To be religious is to care for Earth as well as its inhabitants. If we read the Genesis story of creation, God said that his creation was good. Everything he created was good — the rivers, the seas, the fish, the crawling things, even humans.
He also said we were to be stewards of his earth and its creatures. We were to have dominion over them, which means that God placed Earth, its creatures, its very essence, in human care. Dominion means that we were meant to be the stewards of Earth, not its destroyers.
We are the only creatures on Earth with the capacity to destroy God’s creation, and we are the only creatures capable of curing the damage we have caused. Actually, we won’t be able to bring back the extinct animals and plant species we have destroyed, but we potentially can reverse some of the effects we have had on the climate.
There is a common myth among some religious circles that climate change or the broader topic of environmental justice is not a religious issue, rather it is a scientific issue with nothing to do with religion and certainly nothing to do with theology. That myth is slowly but surely being challenged if not debunked.
It is a deeply theological issue relating to the ethics of care.
Not only does it have to do with caring for our physical environment, but it also has to do with caring for those who have been marginalized in our culture — “the least of these” — because it is they who are most affected by the climate changes. It is the poor whose crops fail because of climate change; it is the poor whose houses and lands will be covered with the rising water of the oceans; it is the poor whose clean water will become even more scarce. This is an issue of caring for one’s neighbor.
I remember the first Earth Day 40 years ago. My mother and I were in New York City playing tourist as we encountered a small, yet vociferous demonstration. It was not about the then very prevalent protest against the Vietnam War; instead, it was about the environment. I was not convinced. I did not see that we had a problem with the environment. Ecology, as it was called, just seemed quite the weird, irrelevant topic. I had come from the mountainous West and the majesty and beauty of those mountains seemed impervious to anything that humans could do.
Today I wish I had listened. I wish more of us had listened. I certainly didn’t think it had anything to do with religion. Even a few years ago, I thought it was a good idea to recycle; it made sense. I even thought we needed to protect some of the species we were endangering. I realized our materialistic and consumer-oriented society was expending resources faster than they could be replaced or reclaimed. It was a logical thing, not something soulful.
It was not until I began to realize it was about our stewardship — our ethical, moral and religious obligation to care for Earth that this issue became real for me. It is about a deep commitment we need to make to be responsible residents of our universe that drives me.
I wasn’t convinced until I FELT the issue, truly perceived this was about more than science and the mind, it was about our very essence; the power and energy of Earth and its inhabitants. It isn’t just about middle-class America who can afford to buy water in plastic bottles and then pollute Earth with those plastic bottles. It is about those who cannot even find clean water to drink because of the damage to the ozone.
This next week, we are celebrating the 40th anniversary of Earth Day. While logically the day may not be more important this year than 40 years ago, it seems to me it is. We know so much more now than we did then about what is happening, and what will happen unless we join together to reverse the effects of climate change. In a very critical way, we have no choice but to respond. No one person can make the changes necessary, but together we can.
What can we do? First, I think we need to gather those of various faiths together for a conversation focusing on our common perspectives on environmental justice. These points of view will come from our faith foundation as stewards of Earth. Then, we can strategize what we can do together using our values as the underpinnings of our work together.
This type of dialog has helped create Interfaith Power and Light in all 50 states. And, we can do even more; we just have to intentionally sit down together as people of faith acknowledging our love for our Earth and each other and define and design what we might do together.
One such opportunity in learning how we of different faiths approach this is by attending “Caring Spiritually for Our Earth,” which is being offered at 7 p.m. April 25, at Unitarian Universalist Church in Bangor. Nine different faith perspectives will be represented where each will address our common concern centering on caring for Earth.
Environmental justice, sustainability, ecojustice — whatever you call it, it is a religious issue. If we believe we are stewards of Earth, then aren’t we responsible in part for the solutions to our current problems? Together we of differing faiths can and will make a difference in and for our world.
The Rev. Becky Gunn is minister of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Bangor. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Voices is a weekly commentary by Maine people who explore issues affecting spirituality and religious life.