Trump, White U.S. Catholicism, and the Fate of God’s Creation

November 27, 2016 at 6:49 pm | Posted in Climate Change, The Hierarchy, U.S. Politics, Uncategorized | 5 Comments
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In a blog posted soon after the presidential election, I argued that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops colluded in the election of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency. But that’s not all there is to Catholic collusion in the Trump phenomenon, not by a long shot.

In a preliminary analysis published on November 9, the Pew Research Center reported that 52% of U.S. Catholics voted for Trump.  But 60% of white Catholics voted for Trump. And while only 26% of Latinx Catholics voted for him—67% went for Clinton—the percentage of Latinx voters going for Clinton was an 8% decline over the percentage that went for Obama in 2012. This was another component of the Trump victory

And when we examine the individuals central to Trump’s campaign, the picture is no less disheartening.   Though I could find nothing about her current religious affiliation, if she has any,  Trump’s campaign manager and current top advisor, KellyAnne Conway (née Fitzgerald) graduated from a Catholic high school and from Trinity College, once a leading Catholic women’s college.

Then there’s Steve Bannon, the former head of the Breitbart News, an unambiguously  anti-semitic, white nationalist news site, and soon to be Trump’s chief counsel in the White House. Bannon is a Catholic. In a talk he delivered at the Vatican on June 27, 2014, sponsored by the Institute for Human Dignity, he spoke of “a crisis both of our Church, a crisis of our faith, a crisis of the West, a crisis of capitalism.” The U.S. Cardinal Raymond Burke, who has also recently assured us of Donald Trump’s Christian values, arranged to have Bannon speak at the Vatican conference.

Then there is Paul Ryan. An article I read recently argues that we should be more worried about Reince Priebus, Trump’s soon-to-be chief of staff,  than Steve Bannon. Why? Because Priebus will ultimately be more influential than Bannon—having major impact of administration hires, for example. And he is totally on board with Paul Ryan’s campaign to eviscerate the social safety net. And what’s Ryan’s religious affiliation? Roman Catholic, of course. At least the U.S Catholic Bishops did call him out for the cuts to social programs he proposed during the 2012 election, something they hardly did at all with regard to Trump’s threats during the 2016 campaign.

Now this is by no means the first time in U.S. history that white Catholics, and their bishops, have come down on the wrong side of pivotal ethical issues. In his recent book American Jesuits and the World, the distinguished scholar of U.S. Catholicism, John McGreevy, documents how the American church, and the Jesuits, were strongly pro-slavery for a stunningly long time. I believe the church called slavery “just servitude.”

And in the 1950s, the Catholic press, and the highly influential archbishop of New York,  Francis Cardinal Spellman, strongly backed anti-Communist and anti-gay “witch-hunts” by the Catholic senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy. McCarthy was eventually censured by the U.S. Senate, and died, probably of alcoholism, in 1957.

But the support of slavery and of Senator McCarthy by American Catholics and the U.S. bishops pales in significance beside their support of Donald Trump. This is so because Trump is a complete climate change denier, pledged to roll back President Obama’s already inadequate climate change initiatives, and restore the fossil fuel industry. And he has already appointed a “notorious climate change denier” and “head of a coal industry funded think tank,” Myron Ebell, to lead the transition at the Environmental Protection Agency.

Some may think this is no more significant than the threat Trump poses to Muslims and undocumented immigrants. But as an editorial in this week’s issue of The Nation argues compellingly, climate change is the “worst crisis that human beings have ever faced.” And as the U.S. Catholics who voted for Trump, and those who work for him, and the bishops well know, this is an increasingly irreversible crisis that the head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis, has called out emphatically in an encyclical, the primary teaching instrument of the Catholic Church.

But who cares about that? What really matters to the majority of white U.S. Catholics,  a minority of Latinx Catholics, and the vast majority of the U.S. Catholic bishops, is the “right to life.” And everybody understands that the earth, God’s creation, has nothing to do with life.

 

 

 

I Thirst

March 25, 2016 at 5:11 pm | Posted in world water crisis | 4 Comments
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The following is a sermon I preached ten years or so ago as part of a “Seven Last Words of Christ” service at Allen Temple Baptist Church, the largest Black church in Oakland, California. It suggests that the death of Christ calls us to much more than repentance for personal sin–that it calls us to repent for the thirst we are allowing to afflict people, especially women and children, all around the world.

 

After this, knowing that all was now finished, Jesus said (in order to fulfill the scripture), “I am thirsty.” A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put the sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. (John 19:28-29

Jesus is coming ever closer to the end of his journey. He has forgiven his persecutors. He has asked his dear friend and his mother to care for one another. He has cried out with incomprehension at being forsaken by his father. And now he speaks of an experience shared by human beings all over the world: He says that he is thirsty.

Someone who suffers what Jesus suffered has every reason to be thirsty. Blows, scourging, multiple falls, nails hammered through his wrists and feet, and the terrible struggle to breathe that comes with being hoisted up on a cross—Jesus endured them all. Scientists tell us that his dehydrated tissues would have sent a flood of stimuli to his brain, eliciting the very words we hear: “I thirst.”

