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Sharing the Earth – A Jewish, Evangelical Conversation

When I found this Sh’ma interview in my inbox, it raised a question: we Seventh-day Adventists qua Sabbathing followers of Jesus seems to be on all sides of this conversation, except the ecology part. Why? I’m curious to read your reactions.

Rabbi Andrea Cohen-Kiener, director of Interreligious Eco-Justice Network, Connecticut’s Interfaith Power and Light is the spiritual leader of Congregation Pnai Or of Central Conn. She is author of Life on Earth: A User’s Guide, and For All Who Call: A Guide to Enhancing Prayer Instruction in the Jewish Community. She is also the translator of Conscious Community, A Guide to Spiritual Development, written in the early years of World War II by Rabbi Kalanymous Kalman Shapira.

Dr. Lowell “Rusty” Pritchard, a resource economist, is the National Director of Outreach for the Evangelical Environmental Network and the editor of Creation Care magazine, a Christian environmental quarterly.

Andrea Cohen-Kiener: Does your mandate for climate change come from Genesis?

Rusty Pritchard: Yes, but as an Evangelical Christian, I often go to John 3:16 which starts off, “for God so loved the world.” Most Evangelicals hear that word “world” and think it means all the people in the world. But the word is cosmos. And it fits with the story of creation in Genesis that God loves his whole creation.

Cohen-Kiener: We need to acknowledge our grandeur and our smallness simultaneously. I’ve experienced a resistance in the Jewish community to environmental efforts; I’ve heard often over the past ten years, “we have more important issues to address.” Have you experienced similar speed bumps?

Pritchard: The biggest speed bump is a limited conception of God, and a comfortable conservatism that is scared of change. I ask people, “what is it that conservatives should be conserving?” Of course we need to conserve natural resources, families and the ability of families to make a living. We need also to conserve beautiful places, including small towns and farms, all that makes human civilization good and beautiful and diverse. We can respect diversity because it’s a blessing from God. That takes us past the shallow conservatism of fearing new ideas and deeper to a conservatism that says we ought to do our best to take care of the natural world.

Cohen-Kiener: In my community, there are primarily two speed bumps. First, my people are a minority and there’s a natural tendency toward particularism — taking care first of oneself, one’s people, one’s family. The universalism of environmental makes some Jews feel it’s not an essentially Jewish issue.

Pritchard: Even though it’s not demographically true, Evangelicals also feel like an embattled minority culture. Our dominant myth is that we’re a faithful remnant that acknowledges the truth even though the world has gone another direction. Until recently, our community viewed environmentalism as a liberal issue, or as a popular fad. But because our theology says that God’s character can be seen in the created world, many conservative Christians are beginning to be concerned about creation care. In that view, destroying creation and permitting ecological degradation are like ripping pages out of scripture.

Cohen-Kiener: Let’s talk about the pervasive value of consumerism in our culture, our deep hungers of the spirit and flesh. Our culture is so illiterate about the hungers of the spirit that we try to fill up that hunger with a new car or fancy vacation. And we’re polluting the planet in that effort. We need a counterbalance to consumerism.

Pritchard: I agree. We have such a fundamental addiction to consuming. The Jewish Sabbath is an antidote to that hunger. It helps us test what we can give up from material culture. The Sabbath idea jumps out of every part of Scripture — the rhythms of rest and satisfaction and enjoyment of the created order are meant to pervade all of our lives. There are weekly rhythms and cycles of seven years and the jubilee cycle of 49 years, all celebrating the sufficiency and the providence of God, where we rest and enjoy and encounter with delight the works of God. The Fourth Commandment requires not only your rest, but the rest of all of your household, including everyone who works for you and all of your animals. And the land itself. It demands we not push to the limits our ecological systems or the people who work for us.

I’ve just returned from a pastors’ conference in New York City where some of the urban churches are trying to reclaim the idea of cities as good places. Evangelicals generally hold an anti-urban bias that comes from a vision of our faith as a remnant existing outside of the mainstream of culture. There’s an inability to see cities as places that need investment and work, as places to build meaningful community. In a highly urbanized culture we have to rethink our environmental work — conserving not only wilderness or endangered species but also building sustainable communities. I wonder whether there’s something to learn there from Jewish tradition, which thrives in cities.

Cohen-Kiener: A city is a manmade place as opposed to the wild. It raises questions about how to create sustainable structures.

Pritchard: The pastor of Church of the Redeemer in New York City, Tim Keller, is trying to redefine a city to include small towns throughout the agricultural landscape. He envisions multiuse, walkable, human settlements that have density and diversity. Those settlements can be megacities or smaller places where people live in community, and where culture is created. God either wants us in the country or in the city, but I’m not sure we should try to mix the two, as in a suburb.

Cohen-Kiener: That brings us to another, related, issue, environmental justice, and questions about air quality, transfer stations, garbage dumps, what’s called source point pollution, which is almost always located around the world in nonwhite population centers.

Pritchard: The worst stuff gets dumped on the poorest communities and on ethnic minorities. Within blocks of our church there’s a toxic waste facility, a trash transfer station, chemical plant, an impoundment lot for towed vehicles.

Cohen-Kiener: When we talk about environmental justice we need to do so in partnership with the poor and with the “other.” If there was a garbage transfer station in the western suburbs of Hartford, Connecticut where I’m sitting right now people would be much more avid in their support of reduce, reuse, recycle and pre-cycle. The technology and the market forces would come into play more quickly if the consequences were borne evenly and appropriately.

Pritchard: Maybe we need a public policy that puts toxic waste treatment facilities and landfills only in the zip codes with the highest per capita income.

Systems and institutions can be sinful in ways different than individuals, who are filled with flaws like jealously, pride, and rage. Environmental issues open a window onto the economic and social systems that are unjust and often racist. As an economist, I think our public policies and the ways businesses operate will change once they face the costs of the pollution that they now get to dispose of largely for free. Climate policy may involve getting the right price on carbon dioxide so that it becomes a part of the price of all of the goods that we buy and sell and therefore we implicitly take it into account even if we aren’t explicitly looking for the greenest option. It must hit us in our pocketbook. We need to think explicitly about challenging businesses to be not just responsive to price signals and creating value for their shareholders but to think about ethics in a much broader sense and to allow their business models to be contaminated by their sense of morality and not pretend that there is this huge divide that businesses are sort of amoral institutions.

Cohen-Kiener: Influencing minds and hearts is going to open a very powerful, passionate, articulate, empowered wellspring as we reexamine what we really need, what we really want, what really makes us feel wealthy and safe. It’s going to look like spending less and having less. It’s going to feel like more wealth. The root of this sin is disconnection. And the cure is connection.

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