Climate Change an Ethical Alarm

This week, a day earlier than normal, a hot weather reflection about ethics and global warming/climate change.

Glaciers continue to melt, sea surface temperatures increase, and sea levels keep rising. Climate change is real. 

Some quick observations: 

  • While our Earth’s climate has changed throughout its history, the current warming is happening at a rate not seen in the past 10,000 years.
  • In the United States, in 2021, 58,968 wildfires burned 7.1 million acres. As of July 11, 2022, over 35,700 wildfires have impacted about 4.8 million acres this year.
  • According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), “Since systematic scientific assessments began in the 1970s, the influence of human activity on the warming of the climate system has evolved from theory to established fact.”
  • Scientific information taken from natural sources (such as ice cores, rocks, and tree rings) and from modern equipment (like satellites and sophisticated instruments) all reveal signs of a changing climate.
  • From the global temperature rise to melting ice sheets, the evidence of a warming planet is beyond doubt. (Although there are still “doubters.”) Sea levels along the U.S. coastline, for example, are projected to rise, on average, 10 – 12 inches by 2050 which will create increased and regular regular coastal flooding. Florida currently has more 3,600 square miles in the 100-year coastal floodplain. By 2050, this area is projected to increase to 5,300 square miles due to sea level rise. 
  • And in Belgium where I currently live, the rising sea levels could be catastrophic, because much of the country lies at or below the current sea level. Already by 2030 the rising sea level will present severe flooding all along the Belgian coast and as far inland as seven miles. 

As we move along in summer 2022, parts of the United States have already experienced punishingly high temperatures. Projections suggest more abnormally hot weather, an expansion of drought, above average wildfires, and hurricane activity in coming months. 

On Sunday, July 24th a fast-moving brush fire near Yosemite National Park exploded in size into one of California’s largest wildfires of the year, prompting evacuation orders for thousands of people and shutting off power to more than 2,000 homes and businesses. 

Each year Pakistan struggles with the June-through-August monsoon season. This year it has already been particularly brutal, an urgent reminder that in the era of global warming extreme weather is becoming the norm. Just in Karachi, monsoon rains this month have killed close to three hundred people and damaged close to six thousand homes. 

We feel the global warming in Europe as well. As of July 24th France is facing  severe forest fire situations.The three main fires are located in Corsica, in the department of Alpes-Maritimes, and in the region of Luberon. More than 7,500 acres have burned. The fire danger remains very high for the coming days. For two days last week, my wife and I escaped to our downstairs living room with curtains drawn and fans blowing, as record heat in Belgium and in Europe is surpassing all maximum temperature records. We do not have air conditioning and are now preparing our plans for August. More fans? 

Our climate is changing rapidly and dangerously. My area of expertise is not climatology. But I do experience and closely study what is happening. I am a theologian, with a background in ethics and climate change blasts an ethical alarm. 

About climate change, one can easily say we are all responsible — individuals, groups, and countries around the globe. Climate change can only be dealt with by unparalleled levels of global cooperation. It should compel countries to question economic models, invent new industries, and recognize the ethical responsibilities that wealthy nations have to the rest of the world, placing a value on nature that goes far beyond economic success and growth.

In some respects, however, it is too late to alter the coming impacts of climate change. In poor countries the impact will be very bad. They have less money to pay for adaptation and more need of it, not least because they tend to be in zones where heatwaves can push temperatures to unsurvivable levels. They also tend to have high population growth, meaning more and more people will be affected. 

Our world is in dangerous climate health. The illness does not have to be fatal. We certainly cannot just surrender our responsibility.

My reflection this week is an invitation for further reflection and action. I don’t have all the answers. We all need to collaborate on that: individuals, groups, parishes, companies, politicians, and governments.

