Quaker Groups Statement — Climate Summit 2014

October 2, 2014 § 3 Comments

In September, seven Quaker groups produced a group statement on climate change for distribution ahead of the People’s Climate March in New York City and the Climate Summit held the next week at the United Nations. The organizations were Quaker Earthcare Witness, Quaker United Nations Office, Friends Committee on National Legislation, Quaker Council for European Affairs, American Friends Service Committee, Quakers in Britain, and Living Witness. Click the following link to download a pdf file of this statement, Facing the Challenge of Climate Change: A shared statement by Quaker groups.

I am very glad that these organizations were able to present to the world a testimony on this all-important issue. I know it sometimes is not easy to get approval for such a statement by even one organization, let alone so many. And these organizations carry considerable weight, both among Friends and in some parts of the wider society. Furthermore, I know that it sparked a lot of conversation around Quaker circles and some action. New York Yearly Meeting, at the least, endorsed the statement and released a press release about its endorsement. I suspect that some local meetings and maybe some other yearly meetings and organizations did so, as well. So hurray for the faithfulness of the Friends who crafted and approved this statement.

I do have some concerns, however. But in the comments and critique that follows, I hold up this statement, not as a failure on the part of the Friends who wrote it and approved it, but as a jumping-off point for a discussion of how we Friends—liberal Friends, anyway—pursue and articulate our social and ecological witness.

My concerns—a summary. The writer in me wishes the statement were bolder—stronger and more direct in its language. The Quaker minister in me wishes it was more prophetic in its message and that that message came from closer to the heart of our tradition. Another way to put this concern is that I wish God and the faith and practice of Quaker ministry played a more central role. The document designer in me wishes it were formatted more attractively.

All this inner grumbling has made me somewhat outwardly grumpy.  I’ve written about this before: The liberal branch of Quakerism consistently produces witness statements that barely mention God and use secular language rather than clearly religious language, let alone distinctively Quaker language, to make its arguments. These minutes of conscience often could have been written by some secular organization, for all that you can tell.

Stronger language. In the main body of the statement, paragraphs begin, “We recognize . . . “ “Recognize” is as passive an action word as you can get. All you have to do to recognize something is to have your eyes open and your brain turned on. No small thing in this time of eco-denial, I admit. But we Friends can do much more than “recognize”—can’t we? Can we not TESTIFY!? If you replace all the Statement’s “We recognize” phrases with “We testify”, or something else that clearly declares our stand as religious, Quaker, and God-breathed, how much more powerful would it read! If you do these replacements, however, you quickly recognize that you need to change the message itself.

Prophecy. One testifies to the Truth. One testifies as a witness, which implies a prophetic judgment. One testifies to the Truth on behalf of its Source. Traditionally, a prophetic oracle invokes God, names the sin, and then it often predicts the consequences of that sin, hopefully with vivid and even poetic images. The language in this statement lacks prophetic teeth; in fact, it’s weak in prophetic perspective. If this testimony arose from a prompting of the Holy Spirit, then it should say so. Now I realize that some of these organizations serve “constituencies” that might not be comfortable with such overt religious language or they may have other obligations related to funding and mission that complicate the process for public proclamations like this. My question is about source and truth in our prophetic witness, and not really about this particular document: Do our minutes of conscience come from divine prompting? Are we speaking truth to power? What is that truth? And are we courageous enough to give it a prophetic voice that comes from our own venerable tradition?

Quaker tradition. Almost all the language of the Statement invokes the rhetoric of secular social justice work and secular environmental science. It uses “anthropogenic” (a technical, somewhat off-putting word that it must then define, which sounds condescending to my ears), “mean temperature rises”, “most vulnerable peoples”, “global economic injustice”, “limited natural resources”, “fossil fuel extraction”, “beautiful human family”. It never taps the rich resources of Quaker written tradition, except for the fantastic quote from William Penn at the beginning. It never invokes the Bible, either, except obliquely in its reference to the “peaceable Kingdom of God”, even though the Bible is the original source of all our testimonial rhetoric, just as the Holy Spirit is the source of the testimonial life itself, and of the distinctive testimonies that have arisen from that Life.

Speaking of God. Here’s the crux of the matter: Where is God in our public witness? The statement concludes with this sentence: “We see this Earth as a shining gift that supports life. It is our only home. Let us care for it together.” I wish we would end our minutes of conscience with powerful, explicitly Quaker/religious prophetic oracles.

The “gift” idea in this last sentence suggests a possibility for some earth stewardship language that clarifies where this gift came from (the Creator) and why we have a religious responsibility for it (stewardship). I think Christian earth stewardship has some problems of its own (the topic of my first unpublished book). However, if we took full responsibility for its principles, we would have a truly radical agenda, and earth stewardship has the additional value of appealing to a lot of people in language they understand. The gift comes from God, it’s not ours to do with as we please, we will be held accountable for how we steward the gift. It would speak most directly, I would think, to evangelical Christians, and to many Muslims and orthodox Jews.

