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Serving the Garden

The connection between religion and environmental stewardship

Oct. 16, 2008
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Environmental stewardship is firmly rooted in the texts of the world’s great religions. Jews and Christians both point to Genesis 2:15, where God tells Adam to abad, or serve, the Garden of Eden. The Koranic verse “There is not an animal on Earth, nor a bird that flies on its wings, but they are communities like you” could double as a Sierra Club talking point.

In modern times, the environmental movement is said to have begun with the first Earth Day in 1970. Although primarily a secular affair, it still energized progressive, faith-based groups to exercise more careful stewardship of the world’s natural resources.

And growing alarm over climate change has created a new sense of urgency in churches, mosques and synagogues, including those in the metropolitan Milwaukee area.

Jame Schaefer, Marquette University theology professor, says the burgeoning faith-based environmental movement is rooted in both ancient scripture and everyday experience. “Within the last 40 years, religious scholars have searched their traditions for sources and practices to help respond to environmental degradation in constructive ways,” Schaefer says. “More recently, evidence of global warming has stirred religious leaders and groups to address and mitigate the farranging effects.”

This “Green Awakening” recently saw the Vatican install 2,700 solar panels on the Paul VI auditorium, which is used when bad weather occurs during the pope’s weekly audience with pilgrims. The photovoltaic cells will reportedly generate enough power to provide lighting, heating and cooling for the 6,000-seat hall.

This moral imperative, along with grant money from We Energies and the state of Wisconsin, has motivated at least two area churches to install solar panels. Carl Siegrist, manager of solar energy programs for We Energies, says 14 religious facilities, including churches, parochial schools and a Zen center, currently have applications “in the pipeline” for We Energies solar grants.

“Churches can’t take advantage of the tax breaks that businesses and homeowners get when they go solar, so this is a real commitment for a church,” Siegrist says. He says the payback on a solar installation on a house of worship can take as long as 30 years—the time it takes for the savings of solar power to equal the initial cost of the installation.

While the business community, with its focus on capital outlay and quick return on investment, has been slow to embrace solar, congregations have other considerations.

“For some churches, it’s enough just to ethically and spiritually do the right thing,” says Niels Wolter of Focus on Energy, which also provides grant money for nonprofits.

Wolter says houses of worship play an important role in promoting solar energy. “People see what the church is doing with solar, and start to think that it might be something they can do on their own homes,” Wolter says. “If the installation is visible and accessible to the public, that’s a good place to start in spreading the word about alternative energy use.”

Amy Heart, programs director of the Midwest Renewable Energy Association (MREA), agrees. She says houses of worship are making “a visual statement that congregations want to be part of the solution. They are walking the walk, and presenting a good example to the community.”

Concern for the Practical World

Religion and science have long been at odds, even before the Inquisition tried and sentenced Galileo Galilei for heresy because he wrote that the Earth revolves around the sun. That the two sides can find agreement on environmental issues reveals the technical and ethical dimensions of the problem, as well as the overall conviction about what needs to be done.

Is environmentalism, especially the climate change crisis, one instance where religion and science need each other? Albert Einstein said that while our convictions can best be supported with experience and clear thinking, “those convictions which are necessary and determinant for our conduct and judgments cannot be found solely along this solid scientific way.”

Rev. Richard Blomker, of the Wisconsin Interfaith Climate & Energy Campaign, says the line between rationalism and spiritualism can be understood, at least in Christianity, in how each side views the afterlife.

“All Christians teach life after death, but the dividing line is ‘What are people being saved for?’” says Blomker, a Lutheran minister. “Some churches teach that you have to keep working on salvation for your whole life, so the whole focus is on being saved for the next life. And then there are those, such as my own congregation, who focus on God’s grace. That means that everything is a gift from God, and that leaves us free to do what we were created to do, which is to take care of the Earth.”

The line is not easily drawn. Too much spiritualism, some say, can undermine human efforts to reverse the damage that has been done.

“Fervent religious belief can ultimately be a threat to the environmental movement,” says Rabbi Shlomo Levin of Lake Park Synagogue, who recently delivered a lecture titled “The Messiah, the Bible, and Other Threats to Our Planet and How They Can Be Defeated.”  “When you believe that the world is about to be saved or redeemed through a messiah, it takes you out of concern for the practical world,” he says.

Even more dangerous, Levin adds, is when people believe the problem is so intractable that only prayer will help. “I think that’s reprehensible, because it totally misunderstands what prayer is, and what our role is in the world, and what God’s role is,” Levin says.

Green Churches

The call to environmental stewardship found in Genesis is not only sounded from some pulpits, but also from some rooftops, where solar panels proclaim a congregation’s commitment to the Earth.

The 450-member Unitarian Universalist Church West was the first church in the Milwaukee area to go solar, with a $70,000 installation. “We believe that good religion must be lived, so there’s a lot of social activism among our members, including environmental activism,” says Suzelle Lynch, Brookfield Unitarian minister.

Evangelical author Cal DeWitt of UW-Madison’s Gaylord Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies says that the faithful have been ready to address climate change and similar issues for decades, but are looking for “permission” first from religious leaders.