But there’s something puzzling about the verses that we just read from John’s gospel—and let’s be clear, John’s is the only one of the four passion stories that includes the words “I am thirsty.” However much we may be concerned with Jesus’ thirst, the text tells us that Jesus says what he says “in order to fulfill the scripture.” What does this mean?

Recall that the community for whom the evangelist wrote this fourth gospel was not the kind of Christian community that we are accustomed to today. Rather, it was a community of Jewish Christians, still trying to convince their Jewish brothers and sisters that Jesus was the messiah. And so they paid great attention to the parts of Jesus’ life that seemed to fulfill passages in the Torah, the Jewish scripture. With this in mind, some biblical scholars claim that John inserts the words “I thirst”—and the verse that follows, about the Roman soldiers giving Jesus sour wine to drink—to highlight the way Jesus fulfills two passages in the book of psalms. In one of these a forsaken individual cries out that his mouth is dried up like a piece of broken pottery; in another, persecutors give their victim vinegar to drink.

But the passage that we read today doesn’t actually say which scripture Jesus’ words fulfill; it only asserts that they do so. Let’s consider, then, that Jesus’ words—“I am thirsty”—also refer back to and complete an earlier passage in the gospel of John itself, the story of the woman at the well.

I begin by noting the similarities between these two stories. Here, too, Jesus is thirsty. He is sitting by a well near the Samaritan city of Sychar, worn out by his journey, a weariness that foreshadows the far greater weariness of his journey to Calvary. A woman comes to the well to draw water, and Jesus says to her “Give me a drink.” Then they talk to one another.

What Christians generally remember about this story is that in this conversation, the woman tells Jesus that she has no husband, and Jesus responds that she is right, she has had five husbands, and the man she currently lives with is not her husband. From this exchange many conclude that the woman at the well is sexually loose, an adulteress, and that Jesus’ only reason for speaking to her is that their conversation gives him an opportunity to display his great knowledge.

But there is nothing in John 4 to indicate that this woman is sexually immoral; there are a number of stories in the Bible about women obligated by the Law to marry the brothers of their deceased husband in order to raise up children in his memory. Mark 4, where the Sadducees ask Jesus about a series of brothers who marry a widow is just such a story, and there is no suggestion there that the woman is immoral. What is far more likely is in the story of the woman at the well is that the woman herself is very poor, living with a man who is not her husband, because she has no other way to survive. We all know poor women in such situations; in the time of Jesus, it was even harder for poor unmarried women to support themselves than it is today. Another indication that this woman is poor is that she is hauling water, a task so hard and unending that it damaged the postures of the women required to do it.

But despite this woman’s poverty and her bad living situation, Jesus enters into conversation with her. He doesn’t just talk to her; she takes the initiative with him, asking questions and moving the conversation in new directions. She makes such an impact on Jesus that he sends her off, the first Gentile disciple, to evangelize the people of Sychar. In fact, this encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman is so powerful that the woman’s entire life is changed. We know this because, as the scripture says, when she went into the city to proclaim the Messiah, she left behind the essential tool of her former way of life, her water jar.

But what does this woman’s water jar have to do with Jesus’ words from the cross? To clarify this, recall that early in their conversation, the woman wondered aloud how it could be that Jesus, a Jew, would ask for water from a Samaritan. Jesus tells her that if she had known whom she was speaking to, she would have asked him, and he would have given her “living water.” Those who drink this living water, Jesus says, will never be thirsty again.

Now many interpreters think that the main purpose of the story of the woman at the well is precisely this teaching about “living water”—perhaps they would call it “spiritual water.” For them, spiritual water is far more significant than the actual water this poor Samaritan woman hauls back and forth. They highlight the connection between these verses and the seventh chapter of John’s gospel when Jesus cries out, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me… (for) out of the believer’s womb shall flow rivers of living water.” Indeed, when this passage says that this living water is the Spirit whom believers will not receive until Jesus is glorified, it seems to refer directly to the crucifixion. This emphasis on the superiority of living, that is to say, spiritual water, makes the woman at the well look even worse than she did before; first, she was a sexual sinner; now she’s so stupid that she confuses Jesus’ living water with real water. Even after Jesus proclaims that his water is the water of eternal life, this poor woman says, “”Sir, give it to me, so that I may not have to keep coming here to draw it.”

But I have a feeling that these people who are so taken up with the superiority of “living water” don’t understand what it is to be really thirsty. Perhaps they are like the great majority of us Americans, who simply turn on our taps, and out comes as much water as we want, at a very low price. It seems unlikely that they are the billion people around the world who lack access to clean drinking water, or the three billion people who have no sanitation. Neither are they the millions of contemporary women who, like the Samaritan woman, spend their days hauling water over long distances. And they are surely not the 40,000 children who die each day from diseases caused by contaminated water.