I see climate change bringing together three major ethical challenges.The first springs from the reality that climate change is a truly global phenomenon. Regardless of their source, greenhouse gas emissions have climate effects everywhere on the planet. Collectively most countries would prefer to limit global emissions and reduce the risk of severe or catastrophic impacts. When acting individually, however, too many countries continue emitting unimpeded. And it is true as well that many of the world’s most vulnerable countries and people are those who have emitted the least historically. Their emissions levels continue to be relatively low.

The second challenge is that current emissions have profoundly intergenerational effects: for us, for our grandchildren, and for our great grandchildren. On and on. They will impact coming generations for hundreds of years. For example, emissions of the most prominent greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, persist in the atmosphere for a very long time, resulting in negative climate impacts for centuries. 

The third challenge to ethical action is that we need to expand our our ethical thinking. I think immediately about ethics and international justice, about intergenerational ethics, about honesty and dealing with false scientific information. And we need to ethically consider the appropriate relationships between humans and the rest of nature. Climate change raises questions about the value of nonhuman nature. Do we have obligations to protect nonhuman animals, unique places, and nature as a whole? How do we do that?

So far my reflection has focused on addressing climate change from a more collective perspective. But what responsibilities do individuals have with respect to climate change? 

Some people argue that the responsibilities of individuals are primarily political, and that they have little obligation to change their consumption or lifestyle choices. This is a perception problem. A faulty perception problem. One person’s emissions do seem very small in comparison to the global total. The reality, by way of example, however, is that on average and over the course of a lifetime, the emissions of a single typical U.S. American are significant enough to contribute to the severe suffering and/or deaths of two future people. Yes. Our intergenerational impact.

The U.S. environmentalist Lester Milbrath (1925 – 2007) often argued that the only way to save our planet was through social learning, enabling us to “learn our way to a sustainable society.” He strongly made this argument in his 1989 book: Envisioning a Sustainable Society: Learning Our Way Out(SUNY Press, 1989). In his view, the key is to understand environmental perceptions and values and build on those values and perceptions to modify both individual and institutional behavior. For more than ten years Lester Milbrath headed the Environmental Studies Center, at the University of Buffalo. He then directed the University’s Research Program in Environment and Society, which focused on future societies, environmental beliefs and values, and public policy. 

Milbrath, often stressed that historically human efforts to dominate nature had worked too well, and now a new approach was needed: “Learning how to reason together about values is crucial to saving our species,” he wrote in his book. “As a society we have to learn better how to learn. I call it social learning. It is the dynamic for change that could lead us to a new kind of society that will not destroy itself from its own excess.”

Human beings, in their need and greed, have done too much to not only harm the environment but humans as well. Human activities that harm the climate include deforestation, relying on fossil fuel, and industrial waste. The ocean level is rising. Glaciers are melting. CO2 in the air is increasing. Forrest and wildlife are declining.

So…what to do? Here are five quick suggestions:

  1. Be well informed and counteract fake climate change beliefs. Learning how to learn and teaching how to learn.
  • Make our voices heard by those in power. Joining a social movement or campaign that focuses on environmental activities gets everyone talking about climate change action. We need to vote for climate change politicians. And vote the others out of office.
  • Leave the car at home. Walk or cycle if possible. Use public transport or try car sharing. Cars greatly contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. Air pollution caused by exhaust fumes poses a serious threat to public health. If driving is unavoidable…Investigate trading in your diesel or gasoline car for an electric or hybrid model.
  • Reduce energy use. Lower thermostats in winter. Air conditioning in the summer? Turn off lights and appliances when not needed. Replace light bulbs with LEDs or other low-energy lights.
  • Respect, protect, and promote forests – we need trees — and green spaces such as parks and gardens. They absorb carbon dioxide and lower levels of air pollution. They reduce flood risk by absorbing surface rainwater and can provide important habitats for a wide variety of animals, birds, and amphibians. Green spaces also reduce our stress levels.

Again, I am not a prophet of doom but a clear-eyed realist. The future is in our hands. As the old seafarer said: “The pessimist complains about the wind. The optimist expects it to change. The realist adjusts the ship’s sails.” 

