JOURNEY TO JUSTICE

Joe Gunn

February 17, 2014

Christians expect their faith communities to espouse and even promote justice, peace and the integrity of creation. It is natural to want to belong to organizations that are doing the right thing – we are drawn to those groups that nurture as well as challenge us to live better lives.

How do we evaluate how our faith communities are doing in this regard?

A new book ventures important insights as to how faith communities are responding to the climate crisis. An Edmonton-based academic, Randolph Haluza-DeLay, is among the editors of How the World's Religions Are Responding to Climate Change. (Routledge, 2014) The activities of several religions in various parts of the planet are analyzed.

In an earlier work, Professor Haluza-DeLay identified four barriers to environmental engagement among North American churches. Some churches espouse theological beliefs or world views that disable environmental concern, such as uniquely focusing on an after-life, while ignoring this-worldly realities.

Second, environmental concerns often "compete" for the attention of churchgoers, whose institutions are more focused on financial survival, other social concerns or internal issues. Also, some faith groups focus uniquely on individual or moralistic solutions, ignoring public policy issues (due, he argues, to "a lack of social critique").

LACK OF CONVICTION

Haluza-DeLay identified a "lack of conviction" in some faith communities as the final barrier, which translates into an aversion to change the current comfortable lifestyles of members or to a fear of creating controversy among adherents.

A chapter in this book evaluates how Canadian faith communities are responding to climate change. It was written by Father Mishka Lysack, an Anglican priest and academic at the University of Calgary.

Lysack reports that almost all of Canada's Christian denominations have issued statements on the environment, and several even have specific policies on climate change. I found it inspiring to see Presbyterians attempting to "offset" the carbon footprint of their delegates to synod meetings, for example, by taking the bus to church one Sunday, or encouraging families to walk or bike to services.

The Anglican and United churches (among others) have issued impressive statements and action plans, passed by elected leadership delegates at national conferences. Lysack also makes important reference to the first time faith communities in this country spoke publicly together on climate change: the October 2011 Canadian Interfaith Call for Leadership and Action on Climate Change (a process and document with which my organization, CPJ, was intimately involved).

Sixty-one official representatives from faith-based organizations in five different world traditions (Christian, Muslim, Baha'i, Hindu and Buddhist) signed the Interfaith Call.

'RATHER ANEMIC'

But in the final analysis, Lysack could find only two faith communities that actively and intentionally disseminated the document to their membership and summarily reports that "climate advocacy efforts within Canada's faith communities have so far been rather anemic."

He also notes the faith communities that did not sign the Interfaith Call are "conspicuous through their lack of a current public stance on climate change," in particular Evangelical Christianity, Roman Catholicism and Judaism. Speaking of Canadian Catholics, Lysack notes that 18 leaders from religious orders and Catholic organizations endorsed the call. (Nonetheless, the CCCB declined to sign.)

Lysack's research identifies four important barriers to effective engagement on environmental issues by the churches, which resemble Haluza-Delay's findings. He then goes on to offer four worthy recommendations for improving this record.

First, he calls upon faith communities to "move from bureaucratic to empowerment models of leadership" since some current structures create "bottlenecks" towards transformational initiatives.

Second, Lysack observes that collaboration with "strategic allies and partners" outside the faith community, including reputable environmental NGOs, would significantly magnify faith community influence.

COORDINATION

Third, he calls upon faith communities to enhance their coordination, by developing "a national organizational structure or secretariat to effectively coordinate strategic advocacy campaigns to protect the climate." Finally, he calls for a program to train members in citizenship and advocacy skills.

I have decided to fast on the first day of every month in solidarity with vulnerable people who are going hungry as the impacts of climate change worsen. Prophetic religious leaders like the national bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, Winnipeg's Rev. Susan Johnson, and some leaders in the Canadian Council of Churches have also joined this fast.

Learn more about these signs of a welcome renewal in Canadian faith community action at www.cpj.ca/content/hungry-change-%E2%80%93-fasting-climate-justice

(Joe Gunn is the Ottawa-based executive director of Citizens for Public Justice, www.cpj.ca, an ecumenical social advocacy organization.)