Finally, those who argue that the spiritual replaces or transcends the material in John’s gospel are not really the followers of Jesus. For when Jesus on the cross prepares to give up his spirit, he does not say: “I am thirsty for living water.” He says “I am thirsty.” We know that this is not just a question of symbolic water divorced from the body because we feel in our own bodies how Jesus must have felt when he got nothing but sour wine to quench his last thirst. And we know that the first gift he bestowed on his newly created church was the water that flowed out from his pierced side along with his most precious blood.

All over the world, men and women are crying out with Jesus on the cross, “I am thirsty.” They are thirsty for the word of God, the gospel of Jesus Christ. And they are thirsty to become sources of living water for their sisters and brothers, as the Samaritan woman was to the citizens of Sychar. But they cannot do this if they are literally dying of thirst, as is the case with so many in Africa, and India, and Latin America. How can women study and preach the gospel if they are doomed never to leave their water jars behind? How can girls go to school to learn to read the gospel if they are never free, as so many of them are not, from the endless task of hauling water? How can babies and small children grow up to be the disciples of Jesus if they die from cholera or dysentery before they are five years old? And last of all, how can we ever reach the kingdom of heaven if we allow such things to happen?

Jesus is hanging from the cross, preparing to send the Spirit onto the church to carry his word to the ends of the earth. When he cries out “I am thirsty,” let us not give him sour wine but the fresh and living water he so desires.

 

Thoughts About Elizabeth Johnson’s “Ask the Beasts” after Pope Francis’s Creation-Care Encyclical

July 17, 2015 at 2:23 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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Anything written about Catholicism and the environment demands reconsideration after the publication of Pope Francis’s attention-grabbing creation care encyclical on June 18, 2015. This includes my earlier review of Elizabeth Johnson’s Ask the Beasts.

A major question involves the place of women, and of feminist theology and activism, in Catholic teaching on climate change and environmental destruction. As I argued previously, despite the occasional action to the contrary (such as washing women’s feet on Holy Thursday), Pope Francis adheres to the traditional Vatican position on women and sexuality. That is to say, he continues the teaching on complementarity enforced by his papal predecessors. In this teaching women are intrinsically passive and receptive and men active, just as Christ is the male Spouse and the Church is the receptive, obedient “wife.” It seems likely that the Pope himself actually holds these positions, but even if he didn’t, given the institutional church’s focus on sexual teaching since Vatican II, his moving in any other direction would risk a civil war. What Pope Francis says about population and abortion in Laudato Si’ certainly suggests that his position on women and sexuality are consistent with the teachings of Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI.

In my review, I situate Elizabeth Johnson’s Ask the Beasts within the history of feminist theology. Doing so at the time made sense, given Johnson’s historic role in Catholic feminist theology and particularly given the ferocious criticism of her previous book, Quest for the Living God, by the U.S. Catholic Bishops (This condemnation was subsequently reiterated by the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith). In my review, I argue that Johnson showed considerable courage in publishing Ask the Beasts since she includes in it some of the theological positions singled out by the U.S. bishops.

What I do not say is that in various places in the book, Johnson also is careful to emphasize the basically orthodox Catholic positions she holds on the transcendence of God along with God’s profound love and connection with creation. In these passages she is rebutting the bishops’ suggestions that she is, in effect, a pantheist, someone who denies any separation between God and the material world.

Furthermore, at a lunch we shared after I had published my review of Ask the Beasts, Johnson told me that some feminists had criticized the book because it says very little about women. I myself had overlooked this fact because I was at the time unable to think of Johnson’s work outside the context of her massive contributions to feminist theology– even her book on Darwin and the Nicene Creed, neither of which are exactly feminist texts (!). But as I reviewed Ask the Beasts after our luncheon conversation, I had to admit that Johnson says very little about women or feminism there. (Though I would argue that her reconfiguration of God’s relation to creation in light of evolution is implicitly feminist because it undercuts the classic Christian polarization between women/earth and the “male” God in heaven).

Later in our luncheon I asked Johnson a question. Now I put that same question to you.

The issues that Pope Francis addresses in Laudato Si’ are matters of life and death. Might it then not be wise for at least some of us to stop talking about the feminist issues that have been the cause of so much conflict between the Vatican, the hierarchy, and Catholic women, and to focus instead on spreading the Pope’s call for “integral ecology”?

Some conservative Catholic bishops, priests, politicians, and churchgoers have tried to dismiss the Pope’s words as going beyond the scope of his knowledge and authority. Should Catholic women activists and theologians criticize the encyclical from the left, objecting, for example, to his dismissal of population as an environmental issue because it can be seen to be so closely tied to issues of reproductive freedom? Or should we put our own deeply held concerns about women’s equality in the Church aside and support Pope Francis? After all, isn’t he downright heroic to have put out such a stinging critique of the neo-liberal capitalism, overconsumption, and market economy that are doing so much harm not only to the air we breathe, but to the lives of our sisters (and brothers) in sub-Saharan Africa, in the Pacific, and the fields of  California?

