Recognizing that the climate crisis represents the greatest moral challenge humanity has faced, this article posits that God is calling the Baby Boomer generation to embrace a fresh understanding of human freedom (interdependence), fulfillment (gratitude for having enough), vocation (we’re all in this together!) and salvation (it’s not just personal, it’s collective) as it creates an unstoppable mandate to restore creation. It provides examples of how congregations are responding to this call and concludes by showing how gratitude propels the embrace of new transformative practices, which in turn open a gateway to hope.
Climate crisis, collective vocation, moral challenge, congregation, clergy, universal calling, climate movement, climate justice, gratitude, hope
“Who knows? Perhaps you [were born] for just such a time as this.”
—Hebrew Bible, The Book of Esther 4:14b
The congregation grew quiet as the prelude ended, and their clergy leader approached the pulpit. Once there, she looked out over the congregation and said with a smile, “As we do every week, I’d like to ask those who contacted their member of Congress or the White House this past week to advocate for new laws that will make our Earth sustainable to please rise as you are able and receive our applause. ... Thank you, and I hope to see all of you rise next week” (Antal, 2018).
About a decade ago, I began suggesting to clergy that this should become the first announcement in every church, synagogue, temple, and mosque. Many responded, “This could never work in my congregation. Such an announcement is way too political. People would see it as creating a partisan divide.”
And I would ask them how in God’s name can advocating for the preservation of God’s creation be understood as partisan? And why in God’s name have people of faith allowed God’s creation to be hijacked and reduced to just one more ideological dispute? Is it not a spiritual practice to advocate for laws to preserve the common good—including protecting God’s gift of creation?
While clergy may sympathize with my frustration, they recognize that their congregations are rapidly becoming older and older (Jones, 2021). Ask any elder who regularly attends worship why they do so and they will likely tell you that weekly worship adds meaning to their life. The connection with long-time (and often like-minded) friends matters. The familiar patterns of worship provide comfort.
Because of this, clergy often avoid controversial topics that may cause conflict. However, houses of worship with vibrant congregations recognize that the community they create each week must be relevant to the lives of their members. And so, they accept the challenge—and opportunity—to call upon the principles, values, and insights of their faith tradition as they address the most prominent local, national, and global issues of the day.
Congregants often are grateful when their house of worship faces such issues. They appreciate learning how their faith tradition illuminates and helps them to interpret this or that headline. If many in the congregation are anxious or confused about how to respond to a controversy, their church, synagogue, temple, or mosque can provide a safe context in which they can sort things out. Doing so provides an experience of relief, which then frees them to take action.
Let me illustrate this idea by returning to my opening story. Two and a half years ago—just before Covid hit—a pastor thanked me for this suggestion. A few months earlier, he opened worship in this fashion. And since then, he has begun every worship service in this manner. Lo and behold, it proved to be just the conversation starter his congregation needed to overcome our societal aversion to talking about the climate crisis. It also prompted several in his congregation to ask him to preach about the difference between being political and being partisan. He was pleasantly surprised as his congregation came to embrace this way of entering into worship. In less than a minute, it invited personal testimony and accountability, as well as connecting people with God’s call to be good stewards of the Earth (Genesis 9) as we address the greatest moral challenge humanity has ever faced.
Why haven’t more houses of worship embraced this approach? More importantly, why haven’t more churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques engaged the climate crisis? As this example points out, many (perhaps most) avoid being political because they’ve failed to distinguish being political from being partisan.
Advocacy Is a Duty of Faith Traditions
Churches, synagogues, temples and mosques are not only concerned with our private lives. Beginning with their founders, every faith tradition is also concerned with the shape and values of our public life. Politics is the means by which people shape their life together. Every faith tradition I know supports at least these four principles: address the needs of the least of these among us; assure and advance justice; promote the common good; and preserve and restore the integrity of creation.
Many churches avoid being political because they’ve failed to distinguish being political from being partisan.
When clergy or congregations advocate for laws and policies that advance and fulfill these principles, they are being political. But being partisan is entirely different. Endorsing a candidate, supporting a political party, fundraising for a candidate or a political party—these partisan activities have no place in the life of the church, synagogue, temple, or mosque.
But even when a congregation and its leader are clear about this distinction, there’s another factor that can get in the way of engagement. Every time I visit a congregation, I’ll look at the announcements or the bulletin boards to get a sense of who they are. More often than not, a particular mission, a passion, a rally cry, or a justice issue emerges as distinctive. Larger congregations may have several. Often, each is associated with a particular person whose tireless advocacy for that cause convinces others to give their time, talent, or treasure.
