. Paper .164 pp.. $15.00.

Back in 2016, I went up to Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan to hear the internationally recognized writer, Amitav Ghosh, speak about his new book. I was so impressed by his talk, I bought a copy. Now I’m going to tell you about it.

Ghosh is a Bengali-born writer, best known for his fiction, and holds a Ph.D. from Oxford. But as we learn in the opening pages of The Great Derangement, his father’s family was driven from Bangladesh to India by a massive flood, and he himself barely avoided serious harm when the first cyclone in recorded meteorological history hit Delhi in 1978. Since then, of course, many other climate-related disasters have followed. Yet these threatening events have been for the most part concealed from public awareness. This concealment is what Ghosh calls “the great derangement,” and his book explores the causes of that dangerous condition.

Ghosh divides The Great Derangementinto three parts.  In the first, “Stories,” he argues that modern fiction has been incapable of addressing climate change even as greenhouse gas emissions and climate transformations have grown steadily worse. At the heart of fiction’s failure to enable us to recognize the crisis facing us is its fixation on “individual moral adventure”—the story of the hero—and the expulsion of the collective from the literary imagination. Unlike ancient epics such as the story of Noah in Genesis, or Gilgamesh, modern writing that highlights the agency of nonhumans –whether storms or ghosts or zombies—has been dismissed as inferior. The partitioning of the earth into distinct divisions, whether nation-states or measurable commodities like gallons of gas, likewise underpins the ostensible divisions between the human and the non-human that blind us to the planetary feedback loop. But dire human impact on the Earth itself—the Anthropocene*—is a new, non-human critical voice forcing us to reconsider those partitions.

In the “History” section of The Great Derangement Ghosh argues that it wasn’t primarily the Western invention of fossil fuel technologies like the coal-powered steam engine or oil-powered vehicles that drove the Anthropocene. Asian peoples had already discovered coal and oil and had begun using them long before the invention of the steam engine. What drove the Anthropocene was imperial, military power, by which, in particular, the British empire was able to force Asian nations like India to switch from the development of fossil fuel industries to the production of food and raw materials essential to the industrialization of the West. Ironically, this imperial blockage of fossil fuel development in the East may actually have slowed down the Anthropocene.

Finally, in “Politics,” Ghosh asks what kind of human relations and governance are needed for us to move beyond “the great derangement.” As in the previous two sections, he is quite critical of modernity, arguing, for example, that the ideas of “history” as human agency, abstracted from the non-human world, and freedom as transcending material restraint, is fundamental to the crisis of Anthropocene. Based on this critique of the individualism of the modern era, Ghosh argues that individual actions will not solve the great derangement. Nor, he suggests, will newly forming climate change activist groups, since it takes too long for such groups to organize across boundaries and build up the necessary power.

Instead, Ghosh believes that the involvement of religious groups is one of the most promising developments in the crucial effort to incorporate the reality of the Anthropocene into the governance of the human/nonhuman world. This is so because religious groups are already organized and many of them possess a language of collective solidarity lacking in modern culture. To illustrate this argument, Ghosh compares Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’with the UN Paris Climate Accord, issued that same year. While the Paris Accord is shot through with corporate (capitalist) terminology, veiled militarism, and dense incomprehensible prose, the encyclical is lucidly written and direct in style, critiquing the modern “technocratic paradigm” and even the Christian teaching of “Man’s Dominion over Nature.” Ultimately, Laudato Si’ links together social and environmental justice in an integral ecology that the partitioning language of the Climate Accord makes virtually unimaginable.

In reading The Great Derangement, I was struck by the significant overlaps between Ghosh’s vision and the “web of life” argument made by the distinguished Marxist eco-theorist, Jason W. Moore. (Carol Barton spoke at the last US Grail General Assembly about Moore’s book A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things).  Each sees the binary between nature and society, the human and the non-human, as fundamental to the current planetary crisis. Moore would object to Ghosh’s emphasis on imperial power rather than capitalism as the cause of the Anthropocene; Moore would instead argue that they are enfolded into one another. But the efforts of each writer to create a language to heal the modern fissure is striking.

The important distinction between the two books, however, is that because Ghosh is primarily a writer—a novelist—he formulates his remedy for the great derangement in a language that transcends the linguistic partitioning that characterizes the work of theorists like Moore.  Thus, when Ghosh tells us that “to think like a forest…is to think in images,” and that the Anthropocene itself is “thinking through us,” he is envisioning something that can really make a difference.

 

*The Anthropocene is a proposed epoch dating from the commencement of significant human impact on the Earth’s geology and ecosystems, including, but not limited to, human-caused climate change.

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Storming the Wall

May 11, 2019 at 10:47 am | Posted in Capitalism, Climate Change, Environment, guns, US History, | 1 Comment

You may be beginning to think that all I do is review books, and you would be close to right. Here’s my review of Todd Miller’s book Storming the Wall, which appeared in April in the US Grail‘s monthly publication, Gumbo.

Storming the Wall: Climate Change, Migration, and Homeland Security, by Todd Miller. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2017. Paperback. 240 pp. $11.86. (First chapter available on-line.)

Given the US government shutdown several months ago over money for a wall along the US Mexican border, and Donald Trump’s increased demand for such a wall in his next budget, we might be tempted to conclude that building one such wall is a very big deal.

The truth is, as Todd Miller explains in Storming the Wall, the US government, and governments around the world, have been building many walls, and spending stupendous amounts of money for border enforcement and protection, for some time now. When he came into office, Trump had at his disposal 60,000 Customs and Border Patrol (CPB) agents, making it the largest federal law enforcement agency in the country at the time, and the 2017 border and immigration enforcement budget was $20 billion. And this doesn’t take into account the collaborative arrangements between local law enforcement agencies with ICE and CPB that deputize local police officers as immigration agents all over the country. In addition, since 2003, the US has added over 650 miles of walls and barriers along the US Mexico divide and has poured billions into advanced technology to enforce the border. And the US is by no means the only wall builder and border enforcer: there are now at least 70 border walls around the globe.

