Readings for the day from Genesis 1: 26-31; Leviticus 25:8-13; and I Timothy 6: 7-10. (Common English Bible)
It is a privilege to be able to bring an Earth Day message to the Mayflower UCC community. This past week, on April 22nd, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. The first Earth Day in 1970 occurred during a time when there was hope that we as a society were beginning to make significant progress in moving towards greater environmental responsibility.
On that first Earth Day in 1970, it is estimated that 20 million people in the United States took to the streets to protest what the industrial revolution had done to the environment and to call for a new way of living on our planet which is our only home. That first Earth Day is often seen as the birth of the modern environmental movement. A few months later in December of 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency was formed. The Clean Air Act was passed that same year of 1970, and just two years later in 1972, the Clean Water Act was passed. In 1973 the Endangered Species Act was signed into law. In fact there was so much positive environmental legislation passed and signed into law in the early 1970s that the Nixon Administration might be known today as the Ecological Presidency had there not been a little incident called Watergate.
That first Earth Day, full of so much hope and followed by so many legislative successes could have been and should have been the beginning of an environmental reformation of human society. It could have been and should have been that moment of national and global repentance from our ways of environmental destruction, and it should have led to a transformation of our social, economic, and political systems to foster a new sustainable way of relating to the world.
After the Clean Air Act was passed, our skies became less smoggy; after the Clean Water Act was passed, the days of rivers literally catching on fire were behind us; and after the Endangered Species Act was passed, critical habitat for endangered wildlife was now protected by law. With these successes, the environmental movement was poised to address other critical environmental concerns like deforestation and overconsumption of resources that stressed the carrying capacity of the planet, and in the late 1980s the environmental movement began to mobilize to address the global threat of climate change.
So all of this begs the question – what happened, what went wrong? Why have we lost over 50% of wildlife since that first Earth Day 50 years ago? Why have extinction rates increased to the point where species are becoming extinct at least 100 times faster than they would without human activity? Why are we slashing and burning down rainforests? Why have we weakened our clean air and clean water standards? Why are we rolling back environmental regulations across the board for industrial activity? Why have we ignored climate change for so long that it has become a climate crisis that is now well on the way to climate chaos? Why have so many Christians and Christian churches been so absent from the critical work of ecological responsibility, and why are so many persons who identify as Christians often supportive of policies and persons that are so damaging to the environment?
One simple answer to these questions of “what went wrong?” relates to something we have been warned about within our Christian tradition – the love of money. Unfortunately, even though some significant progress was made in the years following that first Earth Day fifty years ago, it was also the case that many industrial interests pushed back against the new environmental regulations and sought to diminish the environmental movement and its accomplishments. Unfortunately, there were literally trillions of dollars to be made from industries and activities that are detrimental to the well-being of the natural world, and when there are trillions of dollars to be made, you can rest assured that many persons will organize and do all within their power to get their piece of the multi-trillion dollar pie.
Under the banner of freedom, free enterprise, and capitalism and often mixed with Christian language and symbols; there has been a very effective movement to undermine responsible care for the environment over the past fifty years. Billions of dollars have been spent to push back and lobby against the environmental movement, environmental legislation, and environmental regulations to insure that industries could continue to pursue activities that give them their piece of the multi-trillion dollar pie. The result has been continued extinction of wildlife, continued deforestation, continued environmental deregulation, and continued climate change hurling us towards climate chaos. Our situation is simply unsustainable for people and for much of the rest of life on the planet.
And if our ecological crisis were not bad enough, now we face a global pandemic, which makes it difficult to even think about the ecological challenges that we are currently facing. In the middle of a global pandemic, it is more than understandable that we long for things to get back to normal. Normal is not this, and almost anything is better than this; but if all we do is get back to normal, are we really getting where we need to be? Isn’t it the case that normal is both unjust and unsustainable. Normal is what has created the crisis that our human community and ecological community are now facing.
I don’t want to get back to the normal of environmental racism, medical bankruptcies, and employer based healthcare that can be lost as fast as the spread of a pandemic.
I don’t want to get back to the normal of extreme income inequality, unequal access to healthcare and education that perpetuates generational poverty, and a criminal justice system that enslaves people of color behind walls of systemic injustice.
I don’t want to get back to the normal in which essential workers are paid unlivable wages and forced to work two or three jobs to avoid living on the streets.
I don’t want to get back to the normal of growing white nationalism, family separations, kids in cages, exploitation of migrant workers, and walls of racism.
I don’t want to get back to the normal of unsustainable overconsumption, torture chambers of concentrated animal feed operations, and climate crisis denial hurling us towards climate chaos that threatens so much life on earth.
If normal is all we can get back to as we work through this pandemic, then we simply perpetuate a world in which the most vulnerable among us and the planet itself continue to suffer, and we miss the opportunity to bring regeneration to our human and ecological communities.
The systems and structures that make so many people of color and other persons who don’t have adequate access to economic opportunity and quality healthcare to be much more vulnerable to this virus must be transformed if there is to be anything approaching resurrection from these days of death.
I want us all to get through this pandemic with the least amount of suffering and death, but I don’t want to get back to the normal that perpetuates the open and festering wound of systemic inequality and injustice in our communities. I don’t want to get back to the normal of continuing the sixth great extinction on our planet. I don’t want to get back to the normal of creating an unlivable climate for generations to come. I don’t want to get back to the normal of losing another 50% of wildlife over the next fifty years. I don’t want to get back to the normal of allowing corporations to make trillions of dollars off of the devastation of our planet.
Perhaps now fifty years after the first Earth Day, we can begin to see clearly that wanting to get back to that kind of normal should not be accepted as being normal. As members of the Christian tradition and members of all humanity, perhaps we can all agree that what has been considered normal has not shown the love that we are called to have for our neighbors, nor has it shown the love we are all called to have for God’s very good creation. I pray that we will not simply get back to normal, but that we might find the courage and creativity to bring a new day of Jubilee and justice for both people and the planet as a whole. Amen.
(Dedicated to Mary Elizabeth Moore in honor of the occasion of her retirement as Dean of Boston University School of Theology. She has been a transformative dean, helping BUSTH stay true to its heritage as the School of the Prophets, and she has done so much to bring healing to the world.)