  • Jack

Addendum 1: For further reflection I suggest: A Perfect Moral Storm: the Ethical Tragedy of Climate Change by Stephen M. Gardiner (Oxford University Press, 2011). Gardiner illuminates our dangerous inaction by placing the environmental crisis in a new light, considering it as an ethical failure. He is professor of philosophy and Ben Rabinowitz Endowed Professor of the Human Dimensions of the Environment at the University of Washington in Seattle. Stephen Gardiner clarifies our contemporary moral situation, with three assertions: (1) The world’s most affluent nations are tempted to pass on the cost of climate change to the poorer and weaker citizens of the world. (2) The present generation is tempted to pass the problem on to future generations. (3) Our poor grasp of science, international justice, and the human relationship to nature helps to facilitate inaction.

Addendum 2: I would not recommend a book which just came out this week: The Truth about Energy, Global Warming, and Climate Change: Exposing Climate Lies in an Age of Disinformation by Jerome R. Corsi. The author is a fiercely far-right conspiracy theorist and QAnon supporter. His new book aims to expose climate change as a neo-Marxist and anti-capitalist global warming hoax. His two earlier books were indeed New York Times best-sellers Unfit for Command (2004) and The Obama Nation (2008). Both books attacked Democratic presidential candidates. But both books have now been severely criticized for the author’s narrow vision, his their distorted information, and numerous inaccuracies.

U. S. Politics and Christian Fervor

I realize that I wrote about Christian nationalism already a few months ago. This week, however, I am returning to that theme once again. I find it has particular U.S. religious and socio-political relevance today. I will not just repeat earlier observations…

In February 2022, during a Center for American Progress (Washington, DC) interview, with Amanda Tyler, the U.S. American lawyer and executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty (BJC) in Washington, D.C., Tyler said “The single biggest threat to religious freedom in the United States today is Christian nationalism.” Christian nationalists advocate a revisionist historical view of the United States and insist that the United States was established as an explicitly Christian nation. 

The January 6th hearings in the United States, have reminded us once again about the role played by Christian nationalism in the 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol in Washington DC. As they stormed the Capitol, the rioters brandished Bibles, wooden crosses, Christian flags, and signs declaring “Jesus Saves.” They conflated patriotism with Christianity, as they chanted Christian hymns and cried out to God to overturn the 2020 presidential election results and “save” the country. 

Breaching the Senate chamber, Jacob Angeli (born Jacob Anthony Angeli Chansley in 1988) the horn-wearing, self-proclaimed “QAnon Shaman” led the rioters in prayer. He thanked God for “allowing the United States of America to be reborn” and for “allowing us to get rid of the communists, the globalists, and the traitors within our government.” He saw the uprising as an opportunity to send a clear message to the enemies of God: “this is our country, not theirs.”

In fact the U.S.A. was not founded as a Christian country. The U.S. Constitution is a totally secular document. It contains no mention of Christianity or of Jesus Christ. The Constitution refers to religion only twice: in the First Amendment, which bars laws “respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” and in Article VI, which prohibits “religious tests” for public office. Both of these provisions are evidence that the country was not founded as an officially Christian country. 

Historically, the United States has always been marked by religious pluralism and diversity. Religion in the United States began with the religious and spiritual practices of Native Americans. English colonialists – including my paternal ancestors — arriving in the seventeenth century were Christians. The history of the first Jewish people in Colonial America begins with their arrival as early as the 1650s. Historians argue that Muslims first arrived in the Americas in the early 16th century in present-day New Mexico and Arizona. All analysts agree that the first migration consisted of African slaves. Most slaves who tried to maintain Islamic religious practices after their arrival were forcibly converted to Christianity. In the mid-seventeenth century, Ottoman Muslims immigrated with other European immigrants. Archives from the American Revolutionary War indicate that Muslims also fought on the American side. Estimates of up to two hundred and ninety-two Muslims served in the Union military during the American Civil War. 