At the heart of this intensification of border militarization and refugee exclusion is the climate crisis. Some experts go so far as to predict that there will be a billion climate refugees by the year 2050.  And even now, many of the refugees pouring across borders are at bottom climate refugees, since the violence in the countries they are fleeing is often provoked by environmental crisis—the 2006 to 2010 drought in Syria, for example, is a major cause of the conflict  there, though it is rarely mentioned as such, while the rise of Boko Haram is directly linked to water scarcity in Nigeria. Yet the international community is so ill prepared for this growing crisis that climate refugees have absolutely no human rights status in international law, as, for example, war refugees do.

In Storming the Wall, Miller does an excellent job of laying out the parameters of the growing militarization of borders around the world in light of the climate crisis. But his argument is by no means limited to facts and figures. Rather, he empowers his argument with stories of families torn apart by border militarism. One of the most galvanizing is that of the assassination of an environmental protestor in the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan in 2013. But, Miller warns us, we as citizens of powerful northern nations ought not to assume that we are immune from such climate refugee exclusion: authorities set up checkpoints along the California border to keep out US citizens fleeing the US Dustbowl crisis in the 1930s because they were assumed to be lazy vagrants, unable to support themselves. Remind you of anything?

Ultimately, Miller forces readers to face up to the fact that governments—particularly the US government under Trump as well as his predecessors—have chosen to “adapt” to the impacts of climate change through militarized counter-terrorism actions rather than by taking steps to reverse climate change. Trump’s removal of the US from the Paris climate accord even as he demands more border security is only one example of this form of “adaptation.”

Storming the Wall is a not entirely without hope, however. Miller concludes it with a chapter documenting the ways in which grassroots groups around the world are coming together and demanding change— “storming the walls” that governments are putting up instead of taking the strong measures needed to reverse the climate catastrophe. From that point of view, we can say that the young people on strike with Greta Thunberg around the world and in the Sunrise Movement are “storming the wall.” We need to get out there and join them.

 

Stumbling in Holiness

April 23, 2019 at 8:55 am | Posted in Catholicism, Christian theology,, ecclesiology | 3 Comments

Another of the lovely things about my (72nd!) birthday last Thursday is that my review of Brian Flanagan’s Stumbling in Holiness, appeared in the National Catholic Reporter (April 19th issue). It was quite a day for me. And here’s the review:

STUMBLING IN HOLINESS: SIN AND SANCTITY IN THE CHURCH.

By Brian P. Flanagan

Published by The Liturgical Press Academic

179 pages. $24.95

When I got up this morning, the first three links to each of the two internet religion summaries I review regularly were to articles about scandals in the Catholic Church. I don’t need to tell you what kind of scandals. At a time when such coverage of the church is not unusual, a Catholic ecclesiology of sin in the church is nothing if not timely.

But it’s timely not just because the church is sinful. It’s timely, as Brian Flanagan explains, because holiness is at the heart of the church’s identity, “one of the earliest creedal statements made about the church,” and one that we repeat regularly: “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church…” And this is the paradox that Flanagan takes on in Stumbling in Holiness, that the church, sinful as it is, is at the same time the manifestation of God’s transcendent holiness.

Flanagan is a theologian, on the faculty of Marymount University in Virginia, and is quick to acknowledge that we cannot understand the mysterious paradox of the church’s deep flaws and profound holiness without analyzing it systematically. But one of the great strengths of Stumbling in Holinessis that this analysis is framed within the most fundamental experience of Catholic Christians, the celebration of the Eucharist.

For Flanagan, the Eucharist is a kind of ecclesial dance, in which the assembly moves toward God, then retreats again in repentance, then moves forward again, then asks forgiveness once more, from the Kyrie Eleison to the Gospel to the consecration to the Lord’s Prayer to the Lamb of God who takes away the world’s sin, to communion, and then out into the world for the “liturgy after the liturgy,” the mission of the church. And every step of this pilgrimage is a collective, not just an individual, ritual of approaching and retreating and moving forward again. This embodies not only the present reality of the holy/sinful church, but of the dialectic between the past, the present, and the eschatological future, the coming reign of God. Flanagan then weaves these liturgical and eschatological themes throughout the rest of the book.

Within this framework, Flanagan lays out the theology of the holy yet sinful church, detailing the ways in which such holiness is rooted in the mysterious otherness and compassionate closeness of God, deeply intensified by the incarnation of Jesus Christ, and lived out in the lives of the communion of saints and local Christian communities. Yet we learn that evil is also a mystery, a void, something lacking, with individual sin rooted in its senselessness and with continuing bad effects. The paradox is that without the reality of sin, neither would there be the reality of salvation.

In his analysis of this paradox, Flanagan by no means minimizes the holiness of the church. Yet the most demanding part of his analysis is his chapter on the sinfulness of the church.

The sins of the church, we learn, can be divided into two categories: those of individuals, members and leaders, and the sinfulness of the church itself. Included in this second category are sinful acts by leaders in the church’s name, for example, bishops’ conferences supporting military dictatorships, and the sinful social structures of the church itself that have ongoing harmful effects on the church and the world.

Flanagan’s third category of ecclesial sin includes historical mistakes, shortcomings and misunderstandings which don’t qualify as moral acts, but are characterized by group agency, a distinct mode of shared human action. The recognition of such shared intentionality, Flanagan believes, would enable a much-needed move beyond the church’s frequent portrayal as an idealized entity distinct from its members throughout history. A classic example of the bifurcation of the sinfulness of the members of the church and the sinfulness of the church itself, for Flanagan, are the words of Pope John Paul II at his Day of Pardon event in Rome in 2000. We need to recognize that the church is, in fact, a human community, through one mysteriously united with God.