To illustrate where I come down on this question, let me tell you a story. Since the publication of the encyclical, I have a been working with an ad hoc group of Catholic laywomen and sisters here in New York City to draft and send out a series of inserts about Laudato Si’ to be published in parish bulletins. I myself wrote the first series of inserts which other members of the committee then edited and sent out to parishes. At a certain point the chair of the committee said she hoped I didn’t mind that she hadn’t included my name as the author of the inserts. She didn’t want anybody to Google my name and find my blog or all the books and articles I’ve written on Catholic feminist issues and then dismiss the inserts as too radical.

I said I didn’t mind at all.

(This post is the revision of an addendum to my review of Elizabeth Johnson’s Ask the Beasts that was recently circulated for discussion among members in seventeen countries by the International Grail Movement.)

The Synod on the Family and the End of the World

October 27, 2014 at 4:46 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments
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By now, it’s hard to imagine anyone who hasn’t heard about the recent gathering of Catholic bishops in Rome to discuss certain unbelievably important issues related to sexuality. The document presented for discussion, the relatio, used such radical terms as “welcoming” with regard to gays and lesbians, and the possibility of divorced and remarried Catholics being allowed to take communion.  Some conservative bishops have objected to the very mention of such things, for example, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, who has said that causing “confusion” in the church is “of the devil.” And in the Sunday New York Times, the conservative Catholic columnist Ross Douthout argues that reversing Catholic sexual teaching, in particular, the teaching on divorce and remarriage as adultery, would put the church on a “precipice.” The is so, we’re told, because the sinfulness of divorce is rooted in the “specific words of Jesus of Nazareth.” If Pope Francis does allow such a reversal, we learn, it “would encourage doubt and defections…and eventually a real schism.” If the pope seems to be choosing this dangerous path–“reassigning his potential critics in the hierarchy, stacking the next synod’s ranks with supporters of a sweeping change…”– conservative Catholics should  consider that this pope “may be preserved from error only if the church itself resists him.”

Douthout is a successful writer, and he certainly has a right to his opinions.  But some of what he writes in this particular manifesto is problematic, to say the least. With regard to the “specific words” of Jesus on remarriage after divorce as adultery, I don’t have a copy of the Jesus Seminar volume that highlights in red the actual words of Jesus in the Gospels, but a lot of Jesus’ words were added by the books’ authors to address problems that arose well after his departure.  Even more to the point, as Baptist ethicist David Gushee notes in a new book in which he changes his position on LGBTI people,  Christians have been quoting the Bible to support their entrenched positions–on slavery, segregation, antisemitism, misogyny–for a very long time.  The church owes apologies to many, many people, including gays, lesbians, and divorced and remarried Catholics.

Another questionable assertion in Douthout’s article has to do with the terrible effect that a reversal of Catholic sexual teachings will have on the church’s small minority of orthodox adherents who have “done the most to keep the church vital in an age of institutional decline.” If Douthout had read Young Catholic America, a new sociological study about the  practice and beliefs of young American Catholics, he would be forced to acknowledge that the orthodox, here in the U.S. at least, are not keeping the church particularly vital: only 7 percent of Catholics between the ages of 18 and 23 are what we might call “practicing” Catholics–going to Mass each week, saying religion is very important, praying. Twenty-seven per cent at the other end of the spectrum are totally disengaged.  Why? according to the Commonweal reviewer, “the most obvious factor identified in both the interviews and the survey data in Young Catholic America seems to be disaffection from Catholic sexual teaching, dramatically so with respect to both premarital sex and birth control.” A full 61 percent of “practicing” young Catholics report that they have had pre-marital sex. And young Catholics  across the spectrum acknowledged in their interviews that they have “major problems with the church’s ‘unrealistic’ teachings” on such matters.  How’s that for a precipice: huge numbers of young American Catholics ignoring teachings that people like Douthout make out to be the source and summit of the faith. (See my earlier post about sexual teaching as the top of the Catholic ideology hierarchy.)

But my chief complaint about the synod on the family is not aimed only at conservative Catholics like Douthout. It’s also aimed at the rest of us– Pope Francis, the bishops, and progressive Catholics like me who are preoccupied, not to say obsessed, with the church’s sex/gender teachings  and behavior. (I myself have published five books and several hundred articles and reviews addressing aspects of sexuality and gender in Catholicism and Christianity.)

So why am I enormously frustrated with all of us, myself included? Because we ARE on a precipice– in fact, we’re actually on our way over this precipice, but it’s not the one Douthout is  worrying about. It’s the one that’s already causing massive droughts in the American West, from which a major portion of our food comes, and will cause very many coastal communities (including New York City) to be under water by 2050 (to give just a few examples.) It’s the climate precipice, and the fact that the synod focused on divorce and gay marriage instead of on our destruction of God’s creation is scandalous.  But of course, at a synod on that topic there might be some discussion about the ways in which the doctrine of  a transcendent God and the intrinsic nature of the missionary position contribute to the destruction of the world. And that would cause even more demonic confusion than the synod on the family did.

