TIME Religion

The Bible Calls for Moral Action on Climate Change

To ignore climate change is to abuse the moral call to care for the environment, and generations to come will suffer

Some of the most inspiring words in the entire Bible are found in the opening pages of Genesis. Here we are told that humans were created in God’s image and given a divine mandate to care for Creation (Gen. 1:26-31). Our vocation—our calling—is to partner with God in preserving and sustaining the earth with all the creatures and species that God has made. The word used in most translations is “dominion,” and the true meaning is what we would today call “stewardship.”

Unfortunately these passages have often been used and abused to advance countless agendas, often to the great detriment of the Earth and its inhabitants. The deep sense of stewardship implied by and inherent in these verses is ignored and the word “dominion” has been interpreted as domination—and a license to destroy. Such thinking is not just unfaithful to God; it is dangerous to all God’s creation and creatures.

The most recent example of this unfortunate mindset can be seen in the recent comments made by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) denying that human activity contributes to climate change. He claimed proposals attempting to address the troubling climate trends were problematic because they might hamper economic growth and lacked international buy-in. We certainly wouldn’t want something as insignificant as the sustainability of our planet to impinge on next quarter’s GDP, or worse yet, a potential candidate’s presidential campaign.

Much attention has been given to Rubio’s denial of climate science. After all, there is overwhelming evidence that climate change is real and humans are contributing to it in significant ways. But what’s potentially more harmful than his devaluing of the widespread scientific consensus is the utter lack of discussion about moral implications. This was in fact a political denial of the facts, for the sake of a voting base he desperately wants to cultivate; but worse, a cover up of both moral and theological imperatives.

And there are serious moral costs to our willful ignorance and political inaction on climate change.

It is time to acknowledge this as the sin of short-termism. By prioritizing the present—and at worst, current political calculations—at the expense of the future we are risking the health and prosperity of future generations. Our nation has long prided itself on leaving the next generation better off, but what sort of example are we now setting and what inheritance are we passing on? It is hard to answer these questions honestly because we are unwilling to admit the truth. Scientific denial is psychologically easier. For some of our elected leaders it is also politically convenient.

While its secular usage is increasing, the word “repentance” remains a deeply theological term. Biblically, it demands both an acknowledgment of the wrong that has been done and a commitment to act differently in the future. You cannot repent if you are unwilling to change. When it comes to climate change, we cannot just lament what has gone wrong. And we must do more than just point to the already alarming consequences of climate change and the catastrophic potentials which lie ahead. Instead, we must repent of the harm we’ve caused and commit ourselves to a new course of action.

In a recent speech, President Obama outlined an agenda for addressing climate change. He clearly named the goals which must be sought: first, a transformative investment in clean energy; second, a significant reduction of dirty energy; and third, a collective commitment in every part of our society to save energy. It’s really as simple as that. So why can’t we agree to the moral narrative that underlies these outlined solutions? The tremendous gains that can be achieved—for both the public and private sector—from increased energy efficiency and a renewed commitment to conservation is something good for our planet, our lifestyles, and our souls.

Here is the moral narrative. What will your grandchildren’s grandchildren ask about why we, and why you, did not do what was necessary for them? Why were we so selfish and short-sighted? Why didn’t we care enough about the future of our world and theirs, to take care of our descendants? And here is the biblical and spiritual narrative: does care for God’s creation really allow us to exploit the earth and its resources for short term economic self-interest? Is that good stewardship and the humble worship of God?

There is much to be commended in the President’s plan and what many scientists are pleading for, but unless we confront the underlying narratives that inhibit faithful progress even the most obvious policy solutions will remain out of reach because of our nation’s dysfunctional politics and short-term economics. The irony is that the moral course of action would bring new economic opportunities. There are more potential good jobs in the retrofitting of the nation to conserve energy, and the re-wiring of our energy grid for a cleaner future; but that would not be in the self-interest of the oil and gas companies that now control the country and its politics.