All of this is a wonderful expression of “calling”—or vocation. Usually, we think of calling as personal. God may call this individual to pursue one path, while God may call another individual to champion a different passion. Often, the mission of a congregation is shaped by individuals who effectively recruit others to join them in their cause.
But this is not the only understanding of calling. When reflecting on scripture, it becomes obvious that God also calls communities, not just individuals. Nevertheless, in America, where our centuries-long celebration of rugged individualism continues, the idea that God might be calling the congregation, as a unified community, or the nation, to come together and embrace a particular mission, is routinely dismissed. It’s as if it never occurred to many people of faith that God might call “us” to join in common cause to fulfill God’s mission.
The call to address the climate crisis is not a personal call. It’s a communal call; a universal call. Living as we are on the hinge of history, the climate crisis places an inescapable moral claim on our generation, and therefore on each of us. It urges our generation to embrace a fresh understanding of human freedom (interdependence), fulfillment (gratitude for having enough), vocation (we’re all in this together!) and salvation (it’s not just personal, it’s collective) as we create an unstoppable mandate to restore creation.
There was a time, not too long ago, when a generation of Americans and our allies accepted a common, universal calling. They realized that WWII placed an inescapable moral claim on them. More than 50,000,000 individuals sacrificed their lives. Tens of thousands of churches converted their pristine lawns to victory gardens. Tens of millions of Americans became vegetarians so the troops would have more protein. Recognizing that civilization was at risk, people accepted the reality that “we don’t get to do what we want. We have to do what needs to be done.” For this reason and others, the young adults in that generation came to be known as “the greatest generation.”
What do we hear when we play back our generation’s response to the climate emergency? As Greta Thunberg and countless other young people tell us, we hear “Blah, blah, blah.” As the smash 2021 hit movie “Don’t Look Up!” reveals, we are aware of the failure of political leaders, our distraction by the media, the country’s fixation on immediate financial gains and pleasures, our avoidance of existential anxiety, and we hear a clarion call to the climate movement, as screenplay co-writer David Sirota declared (2021).
But there is something more. In spite of our society’s failure to confront the climate crisis, over the past many decades our scientists and engineers have done their jobs. The cost of solar power today is less than a hundredth of what it cost when President Jimmy Carter put solar panels on the roof of the White House (Chandler, 2018). A group of the world’s top climate scientists recently issued a report indicating that electricity from solar, wind, and water could power the entire world in less than 10 years. And by 2035, renewable energy also could be the sole energy source for the world’s heating, cooling, transportation, and industry (Global 100% RE Strategy Group, 2021).
Economic and Racial Inequity Should Be Woven Into Climate Work
Furthermore, as we transition from an economy based on burning fossil fuel to one based on the almost unlimited gift of renewable energy from solar, wind, and water, we can also address the injustice of economic inequality and racial inequity—and by doing so, we will reap benefits far greater than the costs.
As climate scientist and evangelical Christian Dr. Katharine Hayhoe said, “When I connected the dots between poverty, hunger, disease, lack of access to clean water and education, and basic equity, and the fact that climate change is making all of those worse, that’s what led me, personally, as a Christian, to become a climate scientist” (Ottesen, 2021).
‘The call to address the climate crisis is not a personal call. It’s a communal call; a universal call.’
I believe it is possible for our generation to connect those same dots. And by doing so, we will be led to embrace our collective call to address the climate crisis. What is needed for houses of worship and faith communities to provide leadership in addressing the greatest moral challenge humanity has ever faced? We must make God’s call to restore creation and advance climate justice an essential part of our identity as people of faith.
Thanks be to God—many congregations are already embracing this calling. While they are each going about this in different ways, they are all trying to be safe enough and relevant enough to engage at least a few of following practices.
In these congregations, clergy regularly mention the climate emergency in their sermons, often emphasizing the intersectionality of racial justice, economic justice, and climate justice. Their sermons frequently focus on the common good and scripture’s emphasis on collective salvation. In support of this discipline, they seek out resources like the webinars available from the BTS Center, the Center for Earth Ethics or the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology.
While many worshipping communities include an opportunity for testimony in every worship service, some of these congregations have created a monthly or even weekly opportunity during worship for a member of the congregation to bear witness to an action they or their family are taking to address the climate crisis. Hearing someone (other than the clergy) share actions they and their family are taking can inspire others to do likewise.
Houses of worship are universally identified as places where communities and individuals process grief. In times of personal loss, or community tragedy, the doors are open, and the worship service welcomes anyone in need of prayer and support. Many congregations now seek to become a safe refuge for people who need to process their grief over the desecration of God’s creation. Some include this in their weekly prayers of worship. Other congregations offer special services of lament. The point is to offer a safe space where it is possible for people to express the climate anxiety and existential dread so many of us are experiencing.