After the People’s Climate March

September 25, 2014 at 4:31 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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Last Sunday, between 300 and 400 thousand other people and I marched around Manhattan to tell world leaders on their way to the UN climate summit that things have to change. I am sure you have seen photos and videos and read articles about the March. It was in many ways inspiring and encouraging. Just seeing the outfits people wore and the signs they carried made me smile many times. One of my favorites was a crude sign–a piece of cardboard on a stick carried by a young man–that read, “I Can’t Swim.” And as a person who has made many snide remarks over the years about environmentalists being white people who love polar bears, I laughed out loud at a t-shirt with a polar bear on it, who said, in a cartoon bubble, “Save the Humans!” Furthermore, after the March, at the UN, many heads of state, including our own Barack Obama, made inspiring statements about the need to act on climate change.

But there are (at least) two things you need to know if you want to grasp the full significance of the People’s Climate March.  This first may be obvious to a lot of readers: it took a massive amount of work. For the Interfaith Contingent, with which I and my sister Grail members marched, just establishing the order for our various groups to stand in  took very many  emails and phone discussions. The people from GreenFaith and 350.org who got us organized deserve an enormous amount of credit. It is also the case that in order to be sure the police would allow us to enter the Interfaith staging area on 58th St. for the March, we had to arrive before 11 AM, even though our contingent didn’t actually start marching until approximately 2:15 PM. Marching around Manhattan for an hour is nothing compared to standing and sitting and standing some more for three and half hours. I was exhausted before we set out.

The other thing you need to know is that, hundreds of thousands of marchers in NYC and around the world notwithstanding, the March doesn’t begin to be enough to force world leaders to take action on climate change. This is the case because neoliberalism, the economic system that came to dominate the world during the reigns of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, simply won’t permit some reasoned process of changing our energy system, no matter how desperately such change is needed. As Chris Hedges points out in a devastating Truthdig column published a few days before the March, the NYC police, under the leadership of our ostensibly progressive mayor, wouldn’t so much as allow the March anywhere near the United Nations, despite the fact that it was explicitly aimed at the UN summit occurring later that week. The fossil fuel industry owns the government, and as Hedges argues compellingly, we’re going to have to engage in non-violent protest in very large numbers to turn things around. (I myself am  terrified at the prospect of going to jail, so don’t think I read Hedges’ article with equanimity.)

Adrian Parr’s galvanizing book, The Wrath of Capital: Neoliberalism and Climate Change Politicsclarifies the ways in which the neoliberal economics that is inscribed in our societal DNA again and again appropriates environmental and climate change discourse (and actions) for its own purpose, the endless expanse of profit. It does this by rendering invisible the full cost of various climate related practices and products. For example, in her chapter on water, Parr explores the ways in which the water wars in Cochabamba, Bolivia in the early 2000s did and did not reverse the impacts of neoliberalism on the thirst of the average Bolivian. For water activists like me, the success of the citizens of Cochabamba in overturning the forced privatization of their water as part of the World Bank’s “structural adjustment program” was a glorious example of an environmental victory. Unfortunately, deeply inscribed class differences and political corruption mean many Bolivians must still struggle mightily for access to reasonably priced potable water. Similarly, the government of India touts the marvels that genetically modified seeds are doing and will do for the farmlands of India increasingly devastated by climate change. No mention is made of the profits the corporations who own these seeds are making, the increasing debt of the farmers who buy them, and the rising suicide rate among them. We might also ask who owns the factories where solar panels are manufactured and what  the laborers in those factories are being paid.

The argument that we can mitigate climate change and grow the neoliberal economy at the same time is what my doktormutter, Laura Levitt, calls a “happy narrative.” Enslaving somebody, destroying the environment,  and growing the economy go hand in hand, and only a radical commitment to stopping all of them can get us where we need to go.

 

What if We Prayed–or Preached–Differently?

March 12, 2014 at 11:44 am | Posted in Environment | 9 Comments
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Lately, I’ve been reading Thomas Berry. Berry was a “geologian”–an ecological theologian–who began decades ago talking about the environment, and the universe, and the cosmos, and how we’d better start taking them all more seriously. At Grailville, the Grail’s organic farm in southwest Ohio, we were reading Berry’s articles on this sort of thing in mimeographed form, before they were published, in the mid-1970s.

Just now I’m reading Berry’s The Great Work (1999). Throughout its two-hundred pages, Berry argues that we must leave behind the current era of planetary destruction  and move into a period when we humans become present to the Earth in a manner that is mutually enhancing. What we need, he tells us, is a new story of the universe, a “numinous revelatory story that could evoke the vision but also the energies needed for bringing ourselves and the entire planet into a new order of survival.” (71). Fifteen years after the book’s publication, with glaciers melting and extreme weather events multiplying, we need such a story even more.

But where do we get it? Reading Berry has me asking this question as I’ve attended various Catholic services during and just prior to this holy season of Lent.