Ultimately, for Flanagan, the paradox of the relationship between holiness and sin in the church reflects the utter mystery of the relationship between God and all of creation. Though we might wonder why God permits the ongoing struggle between sin and grace, it is precisely this paradoxical unity that manifests the reality of salvation, God’s overwhelming mercy and compassion. It is crucial, then, that the church admit and lament its sins so that the holiness of God may be manifest in the communion of saints throughout history.  “God’s holiness is stronger than sin.”

There is much to admire about Stumbling in Holiness, including its attention to historical theological understandings of ecclesial holiness and sin and its highlighting of the church’s eschatological reality—the “not yet” as well as the “already” of the church’s holiness toward which we stumble together.

But there are two problems. The first is that throughout the one-hundred-seventy-nine pages of Stumbling in Holiness Flanagan cites fifty-four male sources 148 times and eleven female sources seventeen times. I kept checking to see if the book had been published in 1968 and not 2018. Admittedly, most ecclesiologies are written by men. Perhaps it’s just a male field!  But when I was the communications director for an African-American seminary in the 1980s, I learned that if there were too many representations of white people in the upcoming newsletter, I needed to find others. Flanagan should have done similarly.

My other concern involves the examples of ecclesial sin omitted from Stumbling in Holiness. Flanagan cites classic instances of such sin—the Inquisition, collusion in the Holocaust, racism and, of course, clergy sex abuse.  But with the nuclear Doomsday Clock two minutes to midnight and twelve years remaining before the climate catastrophe becomes irreversible, surely the contemporary church’s near silence on both questions—Laudato Si’ notwithstanding—is an ecclesial sin demanding more attention than Flanagan gives it.

But then, as Flanagan himself admits, theologians, as well as popes, bishops, priests, laypeople, —even book reviewers—sin. May our profound repentance soon show forth the present and future glory of God in all its fullness.

 

An Article Not By but About Me

April 14, 2019 at 2:11 pm | Posted in Catholicism, marian ronan, Regina Bannan, | 9 Comments
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Given my working-class Irish roots, I feel a bit ambivalent about sharing this article with you, written by my friend and sister women’s ordination activist, Regina Bannan, and published in the recent issue of the Irish Edition in Philadelphia. Regina wrote the article to share the news that I’m going to receive the annual Mary Magdalene Award from the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference in Philadelphia this coming Thursday. Regina is the president of the group.

But the odds that you subscribe to the Irish Edition aren’t high, and maybe if you read the article, you’ll join us outside the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul on the Parkway at 11 AM on Thursday. I would love to give you a hug there!! (Incidentally, it’s a token of how deeply involved I became with the Philly women’s ordination group that Regina reports that my husband and I arrived in Philadelphia in the 1980s but in fact we were there only from 1992 to 1997).

 

By Regina Bannan

Raised in Delaware County and educated by the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur at Notre Dame High School in Moylan, Marian Ronan will return to speak in Swarthmore April 6. She will also be honored in Philadelphia on her birthday, coincidentally, April 18. The Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference (SEPA WOC) is recognizing her achievements by presenting her with the Mary Magdalene Award. Now living in Brooklyn, Marian has never lost touch with her beginnings and her Irish heritage.

The presentation of the Mary Magdalene award will be at the SEPA WOC Holy Thursday Witness, April 18, 2019, at 11am, across from the Basilica of Saints Peter & Paul, Philadelphia.  The Award is named after Mary Magdalene, who was the “apostle to the apostles,” the female follower of Jesus who has been misrepresented; her pivotal role in the early church was marginalized in the sixth century. Mary Magdalene has now been adopted as the champion of women, particularly those claiming their rightful places in the Roman Catholic Church, as a model of women’s leadership. Marian Ronan is a perfect exemplar.

Ronan attended the first Women’s Ordination Conference in Detroit in 1975 when she was a staff member at Grailville on O’Bannonville Road in Loveland, Ohio. She became a member of SEPA WOC when she moved to Philadelphia in the 1980s to pursue her doctorate in religion at Temple University, and was president of the national Women’s Ordination Conference at the turn of the 21stcentury. Despite relocating to two different states, she’s remained a member of the SEPA WOC leadership group and as a contributor to their publication, EqualwRites.

Now Ronan lives in Brooklyn with her husband, Keith Russell, an American Baptist preacher and academic leader. She characterizes her neighborhood: “My husband and I live in the amazing culturally and religiously diverse Flatbush section of Brooklyn where you can walk in ten minutes from mosques to Orthodox synagogues to Pentecostal store fronts to Haitian/Chicano/Caribbean Catholic churches.”  The last describes one of the places she goes to worship, which leads directly to the reason for her return to Delaware County.

Ronan will be one of the panelists at the SEPA WOC event at the Swarthmore Friends Meeting addressing the question “How Equality Can Flourish in a Multi-racial, Multi-cultural, Multi-national, Multi-generational Church:  What Does This Church Look Like Physically, Spiritually, Doctrinally?” She and three other speakers will consider the future of the Roman Catholic Church, of concern to anyone who reads the news, and especially to those who are part of that tradition. The other panelists will be Mariam Williams, a Philadelphia woman of color writer and artist; Kathleen Grimes, an Assistant Professor of Theological Ethics at Villanova University; and Sonja Spoo, a community organizer around women’s health issues and a Swarthmore College graduate. Mary Hunt, the co-founder of WATER, the Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics, and Ritual, will moderate. The afternoon will include open discussion and a brief ritual, and is open to everyone, gathering at 1 pm and concluding by 4 pm, April 6, 2019.

Ronan reviews books for the National Catholic Reporter and writes for many other publications, often on women, church history, and the climate crisis. She became an ardent speaker about the world water crisis, then about Laudato Si, Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment, and now about the disasters awaiting the world because of climate change. You may remember that she reviewed former Irish President Mary Robinson’s book, Climate Justice: Hope, Resilience, and the Fight for a Sustainable Future, last year for the Irish Edition.