The religious landscape of the United States continues to change at a rapid pace. According to the Pew Research Center, self-identified Christians made up 63% of the U.S. population in 2021, down from 75% a decade earlier. The religiously unaffiliated share of the U.S. population now stands at 26%, up from 17% in 2009. The Jewish population is at about 2%. The U.S. Muslim population is now over 1.1%. Islam is the world’s fastest-growing religion and is forecasted to grow faster than Christianity by 2050.

Nevertheless, looking ahead four months from now to the 2022 midterm elections, religion, especially far-right Christianity will be a key issue.

Many far-right evangelical Christians viewed the 2000 presidential election of George W. Bush, as the 43rd President of the United States, as the direct work of God. Repaying his election supporters, President Bush created the White House Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives and Centers for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives in eleven Federal agencies. In 2016, Christian nationalists had a huge influence in electing Donald Trump as the 45th U.S. president, believing he was their only hope to “keep America Christian.”

In the midterm elections on Tuesday November 8, 2022, all 435 seats in the House of Representatives and 35 of the 100 seats in the U.S. Senate will be up for election. Thirty-nine state and territorial gubernatorial elections will also be up for election. And politics and religion will be front-page news.

Already in Pennsylvania, by way of example, the Republican gubernatorial candidate, Doug Mastriano  (state senator, retired Army colonel, and a prominent figure in Donald Trump’s futile efforts to overturn the 2020 election results) has displayed his religious fervor in his midterm elections campaign speeches. When he won his primary in May 2022, the Associated Press described his victory celebration as an “evangelical worship service.” Mastriano quoted the Bible and warned about the “darkness” of the Democrats. His rhetoric is just one example of the ever dangerous ideology of Christian Nationalism. Mastriano thinks that the United States has run into difficult times because U.S. Americans have abandoned godly ways. Mastriano objects to Covid vaccine mandates, gay rights, transgender anything, critical race theory, and any restrictions on gun ownership.

Addressing a far-right conference “Patriots Arise,” that mixed Christian beliefs with conspiracy theories, Mastriano spoke about what he saw as the true Christian identity of the United States. He said it was time for U.S. Christians to reclaim their political power. He stressed that the U.S. separation of church and state was a myth. “In November” he said “ we are going to take our state back, my God will make it so.”

Some of Idaho’s Republican 2022 primaries for the Legislature were won by candidates touting far-right Christian values or sharing priorities with Christian nationalists, such as banning transgender athletes. U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., who uses the biblical phrase to be “a watchman on the wall” against those seeking to “destroy our faith,” easily won her primary.

So how much influence does Christian nationalism have on American politics today?  And how big a threat does it pose to U.S. democracy? Some of my Catholic socio-political observers see more of a threat from the powerful conservative Catholic organization Opus Dei and its attempt to install something like a U.S. Catholic theocracy via the U.S. Supreme Court. Yes, there is something quite disturbing about the five hardline U.S. Catholic justices (Amy Coney Barrett, John Roberts, Clarence Thomas, Brett Kavanaugh, and Samuel Alito) who have links to the extreme far-right Catholic group. Opus Dei is dangerous and the most controversial group in the Catholic Church today. It’s history parallels that of Francisco Franco’s conservative dictatorship in Spain. Opus Dei members were appointed ministers in Franco’s government. Critics see this as indication of the organization’s penetration into the highest levels of Spain’s Fascist regime. Nevertheless, the U.S. journalist John L. Allen Jr. and the Italian journalist Vittorio Messori claim that Opus Dei as an institution was neither pro-Franco nor anti-Franco. (This is an ongoing historical discussion.) Pope John Paul II, who viewed the organization with favor, established it as a personal prelature, a part of the socio-administrative organization of the Catholic Church. And, critics note that John Paul II pushed through an unusually swift canonization of the founder of Opus Dei, the right-wing and controversial priest Josemaría Escrivá (1902 – 1975), because Opus Dei had bailed out the Vatican Bank with $250 million in 1985. He was canonized in 2002 by Pope John Paul II.

