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  • Rick Bonetti

Book Review: Climate Church, Climate World

In the 2018 book Climate Church, Climate World: How People of Faith Must Work for Change, Rev. Jim Antal makes a compelling case that "even more than an environmental problem, climate change is humanity’s greatest collective moral crisis.” Climate change amplifies all forms of injustice (hunger, refugees, racism, poverty, inequality, deadly viruses, war.) Defense of creation it therefore fundamentally a campaign for justice.

Background history

In 2015 the national United Church of Christ (UCC) Synod approved a Resolution to “resist all expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure and demand new sources of renewable energy that are accessible to all communities.”

On June 1, 2017 President Trump announced that the United States would withdraw from the 2015 Paris Climate Accord. In response, on July 3, 2017 97% of the 700 delegates in the UCC Synod voted on an Emergency Resolution urging three moral imperatives:

1) that clergy accept the mantle of moral leadership and preach on climate change;

2) that we all (congregations and individuals) incarnate the changes we hope for; and

3) that the church proclaims in the public square a bold and courageous witness that fearlessly holds to truth.

Also in 2017 the United Church of Christ adopted a new campaign – Three Great Loves, in an attempt to engage the entire denomination in a shared effort to live out the stated Mission: “United by the Holy Spirit and inspired by God’s grace we love all, welcome all, and seek justice for all:” and its Vision: “A just world for all.” The three great loves are: The love of Children; the love of Neighbor; and the love of Creation. This simple campaign puts climate change in perspective and focus.

Antal wrote the book In fall 2017 and it was published in 2018. Is it still relevant? The nation has lost 4 important years due to regressive climate policy so in my opinion it is even more imperative than in 2017 for the church to take up its vocational call to inspire humanity to engage in a new moral era and action.

Why a “Climate Church?”

Mainline churches in the U.S. have long been on a decline leaving a residual aging membership who tend to resist change and just want a return to the comfort of predictable liturgy, choir and organ. No longer does the church have the civic moral authority it once had. Wouldn’t an emphasis on climate change be depressing and cause dissension among those in the congregation who are climate-change deniers because of their political beliefs?

I believe that Antal would argue that because climate change is a moral issue it is the vocation of the church to be a prophetic voice speaking truth to power. “This is what the church was made for.” Taking action is spurred not only by logic, but by love – love for all of creation; love for future generations; and love for those who those who will be most effected by the negative consequences of climate change. Perhaps becoming a “climate church” is just what is needed to have the “clarity of voice” necessary to regain stature as a civic moral authority? Perhaps new solidarity and common purpose can be built between non-fundamentalists of other faith traditions?

This will be done by becoming a “missional church” on the internet, in social media and in the community and not just an “attractional church” expecting folks to walk through our doors. The greatest energy driving climate change action is coming from a younger generation, particularly women. If we nurture and support this it will reinvigorate the church.

Why Now?

Covid-19 lockdown caused us all to slow down, break from our routines and reconsider what is really important and what in society needs fixing. Some things will never be the same, nor should they. We have entered a “new normal.” We are at an inflection point of creating a new, more positive story for humanity and all of creation.

Recent wildfires and now drought have heightened awareness of how fragile our relationship is with the environment. We are still tender from the losses and open to accept positive change. The world continues to experience more frequent extreme weather disasters – wildfires, droughts, floods, soil erosion, etc. as the climate changes. Biodiversity diminishes at an accelerated rate as wild habitats are lost to deforestation. Coral reefs are lost as the ocean acidifies.

Covid-19 has underscored how interrelated ALL life on earth is and it also exposed many fragile existing conditions of society: economic inequality, racial & gender injustice; loss of public trust, workplace volatility and more…

During the 2020 Covid-19 lockdown national attention about racial injustice and criminal justice reform intensified because of the murder of George Floyd. Covid-19 also created the greatest hardship and injustice for BIPOC communities and poor people throughout the world – the same people who will be most impacted negatively by climate change. As SOCAN puts it: “While this may not seem to everyone to be a climate issue, it is absolutely an issue of social justice. In that context, this injustice emulates the history of environmental injustice visited upon minorities and peoples of color across the nation and the planet in relation to all environmental issues.”