“We all live within a whole set of social pressures that make some subjects things we choose to be quiet about,” DeWitt says. “In addition to such pressures, we are all very much aware of topics and issues that are never brought up. And this has been true for the environment across much of American Christianity.”

Bridging the gap between faith and science has not come easily to Christian evangelical leaders who are suspicious of secular groups. A rapprochement of sorts famously occurred in 2006 in Melhana, Ga., when church leaders met with several high-profile scientists to discuss climate change and other man-made threats to the environment.

“The pastors gave permission to each other to listen to scientists, much as they in fact listen to medical doctors on matters of health and disease. And the scientists gave permission to each other to listen to pastors and theologians, much as they in fact listen to ethical discussions related to their fields,” DeWitt says.

Rev. Richard Cizik of the National Association of Evangelicals later declared, “We dare to imagine a world in which science and religion cooperate, minimizing our differences about how Creation got started to work together to reverse its degradation.”

Jewish Stewards of the Earth

The tenet of stewardship is central to Jewish environmental traditions, says Rabbi David Brusin of Milwaukee’s Congregation Shir Hadash. “The Earth is the Lord’s, and we’re tending it. We are stewards. So what’s central in Judaism is to be aware of our relationship to the Earth,” he says.

That awareness has given rise to the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL), founded in 1993. COEJL lobbies lawmakers, promotes scholarship and coordinates green activities among congregations in the United States. COEJL’s “A Light Among the Nations” campaign has sold 80,000 compact fluorescent light bulbs, and prevented 29,000 tons of CO2 from being released. Along with conveying a sense of urgency about the climate change crisis, the campaign Web site adds a touch of humor, asking “How many Jews does it take to change a light bulb?”

Jewish stewardship takes on a practical approach in the Old Testament, where, for instance, we are told to let fields lie fallow every seventh year. That tradition gave rise to the Jewish sabbatical, where a congregation spends a year involved in social activism. Congregation Shir Hadash just finished its own sabbatical, which included 12 months of environmental education, guest speakers and hands-on projects.

Shir Hadash congregants committed to “smaller things” to save the Earth—giving up paper plates at potlucks and planting gardens, for example. Brusin says the commitment to small acts is found in the Hadash, a second century holy text, where it is written, “It’s not up to you to complete the task, but you are not free to walk away from it.”

Those small steps attracted attention, Brusin notes. “People joined the synagogue when they heard we were devoting the year to educate ourselves on the environment,” Brusin says. “Especially so with concern over global warming.”

Muslim Reverence for the Universe

In their views of the natural world, Islam and Christianity share heroes and ethical frameworks. But there are differences. Islam’s reverence for the universe gives rise to a PETA-like kindness to animals, which is found throughout Islamic scripture.

The Prophet Muhammad, for instance, advised his followers never to curse beasts of burden, and to treat them with kindness. One familiar story from the life of the Prophet tells how one of Muhammad’s companions removed a baby pigeon from a nest. Muhammad confronted the man and carefully returned the bird to the nest, declaring, “For charity shown to each creature with a wet heart, there is a reward.”

Still another story tells of a woman who “was tortured and was put in Hell because of a cat which she had kept locked up till it died of hunger.” In another, a prostitute’s sins are expunged because she gave water to a thirsty dog.

“Islam in general has respect for the whole universe. The Prophet said that even a road has rights, and should be kept clean,” says Ziad Hamdan, imam of the Islamic Society of Milwaukee.

Humans’ stewardship of the Earth, which is central to the Christian Creation story, arises in Islam as “trusteeship,” which arguably carries a heavier burden. It implies specifically that man is not supposed to cause corruption in any form on Earth, including the environment. This test implies accountability, meaning reward or punishment in the afterlife, as when the Koran says, “Lo! the squanderers were ever brothers of the devils and the devil was ever an ingrate to his Lord.”

Hamdan says trusteeship can be understood as “God’s spirit,” which was given to Adam at the Creation.

Locally, trusteeship means reducing greenhouse gas emissions through the use of efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs. The Islamic Environmental Group of Wisconsin, in partnership with the Wisconsin Interfaith Climate & Energy Campaign, set a 2008 goal of reducing 519,800 pounds of greenhouse gas emissions. Last year, they reduced more than 122,000 pounds of greenhouse gas emissions while saving more than 84,000 kilowatt hours of energy.

“God made Adam a trustee of the environment,” Hamdan says. “So God wants man to take care of the land, to create more happiness and more opportunity.”

Of course, happiness and opportunity may be in the eyes of the beholder. Some people find them in material goods, and define themselves and their freedoms by the things they accumulate. But can SUVs and McMansions bring true happiness? Are people defining today’s opportunities at the expense of tomorrow’s environmental damage?

The biggest challenge of environmental stewardship is learning how to balance the blessings of our technologies with our responsibilities as stewards of the planet. Science is an indispensable part of our future welfare, but data can’t answer every question, especially the one posed by creation myths: Was the natural world created for the benefit of mankind, or are we interdependent with nature?

What’s your take? Write: editor@shepex.com or comment on this story online at www.expressmilwaukee.com.


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