I needed a good sign.
My fourteen-year-old daughter and I had traveled 1,300 miles from Lincoln, Nebraska, to the epicenter of throbbing Manhattan to take part in the People’s Climate March. I knew that photographers like good signs, and we all wanted great media coverage. I needed a short, pithy statement that encapsulated my theological stance on the climate crisis.
My daughter and I spent our subway trips in the days preceding the march brainstorming slogans. We stayed up late the last night, bent over the kitchen table where we were staying, perfecting our messages with giant markers in blue, black, and red.
When we emerged at Columbus Circle the next morning, there was an epic feel in the air. Police barricades were set up everywhere. Cars were gone. Friendly volunteers stood in key spots, directing people to staging areas. Marchers in bright T-shirts, backpacks, and sneakers filtered in from all directions. A lively band played on Eighth Avenue, part of the labor union contingent. The spirit was happy, expectant, and purposeful.
We joined the staging area for the faith contingent on Fifty-eighth Street. Yellow signs directed people to join their tribe: Presbyterians, Pagans, United Church of Christ, Baha’i, Eastern Orthodox, and dozens more. The block was a fantastic spectacle of diversity: Jews sounded their shofars, Dominicans marched in white robes, Franciscans in brown, Buddhists in saffron and red, Lutherans in black suits and white clerical collars. An inflatable mosque bounced near the head of the group.
Over the next few hours, we saw hundreds of signs. “Another Kansas Rabbi for Climate Action.” “Love Mother Earth.” “There is no Planet B.” And this, from a teen: “Is the Planet Warming or Am I Just HOT?” My daughter, a budding guitar musician, had come up with the perfect sign for herself: “Less Coal, More Rock.”
The slogan I had crafted for my sign was simply this: “Believe in a Better World.” I was self-conscious about it. It wasn’t clever. It didn’t call out the fossil fuel industry or quote the Bible or call for a specific policy action. While all around me people were taking photos of one another’s signs, not one person asked to take a photo of mine. Was it lame? Was it dismissively Pollyanna? I would have felt embarrassed about it except for my fervent desire to hold it up to the eyes of every one of the four hundred thousand people who marched, and all those watching via social media, TV, and newspapers around the globe. Believe in a better world.
Belief in a just and loving world is core to Christian faith. We believe that the world God has intended for us is one that is healthy, fair, interconnected, and vibrant. Different traditions call it by different names: heaven; the kingdom; the beloved community; divine providence. In short, Christians believe that the unfolding of history is ultimately tending toward communion with God. This is what we are made for just as much as we are made to breathe.
As we all know, this belief is not so easy to hold on to in the real, present world. When the US emitted 6,526 million metric tons of C02 in 2012, when Wall Street scoffs at fossil fuel limits, when seas inundate island nations, when the potential for enormous human suffering and armed conflict rises, discouragement sets in. The average annual mean temperature in my county is expected to rise seven degrees by 2100, a mind-boggling figure that will make my state’s agricultural production—and thus our economy, and thus our communities—go haywire. Yet our legislature seems ever less willing to seriously tackle the issue of climate change. Because funding for climate advocacy is so elusive, I am not sure how I am going to be paid in three months. My hands break out in rashes when the stress escalates. Oftentimes it seems inevitable that we are going to lose this fight. It is tempting to give into despair.
A couple of weeks ago, wading through a wave of anguish about all of this, I came across some words from Martin Luther King Jr. that pierced my heart. His words leapt off the page as an answer to me and to all of us people of faith who are working on climate change:
“I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history.”
There is a metaphysical choice before us: a choice about what to believe. The measure of our despair about climate change may be gigantic; all we need is for our measure of hope to exceed it. The gift of faith, no matter how maddeningly elusive it may be at times, is to live one’s life centered in hope. If we people of faith don’t believe in a better world, we falter not only in creating solutions to climate change but in the very act of having faith.
We are all we have. It is our moral compass, our choices, our voices, our willingness to stand up and be counted, our ability to build communities that will be our salvation. It isn’t easy or straightforward. There is no one policy or behavior change that will bring us back from the brink of ecological disaster. It wasn’t easy for Jesus Christ to preach a world-altering message of love and compassion. It wasn’t easy for Martin Luther King Jr. to call for the beloved community. But they did, because they believed it was possible. And because they believed it, they inspired others to believe it, and the world changed.
The Martin Luther King Jr. quote above is from a speech. To read the full text of Martin Luther King Jr.’s acceptance speech on the award of the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, December 10, 1964, visit www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/1964/king-acceptance_en.html.