As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. so often quoted, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Of this I have no doubt. My only question is whether we’ll have the moral courage on climate change to bend it fast enough before catastrophe becomes unavoidable. For the sake of my grandchildren—for the sake of my grandchildren’s grandchildren—I hope we start taking our calling as stewards of God’s Creation a lot more seriously.

It’s time to stop denying science, denying our created instructions, and denying the sovereignty of God. Instead, let’s start acknowledging our moral responsibilities.

Jim Wallisis president of Sojourners. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.


Punishing Donald Sterling Is Good, But It Doesn’t Mean Racism is Dead

Racist incidents involving Cliven Bundy and Donald Sterling remind us of just how much we have left to do end racism

The ugly racial statements of the Los Angeles Clipper owner Donald Sterling sparked a series of hopefully historic events over the last several days. The press conferences on Tuesday by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and by Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, a former NBA star and the player’s representative in this crisis—are worthy of deeper reflection.

With both passion and outrage in his face, NBA Commissioner Silver banned Sterling for life from both the L.A. Clippers and the NBA for his racist comments about African-Americans. Sterling’s despicable racial opinions, made him the ugly and ignorant face of white racism, a dishonor undoubtedly earned due to a his personal history of hateful racial discrimination.

It’s now clear that current players were planning to boycott the play-offs that night if the official response to Sterling was not strong enough. But Silver was adamant that Sterling’ views had “no place in the NBA,” that he would never be allowed to set foot in any NBA facility, and that the commissioner would call upon the other owners to remove him as an NBA owner. The punishment for Sterling’s blatant racism was a lifetime ban from the NBA and that he will lose his team.

All this took place just days after Cliven Bundy, an outspoken Nevada rancher and anti-government conservative favorite, told the world that black people might be better off if they were still slaves. Again such utter stupidity and blind racism was given a particularly ugly face. Former Republican supporters and Fox News commentators disowned Bundy after his embarrassing comments.

But as adamant as the response to such overt racism must be, it is also the easiest kind of racism to oppose. Underneath the racial bigotry revealed by such extremes is a history and pervasive presence of racism in America that runs deep and gets painfully complicated. Kevin Johnson, the former point guard and present mayor of Sacramento put it this way in his press conference, “There will be zero tolerance for institutional racism, no matter how rich or powerful.” But we are a long way from that.

What would a “life-long ban” on institutional racism mean in our economy, our politics, and in our own hearts and lives?

We acknowledge that an NBA owner telling his extremely young mistress that she can sleep with other black people (as she herself is black and Hispanic) but not bring them with her to “his” NBA games—is sick and wrong.

And we acknowledge that saying that black people would be better off as slaves and that “their” young men should be taught to pick cotton again—is also sick and wrong.

But let’s be honest here. Maintaining a criminal justice system where people of color are more often arrested, convicted, and sentenced for much longer than whites —often for the same crimes—has created a racially biased mass incarceration system which is also wrong.

Accepting an economy where structural inequality and lack of opportunity follow clear racial lines and tolerating an educational system that virtually imprisons low-income young people of color in generational poverty is also wrong.

Political gerrymandering of Congressional districts that excludes minority voters and keeps whites in power, or using voter ID laws to suppress the votes of poor, elderly, or young minority citizens is also wrong.

And in all of our hearts and minds, to refuse to recognize and resist the implicit racial biases we have from being raised in a racialized society is also wrong.

Who among us is willing to be as adamant against all of those wrongs , especially when racism can become so nuanced, subtle, and complicated—but no less real?

In a press conference before Tuesday’s game, Doc Rivers, the legendary and coach of the Los Angeles Clippers commented: You know you learn over and over that when something like this happens with the burden of racism, it always falls on the person who has been offended to respond. I’ve always thought that’s interesting. I felt the pressure on my players. Everyone was waiting for them to give a response. And I kept thinking they didn’t do anything, yet they have to respond. So Adam (Silver) responded and I thought that was the sigh of relief that we needed. Is this over, no it’s not over; but it’s the start of a healing process that we need….and that’s very important. The 14 guys that are players, they did nothing wrong and they need support and I think that will happen.