Her two most recent books as well as mot of her earlier works focus on women. Sister Trouble: The Vatican, The Bishops, and The Nuns collects her articles occasioned by the 2012 investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, but, typically, she goes on to consider the impact of sisters on the American church. For Women of Vision: Sixteen Founders of the International Grail Movement two years ago, Ronan edited and expanded work done previously by Mary O’Brien, and provided a scholarly introduction to this international women’s movement. Her first book, written with Linda Clark and Eleanor Walker, was Image-Breaking, Image-Building: A Creative Worship Handbook for Women of Christian Tradition. Her next, Sophia: The Future of Feminist Spirituality, written with Hal Taussig and Susan Cady, was the first published exploration of the power of the biblical figure of Sophia/Wisdom. This work has been frequently updated because it is such a rich resource for prayer and celebration.

Finally, Ronan’s most academic book, published in 2009, Tracing the Sign of the Cross: Sexuality, Mourning, and the Future of American Catholicism, takes us right back to her Irish heritage. Does any reader of the Irish Edition not know that thinking about these topics is deep in the Irish soul? Ronan takes these questions to new places, using poststructuralist analysis to look at the writings of four Baby Boomer Catholics: James Carroll, Mary Gordon, Donna Haraway, and Richard Rodriguez. While this is not the easy read that Ronan’s popular articles and speeches are, it speaks to a consistent searching for the consequences of the life of her ancestors. When I asked her if it would be OK to write about her in the Irish Edition she so characteristically replied: “Perhaps the article will mention that my great-grandmother, Hannah Kelly, was an Irish domestic.” This suggests her great interest in Irish history and the politics of class, the contradictions of our lives and our history, especially as revealed by the women in our families. She even started an Irish book club to explore these themes. The Mary Magdalene award is just another contradiction, moving another woman from a marginalized position to the center of the faith.

Updating Catholic Worship

March 18, 2019 at 3:25 pm | Posted in Catholicism, Christian theology, | 2 Comments
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HONEST RITUALS, HONEST SACRAMENTS: LETTING GO OF DOCTRINES AND CELEBRATING WHAT’S REAL.

By Joseph Martos

Published by Resource Publications/Wipf and Stock Publishers. 156 pages. $20.00.

A woman is denied marriage in the church because she can’t secure the annulment of her previous marriage to a mentally ill husband who has disappeared. A Catholic grandmother believes her Buddhist granddaughter is going to hell because the seal of her earlier baptism is eternal.  The seriously ill and dying in a local hospital are denied the anointing of the sick because the Catholic chaplain is a woman and no priests are available.

As theologian of the sacraments, Joseph Martos, explains, these are common experiences in today’s Catholic church. But why do such sacramental barriers exist half a century after the church “entered the modern world” at Vatican II? In Honest Rituals, Honest Sacraments, Martos takes us back through the history of the church, from the first Christian communities through the Middle Ages to today to lay bare the roots of such problems and propose a contemporary solution.

For Martos, the rituals celebrated by the early Christians were grounded in the actual experiences of the members of the community—conversion, caring, and commitment to the ethical values of Jesus.  The writers of the Epistles and Gospels used metaphors to represent these experiences: baptism, the forgiveness of sins, the presence of Christ in the weekly meal. After the Christianization of the Roman Empire, however, differences between Christian groups threatened imperial unity, so Constantine ordered the bishops to call the Council of Nicea. The Nicene Creed, fashioned there to implement that unity, included almost no references to the ethical teachings of Jesus that underpinned early Christian rituals. Metaphors of lived experience became metaphysical realities in which to believe.  And in the Middle Ages, “schoolmen” in the monasteries drew upon this metaphysical theology to explain the sacraments. The sacraments, according to them, worked automatically.

And this, to all intents and purposes, is what the Catholic Church teaches about sacraments today.  The various sacraments imprint indelible marks—supernatural gifts—on the soul of the passive recipient; And in the Eucharist, the bread and wine actually become a new substance, the body and blood of Jesus Christ.

Given that centuries have passed since the schoolmen fashioned this interpretation of the sacraments, it is time for the church, Martos argues, to reimagine and redesign the sacraments so that they once again express the genuine spiritual experiences of the Christian community. To give some examples: we should celebrate the sacrament of ordination not as the according of miraculous powers to an individual but as the communal recognition of those who have the skills needed for ministry—preaching, administration, counseling, governance—skills that are not limited by gender or sexual orientation. Marriage becomes the celebration of the spiritual reality at the heart of a mutually supportive, agapic relationship, not a purity-based commitment to procreation. Reconciliation should mean reaching out into the community to bring alienated groups and individuals together, not an individualist ritual of forgiveness for having broken some rules. The anointing of the sick, Martos believes, is already an “honest ritual” because the forms have expanded from a ritual exclusively for the dying to a variety of ceremonies, in hospitals and nursing homes, at healing Masses in parishes though the exclusion of women celebrants continues to be a problem). And the Eucharist should become the celebration and affirmation of what brings people together in a particular community around the vision and values of Jesus. Local church communities, under the leadership of local bishops, should implement these changes.

The scope and depth of the knowledge Martos draws upon to make his argument for a new, more honest sacramental theology is breathtaking. I found his examination of translations, and even of the use of capital letters, in the gradual divinizing of the Holy Spirit, for example, fascinating and convincing. His exploration of the work of the schoolmen in the Middle Ages is likewise quite absorbing. And his use of contemporary philosophy and ritual studies greatly enhanced my understanding of the sacraments. By the end of the book, it is difficult to dispute the basic argument Martos makes, that the current theology of the sacraments, at least the kind that Catholics encounter in parishes, needs serious updating, even reconstruction.

