Vermont Interfaith Power and Light

A faith-based response to global climate change

Vermont Interfaith Power and Light: Protecting God's Environment

It's right there in Genesis I. After creating all the critters, God instructs humankind to "fill the earth and subdue it, rule over the fish in the sea, the birds of heaven, and every living thing that moves upon the earth." Later, when Noah's crew finally get shore leave, God says of the fish, birds and beasts, "They are given unto your hands."

Subdue, rule: These injunctions have long been taken by literalist believers as something akin to 007's license to kill: Nature is ours to despoil. God said so.

Fact-based concern about animal extinctions or deforestation was mere scientific mechanism; social action to prevent environmental damage was godless humanism. In the eyes of many of the conservative faithful, pro-environment views became linked with other liberal stances like those on abortion and homosexuality.

The absence of support among this huge population – the faithful — has greatly impeded progress on environmental policy. And for many believers, the stigma begat a painful personal conflict, pitting concern and reverence for the natural world against the desire to abide by prevailing church doctrine.

That's changing fast. Religious people of any persuasion now have many opportunities for – and moral support for — faith-based environmental action.

Among the leaders in this process is Interfaith Power and Light, a nationwide organization with chapters in 23 states, including our own. The Vermont branch was founded in 2003 and is now a growing alliance of individuals and congregations. Governed by a board of directors of diverse faiths, VtIPL offers activities to engage the faithful individually, as congregations, or in "eco-teams." Its newsletter features a calendar of action opportunities, tips for cutting energy use and carbon emissions, and spiritual discussion of environmental issues.

Wes Sanders, VtIPL's vice president, leads eco-teams in discussions of "The Low Carbon Diet" by David Gershon, and then helps participants work through its carbon emission-reduction program. Other board members make presentations on climate change to congregations and conduct free energy audits of religious buildings.

IPL is part of a growing national movement in which believers engage in moral consideration of environmental issues and take action as a form of religious practice.

The National Religious Partnership for the Environment (NRPE) believes that "environment is fundamentally a religious issue" and urges the faithful to "bring a moral voice to debates" on environmental policy. Their website at www.nrpe.org provides links to other faith-based organizations, and suggests actions related to food and agriculture, energy, sustainable economics, water, and climate change.

The Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life works to engage Jews in initiatives such as resisting oil drilling in the Artic Wildlife Refuge and fighting climate change. COEJL's website at www.coejl.org provides citations from Talmudic texts as rationale for environmental action and hosts discussion forums; COEJL programs help synagogues improve energy efficiency and cut harmful environmental impacts.

The Environmental Justice program of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops "calls all Catholics to a deeper respect for God's creation and engages parishes in activities that deal with environmental action." Its initiatives, many of them described at www.usccb.org, help Catholics become "faithful stewards of God's creation."

That principle — stewardship — is the movement's spiritual foundation. Often distilled by the term "creation care," the idea is that our concern for the environment stems from a moral obligation to honor the creator's work.

That's where debate has been wrapped around the axle: How do we interpret words historically translated as "subdue," "rule," "dominion"? Increasingly, these translations are being challenged on a linguistic, moral, and practical basis.

Probably no other denomination has been more resistant to environmental values — and as torn by differences of opinion about them — than the Evangelical churches. Embedded in the so-called "red states" and strongly conservative demographic groups, these churches have been slow to change.

But even they are evolving. Green Evangelical leader Richard Cizik, a literalist believer and staunch pro-Bush Republican, translates God's command to humans as "to watch over and care for" the natural world and all living things.

The Evangelical Environmental Network offers a straightforward rationale for creation care: "Because we worship and honor the Creator, we seek to cherish and care for the creation." And, according to their Web site at www.creationcare.org, despoiling the creation is a sin. The EEN's "Declaration" cites seven environmental degradations, including animal extinction and alteration of the atmosphere, as untenable attacks upon God's own handiwork.

I don't participate in any organized religion, but I see great hope in the enlistment of religious commitments in the cause of environmental preservation. Perhaps, aided by the energies of the faithful, we'll begin to realize the sweet vision of Psalm 96: "Let the heavens be glad and the Earth rejoice; let the sea and what fills it resound; let the plains be joyful and all that is in them; then let all of the trees rejoice."

To connect with other Vermonters in faith-based environmental action and discussion, visit Vermont Interfaith Power & Light's website at www.vtipl.org.

Daniel Hecht is a novelist and executive director of the Vermont Environmental Consortium. For more information on any Green Grapevine column, contact vec@norwich.edu.

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