In May 2019, the annual Swarthmore Lecture was given by Eden Grace, a member of New England Yearly Meeting and Director of Global Ministries for Friends United Meeting (FUM). Eden’s lecture was entitled ‘On earth as it is in heaven: The Kingdom of God and the yearning of creation.’ I’m blogging my reflections on the lecture, chapter by chapter. You can read my reflections on chapter three here.
Summary of Chapters 4 & 6
Chapters 4 and 6 are relatively short, and are both concerned with how Quaker communities outside Britain are affected by, and are responding to, climate change. Eden tells us about Ramallah Friends School in the Palestinian West Bank, which has won numerous awards for its sustainability initiatives, in an environment where access to water is restricted by the Israelis. She also speaks about Friends Theological College in Kaimosi, Kenya, which has made environmental sustainability a priority, planting trees in the face of illegal deforestation and a climate that is ‘warming at 1.5 times the global average rate’ (p.93).
These are communities of hope, because they are taking ‘concrete positive action… in the face of massive systemic forces’ (p.92). They are fostering green spaces because ‘gardening is healing. Gardening is hope. Gardening is resistance’ (p.57). They plant tress because ‘to plant a tree is to choose hope as an act of will. To plant a tree is to participate in the inbreaking of the Kingdom’ (p.99).
Judgement and Lament
One aspect of these chapters is the inspiring, hopeful action of people in Palestine and Kenya, and we might use these as springboards to think about how we might be communities of hope where we are. However, what really struck me is that in Eden’s experience, Kenyans, who are disproportionately affected by climate change, feel a disproportionate amount of personal responsibility for it (p.98). Why should they feel this way, when countries like the UK produce far more greenhouse gases? As well as material injustice, there is also a kind of emotional injustice at play.
I often find that Quakers in Britain want to skip to the end, to go straight to a positive solution without wading through the difficult stuff. I don’t think we can truly become a community of hope without facing our own darkness. We need to face not only our own individual actions, but also our own unconscious complicity in sinful systems that create human-made climate change, and a world where those who have contributed the least to it suffer the worst of it.
In their book ‘Active Hope’, Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone write of the cyclical ‘Work That Reconnects’, a process that can help people take hopeful actions. The cycle, or spiral, begins with gratitude, but before moving on to seeing things differently and taking action, there is a stage called ‘honouring our pain’. Facing the painful things, facing our complicity, helps us to connect to with others, with the rest of creation. It helps us to be compassionate – to ‘suffer with’. This rootedness in gratitude and openness to pain provides the strength to move forward.
There are two Biblical images that I find helpful, that Quakers could use to honour their pain. These are judgment and lament.
I generally find the idea of judgement to be an unpopular one amongst Quakers. We don’t want a God who is ‘judgemental’, meaning a harsh critic or sneering tyrant. But in the Bible, judgement is about justice. God judges in order to bring justice to the oppressed and downtrodden. God brings justice to those who have been denied it by the rich, powerful and violent. The coming of God as judge, the ‘Day of the Lord’, should bring joy to the oppressed, and fear to the deniers of justice.
One of my favourite songs about the ‘Day of the Lord’ is ‘Now is the cool of the day‘ by Jean Ritchie: ‘My Lord he said unto me “Do you like my garden so fair? You may live in this garden if you keep the grasses green, and I’ll return in the cool of the day. Now is the cool of the day…‘ The early Quaker experience of the ‘Day of the Lord’ was that it wasn’t something far off in the future, it was something to be experienced inwardly in the here and now. The inward experience of God’s judgement was a central part of the early Quaker experience. Can we welcome that experience as Friends today? Can we allow God’s light to illuminate our shortcomings, to show us how we have treated God’s garden so fair?
Having recognised the fear and pain I feel in the face of God’s judgement, I now need to honour it. This means feeling it. This means lament. It means lamenting not only the ways I’ve been complicit, but also that others are suffering the affects of climate change. If I’m going to change the way I live, the way I use my time, if I’m going to make sacrifices, that also means lamenting the things I need to give up. Change, even change for the better, always involves some kind of loss, and it’s ok to be sad about that.
I think that lament on an individual level is important, but there might also be great power in collective lament. I’m reminded of Nineveh’s response to Jonah:
4 Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” 5 And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.
6 When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. 7 Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. 8 Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. 9 Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.”Jonah 3:4-9
A friend of mine spoke to me about his involvement in Extinction Rebellion, and how it opened him up to ‘climate grief’, a great sadness at the situation we find ourselves in. As well as working towards hopeful visions and actions, can we as a community of Friends make space for collective lament, for collective ‘climate grief’? Can we find ways to honour our pain together, in order for us to move forward with even greater strength?