I find it ironic, however, that what seems to be the foundation of Matos’s critique of contemporary Catholic sacramental thinking is the clear, even absolute distinction between metaphysics and experience.  For isn’t the implementation of such a binary itself a form of metaphysical thinking? Consider, for example, the book’s subtitle: Letting Go of Doctrine and Celebrating What is Real. Doctrine is fake and experienced-based rituals are real, we are led to believe. But what about Catholic communities for whom reality is intimately connected with doctrine? What about Catholic communities in Africa for whom the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist is an essential part of their experience, even as it also includes the practice of justice and caring that characterized the early church? Does calling such belief “magical thinking” qualify as caring? Martos does, in fact, acknowledge from time to time that some “dishonest rituals,” based in belief and not experience, are unintentional. But too often, his discourse is dismissive of religious views that are also a part of contemporary realty. In my experience, Christians, including theologians, need to find less disdainful ways of engaging these differences.

 

This review appeared in the National Catholic Reporter, Vol. 55, No. 11, March 8-21, 2019, p. 14.

But Who Will Govern the Climate?

March 10, 2019 at 2:05 pm | Posted in Climate Change | 1 Comment
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Climate Leviathan: A Political Theory of Our Planetary Future. By Geoff Mann and Joel Wainright. New York: Verso Books. 2018. 118 pp. $26.95 (includes free eBook). https://www.versobooks.com/books/2545-climate-leviathan

I begin this review with a warning: Climate Leviathanis a fairly nerdy book. The authors are brilliant political scientists and the argument they make draws on a wide range of challenging scholarship. Yet that argument is really important, so I’m going to discuss it with you.

That’s what book reviews are for, right?

The basic problem Mann and Wainright address in Climate Leviathan is that despite repeated unambiguous warnings from scientists about the dire effects of global warming and multiple meetings between world leaders on the topic, nations have failed to make any headway at mitigating—lessening—greenhouse gas emissions. Because of these failures we are now doomed to exceed the limit of two degrees Celsius, resulting in massive harmful outcomes—sea level rise, droughts, massive fires, extreme weather events. So where does this leave us?

While technocrats advocate physical adaptations to climate change—spraying aerosols into the atmosphere to block out the sun, building tidal walls, etc., Mann and Wainright explain that an effective response to the climate crisis is necessarily political in nature. We have to come to political agreement on a way to enforce change. They draw on Leviathan, the 1652 work of the political philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who argues that without a sovereign power to make and enforce laws, anarchy and violence are inevitable. Leviathan, that sovereign power, is also entitled to declare a “state of exception” in the face of a crisis and then suspend laws and take absolute control. Hobbes’s 20thcentury followers believed that Enlightenment notions of individual freedom led to the chaos of world wars and Nazism. And certainly, the citizens of many nations around the world continue to believe in the sovereign power of their particular nation-state, even as “free” trade agreements and international financial bodies determine more and more of the world’s future.

The climate crisis calls the supposed autonomy of sovereign nation states into question, however, for the simple reason that the environmental behaviors of the citizens of nations and their corporations flow inevitably beyond national borders. Consider the effects of the greenhouse gases from the U.S. and Europe on nations in the Global South. Consider that experts are predicting that there could be as many as a billion climate refugees pouring across national borders by 2050. And then consider the “sovereign” states in the Pacific, the Caribbean and elsewhere that will literally no longer exist by the end of the century because of sea level rise.

In the face of the border-bursting realities of the environmental crisis, Mann and Wainright speculate that one of four new transnational political structures will emerge, replacing the modern capitalist framework of individual sovereign nation-states. The first, the one they find most likely, is Climate Leviathan, a global capitalist system empowered to take drastic action; such a system already exists, at least in embryo, as embodied in in the United Nations COP meetings and the Paris Climate accord. These gatherings are not yet sovereign—with hegemonic power—but they point toward an international sovereignty long predicted.

The second climate sovereign is what the authors call Climate Mao, an anti-capitalist authoritarian socialist entity acting to address climate breakdown, probably through revolutionary developments in Asia where climate change effects will be dire. This is not the present Chinese state, the authors remind us, since it is a major part of the capitalist system, but an entity more like the earlier version under Chairman Mao.

The third sovereign response to climate change Mann and Wainright call Climate Behemoth, a reactionary capitalist populism made up of fossil fuel corporations, middle class reactionaries and enraged working-class people who reject the work of international forums like the 2015 Paris accord in favor of anarchy. The politics of Donald Trump, Jair Bolsinaro and others embody this third option. Climate Behemoth may seem conceivable in the short run, but in the long run, it means disaster.

The fourth Leviathan proposed by Mann and Wainright is Climate X, a bottoms-up people driven power predicated on “equality, democracy and solidarity” and modeled on socialist and indigenous movements that will lead us to live “differently, radically differently.” In some ways, this fourth political sovereign is the least conceivable of the four, perhaps because we the people must come together and determine the specificities of it.

So why should any of this matter to us? For several reasons. First of all, it forces us to realize that the emerging environmental catastrophe is inevitably political. Personal actions are important—giving up meat or disposable plastics—but the environmental crisis is going to have serious collective repercussions, so we have to act politically. Contact your representatives, make phone calls, turn out for demonstrations.

For me, another takeaway from Climate Leviathan is not to be naïve about the current political structures. The 2015 Paris climate accord may have given us hope, as do other international meetings and documents. But they all fall within Climate Leviathan, which is based in the capitalist system that has caused the current crisis because of its demand for endless growth.

Finally, we need to be aware that several of these political models may already be coming together to take control of the future. Trump’s apparent Climate Behemoth, for example, calling for border walls to protect us from the dangers of Latin American migrants, actually reinforces the capitalist Leviathan that has been growing steadily under previous presidencies. The US is steadily expanding its military/security state to exclude climate refugees and imprison US indigenous “terrorists” to protect the fossil fuel industry and the capitalist society that created the climate crisis in the first place. We need to be very, very careful of this Leviathan.