More often than not, this sharing of grief clarifies how deeply we love the Earth, its beauty, its creatures, its diversity, and so much more. And that love can wake us up. That love can empower us to summon the courage we need to reorient our lives and engage the challenge of restoring the earth. And that clarity provides the energy we need to take action, as our grief becomes a gateway to creating a new story.
Faith Communities Are Taking Action
More and more congregations are advocating for and supporting the creation of aggressive public policies and laws to restore God’s creation. They recognize that it is right and good for places of worship to advocate for the restoration of creation, the elimination of racial inequity and the transformation of economic inequality. In the weeks prior to a federal, state or local election, many congregations are handing out Creation Care Voter Pledge Cards which read, "I pledge to be a consistent voter, and I will always prioritize caring for God's creation in how I vote" (Our Faith Our Vote Our Voice, 2022).
This is one way in which worshipers can put “love into action for every living creature and for every economically or racially marginalized community that suffers from environmental harm.” The Church of the Covenant in Boston invited parishioners who chose to sign the pledge cards to turn them in during worship so they could be prayerfully dedicated and blessed as part of worship. Some churches organized participation in training webinars hosted by the Environmental Voter Project. Once trained, volunteers texted and called people, encouraging them to vote their values.
People of faith, clergy, and interfaith climate organizations like Minnesota Interfaith Power & Light have joined as allies of Indigenous groups in numerous fights to protect sacred land and water from corporate profiteers. Standing Rock and Line 3 are the most well-known of the protests. Many congregations sent representatives to stand in solidarity with our indigenous siblings. When they returned home, they provided first-hand reports, prompting more people to become engaged.
In 2012, Bill McKibben suggested that the climate movement address the supply side of the climate crisis by pressuring institutions with endowments and other stock holdings to divest their portfolios from fossil fuel stocks (McKibben, 2012). In 2013, the United Church of Christ became the first national body to vote to divest from fossil fuel companies when its national Synod passed a resolution (Antal, 2013). As we approach the 10-year anniversary of McKibben’s article, it’s hard to believe that institutional and personal investors with stock holdings worth almost $40 trillion have purged their portfolios of fossil fuel stocks. That includes more than 500 houses of worship and religious organizations that recognize that what we do with our assets reflects our values (Global Divestment Commitments Database, 2022).
‘Now is the time for us to accept that we often have more influence than we recognize.’
Religious leaders have been on the forefront of another climate movement strategy to address the supply side of the climate crisis: resisting the building of new fossil fuel infrastructure. In 2011, I was arrested in front of the White House along with 1,253 others as we called upon President Obama to stop the Keystone XL pipeline. The vast majority of us were older than 60.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu and His Holiness the Dalai Lama were featured in a full-page New York Times ad supporting our action. In 2017, the national Synod of the United Church of Christ passed a resolution (Antal, 2017) calling for the 5,000 UCC congregations and almost 1,000,000 members “to resist all expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure and demand new sources of renewable energy that are accessible to all communities.” How? “In the streets, at the State House, in the halls of power, with our phones, emails, technology and social media by committing our time, financial resources and prayers.” And the stated purpose was to write a new story for America—“a story that is not dependent on fossil fuel or on wealth for the few and misery for the many.”
Calling Older Adults to Rise Up
People older than 60 understand best the importance—the value—of leaving a fair and stable planet for our kids and grandkids and all future generations. Now is the time for us to accept that we often have more influence than we recognize. It’s time for us call upon our gifts, energy, time, skills, networks and assets as we join with others in doing what urgently needs to be done. It is time for our generation to conjure the tireless resolve needed to reverse our current course so that we may restore our common home. Later in this issue, Bill McKibben introduces a new movement of elders to do just that (Third Act, 2022).
Living as we do in such anxious times, it’s essential for us to take time to quiet down, to silence the clamor of requests that demand our attention, and to listen to the still small voice of God. When we do, we might find ourselves in the company of Esther, confronted with the realization that perhaps we were born for just such a time as this. Perhaps our generation was born to put an end to these interconnected systemic injustices:
- the subjugation of other humans who are not our color;
- the colonization of land that is not our own; and
- the extraction of nature’s wealth that we did not create.
I believe God is calling our generation to live into a new story—a fossil fuel–free story. A story in which we join millions of others as we realign our time, our energy, our gifts, our attention, and our assets to respond to the call now heard around the world.
