“The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us, I say: We will never forgive you.” Her words in print miss the heartbreak, the passion, the righteous anger Greta Thunberg conveyed in her address to the U.N.’s Climate Action Summit in New York City on Sept. 23.
Thunberg is just 16 years old – the same age as my daughter. The daughter who came to me a few weeks ago with similar heartbreak and anger when she found out about the Amazon rainforest burning.
“What are we doing about this?!” she demanded.
She caught me off-guard. I gave some weak, measly response about how complicated the situation is, how countries can’t just go into Brazil and fight its fires for them. I tried to explain that we’re part of the problem because of the demand our country has for cheap meat and monoculture crops. But I did not, could not, answer her question. What are we doing about this?!
We are choosing to fail, and this generation will never forgive us.
Thunberg’s words [read the whole speech here] may offend some Christians who recall Jesus’s instruction to forgive “seventy times seven times” (Matthew 18:22). Some may ask, How dare this teenager declare unforgiveness on behalf of her generation? But her prophetic, searingly truthful words recall another time Jesus spoke about forgiveness:
Therefore I tell you, people will be forgiven for every sin and blasphemy, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come. (Matthew 12:31-32)
In my book, Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology, and the Pulpit, there is a sermon I wrote called “I Am Ruah.” I preach it from the perspective of the Holy Spirit – the breath of God and air of the planet – recounting how she is crucified by the burning of fossil fuels and climate change.
The carbon from those fossilized forms had been locked away, safely buried beneath millennia of gravity and pressurized stone. The sacred exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the land and air above continued undisturbed as life unfolded, diversified, flourished across the face of the planet. But then your kind learned to unlock the heat within the stone, to dig deep for the black oily remains, to fracture the rock and release the gases held safely miles beneath the surface.
As your kind swarmed the globe, the sacred balance began to tilt. You tore the trees – the planet’s lungs – from forests and jungles. Grey toxic fumes rose from your factories, your cars, your power plants, hovering over your cities, choking and smothering. Pipes spread across the land, jutting into the sky, leaking the gases, shooting flames into me. This is an unholy fire. In just 200 years, 165 milllion years of Creation is being undone by the very ones who were supposed to be the shining light of that Creation.
This is blasphemy against the Spirit – the unforgivable sin.
For if the very essence of life, God’s breath, Ruah, is destroyed, there can be no breath, no life for anyone or anything. It is unforgivable because there is no return. Once the balance tips too far, the cascading effect on the oceans, the ice sheets, the mountains, and the climate cycles falls too fast to stop.
How can there be forgiveness if there is no one left to give or receive it?
Given the fact that carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for potentially hundreds of years, the odds are already against us. The climate feedback loop which scientists are observing is resulting in ice sheet melt at the poles accelerating producing even faster sea rise. Formerly frozen tundras are thawing, producing even more methane which is an even more potent form of greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide in the short-term. So we may already be past the point of no return.
But this is no reason to give up.
In the sermon, Ruah proclaims that she still filling the lungs of those who are fighting for this planet. She is filling them with the Holy Spirit as they use their air for prayer, lifting their voices in songs of protest and peace. She is filling their lungs with the breath of Jesus as they inspire together – marching, testifying, teaching, healing and speaking words of exhortation:
Do not blaspheme the Holy Spirit.
They are calling for the burning to stop. For the sacred remains of the brontosaurus and her kin to remain in their burial grounds safely in the heart of the Earth. They are calling for the balance to be restored. They are calling for us to use Ruah’s power for life, for hope, for peace. And to draw upon Sun and Ocean, Earth and Ruah herself – the Wind to generate our power and restore the sacred balance.
Faith leaders need to step up.
As a Christian homiletician, I have argued that preachers have a key role to play in helping congregations understand that attending to environmental and humanitarian issues is a matter of faith and moral/ethical obligation. We need to convey the necessity of addressing the climate crisis. Because of the sheer onslaught of raging fires, floods, droughts, and storms across this planet in the past decade, this is an urgent, all-hands-on-deck moment.
We need to step into the crisis to help elicit a depth of wisdom, insight, and motivation that can guide us, as individuals and as a society, toward a more peaceful, just, and Earth-honoring future. Preachers are uniquely positioned to present a vision of what is possible when the faith community addresses these issues and clearly communicates what it means to live in right relationship with Earth, community, and God. Homilies and sermons are vital for the Creation Clarity we need right now, for they can raise awareness and help mobilize people for action.
Rooted and Rising
In a new book I’ve co-edited with my colleague Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, we gathered 21 essays from religious environmental activists to elicit this sacred wisdom for the climate crisis we are enduring. Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis is intended for readers who are concerned about the climate crisis and who thirst for the wisdom and spiritual resources of fellow pilgrims grappling with despair. In anticipation of the 50th anniversary of Earth Day in 2020, we assembled this volume of essays that bring together a diverse range of voices that speak to the spirituality and faith perspectives that sustain our climate activism. The book highlights individuals who have found religious practices and perspectives that renew their capacity for compassionate, purposeful, even joyful action.
Organizations such as Greenfaith, Interfaith Power and Light, ecoAmerica’s Blessed Tomorrow, and the Poor People’s Campaign are doing important work to help build interfaith connections and organizational energy for this Great Work of our time. A group of bold legislators in Congress is proposing a Green New Deal that aims to address both economic inequality and climate change. My own interfaith work to fight fracking and a tire incinerator in Pennsylvania, and continuing now with Kentucky Interfaith Power and Light, has shown me that I have much in common with many Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Sikhs and other faiths – including those with no faith tradition, but who share the value of compassion.
I relentlessly trust that in the midst of this work, we will discover that which will enable us to face the impending crisis.
Greta Thunberg’s words – and my daughter’s words – convict us and compel us. If we are wise, we will recognize the voice of our Creator God speaking through them. And we will respond with the urgency they demand.
Leah D. Schade is the Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship at Lexington Theological Seminary in Kentucky. She is the author of Preaching in the Purple Zone: Ministry in the Red-Blue Divide (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019) and Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology, and the Pulpit (Chalice Press, 2015).