Great work of our time

As the Reformation turns 500, some see the climate crisis as cause for a new one.

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The 2013 Springs Fire in Camarillo destroyed 15 homes and 24,000 acres before firefighters and rain knocked it down. In the western United States, the season for wildfires has grown by 78 days since the 1970s. Over the last three decades, human-caused warming has nearly doubled the area burned.

Photo: Brian Stethem

This article about the global climate crisis isn’t meant to scare anyone. However, since that’s hard to avoid, let’s compromise by pushing frightening information and dark thoughts down into footnotes (on Page 18).1 Skip those if you’re inclined, but read on here, will you?

This story is about the role of theology and religious belief in solving a global crisis, and about why some people, including graduates of Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary (PLTS)2 and faculty members at Cal Lutheran, are calling the
crisis a spiritual one.

“We’re not alone in saying that what’s at stake today is not primarily a matter of lacking scientific knowledge, or even technological ability,” said associate professor of religion Lisa E. Dahill, co-editor of the new collection of essays Eco-Reformation: Grace and Hope for a Planet in Peril.3  “It is a spiritual crisis to the extent that people refuse to face reality.”

The reality: we can’t keep making energy and food and shrinking forests in ways that cause carbon dioxide4 to accumulate in the atmosphere, as wealthier members of the human species have increasingly done since the Industrial Revolution.5  

In August, at its churchwide assembly in New Orleans,6 the ELCA7 joined those pointing in a different direction. The headline of the day was the church body’s resolution “not to invest in fossil fuels,” wording that matched a 2015 statement by the Lutheran World Federation.8 

To be clear, the ELCA did not vote to remove all of its assets from the fossil fuel industry. Instead, it called for a sustained, multipart strategy to mitigate climate impacts over time.9 

Only one piece of that strategy focuses on moving money around. “Not to invest in fossil fuels” means pulling some investments, influencing the behavior of public companies as a shareholder, and making positive new investments in industries like renewable power. More on investments below.

12 steps

To understand what else the church body is promoting, let’s check in on the work of the Rev. Robyn Hartwig, M.Div. ’97, associate pastor at St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Beaverton, Oregon. In 2009, Hartwig founded EcoFaith Recovery, an interdenominational effort that develops leaders aligned with goals like achieving environmental justice for marginalized groups and making Oregon “an entirely renewable energy economy.”

Well over 200 volunteers representing dozens of organizations, mostly churches near Portland, have taught workshops or led their own community projects as a result. About 25 youth interns on small stipends have gotten involved, not only in Oregon but also in Wisconsin, Minnesota and British Columbia. Roughly half of all participants are Quakers, Episcopalians, Methodists, Presbyterians, Jews, Buddhists and others including non-religious activists looking to relieve their sense of isolation, according to Hartwig.

The word recovery in the group’s name alludes to recovery from addiction. Hartwig saw herself as addicted to a way of life that was not sustainable for human beings or the web of life on Earth; and one of EcoFaith Recovery’s insights is that the change now required of us is change within us. At the same time, the volunteer-led group views the challenge as too big to be faced solely through the exercise of private, individual virtue. 

 “We could put solar panels on every member roof and every church roof, and that would make a difference,” Hartwig said, “but that is not going to alter the level of increased carbon emissions that we are looking at and the devastating impact that that’s going to have going forward.”10

That’s why leadership development involves picking up the skills and screwing up courage to act publicly. Volunteers from an initiative called Beyond Fossil Fuels “go and organize their congregations to get active, whether it’s showing up at a city council meeting or a hearing for a proposed fossil fuel terminal, sometimes a march or a protest or writing letters,” Hartwig said. 

The organization is now calling on volunteers and their churches to dedicate a project in 2017 to Eco-Reformation.  

Fever

Like many people, Aana Marie Vigen, M.A. ’96, Ph.D., an associate professor at Loyola University Chicago, thought there would be more time to draw up plans for the climate fight. Were there not others, even in her field of Christian social ethics, who could speak to environmental issues while she focused on equally critical matters like public health and equal access to health care?

But that calculus kept changing as she followed the news.11 By 2012, she could see that climate change was already magnifying public health challenges and that the burden of this would fall on her young son’s generation rather than more distant beings. She started to look at the problem as a planetwide illness: “a symptom…of the reigning psychological, spiritual, and moral disconnect between human beings and the rest of creation.”12

Vigen’s teaching of undergraduate and graduate students has been transformed as a result. Even her medical ethics course on death and dying draws connections between ecological fragility and mortality, using climate change for context. She’s convinced that no specialist can ignore the problem and that every kind of worker from entrepreneur to entertainer is needed to address it.

“I want to be on a side of history that I can feel good about when I die, as with the abolition of slavery or civil rights or rallying against apartheid in South Africa,” Vigen said. “I mean, this is our moment where it matters how we show up, and Christian theologians and ethicists have the contribution of putting things in terms that help people not just feel depressed, but see a way forward.”