In the United States, The Eternal Word Television Network, more commonly known by its initials EWTN, is a U.S.Catholic cable television network with strong backing by Opus Dei. The current Archbishop of Los Angeles, José Horacio Gómez, is president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). Archbishop Gómez did his doctorate in theology at the University of Navarre, the Opus Dei university in Spain, was ordained an Opus Dei priest in Spain in 1978, and was named “vicar” of Opus Dei in Texas in 1999. Archbishop Gomez’s Catholic bishop supporters are a group of zealots who in 2016 turned a blind eye to Donald Trump’s behavior. Yet today they consider President Biden a bad Catholic who should not be allowed to go to Communion. And they want to punish the new president for his support of legalized abortion, gay rights, and birth control.

Whether by a theocracy or through Christian nationalism, the aim of far-right U.S. Christian activists is to eliminate the traditional U.S. separation of church and state. Representative Lauren Boebert, a Republican representing the western part of Colorado, said recently at Cornerstone Christian Center, a church near Aspen: “I’m tired of this separation of church and state junk.” People in the congregation rose to their feet in applause. 

The ascension of far-right politicians and midterm election candidates comes amid a wave of actions across the country that advance the cultural priorities of far-right Christians. The most significant is the June 24, 2022 Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. (Right now I am thinking about the bishop who said: “Our prayers for the last 49 years have been answered by the Supreme Court.”) That decision raises the specter of state regulation of other health care decisions, including those regarding contraception, end-of-life care, respect for LGBTQ people, in vitro fertilization, and other fertility treatments. Common forms of birth control including IUDs and emergency contraception are already being targeted by some states as “abortifacients.” State laws declaring that life begins at fertilization will potentially endow thousands of frozen embryos with rights and impose impossible burdens on both fertility centers and their clients.

Christian nationalism idealizes a mythic view of the United States in which “real” U.S. Americans—white, native-born, mostly Protestant —maintain control over access to U.S. society’s social, cultural, and political institutions. And “others” must remain in their proper place. Many U.S. far-right conservatives — especially far-right whites — feel more threatened than in past decades. Obama’s election, as the first Black president, was a clear sign that the country has become more racially diverse and is destined to become even more so.

Sociologist Andrew Whitehead, Associate Professor at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, defines Christian nationalism as “a cultural framework that is all about trying to advocate for a fusion between Christianity — as they define it — and American civic life.”

On “Rumble,” a popular far-right video site, Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene from Georgia urged her followers to be proud of “Christian nationalism” as a way to fight “globalists,” the “border crisis,” and “lies about gender.” She stressed: “While the media is going to lie about you and label Christian nationalism, I’m going to tell you right now, they are the liars.”

The Texas attorney and author, Rick Green, who heads a group called the “Patriot Academy” runs “biblical citizenship” training programs in hundreds of churches to instill the belief that America was founded on Christian values. Biblical citizenship emphasizes the idea that the Founding Fathers, as well as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, were divinely inspired documents. Strangely, Rick Green insists that “separation of church and state is not actually part of the First Amendment but was an idea that Thomas Jefferson articulated later in one of his letters.”

The Patriots Arise event, where Doug Mastriano spoke, opened with a video of conspiracy theories related to QAnon that prophesied that “control systems” including “media propaganda, the child trafficking, and the slave economy” would “crumble down.” A robotic voice-over forecast a “great awakening” and an image of a guillotine blade accompanied a promise of “executions, justice, and victory.”

Nevertheless, according to the Pew Research Center, declaring the United States a Christian nation and working to end U.S. federal enforcement of the separation of church and state are minority views among U.S. American adults. While support for church-state integration is above average among Republicans and white evangelicals, and far-right Catholics, many U.S. American Christians see that integration as a perversion of faith that elevates nation over God. But I wonder who pays attention to them. Many seem so silent.