 

This review appeared in the March 2019 issue of Gumbo, the monthly publication off the Grail in the US.

 

March 3 Homily: The Fruit-Filled Tree of Resurrected Wisdom

March 2, 2019 at 11:12 am | Posted in Catholicism | 5 Comments
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I am in the habit of going up to Benincasa, the splendid lay Catholic community on West 70th Street in Manhattan, for a liturgy on the first Sunday of each month. I love the people who live there–Jimmy, Sean and Karen–and the many others who join them for various events. People take turns preaching the sermon as part of the first Sunday liturgy, and it happens that I am giving the homily tomorrow, the last Sunday before the beginning of Lent. I am sharing it with you here. (Participants in the liturgy engage in a discussion after the sermon, hence the question at the end.)

Reading 1: Sirach: 27: 4-7

Reading II: 1 Cor. 15:54-5

Gospel: Lk 6:39-45.

So for the past five weeks, since the 4thSunday in Ordinary Time, we have been reading about Jesus’s ministry in Galilee, and about his recruitment and preparation of disciples to share in that ministry. And for the past two weeks, Jesus’s instruction of the disciples and of the others who have been following him has been quite inspiring. First we had Luke’s version of the Beatitudes, telling us not just that the poor in spirit are blessed, but that the poor themselves are. Then last week, we heard Luke 6, in which the disciples—and we—are urged to love our enemies. The great New Testament scholar Fred Craddock argues that the exhortation in the middle of that passage: “…love your enemies and do good to them…Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” is the essence of the Christian Gospel.

Without some context, this week’s reading may seem a good bit less inspiring. Jesus is calling on the disciples, and us, not to think too highly of ourselves: don’t be a hypocrite, don’t criticize others when what you are doing is as bad or worse. If you lack discernment, the person you are leading is going to fall into a pit along with you.

Before becoming too discouraged by this, though, it’s helpful to bear in mind here that Jesus has his reasons for leaning harder on his disciples—and on us—than he has been doing. The end of his Galilean ministry is in sight and soon Jesus will be on his way to Jerusalem and the crucifixion. In the Gospel this Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, he will continue to urge his disciples to avoid hypocrisy as he does here—pray and give alms in secret, not in order to receive praise. And next week, he will be leaning on himself to resist temptation as well, going into the desert for forty days to fast and pray.

But even now, it’s not all entirely discouraging, because at the end of this week’s Gospel Luke begins to talk about trees. Now admittedly his discussion of the trees is a bit more black and white than some of us may find entirely helpful: bad trees, bad fruit. And the crucifixion itself will take place on the wood of a tree in six weeks or so. But trees also produce good fruit, as Luke goes on to reminds us,

We actually already encountered this tree-based flash of hope in today’s first reading, taken from the Book of Sirach, —even before Jesus begins warning the disciples about hypocrisy in the Gospel reading. At first, this  earlier reading doesn’t seem a lot more encouraging, nothing more than a sort of prelude to the Gospel’s discourse about hypocrisy: just as  the refuse remains after a sieve is shaken, and what comes out of a person’s reasoning shows who she is, so the fruit of a tree —good or bad—discloses the kind of cultivation a tree has received.

But the Book of Sirach, sometimes called the Book of Ecclesiasticus, is, at least according to the Catholic Church, part of the Wisdom literature of the “Old Testament.” But the Jews don’t consider it part of their Scriptures, and most Protestant denominations don’t either. But Catholics do. And one real advantage to including Sirach in our Scriptures, and thus in the lectionary, is that it includes some theologically important, and beautiful, passages about Sophia, the female figure of Wisdom who vastly expands our vision of God. And one of the most powerful representations of Sophia/Wisdom in the Book of Sirach is Sophia as a tree.

So just after this passage in Sirach in which we encounter a fairly limited representation of a tree, one that only bears good fruit if it is cultivated properly, we hear of the glorious Sophia who has ”taken root in a privileged  people,…grown tall as a cedar on Lebanon, as tall as the rose bushes of Jericho…I have spread my branches like a terebinth…Approach me you who desire me and take your fill of my fruits.” (Sirach 24:1-14).The author of the Book of Sirach knows well that with Sophia much more is possible than sieves full of refuse or the bad fruit of bad trees or, for that matter, from hypocritical disciples.

Indeed, in a few weeks Luke’s Jesus himself will move on from his sermon to the disciples about good and bad fruit to a far less binarized parable, this one about the owner of an orchard who orders his gardener to cut down a fig tree because it has borne no fruit for three years. But the gardener convinces the owner to give the tree another year so he can cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it.

And then just before the Last Supper, Luke’s Jesus tells us an even more inspiring  parable, in which, just as we know that summer is near when  we see the fig tree and every tree in bud, so when the disciples see the things happening that Jesus has been telling them about—signs in the sun and moon and stars, the clamor of the ocean and its waves, –we will know that the kingdom of God is near.

So when Luke goes on later, in Acts, to speak multiple times of Jesus who was slain and hung on a tree, he knows very well that there is more to expect from trees than death and fruitlessness. And so should we, as our Savior, the fruit of the tree of the crucifixion rises up before us on Easter morning.

Let me conclude with a question. At this time, when the dead wood of the cross seems to be everywhere:  with  the Trump administration demonizing our Latinx sisters and brothers and tearing their infants from the  breasts of their mothers; when that same administration, by abandoning crucial treaties, has moved the nuclear doomsday clock closer to midnight than it has been since 1953; and when the United States has withdrawn from global climate change agreements, thus moving us even closer to environmental catastrophe than we already were, what are we to do? What, for you, is the route from the dead wood of this cross to the fruit-filled tree of resurrected Wisdom?

