These are (approximately) the words I shared as a member of the opening interfaith opening panel for the Love at the Crossroads conference produced by FACT (the Faith Action Climate Team) on October 28, 2017.
Love at the Crossroads
Good morning and thank you for inviting me to speak here today about Love at the Crossroads. I look forward to a day of learning with you about the connections between social justice, climate change, and love.
For a number of years, I have been studying the Hebrew Bible and other Jewish texts, looking within them for lessons about how human beings should relate to the Earth, and I have been writing and speaking and teaching about my reflections.
I do this in part because, as I’ve grown older I have seen that reason has not been very good at inducing so-called rational human beings to think differently, or make changes that are uncomfortable. I’ve seen that we live by the stories we tell ourselves about who we are, about what is real and important, and about what is expected of us. We can be motivated to change our behavior, but not, I believe, primarily by means of data. It is discomfort that does it. Spiritual discomfort changes us.
This discomfort can come from our own life experiences, or, from stories that work on us and change us from the inside. The Hebrew Bible is a rich source of stories; stories which play across not only our individual minds, but which are reflected across much of Western culture, and connect us to generations past and future. These stories, these “myths,” if you will, shape how we view ourselves, our roles and responsibilities in the world; and what values we are willing to sacrifice for. So, by taking hold of the coloration and meaning of these stories, and sharing them, we can change ourselves and the future – at least that is my hope.
The world the Hebrew Bible envisions for us is one in which we love one another. This is the central teaching of our faith. Love your neighbor as yourself, and also, love “the stranger who lives within your gates.” (Both commandments are found in Chapter 19 of the book of Leviticus.) But lest we think that love is just an abstract feeling, we are guided with very specific instructions about how to do this; about what our relationships are supposed to look like, with one another, with God, and with the land.
Here are some highlights:
- Our system of justice should not favor the rich or the poor
- We must take up the case of the vulnerable, the widow and the orphan, who have no one to advocate for them
- We don’t take advantage of people’s ignorance – we don’t “place a stumbling block before the blind”
- We don’t stand idly by our neighbor’s blood, we take responsibility for the welfare of others
- The list could go on and on
Regarding the land:
- It is through the medium of the land that God attends to all of our needs
- We don’t own it. It belongs in perpetuity to God and must be used first to serve God: A portion of its produce must always be set aside for the needy.
- Every seven years, the land must enjoy a complete rest, during which all of its produce is ownerless and may be used at subsistence levels by everyone, from the richest to the most vulnerable, including animals both wild and domestic.
- Debts must be periodically forgiven.
- The distribution of land, which is the ultimate source of all wealth, must be rebalanced in each generation so that it is not amassed by a few and used to exploit the many
In the words of Dr. Cornell West: “Justice is what love looks like in public.” And I would say as a corollary: “Exploitation is what happens when love is forgotten.”
We are told that if we follow these laws (and more) then we will be rewarded with rains that fall in their season, and the land will be productive and feed us; but if we do not, that God will “break our fierce pride! The heavens will be like iron, the earth like bronze; your land will not give forth its yield, its trees will not give forth fruit; our cities will become a wasteland.”
Will this come about as a result of “miracles” or “natural consequences?”
It would be interesting to write a long essay on this subject that probes all the possible connections between social justice and environmental sustainability, but let me raise just one.
What if we took seriously the lesson that the land is God’s, and that we are meant to benefit from the natural abundance that springs from it. The gifts that spring up from the land we are to experience as a gift, part of a relationship, that links us with God and with generations past and future. We may make use of them, but only with reverence. The buzzword is “sustainability,” but it’s even more precious than that if we treat it as a gift.
Well, attached to this “land,” along with its potential for agricultural, there is wind, there is sunlight. These can be converted to energy. The dignity to using them in this way comes from the fact that they connect the individual not to the marketplace, but to God and the land.
My interpretation of the text leads me to believe that there is something powerful about people being connected as directly as possible to this source of natural abundance. Because it is there that we “feel” the love of our Creator for us, and “see” it as part of what connects us to our children and parents, and feel motivated by our own love for all of this, to care for it and tend it lovingly for the future. In this sacred and loving connection lies our hope that we can save the planet and one another. So let’s do everything we can do deepen and enrich our sense of our dependence on, and our ability to enter into sacred relationship with the land.
When I read stories about how vigorously fossil fuel interests and private utility companies are trying to delay or prevent the deployment of liberating renewable energy technologies, I am reminded of the story of Pharaoh. If you recall this story, Pharaoh took ownership of the produce of Egypt during seven years of plenty, and then when seven years of famine came, he sold the life-saving grain back to his people. At first this was very helpful. But as the famine wore on, this market for grain became exploitative. People were forced to pay for it by selling first their draft animals, then their land, and finally they sold themselves into slavery to Pharaoh.
It seems to me that there is a similarity here with the fossil fuel giants taking control of the millions of years of “plenty,” during which carbon was stored in the ground and became oil and gas, then selling them back to us. At first it was very helpful (and saved a lot of whales), but we have turned the corner and understand now that the environmental costs are too high.
We can and must throw off this Carbon Pharaoh, even though, just like with the first Pharaoh, despite warnings of disaster, he seems to be only hardening his heart against us. In the Bible, deliverance began with prayer, and was accomplished with a lot of help from God. Today our prophets are climate scientists, and the increasingly unmistakable drumroll of catastrophes, from widespread and devastating wild fires, droughts, and famines, to inundation of coastal cities along with more and more powerful hurricanes and storms, are feeling like modern day “plagues.”
In the Jewish tradition, we look at time as something like an ascending spiral, that advances, hopefully, even as it revisits the same stories year in and year out. Our texts give us keys and clues to living honorably on the land. Can we take these images and ideals and use them to build a new model of relationship between human beings and the sustaining and loving landscape we have been given, before it is too late?
When we do this, then the struggle will be over, and we will truly be able to say that our soul has returned from a very profound exile and found rest. Because isn’t this what we long for: the repose of the soul, in peace, in justice and with love, upon the good land that we have been given, in a world in which each person is able to rest in the shade of their own fig tree and vine, knowing that each other person rests securely under their own?