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution says quite clearly that the country shall have no official religion. U.S. Americans have been debating where to draw the line between religion and government since the country’s founding. The debate recently resurfaced with three new Supreme Court rulings over: religious symbols on public property, prayer in public schools, and state subsidies for religious schools.

Nearly three-quarters of U.S. adults (73%) say religion should be kept separate from government policies.

Today, nevertheless, there is a vocal U.S. far-right Christian fringe vying for power. The November 2022 midterm elections will be significant. 

The idea that these extreme right-wing Christians are inconsequential or unimportant because most U.S. Americans don’t believe them ignores the fact that, over time, they can shift the national socio-political focus and become part of mainstream political thinking. We should not forget that many, at first innocuous movements throughout history, like National Socialism in Germany, eventually merged into inhumane and destructive mainstream movements. Why? Because people – for various reasons — allowed them to grow and take control. Such a process used to take decades but now thanks to Internet and mass media it has been greatly accelerated and is almost instantaneous. On the Internet, falsehoods can spread more quickly and be repeated more frequently. Fox News, for example, broadcasts conspiracies to millions of viewers. For too many people objective truth doesn’t matter. Only subjective belief.  

So we observe, we judge, and we act. We don’t have to be prophets of doom. We do need to join with others and think clearly and work constructively. 

  • Jack

P.S. For those  who might be interested, here are three helpful historical perspectives about Christian nationalism in the United States. 

  • The Power Worshippers by Katherine Stewart (Bloomsbury, 2020). Stewart reveals the inner workings and leading personalities of a movement that has turned religion into a tool for domination. She exposes a dense network of think tanks, advocacy groups, and pastoral organizations embedded in a rapidly expanding community of international alliances and united not by any central command but by a shared, anti-democratic vision and a common will to power. She follows the money that fuels this movement, tracing much of it to a cadre of super-wealthy, ultraconservative donors and family foundations.
  • Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States by Andrew Whitehead and Samuel L. Perry (Oxford University Press, 2020). It points to the phenomenon of “Christian nationalism,” the belief that the United States is – and should be – a Christian nation. At its heart, Christian nationalism demands that we must preserve a particular kind of social order, an order in which everyone – Christians and non-Christians, native-born and immigrants, whites and minorities, men and women – recognizes their “proper” place in society. 
  • The Neo-Catholics: Implementing Christian Nationalism in America by Betty Clermont (Clarity Press, 2009). Betty’s well researched book examines how neoconservatives in the Republican Party forged a nexus with powerful right wing Catholics that would change the face of American Catholicism, the structuring of social policy in the United States, and the American agenda in the world.

A brief post-Fourth of July reflection…

This year on the Fourth of July, as I have so done many times, I re-read the Declaration of Independence. I am still a patriotic U.S. American citizen. The Declaration of Independence is THE foundational document which I respect and appreciate.  

This year I was also struck by the way that document signed by the “Founding Fathers” has been understood and interpreted over the years. A number of my women friends have protested the “all men” reference as misogynistic. Whether it is a text like this one from the pen of Thomas Jefferson or a biblical text, to correctly understand what the author meant one has to take an historical critical look at the original text. The first goal of historical criticism is to discover the text’s primitive or original meaning in its original historical context. (With biblical texts one has the added responsibility of going back to an historical critical look at the text in its original Greek or Hebrew.) The next goal is to ask what that text means today.

The U.S. Declaration of Independence from Great Britain was adopted by the Second Continental Congress meeting in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on July 4, 1776, more than a year after the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War (April 19, 1775 – September 3, 1783). The memorable lines of course are: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Dr. Jack Norman Rakove, historian at Stanford University, explains in his Pulitzer Prize book: Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution, that when the Continental Congress adopted this historic text, they did not intend it to mean individual equality. Rather, what they declared was that American colonists, as a people, had the same rights to self-government as other nations.