 

 

Mary Robinson on Climate Hope

February 15, 2019 at 12:24 pm | Posted in Climate Change, Environment, women | 2 Comments
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The following is a revised version of a review that appeared in a recent issue of The Irish Edition, a publication based in Philadelphia, and in the newsletters of several groups I belong to. I seem to have forgotten to post it here.

Mary Robinson. Climate Justice: Hope, Resilience, and the Fight for a Sustainable Future. (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018). 147 pp. $26 hardback; $16 eBook.

In his 2015 encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’, Pope Francis clearly links the damage we are doing to the earth with harm to the poor, especially those in the Global South. In her new book, Climate Justice, Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and UN Special Envoy for Climate Change, takes Pope Francis’smessage a galvanizing step forward, telling the stories of some of those global poor and how they are fighting back. These stories draw in the reader in just the way our times demand. Indeed, for Robinson, story-telling is a climate-action strategy.

Robinson begins her book-long network of stories with the birth of her grandson, Rory, in 2003, and her deep concern about the hazards he would likely face by the time he turns fifty: nine billion people battling for food, water and living space.

She goes on to tell eleven other stories, bringing to life some of the world’s most devastating problems. First we meet Constance Okollett, a small-scale farmer from Uganda whose village had been devastated by drought, flash flooding, and extreme variations of the seasons, an embodiment of scientific warnings that Africa will suffer the worst consequences of global warming.

Another absorbing story is that of Sharon Hanshaw, an African American hair-dresser from Mississippi whose experience of Hurricane Katrina led her to organize Coastal Women for Change, a climate justice group to confront the racially-linked federal failures to respond adequately to the hurricane. Then there is Australian Natalie Isaacs who was forced by outbreaks of bush-fires near her home to rethink her leadership of a cosmetics company based in the use of plastic container and to found an on-line organization, 1 Million Women, that helps women around the world monitor and reduce their carbon emissions.

Stories of eight other grassroots leaders, from Alaska, to New Brunswick, Canada, to Vietnam to the Pacific island nation of Kitibati, are threaded throughout Climate Justice. And all but two of Robinson’s stories are about women grassroots climate change leaders, because “It is women who bear the brunt of climate change.” Another great strength of the book is its emphasis on the pivotal role played by indigenous communities in the struggle for climate justice.

Given the dire report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) last October, that our planetary debt is going to come due far sooner than previously predicted unless we massively reduce our greenhouse emissions, it’s not easy to feel hopeful. And although her book was published before the IPCC report, Robinson doesn’t pull her punches about many aspects of the current situation, for example, that a billion acres of tropical forests have been razed since 1975 for timber, mining, and development, when such razing releases six times as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as fossil fuel emissions. Robinson also notes the enormous harm done to the environment by military violence, for example, the four thousand square miles of forests destroyed by defoliants used by the US military during the Vietnam War. Conflict between nations over the climate refugee crisis is another serious concern.

Yet for all the sobering information it coveys about the impacts of climate change, the primary effect of Creation Justice, as its subtitle suggests, is to inspire hope. And even for a cynic like me, who does not share Robinson’s optimism that markets will cushion the essential replacement of fossil fuels with renewable energy, her absorbing narrative of grassroots, for the most part women, activists leading the climate liberation front around the world gives me great hope. I suspect it will do so for you as well.

 

 

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Would Jesus Condition His Hair?

February 4, 2019 at 12:47 pm | Posted in Capitalism, Climate Change | 2 Comments
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If you read my previous post, the review of  Bryant Holsenbeck’s book on how to give up disposable plastics, you might have gotten the impression that my interest in the topic was theoretical.

Actually, it’s personal.

After the report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change last October, which clarified the dire climate situation we are in if we don’t change our ways, I decided that writing about all this isn’t enough. First of all, I decided to eat way less meat. That hasn’t been so hard. Our food co-op sells all kinds of bean burgers and tofu turkey. Some of it actually tastes good.

The other area that I decided demands behavior change was—you guessed it—plastics. For years I believed that since New York City picks up and “recycles” plastics, my extensive use of them didn’t really matter. Then I learned that a lot of the “recycled” plastics were being shipped to and landfilled in other countries, not recycled. And only 9% of disposable plastics ever get recycled in any case.

Some of the changes I undertook weren’t terribly hard: I stopped buying a tub of pre-washed mixed lettuces once or twice a week and instead bought, washed and sliced heads of lettuce. When I couldn’t find the salad dressing I wanted in glass, I made it myself. We began buying locally produced milk in glass bottles at the green market, though they cost twice as much as the milk in plastic bottles at the supermarket. The challenge with all of this, of course, is the inconvenience. How much time do I want to spend washing lettuce or making my own salad dressing? Notre Dame Philosopher Ken Sayre targets our obsession with convenience as a major cause of the environmental crisis.

The dimension of disposable plastic that’s more challenging has to do with health care, especially as a person gets older. My prescription medications all come in plastic bottles, and I have a hunch CVS isn’t likely to be switching to non-plastic containers any time soon. My receding gums require cleaning out with dental tape and an electric toothbrush, available only in plastic, and the mouthwash for my dry mouth doesn’t come in glass either.

Then there’s personal appearance. I was a fat, homely young person, and my appearance is important to me. I did stop buying make-up, but as for my hair…a friend in Australia l suggested that I wash my hair with bicarbonate of soda and condition it with cider vinegar. I freaked out at the very idea. I need my conditioner! As a Christian, I was ashamed: would Jesus condition his hair? In the midst of this ethical conundrum, I made the wonderful discovery of a company called Lush that produces shampoo, conditioner, and other personal care products in bar form. And they have four stores in Manhattan!!!

Bryant Holsenbeck’s advice in The Last Straw was a great help to me as I waded through all this: do what you can, she writes. Just keep at it.

