Climate Church, Climate World

How People of Faith Must Work for Change

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Jim Antal
  • Lanham, MD: 
    Rowman & Littlefield
    , February
     2018.
     242 pages.
     $56.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781538110683.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The climate crisis is a moral emergency for people of faith. As a threat multiplier exacerbating every social justice issue, climate change imperils the faith-based justice work of religious communities. In addition, it poses an existential threat by undermining the continuity of creation itself. In Climate Church, Climate World, public theologian Jim Antal calls on people of faith to act courageously for the common good.

Hours after President Donald Trump’s 2017 announcement that he intended to withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Accord, the President and General Minister of the United Church of Christ (UCC) asked Antal, as a denominational leader, to write a resolution for the upcoming national meeting of the denomination. Less than five weeks later, the General Synod of the UCC passed an emergency resolution that called upon clergy to preach about the moral emergency of climate change. It also urged each congregation and person of faith to act individually and collectively to transform the energy systems that drive climate change. Finally, it pressed both clergy and lay people to proclaim in the public sphere a prophetic message of climate justice.

This book is a practical text that develops these themes to guide transformative conversations—and consequent action—within religious communities. Antal does this without belaboring the science or the theology. Citing the work of Naomi Oreskes, Antal understands climate science denial as a product of corporate interests. In the first chapter, the author argues that the appropriate response is not more science education, but prophetic witness against the perpetrators of this denial.

Three short texts frame the moral challenge advanced by this book: the aforementioned 2017 resolution passed by the UCC, a fictional letter from a pastor to her congregation in 2070, and an imagined speech given in the year 2100 to the World Council of Churches. The moral imperative of the climate crisis, as articulated in the UCC’s 2017 resolution, is a choice between life or death. The second framing text, the 2070 fictional letter, imagines a choice for death. In this scenario, a devastated planet results from the widespread failure of religious communities to speak prophetically against those who would have them remain silent. In contrast, the third framing text, the 2100 speech to the World Council of Churches, imagines a choice for life and the world that might result from heeding the moral imperatives of our current moment: a young woman expresses her gratitude to her forebears in the faith who did what was necessary to limit the worst consequences of climate change and make a future possible.

The early chapters of Antal’s book reconceptualize the church in the context of climate crisis. They challenge readers to recall God’s love for a good creation and their own love for places and experiences in the natural world. Out of grief, people of faith are called to reimagine the role of the church. During climate emergency, the church—operating at a collective level—must provide a moral compass. Antal describes a number of forms this might take: working to build resilient communities, confessing complicity in destructive ways of living, confronting the fossil fuel industry, shifting the emphasis from material progress to collective well-being, drawing connections between climate change and long-standing movements to confront injustice, providing safe spaces to speak honestly, and engaging in civil disobedience.

The later chapters focus on what an adequate response to the climate emergency might look like in the context of worship, preaching, and public witness. Antal offers practical suggestions for ways to bring a discussion of climate crisis into worship through announcements, testimonies, transformed liturgies, climate revivals, ordination vows, and sacramental practices. An appendix offers more than fifty sermon ideas linked to the themes in the book.

Clergy and laity alike must courageously witness in the public sphere. Antal suggests specific practical actions, such as divestment and declaring church lands as land trusts rather than private property. Central to this public witness is the spiritual discipline of civil disobedience that declares “business as usual” immoral. Antal calls readers to protest the social license of the fossil fuel industry to wreck the environment, and to express a desire to make the changes science has revealed to be essential to our survival.

The final chapter addresses the role of hope in responding to climate change. For Antal, hope is an active alternative to the passivity of mere optimism. He defines two preconditions for hope: facing reality and expressing grief. He argues that people of faith must speak truth to the lies told by corporate interests that foment climate science denial. Facing reality entails speaking about difficult topics in community; people of faith must not censor themselves. Facing reality will evoke grief as we acknowledge the threats to all that we love. The existential threat posed by the discontinuity of creation is unnerving. For Antal, hope in the face of possible extinction is a grace given by the Holy Spirit to those who acknowledge their existential dread with honesty and vulnerability. Groups reading this book together can help one another reach for this level of vulnerability, trust, and gratitude.

A core strength of this book is its tireless attention to the possibility of congregational action. Each chapter concludes with questions for group discussion posed specifically for congregations to consider. They ask “what can your congregation do” rather than “what can you do” or “what must nations and global entities do.” This focus helps bridge the gap between the ineffective pole of individual action (of too little consequence) and the disempowering pole of national or global response (appealing to interests beyond an individual’s power to persuade).

Antal’s book is an obvious choice for church book groups and seminary audiences. Its congregational focus also makes it worth considering as a textbook for college courses that explore the role of Christianity in social movements. Antal’s hope is that people of faith take from the book a zeal for climate activism, grounded in a clear sense of how God calls them to address climate change in their congregations and local communities. It will embolden faith leaders to address the ethical challenges of climate crisis with prophetic imagination. For academic readers, Antal’s book will enrich discussions of religious engagement in the public sphere around issues of social and environmental justice.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Nancy Menning is Faculty Affiliate in the Department of Environmental Studies and Sciences at Ithaca College.

Date of Review: 
August 27, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jim Antal is a denominational leader, activist, and public theologian. He serves as the national spokesperson on climate change for the United Church of Christ.

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