- That call can be heard in the streets of countless cities every Friday when hundreds of thousands of young people are insisting that we end the era of fossil fuel.
- That call can be heard in the board rooms of Exxon and the other fossil fuel companies as more and more of their stockholders purge their portfolios of fossil fuel holdings, adding to more than $30 trillion that have been divested since 2012 (Global Fossil Fuel commitments Database, 2022).
- That call can be heard in the courtrooms where fossil fuel companies, pipeline developers and other corporate profiteers are being sued by cities, states, and children for violating their legal rights.
- That call can be heard in the halls of Congress as elected leaders must choose between the vast majority of Americans who are demanding climate action now and the fossil fuel corporate lobbyists whose influence must be set aside.
What will fuel this effort? Gratitude and hope. By gratitude, I’m not referring to the nostalgic thankfulness for having experienced what was and is no more. I’m referring to gratitude for having been given the opportunity to be part of what is the most consequential generation of human beings that has ever lived. You and I and everyone else alive today have been given the opportunity to abandon a destructive story of rugged individualism, exploitation, anthropocentrism, racist inequity, colonialist extraction, and environmental degradation. And in its place, to create a new understanding of interdependence, resilience, wonder, moral imagination, moderation, vision, and gratitude.
As for hope, I join Greta Thunberg in recognizing that hope starts with honesty. As more and more congregations engage the practices I’ve suggested, as they support one another in facing the realities of the climate crisis, their impact will become more and more significant. And what will they discover? First, that action is an antidote to anxiety. And second, that action is a gateway to hope. Let us embrace this active hope so that our generation can bend the moral arc of the universe toward justice and interdependence, even as we bend the ecological arc of the earth toward sustainability, renewal, and restoration.
The Rev. Dr. Jim Antal serves as special advisor on Climate Justice to the general minister and president of the United Church of Christ. He has preached on climate change since 1988 in more than 300 settings and has engaged in non-violent civil disobedience on numerous occasions. Antal is the author of Climate Church, Climate World (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018).
Antal, J. (2013). Resolution Urging Divestment—Along with Other Strategies—From Fossil Fuel Companies to Address Climate Change. Retrieved January 2, 2022, from http://uccfiles.com/pdf/gs29-6.pdf.
Antal, J. (2017). The Earth Is the Lord's—Not Ours to Wreck; Imperatives for a New Era. Retrieved January 2, 2022, from http://synod.uccpages.org/res21.html.
Antal, J. (2018). Climate Church, Climate World: How People of Faith Must Work for Change. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
Chandler, D. L. (2018). Explaining the plummeting cost of solar power—Researchers uncover the factors that have caused photovoltaic module costs to drop by 99 percent. MIT News Office, November 20, 2018. Retrieved January 2, 2022, from https://news.mit.edu/2018/explaining-dropping-solar-cost-1120.
Global 100% RE Strategy Group. (2021). Joint Declaration of the Global 100% RE Strategy Group. Retrieved January 2, 2022, from https://global100restrategygroup.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/Joint-Declaration-of-the-Global-100-RE-Strategy-Group-210208.pdf.
Global Divestment Commitments Database. (2022).The database of fossil fuel divestment commitments made by institutions worldwide. Retrieved January 2, 2022, from https://divestmentdatabase.org/.
Jones, J. (2021). U.S. Church Membership Falls Below Majority for First Time. Gallup, March 20. Retrieved January 12, 2022, from https://news.gallup.com/poll/341963/church-membership-falls-below-majority-first-time.aspx.
McKibben, B, 2012. Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math. Rolling Stone, July 19, 2012. Retrieved January 2, 2022, from www.rollingstone.com/politics/politics-news/global-warmings-terrifying-new-math-188550/.
Ottesen, K. K. 2021. An evangelical scientist on reconciling her religion and the realities of climate change. Washington Post, March 2, Magazine. Retrieved January 1, 2022, from www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/magazine/an-evangelical-scientist-on-reconciling-her-religion-and-the-realities-of-climate-change/2021/02/26/f757d1c2-40b7-11eb-8bc0-ae155bee4aff_story.html.
Our Faith Our Vote Our Voice. (2022). Be a Creation Care Voter. Pledge to Vote Your Values. United Church of Christ. Retrieved January 2, 2022, from https://secure.everyaction.com/Ie-T2wPshkqAVixHdJBcbA2.
Sirota, D. (2021). DON’T LOOK UP Is Here. The Lever, Dec. 10. Retrieved May 2, 2022, from www.levernews.com/dont-look-up-is-here/.
Third Act. 2022. Retrieved January 2, 2022, from https://thirdact.org/.