Why is it that those who have been offended are the ones always expected to respond when they again are attacked or undermined by white racism? Why do we whites so often leave the response about racism to black and brown people? Why do white churches leave that to African American, Hispanic, or Asian American churches?

Wouldn’t white people, leaders, and churches speaking out against racism, vowing not to tolerate it, and “banning” institutional racism, be as Doc Rivers said, a sigh of relief to those who are always the ones who suffer the racial offenses?

Any honest response to racism requires admitting what is obviously true: racism damages us all and thus requires all of us—not just the African-American community– to respond. The sin of racism is a societal one and it demands a collective response. All of us are implicated. None of us are immune. These recent episodes remind us how much work is left for all of us to do.

Jim Wallisis president of Sojourners. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.

TIME Religion

A Different Kind of Spring Training

This Holy Week, I realized God's hope in a place other than church

Proclaiming that the tomb is empty – that Jesus has risen from the grave – is the most powerful witness any Christian can offer. But if our Easter celebration stops at proclamation then we’ve shortchanged the world of the hope and joy it sorely needs. The resurrection must also be about embodiment. It should change the way we live and move and have our being. Easter should transform and strengthen us to participate in God’s reconciling work in the world.

That’s why I chose to spend this Easter worshipping in a very different way and in a very different place. There was no midnight watch service or large family dinner, but there were countless moments of hope and an abiding trust in the possibility of new life.

For the past two years, John McCarthy, whom everyone affectionately calls Coach Mac, has taken a group of young baseball players from Washington, D.C. to join kids in the Dominican Republic (DR) for a week of playing baseball. Major League Baseball teams recruit heavily from the DR. 20 percent of professional baseball players learned the fundamentals of the game in this small country. Baseball is part of the nation’s cultural rhythms. Coach Mac runs a legendary program in Washington, D.C. called “Homerun Baseball” where the t-shirts read “Talent is what you have, effort is what you give.” He is known for using baseball to teach life lessons. He teaches his players how to succeed on and off the field.

One of the issues that has specifically tugged at John’s heart is literacy. The money he raises through his program helps subsidize reading programs in the nation’s capital, Brooklyn, NY, and the Dominican Republic. I believe in his work and was thrilled that my 11-year old son Jack and I could be a part of the Dominican journey last week.

For many baseball fans in the United States, their romantic image of the game is capture by the movie Field of Dreams. Pitches are thrown and bats are swung amidst the growing corn stalks and simple joys of small town America. But in the Dominican Republic, baseball diamonds are surrounded by sugarcane, whose shoots are used for the dugout walls. The scene is almost magical. Watching our boys sit on the bench chewing on sugarcane sticks was a sight to behold. Coach Mac knows I am a long-time little league coach in DC, so I was invited to join his coaching staff in the DR. We led skill drills and coached daily double headers under the hot sun, working alongside our Dominican counterparts. We shared stories of past exploits – my favorite coach, 27-year-old Luis, told the story of his years playing in the minor leagues. Luis showed his commitment to helping other kids escape the grinding poverty that far too frequently dashes youthful dreams in his country.

In the DR, baseball is played hard and well because many believe that it is their only opportunity to escape from poverty. Our kids were able to recognize their own privilege and it amazed them to see how their Dominican teammates come from so little yet bring so much to the field every day. Kids like Mosquito, whose mother died of HIV/AIDS, who is both deaf and mute, but is such a good pitcher that one of our Homerun coaches, a former MLB pitcher himself for 17 years, thinks this 12-year-old could eventually make the Majors. Or Isaac, a big hitter who kept hitting balls over buildings, always with a big smile on his face. Or little Derrick, who snuck onto the bus because he wanted to join our team– to our great benefit because of his great swing and glove in the field! Or even Kendre, who liked to catch for me while I hit ground balls to the infielders. He kept calling me “Coach Diego,” and caught hard throws with the flimsiest glove until I gave him mine to borrow. Kendre could hardly believe his good fortune when I told him at the end of the second day to keep my glove.

Many of the children attend a school started years earlier by the Grey Sisters of the Immaculate Conception. These sisters are also a core partner in the baseball program, recognizing too that the truth of the resurrection must be embodied in tangible ways.