After the successful Revolution, U.S. Americans began reading and interpreting that famous text differently. The words that “all men” are “created equal” soon meant white, male landowners. It did not include Black and Indigenous people. And of course it did not include WOMEN. It took a very long time in U.S. history for people to realize and accept that women might also be equal and have rights.

Eighty-seven years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, southern white men went to war to reshape the country into a nation in which African Americans, Indigenous Americans, Chinese, and Irish were locked into a lower status than the accepted white men. The Confederate rebellion failed. The United States endured, and gradually U.S. Americans began to expand the idea that “all men” are created equal meant Black men, men of color, and eventually even women. Women’s suffrage took a very long time, however. It was one hundred and forty-four years before the Nineteenth Amendment became part of the U.S. Constitution on August 18, 1920. That amendment clearly states: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”

We cannot change the wording of the Declaration of Independence but we can proclaim today that all people: all men, all women, all races, all genders, are equal. And we can stress LGBTQ rights as well.

We do grow in our understanding of what texts meant back then and what they mean or should mean today. We are historical people. We learn. We grow in our understanding. 

So how do we work with texts today? Certainly the texts have to be factually accurate and comprehensive. This week, however, thinking about “all men” in the July 4th document, I would like to stress the use inclusive language. 

We should write about “women and men,” not just use “men.” We are a society of women and men. We are not “mankind.”  

As an encouragement that he use inclusive language, I once took the opening lines of a bishop friend’s pastoral letter, changing the text to inclusive language. Where the bishop had written “Dear Brothers, God our father in his wisdom has called all men to be kind brothers in the faith” I suggested he write: “Dear Sisters and Brothers, God who is just as much our mother as our father, acting in her wisdom, has called all of us to be loving sisters and brothers in the faith.” My bishop friend was not amused. Nevertheless,  but I continued the discussion and sent him a few more examples, along with suggested changes in liturgical prayers. Well, the Vatican could use some inclusive language education as well.

We must use and insist on using inclusive language. In reading biblical texts, I always say “sisters and brothers” when the text says just “brothers.” If you are going to recite the Nicene Creed, which states “who for us men and our salvation came down from heaven” at least drop the word “men.”

We must be prophetic and Insist on inclusive language which stresses the dignity and freedom of all people – all races, all genders. As a university professor I would only accept and approve a master’s or a doctoral thesis if the student used inclusive language. As editor of a university journal for many years, I insisted on inclusive language.

For their personal biblical reading, I encourage people to read and use an inclusive Bible. For liturgical readings, why not insist on an inclusive lectionary? Any why not use inclusive prayers? The historical Jesus was not a misogynist. We should not be either, if we are truly followers of Jesus and Christian believers. 

Using gender-loaded language reinforces inaccurate assumptions about the roles that women and men should occupy — and can successfully reach. The use of inclusive language offers us a chance to grow and become better communicators. When congratulating colleagues, why not say: ‘Well done, all’ instead of ‘Well done, guys.’”

Sisters and brothers we can move forward. God in her wisdom enables us to do that.

  • Jack

A Shared Vision and the Search for Truth

Today I am returning to “For Another Voice.”

I hope that I have something of value to say in the coming days and weeks. My main concerns remain the search for truth and a contemporary understanding of Christian faith and belief. Both can be challenging projects these days. Too many people promote their own fabricated fables as facts, and too many people simply accept such nonsense while refusing to think or question. And far-right Christianity (Protestant and Catholic) is very far removed from the teaching and witness of the historical Jesus.

My June traveling days were a time of genuine delight. (I will forget a few unexpected airport frustrations.) I crossed the Atlantic twice. I gave a much appreciated lecture at a conference of friends and colleagues. My focus was on the church as a healthy Christian community. Participants and I shared visions and concerns about today and tomorrow. My wife, Joske, and I also had wonderful reunions with family and friends, many of whom we had not seen for a few years. And, this summer, as younger relatives celebrated their weddings, Joske and I celebrated our fifty-second wedding anniversary. Still very much in love.