First there was the Gospel for the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, Matt. 6:24 to 34. It’s a well-known reading, in which Jesus urges his followers not to be anxious about their lives. God knows we need to hear that.  But I was struck by the passage about the birds. “Consider the birds of the air. They neither sow nor reap…Yet your Heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” 

Now two thousand years ago, this was a perfectly reasonable thing to say; religions like Judaism were working to get people to recognize their dignity and not behave like animals. But today, we are destroying approximately three hundred species a day, and we know, as Jesus did not, that these species are an essential part of planetary survival, providing, for example, bacteria to be used in the drugs of the future, not to mention in food production, cleaning the air, etc. Maybe it’s time we stopped telling ourselves that we are of more value than other species. When I mentioned this to the priest on the way out after Mass, he looked at me as if I’d said that Jesus had actually been a hedgehog.

Then there was Ash Wednesday, with the famous verse spoken by the minister as she/he applies ashes to foreheads: “Remember you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.” As with Jesus’ statement about the birds, there was good reason for the authors to use the word “dust,” (or “sand,” as it was in the Latin)  when the original story was written in Genesis. There’s a lot more sand in the Middle East than there is in North America, so lots of people probably did end up getting buried in it. And even today, most people no doubt get the basic idea–the burnt palm from which the ashes come is a metaphor for death. And more people get cremated all the time. But imagine if the verse were “Remember you are earth, and unto earth you shall return,” and the minister rubbed dirt on our foreheads each Ash Wednesday. Or that he (would that it were she!) preached that we really do come from the earth and will return there. Maybe then we Christians would start demanding that the government no longer allow the destruction of our topsoil at the current terrifying rate.

Finally, there was the liturgy for the first Sunday of Lent, at a progressive parish in Manhattan. I made it through all three readings without being reminded directly of the contributions the Christian tradition has made to human alienation from the cosmos. But then there was this verse in the Offertory hymn which was aimed at inspiring hope in the worshippers: “Look to God when cynics say our planet’s doom is sealed. Look to God by whose great pow’r the dead were raised and the lepers were healed.”

Of course, if you take the words literally, they’re fine. Earth’s doom isn’t sealed. But half the people in this country believe that climate change is a fraud. And a good number more believe that it really is coming, but that that’s fine too, because it’s just a sign of the end times and the return of Jesus. Maybe hymn writers need to be a bit more careful about encouraging such attitudes.

And some of us who are less confident about the end times as a solution note that in its 2013 report, the UN’s 2013 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that we have approximately fifteen years to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions before certain aspects of climate change become irreversible. Maybe those of us who fear doom is over the horizon aren’t so much cynics as realists. And maybe genuine hope involves demanding that our clergy start preaching about planetary survival and that our government stop allowing the fossil fuel industry to trade that survival for big bucks.

At Last, A Climate Change Solution!

May 12, 2013 at 5:00 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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So you already know that climate change is doing very bad things to the planet. People around here, in New York and New Jersey, are still scrambling to recover from Superstorm Sandy. Record flooding has ended the drought in parts of the midwest, but 46.9% of contiguous states are still in a drought, “with water content in the California  snowpack at 17% of normal, an ominous situation for a state that depends on a steady stream of snowmelt to replenish reservoirs throughout the summer.” And last Friday scientists reported that CO2 in the atmosphere had reached 400 parts per million, a level not seen on earth for millions of years, and that guarantees future catastrophic weather events and related problems..

But now there’s a solution. We can just go to Mars–well, some of us, at least.

If, like me, you don’t follow space exploration very closely, you may have missed the fact that in August, NASA achieved one of the biggest breakthroughs in space exploration since the 1970s:  its space rover,” Curiosity,” landed successfully on Mars, and in the months that followed, accomplished tasks that resulted in a number of major discoveries. Basically, the “Curiosity” mission determined that water has existed on Mars, and that therefore certain locations there constitute the first truly habitable places in the solar system not on our planet. A fine article by Burkhard Bilger in the April 22 issue of the New Yorker details the exploratory process and the discoveries that emerged.

It seems unlikely that the average person will be setting off  for Mars any time soon. The “Curiosity” mission cost two and a half billion dollars, but the Great Recession resulted in a significant cut-back in NASA funding; the next two planned missions will be modest by comparison, “NASA technology from the 1960s”, as one scientist described it. Even the missions being planned by private firms like Space X and Orbital Sciences sound like pretty small potatoes.

Yet the entire episode reminds me of learning some years ago that a group of extremely rich men were investing millions of dollars in stem cell research. They were doing so in hopes that near the end of their lives they could be frozen until stem cell research progressed to the point where whatever problem threatened their survival would be cured. They were hoping, in effect, to become immortal.

The prospect of leaving our burgeoning environmental destruction behind and flying off to Mars may soon be equally appealing to those with the resources to do so. Bilger reports a possibly apocryphal survey in which three-quarters of astronauts said that they would go to Mars if the opportunity presented itself, despite the fact that, for the foreseeable future, such a trip would be necessarily one-way. “The pilgrims on the Mayflower didn’t hang around Plymouth Rock waiting for a ship to take them back,” the Apollo astronaut Buzz Aldrin later told him.

