Rev. Douglas Taylor
November 16, 2008
Van Jones sees a “Green Wave” rising in America today. He calls us to build a boat that will hold all of us as we move into the future. This summer, during our Unitarian Universalist General Assembly, Van Jones delivered the prestigious Ware Lecture. As with everything in the main convention hall, the Ware Lecture had the live Closed Captioning for the hearing impaired. Watching the closed captioning in often entertaining even for those not hearing impaired as there are regular errors that are usually cleaned up within a second or two, but for a brief time the error is flashed there along the bottom of the screens. During Jones’ lecture he said the word “ecology” several times. And every time the closed captioning spelled out “Eek-ology” and then quickly backed up and corrected the misprint. Every time. As much as I was engaged and enjoying Van Jones’ presentation, a small portion of my brain kept noticing “Eek-ology, Eek-ology” The study of fear. And I thought, “I can make a sermon out of that.”
Fear. Jesus said in the Gospel of Matthew (5:36) “Do not be afraid, only have faith.” At least that is how it comes out in some translations. But with this rendering, faith and fear develop a relationship which leads to the line of thinking that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but fear. Fear is the piece that cripples us when we need to move. Fear is what strips us of our confidence, our curiosity, our courage. Fear kills our willingness to take risks, to reach out, to try again. Fear closes us off from a life-giving breath of insight, closes us off from seeing a new future awaiting our efforts. And when we start talking about the environment and ecology – there can be a very strong layer of fear to the conversation: fear for the future of our race, fear that we won’t respond in time, fear that we’ll have done things over our lifetimes that will have ruined the futures of our children and grandchildren. Fear is part of the environmental conversation.
Remarkably, when Van Jones talks about the environment, fear is not part of the conversation. Van Jones’ take on ecology leaves no room for “Eek.” Instead what he offers, and what I would like to offer, is a call for us to see that a better world is possible: not just to say that it is, but to actually see it and talk about it and make it happen. But that is not easy. I hear a lot of reactions around the call to care for our ecology that carry too much “Eek.” Sometimes it is from within when those who say we’re on the right track, doing the right work – to find renewable energy, and to recycle more, and to consume less – because (and here is the fear) if we don’t we’re in for major trouble.
I want to honor that this is a real fear. I’m not going to cast aspersions at our fears this morning, but I do want us to move past them. But this fear for the end of the world as we know it may be what spurs some to take action. This fear focuses us on what is wrong and not where we need to put our attention if we are to find solutions and a way out. That is my only problem with that fear. If you are afraid for the earth, fine. I am too. But we need to move past that, we’re a faith community – we need to move past the fear to build a new way.
Sometimes the fear comes disguised as the voice of the oppressed being shafted once again. Van Jones had spent some time talking about this. In the reading he presented a critique of the media on this count of the oppressed being shafted once again. This sort of fear comes across more poignantly in the thinking of Deneen Borelli, writing for online magazine “The Root” as part of “Project 21” which is a national network of black executives. In his article from last month titled “It Takes Green to Go Green” (Oct. 8, 2008), the subtitle asks: “Are liberal environmental policies hurting poor black communities? Conservatives think so!” Borelli claims that “radical environmentalists and their supporters,” who are “against oil exploration in Alaska and off our coasts” and who “are also blocking the construction of new coal-fired power plants that produce electricity,” have set a level of demand that they as liberal elites deem necessary, but in effect “leads to higher energy prices and pain in the pocketbooks of those who can least afford it—poor, black people living in struggling neighborhoods.”
I want to honor that this is a real fear. I’m not going to cast aspersions at our fears this morning, but I do want us to move past them. This fear for the painfully classist approach the environmental movement has been stuck in might be what keeps some people from connecting to it. The accomplishments of the environmental movement thus far have been done by a small group of committed people (as if anything else has accomplished things) but we need to find that grassroots spark. As Van Jones has said, (I’m starting to sound like this is the gospel according to Van Jones, but listen to what he said,) we need to make sure that those who were locked out of last century’s drill and burn economy get locked in to the new green economy; if we’re going to green the country, let’s green the ghetto first. If you are afraid for the way racism might yet again keep some of us from the dream of a better world, fine. I have that fear too. But we need to move past that, we’re a faith community – we need to move past the fear to build a new way.