Today as Covid-19 vaccines are beginning to allow churches to slowly emerge from lockdown many want just to “return back to normal,” but the systems of the old normal need fixing – we need a new story and life-giving practices: Regenerative agriculture to replace industrial agriculture; doughnut and circular economic models to replace unsustainable growth of consumption and production; reforestation and planting trees to replace deforestation; long term thinking for future generations to replace exploitation and short term profit.

As Jim Antal puts it we need a new story of hope.

  • Resilience in place of growth

  • Collaboration in place of consumption

  • Wisdom in place of progress

  • Balance in place of addiction

  • Moderation in place of excess

  • Vision in place of convenience

  • Accountability in place of disregard

  • Self-giving in place of self-centered fear

We have seen how rapidly science and the pharmaceutical industry were able to innovate and mobilize in response to our current, global, existential, public health threat and we can do the same to reverse the trajectory of rising global temperatures caused by human activity. We must have the same united will and urgency.

How the Book Helps

The book seems aimed primarily at progressive Christian clergy and congregational leaders in the United States. It offers advice on new approaches to worship, preaching, witnessing and other spiritual practices. It concludes on a sober but hopeful note, coaching leaders through the necessary processes – helping members face reality and our existential threat, expressing grief, distinguishing optimism from hope, nurturing moral imagination, telling a new story, cultivating hope and moving into action.

Antal’s coaching approach is understandable because for 14 years he was Conference Minister of the Southern New England UCC. He is now a Special Advisor on Climate Justice to UCC General Minister and President John C. Dorhauer

The book is very readable and inspiring. It may push you to participate in bold activism and even non-violent, civil disobedience, but it offers few specific details for immediate action. For this I would turn to the 2017 book Drawdown (offering the 100 most substantive solutions to reverse global warming) and its updated online version Drawdown Review 2020. For federal policy activism I recommend Citizens Climate Lobby. For local and Oregon measures participate with SOCAN. Pachamama Alliance also offers outstanding educational programs on climate change solutions.

Personal actions are important, but only collective actions aimed at systemic root causes will be effective to reach drawdown and reverse the current trend of global warming. Actions to reverse global warming have been fragmented with overlapping and competing initiatives. A climate church should support effective initiatives not reinvent new ones.

Although informed by science the book is not technical and largely ignores specifics of addressing climate-change denial other than acknowledging how psychologically difficult it is for people to enter into the fray. The issue has become so politically charged and a conversation downer. Religious institutions may acknowledge climate change with hesitation, even reluctance or focus on small individual actions such as changing lightbulbs or improving church facilities. Individuals often feel overwhelmed and powerless in the face of organized opposition. We are preoccupied by day-to-day concerns and want to avoid depression, which results in inaction.

I appreciated the useful footnotes for each chapter, but the book has a more inspiring and motivational tone rather than scholarly.

There are biblical references in the book, but they are used more prophetically than as proof-texting why religious people should be committed to reversing climate change. It’s much more about collective rather then individual salvation. Antal quotes Bill McKibben who says: “the most important thing an individual can do about climate change is to stop being an individual.”

The book provides questions at the end of 12 sections/chapters which makes it convenient for group book study in 6 sessions. I look forward to re-reading this important book together with new friends (from other religions, denominations and no religion), probably with weekly zoom discussions. Education, motivation and collective empowerment are first steps to action.

Today there is even more urgency for mankind to take broad systemic actions to reverse the negative effects of climate change. We have a climate emergency.

You can purchase Climate Church, Climate World on Amazon kindle for $14.46. Jim Antal is an award-winning activist and public theologian. Find out more at Antal’s Website

Rick Bonetti


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