Stewards of the Earth
Why some of Hawai'i's environmentalists and religious are hooking up
May 24, 2007
The question, as Bill Moyers once asked, is simple: "Is God Green?" You may not have noticed, but God is getting greener for the majority of religious folk in the United States. And in Hawai'i, though behind the national curve, faith-based groups are beginning to forge cautious partnerships with environmental groups.
Not that long ago, the religious right bravely stood behind the Bush Administration, refusing to balk at a roll-back on clean air and water protections, increased commercial logging and drilling on public lands and a withdrawal of support for the internationally supported Kyoto protocol on global warming.
Recently there's been a change afoot. In February 2006, a group of 86 high-level evangelical Christian leaders signed the Evangelical Climate Initiative, calling on Christians everywhere to demand legislation and action to reduce global warming.
"The same love for God and neighbor that compels us to preach salvation through Jesus Christ, protect the unborn, preserve the family and the sanctity of marriage, and take the whole Gospel to a hurting world, also compels us to recognize that human-induced climate change is a serious Christian issue requiring action now," the group wrote.
On May 25, 2006, Reverend Dr. Bob Edgar, secretary-general of the National Council of Churches (NCC)—which represents an estimated 45 million Americans—elaborated on that view. "I believe the life issue of our time is global warming," he said. "I believe that God is calling us to attention on the issue. I can find no place in any of the scriptures, whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim or others where God is calling us to participate in destroying the planet. Every place I look, God says, 'Be stewards of the Earth.'"
This change in course for American Christians comes after a long history of hostility toward the environmental movement. For many years, Christian leaders preached that environmentalists worshiped the earth instead of God. Some equated them with idol worshipers and pagans. Many Christians still feel that religion and environmental causes should not mix. In fact, another group of high-profile evangelicals, including James Dobson of Focus on the Family, have denounced the Evangelical Climate Initiative, creating a rare split in the Evangelical church.
After Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell's recent death the Associated Press reported on prominent evangelicals' views of the deep schism existing in the church. "Focus on the Family founder James Dobson and 24 other Christian leaders this year tried to pressure the National Association of Evangelicals to silence its Washington director, the Rev. Rich Cizik, because Cizik is trying to convince evangelicals that global warming is real," the news agency reported on May 16, 2007. "In a February sermon, Falwell warned worshippers at his Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va., that environmental activism by evangelicals 'is Satan's attempt to redirect the church's primary focus' away from spreading the Gospel."
On the other side of the political spectrum, the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has noticed an upswing in interest in global warming issues amongst the faithful.
"What we see now is a country that's more divided on political lines," said Julia Bovey, an NRDC spokeswoman. "But people are putting differences aside and saying that this is an issue that we can come together on. Partnering with religious leaders in communities has been quite remarkable. The trend is especially noticeable in the South."
This pro-environment trend among evangelicals has reached our shores as well. On April 13, and 14, members of the United Church of Christ on Oahu, as well as a few other churches and faith-based groups, stood with the Sierra Club, Life of the Land, Earth Justice, assorted school groups and various Native Hawaiian organizations for "Step It Up," a national rally held simultaneously in 700 to 800 other cities nationwide, according to Jeff Mikulina, Director of the Sierra Club of Hawai'i.
The groups rallied for the passage of two state greenhouse gas reduction bills then pending before the state legislature. The next day saw a "Teach In" at Church of the Crossroads on Oahu, which included speakers from both faith-based and environmental action groups.
In addition, on the day after Earth Day the United Church of Christ held an "Earth Sabbath," said Chuck Burrows of the National United Church of Christ Energy Taskforce.
I asked Burrows why some faith-based organizations in Hawai'i have gone green.
"If there's any changes that can be brought about in the conservation and restoration of the environment it must come through a change in behavior," he said. "This change is a faith change in behavior. Especially since 70 percent of the U.S. claims Christianity [as their religion], these people have a faith in the stewardship of creation. This is the point that Al Gore is making: that global warming isn't just a political or environmental issue, it's a moral issue."
Interestingly, none of the above-mentioned events took place on Maui. When I asked Lance Holter, Director of the Sierra Club's Maui chapter, if there has been any intersection between organized religion and environmentalism here, he said he didn't recall any. "People in Maui don't wear their religion on their sleeves," he said.
Holter added that people's spirituality on Maui is multi-faceted. "We [environmentalists and the religious] both have the same viewpoint of walking and glorifying the spirit," he said. "Everyone in Sierra Club recognizes the linkage between the magnificence of this creation and spirituality."
Though faith-based groups haven't worked with Maui's Sierra Club yet, religious environmental activism is percolating throughout the state.
"I feel that in the last 10 years, we've seen some outstanding projects that are faith-based projects," said Jan Dapitan, Executive Director of Community Work Day in Pu`unene. "They're seeing themselves as civic stewards also. We work with all of them. When the Mormon Church decides to do something on Maui, there's a tremendous turnout. We've worked with the Jewish community on a yearly basis during their Arbor celebrations. One of our stalwarts would be St. John's up in Kula—preventing pesticides from being sprayed on the roads, keeping roadsides planted and cleaned up."
Indeed, informal research showed that most religious congregations have worked some kind of environmentally themed event, be it cleaning a beach or highway section, or planting trees. In talks with Hawai'i's Christian Scientists, Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons and Jews, I found a similar consensus: the book of Genesis in the Old Testament says that man is steward of the earth.
But beyond litter cleanup and tree planting on Maui, this consensus has resulted in far more individual action than church-based activism. For collective action, Native Hawaiian spiritual groups have traditionally been vocal in land and ocean conservation efforts. That's because the 'aina is of the utmost importance, said Sam Gon, Senior Scientist and Cultural Advisor with the Nature Conservancy.
"The natural world was the foundation of Hawaiian culture," Gon said. "Native plants and animals completely sustained the people for thousands of years."
Today he strives to create understanding amongst various groups. He mentioned the situation in Molokai where pig hunters resent "tampering" with their culture of subsistence hunting. At the same time conservationists see the non-native pigs has destroyers of forests and coral reefs.
Both Burrows of the Church of Christ and Irene Bowie, executive director of Maui Tomorrow and a board member of Maui Dharma Center, touched on a similar point. They both questioned the sustainability of our current society's foundations of constant economic growth and "dominion" over man's resources. Both referred to ancient or indigenous cultures and their close relationships to nature.
"Westerners have lost their connection with nature," Burrows said.
Will religious organizations on Maui now step beyond their usual realms and join environmental efforts? Is it time they follow the leads of larger churches around the country and on Oahu?
"In this time, science and religion may be coming together more than anytime in the past," Bowie of Maui Tomorrow said. Though she added that there hasn't yet been any formal relationship between religious groups and Maui Tomorrow.
Bowie said that this is a good time to be thinking about these things. "With the visit of the Dalai Lama, Easter, Earth Day and spring," she said, "it is a time of resurrection, a time of renewal."
I asked Bowie what a first step might be to spur environmental groups and religious groups to work together. "A first step would be for us to look beyond, to look at our general planning, to our communities and outside our small groups," she said.
To that end, Burrows is working to establish "Hawai'i Interfaith Power and Light" on Oahu. He said this organization will facilitate interfaith groups and environmental groups working together.
"Since environmental and climate change is a mushrooming concern around the world, we'll also be facing on the needs of individuals, government and communities," he said.
So, in other words, a good Buddhist would not drive an SUV?
"Not a question of being good Buddhist," said Shoji Matsumoto, a Buddhist minister at Honpa Hongwanji Mission Hawai'i Betsuin. "That's a question of being smart." MTW
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