As an older U.S. American, and a long-time researcher about religion and values in U.S. society, my eyes and ears were open everywhere this past month. What I observed first-hand in my homeland raises a lot of concerns. The polarization IS extreme. More extreme than at the time of the nineteenth century Civil War. Misinformation and mistrust are rife. It is not always clear who is really telling the truth. Or where one finds reliable sources of truthful information. And, of course, the recent supreme court decisions are promoting even more dismay, anger, and feelings of powerlessness. As I write this, the July 4 weekend in Chicago witnessed a shooting incident in which at least 30 people were injured and 6 killed. U.S. Americans have witnessed too many mass killings and buried too many children, parents, and grandparents.

In my USA journeys I did a lot of listening and observing of church people: members and leaders. I was pleased to get his most recent article from a religion professor at Western Michigan University. He confirmed the Catholic exodus in the areas where I grew up. When asked why people are walking away, he stressed: an increasingly conservative and often unfriendly “1950s style” young clergy, ongoing revelations of clerical sex-abuse, the church’s role in banning gay marriage in Michigan, efforts to limit access to abortion and contraceptives, and the treatment of women as “second-class citizens.”

Big changes are underway and the religious shifts in contemporary U.S. society show no signs of slowing. In 2019, 14% of all U.S. adults said they never went to church. But in 2020, that number jumped to 53%. Today it is about 73%. Many researchers now say that a lot of people who stopped going to church due to Covid-19 are just not coming back. They really don’t miss what they no longer experience. The Roman Catholic exodus continues.

Is the ongoing U.S. cultural change bringing a crisis for Christian churches? Everything depends on how one should understand such a “crisis.” Membership is certainly decreasing, especially among younger U.S. Americans. What some see as a crisis I see as a challenge. I ask: what does the proclamation of the Gospel mean in our rapidly changing cultural situation? And in a greatly polarized USA. For me, the question is whether a person, who is fully integrated into our culture, can be touched by the power and beauty of the Gospel.

The questions I ask about the institutional church are the same kinds of questions I ask about contemporary professional and political institutions. I see a lot of self-protective institutions increasingly out of touch with contemporary reality: not asking how they can be of service to people but asking how people can better serve them. This is institutional self-worship.

We need institutional reform and we need to dismantle oppressive systems.

As the U.S. pastor and author, John Pavlovitz, wrote recently: “Church, people are leaving you because you are silent right now in ways that matter to them. You aren’t saying what they need you to say and what you should be saying—and it makes them sick. They spend their days with a front row seat to human right atrocities, to growing movements of cruelty, to unprecedented religious hypocrisy, and to political leaders who are antithetical to the heart of Jesus. They live with the relational collateral damage of seeing people they love abandon compassion and decency; people who are growing more and more callous to the already vulnerable.”

During a long layover at Chicago’s O’Hare airport, I read the newspapers and then re-read articles on my iPad, especially an article about the English anthropologist Jane Goodall, now 88 years young. She is a wonderfully prophetic and inspiring person. I remember her 1999 book Reason for Hope. The book details her own spiritual journey and her belief that everyone can find a reason for hope.

“Each one of us matters, has a role to play, and makes a difference,” Goodall wrote. “It is these undeniable qualities of human love and compassion and self-sacrifice that give me hope for the future. We are, indeed, often cruel and evil. Nobody can deny this. We gang up on each one another, we torture each other, with words as well as deeds, we fight, we kill. But we are also capable of the most noble, generous, and heroic behavior.”

With constructive criticism, mutual respect, and collaborative efforts, we can indeed be “noble, generous, and heroic” in church and in civil society.

I look forward to traveling with you once again. I hope I can ask worthwhile questions and provide helpful pointers toward finding honest life-giving answers.

  • Jack