Stop Digging

The church's call to action has three parts, as understood by the Rev. Jeff Thiemann, M.Div. ’05, president and CEO at Portico Benefit Services, the Minneapolis-based ELCA ministry that manages retirement plans. First, educate people on the
issues and advocate for effective policies at all levels of government. Thiemann notes that tax incentives need fixing. Secondly, work with other institutional investors to signal financial markets about the direction we should be heading. (This is Portico’s role.) And finally, set measurable goals to curb consumption and carbon emissions, with follow-through.13 

The climate issue  14 is not the first moral cause that’s prompted the ECLA to change how it invests and to offer new retirement fund choices to people working in its ministries. Portico, which manages roughly $8 billion for almost 27,000 individuals, offers eight social impact funds out of 20 choices. More than 30 percent of members put an average of about two-thirds of their retirement money into these funds to take a stand on social ills such as smoking, alcohol abuse, private prisons and the proliferation of guns.

The burning of fossil fuels has also figured into Portico investment offerings for years. Its social impact funds stay away from the “most egregious” publicly traded polluters, according to Thiemann. Portico analysts are now working on recommendations to meet the ELCA’s latest instruction to
remove some investments from the “largest” fossil fuel companies, while continuing to engage in shareholder activism with others and to buy stock in companies taking positive steps toward sustainability.
15

“If you sell your shares, you don’t get to show up at the table and vote. You lose that influence,” Thiemann said. 

Thiemann grew up as a “missionary kid” in the Philippines and Ethiopia and was active in church, but his calling to PLTS and the ministry came much later. Trained in computer science and management, he had a 23-year career in high tech and finally rode out the dot-com bubble as an entrepreneur. Because he did not come away a millionaire, he says, he committed himself fully to the life of a pastor, enjoying “a front-row seat to witness what God was doing in people’s lives.” When first elected as a trustee of Portico, he knew little about benefits but had a good background for “the integration of ministry and business excellence, which is what we do.”

Whether it’s the experience with innovation or with the ministry that he left a little more than five years ago in Walnut Creek, California, something tells Thiemann the climate crisis can and will be solved. 

“In part it’s because of the students that you have and will have and the graduates from CLU and other institutions that I think are going to be instrumental in addressing this problem from a systemic viewpoint,” he said. “It’s good for CLU to work on this not only as a consumer (of energy), but also as a place for people to learn, and have some very promising careers.... There are just tons of opportunities.”  

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1 Along with some other stuff.

2 The theological seminary in Berkeley has been part of Cal Lutheran for almost three years. 

3 The volume is expected from Cascade Books this November, in time for 500th-anniversary commemorations of the Protestant Reformation. 

4 Not the most potent, but the most important of greenhouse gases in driving long-term temperature increases. 

5 When Martin Luther was preaching, the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide stood at 280 parts per million. Now it exceeds 400 ppm and is unlikely to fall below that number in the lifetime of anyone reading this.

6 The assembly concluded while this year’s disastrous floods were coming to southern Louisiana. Climate models predict more intense storms in the future with greater precipitation. 

7 Cal Lutheran is one of 26 colleges and universities affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), and its seminary, PLTS, is one of eight that belong to the church body. 

8 Both statements call on congregations and others “not to invest in fossil fuels and to support energy efficiency and renewable energy companies, and to encourage their institutions and individual members to do likewise.” The LWF Council also resolved, “As a Lutheran Communion, we understand climate change as an issue of justice, peace, care for creation and protection for all peoples everywhere. We raise a special concern for the most vulnerable, in particular the poor, the indigenous people, and the voiceless…. [W]e re-commit ourselves and encourage others to commit to a profound change in our lifestyles and in the broader system of production and consumption.”

9 The ELCA had already endorsed the outcome of the Paris climate deal reached in December 2015 by international parties. Officially, that deal seeks to hold the global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

10  What’s wrong with more carbon dioxide? When gases trap heat in the atmosphere, the warming drives problems including sea level rise and longer periods of heat and drought. In another major concern, absorption of carbon dioxide is changing the chemistry of the oceans, endangering coral reefs and food chains.

11 In 2009 alone, 1) experts warned that the Earth was warming at a more dangerous pace than previously thought, 2) the Copenhagen climate conference collapsed in failure, and 3) the prestigious British medical journal The Lancet identified climate change as “the biggest global health threat in the 21st century.”

12 The quote is from Vigen’s essay in the new Eco-Reformation volume, titled “Living Advent and Lent: A Call to Embody Reformation for the Sake of Human and Planetary Health.” It observes that climate change disrupts public health with “thirst, hunger and bugs”: contamination of drinking water, degradation of land and soil, and new habitats for disease-bearing insects, among other threats.

13 Cal Lutheran is in the process of developing its own carbon reduction goals after signing the Second Nature climate commitment in May.

14 Or in broader, theological terms, “caring for creation.”

15 Portico pursues this strategy together with peer institutions from other denominations and also in large partnerships like the Investor Network on Climate Risk, which includes “more than 120 institutional investors representing more than $14 trillion in assets committed to addressing climate change and other key sustainability risks, while building low-carbon investment opportunities.”

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