Temple Israel Senior Rabbi Micah Greenstein spoke at Calvary Episcopal Church’s Lenten Luncheons last week on Earth Day. You can hear it at: http://www.calvaryjc.org/homiliesLent/20060321.html
Here’s an abridged text version:
Whereas fundamentalists and evangelicals do a great job of saving souls and protecting the unborn, the preoccupation of mainline churches is saving lives and protecting the already born right here in Memphis – not just people saved on missions, but the invisible people – the poor and hungry of all creeds and religions.
The future of this city, and every American city, does not depend on the vertical direction of the Cross. The future of this city depends on the horizontal direction of the Cross. This means reaching out as the first century Jew named Jesus would do by putting one’s faith into action for the betterment of all God’s children. If the larger churches in Memphis and Shelby County were to support MIFA, the Church Health Center, the Memphis Food Bank, and other sacred community causes proportionate to the way this church and its partner churches do, there is no doubt we could solve most of the hunger, homelessness, ill health, misery and despair which plague too many in our city
The new encounter between Judaism and Christianity we are witnessing in Memphis is beautifully expressed in Rabbi Irving Greenberg’s recent book entitled “For The Sake of Heaven and Earth.” Some of us in Memphis, and hopefully more to follow, have moved beyond tolerance and pluralism to partnership.
Religious partnership, as Greenberg expresses it, means “my truth and my faith system alone will not fulfill God’s dreams. The world needs the contribution that other faith traditions make to realize its wholeness.” This makes sense to me. The thought of twelve million Jews carrying six billion people on its shoulders, or two billion Christians carrying four billion other people on it shoulders, that thought alone should give each of us a spiritual hernia! We need each other.
It was exactly 35 years ago on this very day, March 21, 1971, when the United Nations celebrated what Job reminds us in today’s scriptural reading – that we have a shared responsibility to protect the planet. Earth Day was born on this very day, March 21. Important laws would be passed by Congress, including the Clean Air Act to protect drinking water, wild lands, and the ocean. The EPA was created within three years of the first Earth Day, yet few seem to care anymore about this specific date in time, or about the environment in general, except God and Job.
We live in an age of apathy, where it’s hard to get Americans excited about anything. We live in an age where more Americans watched the last Superbowl than voted in the Presidential election. Nearly 12 million more Americans watched the Super Bowl than voted in the 2004 election.
How can we rouse our neighbors, regardless of their political or religious affilation, to the issue this March 21 date calls us to address? And why should we awaken ourselves to issues like global warming and the air we breathe? Why? Because there is a tipping point beyond which the damage to the earth’s atmosphere and climate will be irreversible. We may already be at that point, and nobody seems to care.
It wasn’t always that way. In a major address given by Dr. Steven Hayward of the American Enterprise Institute, he asks you to guess which prominent politician made the following statement: “There is an absolute necessity of waging all-out war against the debauching of the environment. The bulldozer mentality of the past is a luxury we can no longer afford. Our roads must be planned to prevent the destruction of scenic resources and to avoid needlessly upsetting the ecological balance.” Sounds like an Al Gore or Ralph Nader quote, doesn’t it? Ronald Reagan uttered these words!
And guess which political magazine printed the following in its editorial: “If corporations do not stop polluting, we must find ways to compel them to do so…important people must be interfered with before notice will be taken of disagreeable facts. Instead of demonstrating on Fifth Avenue on behalf of baby seals, the saviors of the environment would get far better results picketing the country clubs of Nassau, Fairfield, and Morris counties.” Sounds like Mother Jones magazine, but it was the conservative National Review which published this blistering statement on the state of the environment.
As Dr. Hayward notes, in the 1970, the environment was the consensus domestic policy issue around which it was believed the nation could move forward in a bipartisan fashion. What was once a bipartisan consensus issue is now among the most highly polarized domestic policy issues in our nation.
“The growing possibility of destroying ourselves and the world with our own neglect and excess is tragic and very real,” Rev. Billy Graham said 23 years ago. And at the other end of the religious spectrum, Rabbi Alexander Schindler adds, “It’s clear that the earth we inherit is in danger: the skies and the seas, the forests and the rivers, the soil and the air, are all in peril.”
I don’t blame corporations or developers for the fragile state of the environment. I blame each of us. Corporations will always attempt to maximize profits within the parameters of the law. That’s their business. The ethic of business is private gain. The ethic of government is public safety and the greater good. The ethic of the religious world is moral accountability for our actions as stewards of God’s world.
It is time for the religious community, for people of all faiths, ages, political affiliations, and backgrounds, to weigh in by asking every elected official, every future candidate and public decision maker, “What are you willing to do to take care of the environment before the situation gets any worse?” “Just ask the animals,” Job proclaims, “and they will teach you, or the birds of the air, and they will tell you; or speak to the earth, and it will teach you, or let the fish of the sea inform you. Which of all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this?”
Perhaps the most immoral aspect of our destruction of the environment and endangered species is that it’s our hand, not God’s hand, that has done this. We know that we are choosing to kill off species and melt the glaciers. For the first time in history, we know that extinction and deterioration of the environment is happening not as a matter of natural evolution, but as a matter of our own conscious will.
When God instructed Adam and Eve to till and to tend the earth (Gen. 2:15), the original Hebrew verbs, “la’avod” and “lishmor” suggest a higher calling. La’avod means to serve, to obey; it connotes sacred service. Lishmor means to guard. A shomer is a guardian, usually of someone else’s property, in this case, God’s. We are called to be God’s partners in tending, guarding, and preserving this precious planet of ours.
Just as Adam was put in charge of the garden and told to take care of it, so have we been put in charge of this garden and told to take care of it. The Rabbis of the Midrash teach that God actually took Adam for a walk around the Garden of Eden and said to him: “Take good care of this place, for if you spoil it, there will be no one to repair it after you.” Perhaps that is precisely what God is saying to us now, not about the Garden of Eden, but about the planet on which we live.
“One generation passes, and another comes,” Ecclesiastes 1:4 reads, “but the earth remains forever.” Because of our individual and communal disregard of the environment, and because the subject of the environment has become a political rather than a transcendent issue, we have made the earth’s supposed permanence in the Bible a very big question mark.
For better or worse, the state of the world and the environment is now completely in our hands, not God’s hands. And today – March 21 – is the date when we are supposed to remind each other of our divine duty to protect the planet. May we not forsake the sacred mission of preserving God’s world.