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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Jesus and the Climate Bill
distributed 7/30/10 - ©2010

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Sarah Johnson, of Denver, Colorado. Her generous support helps make this publication possible.

The US Senate has given up on any pretense of developing a comprehensive climate and energy bill this summer. "Disappointed" just does not capture my reaction at this point. More vivid words are needed: angry, disgusted, frustrated and grief-stricken.

So what do we do now?

Without being trite or sarcastic, I find two pieces of contradictory advice from Jesus about how to deal with times of great hurt and disappointment. There is truth in two recommendations about intractable situations.

  • "If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them." (Mark 6:11)
  • "Peter came and said to him, 'Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?' Jesus said to him, 'Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.'" (Matthew 18:21-22)

Which shall we do? Give up on a hopeless cause, or be persistent and forgiving in the relationship? Perhaps it is best to do some of each.

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I presume that most readers of these Notes see the failure of the Senate to deal with climate as genuinely sinful. It is a sin against God and the creation.

Bartholomew I, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Orthodox Churches, has written, "To commit a crime against the natural world is a sin ... for humans to contaminate the earth's water, its land, its air, and its life with poisonous substances ... these are sins." So, too, it is a sin when our national leaders refuse to act on the most essential matters addressing the crisis of global heating.

It is sin, and as people of faith, we must be ready to forgive, even when the sin is great and recurring. Not just seven times, but seventy-seven times. (If you're keeping count of the votes and the public statements, you probably need to forgive on the 78th time, too.)

But forgiveness does not mean that we are passive. Luke's version of the "forgive seven times" theme includes an important dimension. "If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive." (Luke 17:3) Even when it happens seven times in one day. (The apostles replied, "Increase our faith!")

When we are witnesses to sin, we must rebuke the offender. We must announce the sin, and call for repentance. It is faithful and appropriate to hold accountable those who stymied any consideration of climate provisions in this summer's energy legislation. It is fair to challenge those Senators who would have supported a strong bill, but who never took action among their colleagues to make such legislation politically viable.

(By way of disclosure, both of the Senators from my home state, Colorado, probably would have voted for the potential climate provisions. Each of our Senators exercised some leadership on related issues. They were not the most prominent leaders in the cause, but did some decent things. Thanks are appropriate, too.)

"Rebuking" is one form of action that is being encouraged by the climate action groups that I respect. Contact your Senators, and other Senate leaders. Let them know that you are angry and disappointed -- perhaps by their personal stance, and certainly by the Senate's collective failure. (As people of faith, we can speak theologically about how their failure to act is sinful.) When the Senators are back home for the August recess, show up at their public events (called "shadowing" to make statements, and to ask questions about their stance on climate.

That is one side of our action. Rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, forgive.

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There is also truth in the advice Jesus gave to those sent out to preach. If a community refuses to hear you, go elsewhere.

For more than a decade, significant action on climate has been more than the Senate can handle. There are all sorts of reasons for that, ranging from pure partisan divisiveness, to corporate influence, to the misbegotten sense that the job of a Senator is to deliver short-term goodies to the state. There is little sense of gracious statesmanship which looks to the long-term common good. As many people have said recently, the Senate is broken.

If comprehensive legislation that will start to coordinate US action on climate is too hard for the Senate, then shake the dust from our feet, and go elsewhere. Don't give up, but go to work somewhere that can make a difference. There are many realms for our action.

Continued political advocacy will be needed to ensure that the Environmental Protection Agency can develop rules constraining greenhouse gasses. If Congress cannot or will not pass proactive climate legislation, then administrative action must be taken. We must witness -- to politicians, and within our communities -- about our support of strong new EPA rules to enforce the Clean Air Act.

The US government is not the only place where action is being taken. Cities and states are moving toward a wide range of effective actions that address the climate crisis. They are defining standards for renewable energy, making bold decisions that block new coal fired power plants, developing strong new building codes, and reworking transportation infrastructure. States and provinces are creating "cap and trade" systems that embody what has been impossible at the national level. We can make a difference by being engaged locally and regionally where success is possible.

Part of the Senate's paralysis comes from procedural rules that are being abused. The filibuster used to be a rare tool engaged in extraordinary times, but it has become so common that virtually any action in the Senate now needs 60 votes. Action to reform Senate rules (or to have consequences for the misuse of those rules) might make it possible for the US Congress to move on climate legislation in the future.

We also need to remember that the political realm, while important, is not the only place where we can act. We can use investments to shape business policies. We can call for our friends and neighbors to join us as we seek to live more gently and justly as part of the Earth community. We can educate about the reality of climate change and other ecological threats. We can preach good news about the hope to be found in sustainable living.

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Two thousand years ago, Jesus wasn't describing political strategies to be used in the heart of a global empire to address an unfolding ecological crisis. But he was talking about how to be both faithful and strategic in doing God's work in the world. His advice holds true, even about how to respond when the US Senate fails to do what is most important.

Rebuke, and be willing to forgive. Go to work where you can make a difference.

As the apostles said, "increase our faith!" so that we, too, might do that work.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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