At the end of the week, we stood around a huge baseball cake while both American and Dominican players talked about what they had learned. As they thanked each other and vowed to do it again next year, one 11-year-old Dominican player said, “Keep playing baseball and keep believing in God.” Another wished us safe travel “Vamos con Dios!” or “Go with God.”

In a final late night conversation with Jack and his friend Sam, we discussed what we had learned and how our lives might help change the lives of the young players and families we had met. They came up with the idea of a “foundation” to bring lots of baseball equipment from their teams and friends to the DR. That’s fine I said, but asked if baseball will really help many people in the Dominican escape poverty. No, they thought, that will take education and the boys decided we need to include books with the baseball gear. So look out for the “J and S Glove and Book Foundation” coming soon!

This “holy” week drove home to me how the resurrection calls us to bring hope wherever we go. When we can live in that reality—that death and evil do not finally win—we find the strength to participate in God’s work in the world.

TIME faith

Don’t Blame The Central African Republic Conflict On Religion

We in the United States need to act to help our brothers and sisters in the Central African Republic

Recently, I was invited to attend a dinner for a delegation of religious leaders from Central African Republic (CAR). Seated at the table were Catholic, evangelical, and Muslim leaders, as well as those leading the relief and advocacy efforts in CAR. The purpose of the dinner was to make connections with American counterparts and to help shed light on the crisis.

Media portrayals of CAR have focused on a Christian vs Muslim narrative which distracts from the political and economic instability that led to the overthrow of the government in March 2013 and resulted in protracted violence . The conflict did not start as a religious war and as these three faith leaders demonstrate, it is not rooted in theological differences.

But the religious narrative that should be shared is the story of these three men—Dieudonné Nzapalainga, theCatholic Archbishop of Bangui; Imam Oumar Kobine Layama, President of the Central African Islamic Community; and Reverend Nicolas Guérékoyame, President of the Evangelical Alliance of the Central African Republic. They have a strong, unified desire to see peace and stability restored to their country, to protect the Muslim citizens who are fleeing the violence, and to bring reconciliation to their war-torn neighbors. They are already living out their faith in powerful ways—since December, the Archbishop has housed Imam Oumar Kobine Layama and his family because their home was destroyed. Rev. Guérékoyame asked the group to pray that the Imam and his family would be able to have a new home in order to live securely and to meet with the remaining Muslims in the country. And in fact, the Reverend himself shared that he’s often on the phone with his family because his neighborhood is being overtaken by violence.

As the night continued, the three faith leaders shared some hard truths about the conflict in their country. CAR is 180 out of 187 on the UN’s Human Development Index. Much of the violence has arisen due to political instability which has led to economic instability. There are only 20 registered businesses in the country. There is very little normal schooling. Many of the young men were recruited to join the Seleka—a loose alliance of bandits, fighters, and rebels, often from Muslim countries outside CAR—because they were promised jobs in the army. The jobs never materialized. And many of the young men involved in the anti-balaka, the largely Christian groups that formed in retaliation, are motivated because they don’t have work. Commenting on the massive unemployment that has crippled his country and contributed to the violence, Rev. Guérékoyame, pointed out, “When a young person has a way to get his daily bread, he won’t be manipulated.”

And the faith leaders are rightfully concerned about the suffering young people in their country. Archbishop Nzapalainga spoke at length about the efforts the leaders are taking to re-educate the youth in their country toward peace. “We knock on the door of their mind, which is created in the image of God and say ‘thou shalt not kill.’”

Sharing a meal with these men was a reminder of what we believe as Christians —that through the cross we’ve become part of a family and identity that transcends nationality, race, class, and political and theological distinctions.

It is a fact that it’s easy for many Christians, particularly in America, to forget. As the Rev. Guérékoyame said to the group, “We are your brothers and sisters. We’ve been wondering when you are going to help us.”

I asked the question at dinner and I ask it now here: How can we help?

The primary concern is the political instability in their country. The United States should reopen our embassy in CAR. If the ambassador had remained in the country, the decision to get troops earlier to secure the country may have been expedited. We must also request that our ambassadors to the UN fulfil the humanitarian pledges we’ve made.

