As a kid I was forced to go to Sunday school, where the second half of the hour was sometimes spent in church itself. My friends and I delighted in sitting in the balcony and making up our own silly words as we sang along to hymns like "Go Down Moses and Let My People Go." I was also once sent out into the hall for sketching a funny picture of a big-nosed, toothless man with a cleft chin when we were all asked to draw what we thought God looked like.
I still find it difficult to connect with stories by and about people who lived 2,000 years ago—men (primarily) who thought the Earth was flat, who regarded women as livestock, and who kept slaves and nailed people to crosses. And though I’m grateful that God has endowed pop stars with so much singing talent (as we learn from the acceptance speeches at each year’s Grammy Awards!), I’m sure I’m not alone in wondering how a caring creator can stand by while 30,000* children die each day around the planet from malnutrition and lack of clean water. That’s 10 times every day the toll that September 11, 2001 took on innocent lives. As Adbusters magazine recently posed: Where’s the 24/7 media coverage about this? Where’s the military response, the stock market dip, the hunt for the villain? To this I’d add: "Where are the churches, synagogues and mosques?"
Many in church life—like the famed Mother Teresa—do "God’s work" by feeding and clothing the poor, but rarely does any discussion bubble to the surface critical of the forces that cause and perpetuate such suffering and poverty in the first place. For this reason I can’t help but see organized religion as a major accomplice—through the sin of silence—in the continued economic hopelessness of a growing majority of people on this planet, a hopelessness that also causes environmental degradation.
Thus I applaud the work of the pioneers you"ll read about in this special issue on religion and the environment. They are wise to promote dialogue among religious leaders with the hope that it will both modify doctrines and trickle down to the congregations, perhaps to re-kindle a sense of purpose around a relevant and current crisis.
But trickle down will only work with the help of some trickle up. The major religions will need more than gentle persuasion to enlist them in efforts to rescue the environment—or to be a force for any kind of real progressive change. Diplomatic cajoling and polite debate are important to the process, but they rarely work alone to push big institutions, whether governmental, corporate, academic or spiritual, to get the lead out—at least not without a lot of noisy clamoring outside the gates.
Let’s hope this new movement succeeds in moving these dinosaurs out of their Jurassic Period. Give them some support by making noise in your own congregation, and in the media. It’s time the churches stop contemplating their navels and plying only the narrow focus of personal salvation. It’s time they got on with the business of saving the world they claim God put them in charge of.