However, when this last sentence capitalizes “Earth”, it unconsciously reaches for another perhaps more powerful if more difficult Truth, which the quote from Penn prefigures: Earth is not just a gift for life support, our spaceship earth. It is not just our home. Earth is worth capitalizing because it is alive with the very life and spirit and presence of the Creator.  “In the beginning was the Word, and the word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God (referring to Genesis 1:1 here). All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.” (John 1:1-3)

Many Friends may not rise to this language the way I do, but it expresses poetically in the language of our tradition the truth that, in some deep and mysterious way, our God and the earth are one; they are integral to each other at the deepest levels of reality. Never mind the spat between Genesis and evolution; the creative process—evolution—expresses the divine in true and important ways. This truth is the traditional foundation for the testimony that Penn gives us in that epigram at the beginning: that the face of the Creator is “in all and every part of” creation.

This means that to destroy the Earth is to re-crucify Christ, who is the Word. Ecocide is deicide, not just suicide.

That’s what I wish this statement had said.

§ 3 Responses to Quaker Groups Statement — Climate Summit 2014

  • Jill H-W says:

    Steven, thank you for this. You raise a number of good points.

    By the way, I remember reading the Apology to Afro Descendents and reading a word that is not normally used. If we are writing these for many different people to read, why do use words that require a dictionary?

  • Gene Hillman says:

    Thank you Steven. I did a quick search on the words “God” (occurred once, in first line), Creator (occurred only in Penn’s quote) and Spirit (not at all). I noted that all the seven groups are liberal (i.e. from the FGC wing), or are dominated by liberals. They all try to be inclusive, at least officially, and I wonder why they fail in this regard. Is it that they don’t really make FUM and EFI Friends feel welcome, or that FUM and EFI Friends do not share this testimony?

    In 1999 I carried a minute on the care of the creation to the FUM sessions in Williamsburg, Virginia. It was approved quickly, I felt so they could move on to the important issues. Can the writers of the minute claim to speak for Friends (is it in the truth?) when the majority of Friends don’t share the concern?

    • I think we shouldn’t beat up on these organizations too much, at least not in regards this one statement. QUNO especially really does need to protect its role as a place were parties to international conflict who otherwise would never be able to meet formally can have informal conversations in a safe space. For that QUNO can’t appear too radical or out of the mainstream. So even if some evangelicals were involved in the writing and approving of the statement, their perspective would not have made its way into the document, I suspect.

      Nevertheless, these organizations do hold to some basic Quaker principles, including a care for the earth. So I am glad they were able to bring the considerable respect they enjoy to this statement, even if they couldn’t bring the more prophetic language and perspective that I am looking for from Friends more generally.

      And these organizations all operate outside the traditional gospel order system of local, regional, and yearly meetings. Some of them may have staff and funding sources that are not Quaker and some may have governance processes that are based on consensus in the most ideal case, rather than doing their business in worship under the leadership of the Holy Spirit, as our meetings are supposed to do. So my critique applies more directly to Quaker meetings, whose minutes of conscience do theoretically arise from promptings of Spirit. New York Yearly Meeting, with which I am most familiar in this regard, consistently writes and approves minutes of conscience that are pretty close to completely secular in their language and perspective.

      As for FUM and EFI and evangelical Christians in general and earthcare—it’s something of a mystery to me why they are not more engaged. Actually, it’s not a mystery. I think I understand a bunch of reasons for this, which I may explore in a subsequent post. Historically, the main problem, I suspect, has been Darwinism, and the old tension between science and biblical revelation. The more authoritative you consider the Bible, the less friendly you are likely to be to science.

      For earthcare concerns, of course, the conflict between Genesis and evolution theory carries the greatest possible weight. Even if evangelicals don’t take Genesis literally, they are likely to feel quite strongly about the perspective of Genesis, the attitudes toward creation at work in those chapters. All of the so-called Cosmic History of Genesis 1–11 sees creation as fallen, corrupt, and even doomed to apocalyptic destruction. For biblical apocalyptic—the belief that God will destroy creation as one of God’s last saving acts—all those passages and books and that worldview stand with one leg on these chapters in Genesis.

      Nevertheless, so does Christian earth stewardship. I have read a lot of Christian earth stewardship theology and, while I think it represents a dead end as a religious ideology for earthcare, it is faithful to biblical revelation and if even just a few congregations or denominations actually started living out its principles, they would change the world. I think it’s a dead end because I don’t think earth stewardship theology stands a chance in heaven, let alone in hell, of becoming that influential. Other factors seem to prevent Christian communities from embracing it wholeheartedly. Most Christians probably don’t even know it exists.

      So I’m grateful for those few evangelicals that are keen about earth stewardship and I’m very grateful for the unique perspective and insights they bring to the concern, ideas that liberal Friends, especially, would probably never come up with on their own. The most important to me is the revelation that destroying creation is destroying the worship of the creator that the creation offers the Creator (Psalm 19 and elsewhere). Thus ecocide is Satan’s work. Most liberal Friends don’t take Satan seriously; I do. But I suspect that many of us agree that the whole earth story is one long song of revelation and divine manifestation, if not of praise for a theistic creator god.

      Well, the rest in another post.

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