There’s one other fear I must mention, as it is so prevalent and can undermine so much. It is a fear that comes disguised as the voice of practical reality. As the market was spiraling out of control earlier this fall, very soon after it started, there was an article that popped up on several news wires: Environmental concerns must take a back seat in economic downturn. The article reasoned that since most climate control initiatives were very costly, and since the climate crisis is not an imminent threat (or at least not as imminent as the economic crisis), it will therefore have to wait as we sort out more pressing economic concerns.
I want to honor that this is a real fear. I’m not going to cast aspersions at our fears this morning, but I do want us to move past them. This fear for the economy can be heartbreaking for some as they see pension funds drop off and plans for funding their grandchildren’s future education evaporate. For some this fear for the economy can be life shattering as you face the prospect of losing your job or even your home. But the economy and the climate crisis are connected and the solution for the environment will bring solutions for the economy as well. The Green New Deal is coming if we can hold on and if we can start building now to meet it. Now, in this time of scarcity and fear, is exactly the right time to think about abundance and hope. If you are afraid for your financial security in the midst of this economic turmoil, fine. I certainly am too. But we need to move past that, we’re a faith community – we need to move past the fear to build a new way.
There are connections between race and economy and the environment that lead us to solutions that can build a better world. I remember a course I took in seminary on Democracy. We took a field trip to the south side of Chicago to see the shadow side of democracy in action. Our professor rented two vans and took us on a tour with a community organizer who lives in the neighborhoods we were looking at. Aside from the awful feeling of being tourists in another community’s suffering, we learned a lot. “This is the housing that was built and is crumbling down after only a few dozen years.” “Smell that, the sewage treatment plant is just around the corner and they work it way beyond capacity.” “Here is the riverbank where the city refused to post a warning about the toxicity levels because they didn’t want to create panic.” Again and again we were shown the connection. The lower class non-white citizens were again and again hit first and worst by the environmental degradations.
We need to build a new way. And not just at the policy level, but in the grassroots as well. We have to get this one right. When we build a new energy structure in this nation with wind and solar and other renewable energy forms: we must look not only to how we can use this technology to save our economy but how we can use it to save the people too. If we are going to say there are no throw away resources, no throw away species, no throw away toxic leftover, then we must also say there are no throw away people. We’re all in the solution, we’re all going there.
In the creation story in the Bible God made things and each evening said it was good. God made the water and the earth and said it was good, made plants and animals and birds and fish and said it was good; made people and said it was good. In the Koran God asks “The heavens and earth and everything in it, think you I made them in jest?” (23/115 and 44/38). In the Tao Te Ching, we read that from the Tao arose the Ten Thousand Things, which translates to “everything” meaning – all of it is precious, all of it is included. The earth does not include any junk. God didn’t make any junk. In the Koran, God doesn’t say, “that part over there, those people over there, I was just kidding.” No. In the Bible, it doesn’t say, on the seventh day God took the rest of the stuff and just left it lying around. No. We don’t have any junk. All of it and everyone is precious. We’re all in the solution, we’re all going there. We have to get this one right if we are going to build a new way beyond this fear.
I have a proposal. I have a challenge. What are we going to do with all this precious land and people here along the Chenango and Susquehanna rivers? Our Green Sanctuary group is meeting and talking and moving. The global environmental movement is rolling. The federal government has heard the call and is preparing to answer and usher in a Green New Deal. Many of us stand poised to remind them of the hope and the possibilities of what can come if we get this right. The local government is focusing on greening the greater Binghamton community. I sat in on the Binghamton Healthy Neighborhoods Collaboration this week. This is a roundtable gathering of people looking at blighted properties in Downtown Binghamton and First Ward, looking to tear them down with grant money and rebuild some of them – they plan to rebuild first one with straw bale green technology in downtown, hoping to spark investor interest to build some more. They plan to link with VINES and turn some of them into community gardens. There are some real, practical, smart things going on.
What can we do? That is not a rhetorical question. And I’m trying to not make it a leading question as if I have the solution and you just need to guess the right answer. I really want to do something to help the Binghamton community. I want our congregation to reach out into the areas in our town that have been hit first and worst by the economic and environmental struggles. I want a project. Talk to me. I don’t usually do “sermon talk-backs.” But I set one up in the Fireside Room for immediately after each service. I schedule childcare. Get some coffee and come talk to me. Together we can be part of the solution.
We are the ones. We don’t have billions or even millions of dollars here to bail anybody out. But we have something more powerful: a vision for the better world, passion to see it come, and hands and hearts to step forward and build a new way.
In a world without end,
May it be so