But that was theoretical. Now, a Dutch non-profit organization, Mars One, is actually planning to send a crew to Mars in 2022, according to Time magazine. Thus far, seventy-eight thousand people have applied to go, the vast majority of them from the US. The non-profit is producing a reality television show to raise the six billion dollars needed to fund the expedition.

This all sounds absurd, of course. But so, I suspect, did Columbus’s outing half a millennium ago. At least there are no indigenous people on Mars to have their environments and cultures destroyed.

Meanwhile, those unwilling to abandon the blue planet in favor of the red one are massing in Bryant Park, in Manhattan, tomorrow at 5 PM, to tell President Obama what we think about the Keystone XL Pipeline. We hope you will join us.

Whose Story of Climate?

April 15, 2013 at 11:46 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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I was more or less grandmothered in to the environmental movement when I began spending time at the Grail’s organic farm and conference center outside Cincinnati in the late 1960s. Some of my readers will recall my blogpost back in 2011 about taking care of the chickens there. As a result of my training at Grailville, I have been washing, reusing and recycling plastic bags for forty-five years, more or less.

But then, a decade or so ago, I became intensely  aware of the ecological crises that are imminent—the world water crisis, and climate change. So in addition to writing about Catholicism, my other mania, I also do a certain amount of writing about the environment.

Today I share with you a review of a 2012 book about the climate; it was published this month in Gumbo, the newsletter of the Grail in the United States.

The Whole Story of Climate: What Science Reveals About the Nature of Endless Change. By E. Kirsten Peters. Prometheus Books, 2012. Hardback, 290 pp. $26.00.

At one level, The Whole Story of Climate by geologist E. Kirsten Peters of Washington State University is “a history of Earth’s climate and…of how scientists learned about climate.” Readers like me, wary of abstruse scientific writing, will be pleasantly surprised by the narrative drive of Peters’s book. Who would have thought it possible to fashion the rise and fall of temperature over millions of years into a page-turner?

An example of the author’s gift for making science accessible is her use of a football field to explain the history of climate. The far end of the gridiron represents the start of the Pleistocene Era, 1.8 million years ago, while the other end is today. Each 5.5 yards (100,000 years) there’s an Ice Age, followed by a warmer period. Six and half yards from our end zone there’s an even warmer period, followed by several yards of bitter cold, and then our own, warm but not the warmest, Holocene Epoch. The point of the football field—and the rest of the book—is to show us that over its entire history, climate has changed repeatedly, and radically. Moreover, Peters argues, it’s much more likely that we’re on the verge of another cold snap than a warm one.

At one level, then, The Whole Story of Climate is a well-written, accessible book that provides readers with a much-needed wider context for the debate over climate change currently taking place. At another level, however, there’s a good deal in this book that readers should be wary of. This is so because it’s virtually impossible to have a dispassionate scientific discussion about climate change in our time. Peters herself rails repeatedly throughout The Whole Story against the misrepresentations of climate change by “journalists” who, in her reading, fail to communicate to the public that climate change is natural, and that calls for mitigation of global warming by expensive sustainable fuels are baseless. Yet Peters herself is a journalist—her book bio mentions that she, as “the Roc Doc,” writes a syndicated newspaper column—and surely the book’s title is a journalistic, not a scientific one. No reputable scientific work is titled “The Whole Story of” anything.

I also have some concerns about the perspective geology itself brings to the dangers of climate change.  Fairly early on in the book Peters states that “geologists take as a sacred responsibility the task of understanding, identifying, and providing energy sources for our societies” (89). The use of the word “sacred” is striking here, and one suspects that the fuels geologists are sacredly committed to providing are fossil fuels, a commitment that may make it difficult to advocate for solar and wind energy.

More to the point, geologists necessarily think in terms of millions, or even billions, of years, within which the extinction of species is not a big deal. Peters does admit from time to time that the increasing level of greenhouse gases could be a serious problem; that, in fact, it could precipitate the flipping of Earth’s climate into an era of either extreme heat or extreme cold. And her discussion, in the concluding chapter, of the possibility of a 3% reduction is greenhouse gases by extinguishing the thousands of underground coal fires around the world alone makes the previous 242 pages worthwhile. Why, I join her in asking, aren’t we doing something about this?

Finally, though, the harm likely to occur in the near future as a result of a warming planet concerns Peters a good deal less than the very long range climate picture and the ideological wars between geologists and other environmental scientists. At the end of the book, for example, she spends less than a page acknowledging that global warming through 2100 is likely to have many more negative consequences for the poor in places like Africa and the Middle East than for people like us in Europe and North America.

But she spends eighteen pages accusing (non-geologist) environmental scientists of dishonesty by virtue of being in the pay of big-government and comparing them to Eisenhower’s “military-industrial complex” based on a mistake in the 2001 Third Assessment Report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. I can’t help thinking that the people here in New York whose lives were upended by Hurricane Sandy, as well as the Pacific Islanders whose cultures are being washed away by sea level rise, are a lot more concerned about the “short term” implications of global warming than Peters is.

Climate Change, Fellas?