It has not escaped the notice of many of us who care about this issue that 20 years ago this past Monday, the Rwandan genocide began. Approximately one million Rwandans were killed during the crisis—which was largely ignored by many in the west who failed to act sooner. Starting today, aid groups and individuals plan to call attention to CAR on Twitter using the hashtag #CARcrisis. The best way to honor the dead is to prevent other lives from being lost due to inaction.

Because our brothers and sisters in CAR are wondering, “when are you going to help us?”

Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.

TIME faith

Hate Won’t Win

Fred Phelps, pastor of Westboro Baptist Church
Ryan Pfluger for TIME

Fred Phelps died early Thursday morning. Phelps was best known for his deeply rooted hatred and promulgating the tasteless slogan “God Hates Fags.” His little group of mostly extended family members that comprised the 59-year-old Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, carried their signs with such ugly and painful statements all over the country. Phelps’ small cult got the most attention for their protests of military and other high-profile funerals, claiming that the slain soldiers deserved to die as a consequence of God’s judgment against America’s tolerance of gay and lesbian people. Such shameful and angry messages, understandably, caused great pain among the mourners and family members grieving their loved ones.

The Washington Post story on Phelps’ death was appropriately headlined “Dry eyes for Fred Phelps,” and commented, “Westboro is an ugly family affair. So ugly that two sons (Mark and Nathan) and a daughter (Dortha Bird) fled their father and his “church.” Another story in the Post reported that Phelps’ group even protested the funeral of Fred Rogers, aka “Mr. Rogers,” explaining that the children’s TV show host neglected to warn young viewers that sodomy is a sin.”

Phelps was 84. The circumstances and health of the last several months of Fred Phelps’ life are surrounded with some mystery. He seemed to have died alone except for a few of the family members who comprised his cultish followers. One estranged son expressed his grief that his father had hurt so many people and reported that the family members who had left Topeka were now being blocked from returning to see Phelps. The Westboro family reports there will be no funeral. The obvious question is, “who would even have bothered to attend, or protest?”

It would be a mistake to celebrate Phelps death, or any death, for the extinguishing of life is, by nature, a moment of loss.

But Fred Phelps’ chosen path shows the sad emptiness of hatred as a way of life, while demonstrating the pain and suffering it causes so many others. His death again reveals that hate never triumphs, but always ends in lonely defeat. Fred Phelps certainly did not leave the world a better place, and he will answer to God for the life he lived, the choices he made, and the harm he inflicted.

Fred Phelps justified his despicable beliefs by distorting the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He demeaned people who were created in God’s Image and preached a theology that lacked any room for grace. But a core tenet of Christian faith is the idea that God’s amazing grace can overcome the reality of human sin. While Phelps could not allow himself to be kind and loving towards those he disliked, God’s love is more than sufficient to overcome his hate. In the end, God loves this world and grace will win regardless of what Fred Phelps or any other self-proclaimed, hate-mongering preachers say.

That’s the beauty of a loving and infinite God who transcends the limitations of human life.

We all have choices to make about hate. We can see the dangers of hate overwhelming our lives – as it did Fred Phelps’ – and all the pain and destruction it causes in the world. We must decide to deal with the anger, which can lead to hatred that we allow to grow and fester within us, because letting it linger can slowly erode and undermine our own moral integrity and choices.

Hatred is ultimately the antithesis of a loving God and the corruption of the world that God has created. Those who use the name of God to legitimize their hatred have blinded themselves to the reality of God’s love and intentions for the world. Love does win in the end. May God lead us all away from the hatreds that too easily beset us as human beings and draw us into the love that can only save us—and the world.

The passing of Fred Phelps is not something to be grateful for, but a powerful reminder of the destruction hatred causes. It illuminates the loneliness that results from a life devoted to resentment and bitterness. But Christian faith audaciously proclaims that love conquers hate. This is a lesson that Fred Phelps is perhaps just beginning to learn.

Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners. His book, On God’s Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned About Serving the Common Good, is now available. Watch the Story of the Common Good HERE. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.

TIME Immigration

An Evangelical’s Plea With the GOP on Immigration Reform: Put People Before Politics

Republicans have a chance to forgo dysfunction and show their compassion

Do conservatives have any compassion left? As House Republicans wrestle with whether to reform our nation’s immigration laws, that is the question evangelical leaders like myself are asking.

After recently releasing long awaited standards outlining their policy priorities, many assumed this represented a firm commitment by Republican House leadership to tackle an issue that had long vexed their party and our nation. We were then stunned to hear the whispers of growing opposition within the caucus. Speaker Boehner surprised us by declaring progress on the issue this year to be “difficult.”

What had changed?

The answer, they admit, is politics. Many GOP House members are concerned about the political ramifications of an immigration overhaul. They are worried about the reaction from voters, especially their primary voters, in districts that have been gerrymandered to be ideologically conservative. They don’t want to risk distracting public attention away from their relentless attacks on Obamacare and all the difficulties created by the implementation of a major expansion of health care insurance. They claim to not trust President Obama or his willingness to enforce immigration laws, despite the fact that his administration has deported more undocumented immigrants than any other. They are perilously close to letting their strong dislike for the President blind them to the realities of human suffering perpetuated by an immigration system that no longer meets the needs of our nation.

What hasn’t changed is the moral crisis created by the failures of the status quo. Every day millions of families live in fear of their lives being irreparably disrupted or dislocated because of one member’s immigration status. Human beings searching for economic opportunity, but frustrated by a complicated and unresponsive visa or legal guest worker system, die as they venture across vast desert expanses, making a desperate attempt to find a better life. Undocumented workers, many of whom are women, have their rights and dignity violated on a daily basis because they have little recourse against their employers. Young people, who came here as children, live as “illegals” in the only country they have ever known as home.

It has become abundantly clear that immigration reform is the moral test of our politics.

Evangelicals have been at the forefront of the push to fix our broken immigration system. Long considered an important political constituency, our engagement has drawn significant attention for its breadth and depth. We aren’t motivated by political calculations or economic self-interest, but by the call of Jesus who audaciously proclaims that the way we treat the most vulnerable members of our society, including immigrants, ­the biblical “stranger,” reflects how we treat Christ himself (Matthew 25:31-46). We stand outside of a broken political system, urging our leaders to prioritize the common good. We believe that what is morally right should never be nakedly sacrificed for political gain.

These convictions are inspired by our faith but they are also rooted in our experiences. Take, for example, the now very typical story of Mike McClenahan, the senior pastor of Solana Beach Presbyterian Church in Southern California. After baptizing children whose parents live in fear of deportation, and building outreach ministries to immigrants in his community, he realized that the gospel’s call to “love your neighbor as yourself” required advocating for immigration reform.

Thankfully we aren’t voices crying out in the wilderness. Public opinion is squarely on our side. According to a recent CNN poll, 54% of Americans believe a path should be created that allows undocumented immigrants the opportunity to earn citizenship. Previous polls have demonstrated that evangelicals support comprehensive immigration reform over an enforcement only approach by nearly a 2 to 1 margin. A majority of voters in GOP swing districts embrace taking action. Business leaders and law enforcement officials have also been prominent proponents of revamping current policies.

Speaker Boehner and Republicans in the House of Representatives face a serious quandary. Do they pass the moral test by following the will of the American people in finding common sense solutions that reform our immigration laws? Or do they fail to uphold their responsibilities as public servants by letting politics triumph over people?

We have arrived at a critical moment of significant moral importance. As I often remind legislators and pastors alike, the policy debate is over. It is just a matter of time before immigration reform is enacted. The only questions left to decide are how much more suffering we will tolerate as a country and how many more families we will tear apart because our leaders refuse to put people before politics.

Immigration reform can be the great exception to the dysfunction that has come to define Washington. This is the chance that conservatives need to show the nation they have not forgotten how to be compassionate.

Jim Wallis is the President and Founder of Sojourners. He is the author of On God’s Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned About Serving the Common Good.

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