But I then read something that took me a step farther than Holsenbeck’s sensible advice about reducing my use of disposable plastic. A January 21 article in The Guardian reported on a new global alliance of businesses that, in the face of the growing crisis of plastic waste around the world, has committed $1 billion over the next five years to reduce the amount of such waste and improve recycling. The largest signatories to the agreement, however, including Shell, Exxon Mobil, Saudi Arabia’s state oil company Saudi Aramco and others, are at the same time investing multi-billions of dollars to build plastic production factories around the world, as fracked gas production cuts into crude oil profits. About 8 million tons of plastic waste continues to be dumped into the sea annually, “choking fish, destroying marine habitats, and entering the food chain.” The head of an environmental NGO focused on plastics said, “river and beach cleanups would not work” as long as there is a steady stream of new plastics being produced.

Neither, in and of themselves, will my efforts and those of Bryant Holsenbeck. Or as a logic professor once explained to be, these actions are “necessary but not sufficient.” Along with cutting back on our use of disposable plastics, we have to turn out onto the streets, and at politicians’ offices, and at board meetings, to demand real changes in the profit-making system that is driving the climate crisis. Jesus may not condition his hair, but I am fairly certain he expects strong political action from us on behalf of God’s threatened creation.

This blog post is a slightly revised version of an article that appeared in the February issue of Gumbo, the monthly publication of the Grail in the US, the women’s movement I’ve been involved in for fifty-four years.

Plastic, Plastic Everywhere and…?

January 5, 2019 at 4:18 pm | Posted in Climate Change, Environment, world water crisis | 3 Comments
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The Last Straw: A Continuing Quest for Life without Disposable Plastic. By Bryant Holsenbeck. Durham, North Carolina: The Resource Center for Woman and Ministry in the South, 2018. Paper. 169 pp. $25 (includes tax and shipping). https://rcwms.org/product/the-last-straw-a-continuing-quest-for-life-without-disposable-plastic/

The Grail, the women’s movement I have been part of since 1965, had been involved in the back to the land movement since the 1940s, so I had long been aware of the importance of the land, and of sustainable agriculture. But I began reading, writing and teaching intensively about the planet’s dire environmental situation after attending a week-long program on the world water crisis with Maude Barlow, the Canadian water activist, at the Chautauqua Institution in upstate New York in 2001. Barlow basically scared the bejesus out of me.

Recently, however, I have also become aware that the strategy Barlow used, and that had such a  big impact on me—laying out the horrifying facts about the situation—for many, or even most people, simply doesn’t work. For example, there was my attempt to get the new pastor at my parish here in Brooklyn to place more emphasis on climate change in sermons and religious education. When I told him that scientists are predicting that if the temperatures continue to go up at the current rate, we face the end of civilization by 2100, he told me I was the kind of crazy person who believes the end times are coming.

Then there was my article in the September 2018 issue of the Grail’s national publication about how flying is unethical because of the huge amount of greenhouse gases emitted by airplanes. Two Grail members, whose different projects I cited as examples of how much we in the Grail fly, wrote to accuse me of being against their particular effort. Then two weeks later a very dear Grail friend, whose work for the Grail in Tanzania I admire enormously, sent out an invitation for US members to travel to East Africa to learn more about the Grail there. I was fairly certain she wasn’t proposing that they travel there by boat.

Basically, almost everyone with whom I share the increasingly dire information about climate change and environmental degradation tells me that my critique can’t apply to them because what they’re involved in is too important.

I have concluded that I need to find another approach, and that that approach needs to have two characteristics: it must involve storytelling, and the stories need to be beautiful or seriously creative in some other way.

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Given this evolution in my thinking, to say that I was thrilled by Bryant Holsenbeck’s new book, The Last Straw, is to vastly understate the case. Holsenbeck is an environmental artist who became curious about where all the plastic we throw away actually goes. She discovered that there is no “away”—it’s ending up in landfills and clogging our streams and oceans.

She decided, as a result, to give up single use plastics for a year, hard as doing that might be. Then she blogged about the experience. Now the Resource Center for Women and Ministry in the South has published those blog posts in a splendid, beautiful volume, The Last Straw.

Bryant Holsenbeck is by no means the only, or even the first person to write a book about giving up single-use plastic. Already in 2012 Beth Terry, a Bay Area accountant, published Plastic Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too and blogs to keep people up to date. But Terry pretty much belongs to the strategy school that I have resigned from: telling readers everything there is to know about the plastics crisis and trusting that that info will motivate them—us—to follow her in giving up plastic.

Bryant Holsenbeck, however, is an artist, so her strategy is quite different. To begin with, the book is illustrated with pictures of the gorgeous art that Holsenbeck has been making out of discarded trash, and now especially discarded plastic, over the years.

Furthermore, instead of primarily confronting us with the statistics that activists like Beth Terry and I favor, Holsenbeck tells wonderful, engaging stories of her year of giving up plastic, and her visits to schools in North Carolina and neighboring states where she teaches students how to make the discarded plastic they have been gathering into works of art. In the course of telling these stories, she offers tidbits of encouragement—a recipe for how to make your own yogurt, for example, or a poem about a red wheelbarrow by William Carlos Williams as she recalls her wonderful experiences of composting. And underpinning it all, again and again, is Holsenbeck’s philosophy that it’s the things we can do that are important, not achieving perfection. Such a philosophy is unbelievably encouraging. Even the fact that Holsenbeck undertakes living without disposable plastics for just a year will be encouraging for some of us—though in the end, she decides she can never go back.

Of course, some of us may be ready to plunge right in, in which case, Plastic Free, with its trove of information on the evils of plastic and alternatives to it may be what just what’s needed. But if you would prefer to wade gradually into warmer water and to view a gorgeous landscape on the way, The Last Straw is definitely the book for you.

 

This review is a slightly revised version of a review that appeared in the January 2019 issue of Gumbo, the monthly publication of the Grail in the US.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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