October 30, 2012 at 3:15 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments
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I trust you will excuse me for using this blog as a way of communicating with my friends and relations that although Keith and I live in Brooklyn, NY,, Hurricane Sandy did us no harm. Western Flatbush may not be the section of New York most lusted after by new residents, but it does have the advantage of being outside all the flood zones. And the electrical wires are buried underground in much of Brooklyn, something the rest of you may want to think about as these extreme weather events become more common.

Which leads me to my next topic. As Hurricane Sandy was bearing down upon us, the presidential campaign slowed but certainly did not stop. When it tools up again, it will be interesting to see if, in the light of this storm, either of the candidates utters the words “climate change.” They certainly haven’t done so up till now.

I am by no means the only person to have noted this. 350.org tried to have a demonstration in Manhattan on Sunday, to point out the connection between climate change and Hurricane Sandy, but they had to cancel it because of the storm. And in a recent article on TomDispatch.com titled “Climate and Clarity,” Rebecca Solnit reflects incisively on the connections between climate change, Sandy, and massive greed. I urge you to read what she has to say.

But I don’t think it hurts to repeat what Solnit and others are saying: extreme weather events, like this storm, and the massive drought in the US midwest last summer, and the tsunami in Hawaii the other day that turned out to be not so bad, are directly linked to climate change. As  a blogger on 350.org observed just before Hurricane Sandy hit, ” This is a storm unlike any we’ve seen before because the earth is doing things it has never done before. The water along the Atlantic coast is 5 degrees hotter than usual, super-charging Sandy’s rainfall, and drawing the strength of the storm further north…”

Now don’t get me wrong here. By pointing out that neither President Obama nor Mitt Romney have said anything in their campaigns about climate change, I am not suggesting that there are no other differences between them. The election of Mitt Romney portends a catastrophe for this country, even for a significant number of the people who will vote for him.

But as a compelling article in The Nation last week documents, Obama–and the Democrats in general–aren’t doing at all well on energy. This is probably because of the huge amounts of money the energy industry pours into lobbying and campaign contributions. The 2010 campaign of Andrew Cuomo, the Democratic governor of New York, was the single biggest recipient of campaign contributions from the natural gas industry during the period 2005 to 2011. Is it any surprise that he then undertook to permit natural gas fracking in the state, until literally thousands upon thousands of citizens protested such a possibility?

I might add that the “fellas” in the title of this blog post does not refer only to politicians. The US Catholic bishops have not exactly made climate change a big issue in this election either. Climate change is optional, you know, since it’s not directly connected to abortion or contraception. Of course, the bishops did establish a Catholic Coalition on Climate Change a few years back. And that group has been speaking out boldly during this election, as I’m sure you know. And at the bishops’ urging, Catholic priests speak out from the pulpit about climate change all the time. Believe that and I’ll tell you about my recent trip to Mars.

As the flooded-out residents of New York City now grasp, the extreme weather that comes with climate change is no joke. If Mitt Romney is elected, they had better move to higher ground. But even if God has mercy on us and Barack Obama is re-elected, the day after the election, we have got to start banging our fists on him, because climate change has arrived, and the window of opportunity for doing anything about it is shrinking as you read this.

Plastic II: LOL

July 24, 2011 at 4:29 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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Well, when I wrote my blog on Friday, they were predicting a high of 100, but actually it went to 103. My brother said that while driving on the Long Island Expressway, his car registered 123 outside.

One response to extreme heat like this, of course, is to buy bottles of cold water. But, as you perhaps know, buying bottles of water, unless (and even if) you assiduously recycle the bottles, only adds to the problem. In the first place, producers use millions of gallons of fuel to make plastic bottles and transport them, after draining already declining aquifers to fill them.  Then 75% of all plastic bottles go  straight into landfills, thus increasing the methane in the atmosphere, which traps more heat, which causes even more global warming.

I have to confess, however, that yesterday when my husband and I drove in the hundred degree heat down to the Jersey shore so he could officiate at an (outdoor!) wedding, I forgot to bring my metal water bottle with me . So I bought some bottled water,

But I’m  almost glad I did, because if I hadn’t I would have missed  the opportunity to explode with the biggest guffaw of my recent life. The 16.9 fluid ounce bottle was produced by “Poland Spring,” that is to say, Nestle, one of the most massive, richest producers of bottled water on earth. I brought the bottle home to recycle so I have it right here. It’s 8 inches tall and two inches in diameter, with a plastic cap that measures 1 by 1/4 inches. And on the back of the label there’s a green leaf and the following bit of information:

SMALLER CAP=LESS PLASTIC. Did you notice this bottle has an Eco-Slim cap? This is part of our ongoing effort to reduce our impact on the environment. This bottle and cap contain an average of 20% less plastic than our original 500 mL Eco-Shape bottle and cap. Be Green.

Of course, the bottled water industry spews forth ideological crap like this all the time. On World Water Day they advertise their contributions to countries whose droughts are driven by climate change. And now Nestle invites us to congratulate them because they are in effect, nuking the  environment with only four thousand warheads, or smoking four packs of cigarettes a day instead of five. I mean, seriously.

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