Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Is Not This the Fast I Choose

2016 Lenten Devotional 
Is Not This the Fast I Choose: Listening to a Diversity of Voices

At the PEC conference in September 2015, The Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson II, Director of the Office of Public Witness, preached, "Presbyterians cannot solve the world’s environmental issues alone. It will take a unified effort from the privileged, those living in poverty, people of different races and cultures." To that end, we have invited a diversity of voices to provide devotions for this year’s Lenten Devotional.

Our inspiration comes from Isaiah 58: 6-9, Is not this the fast that I choose… God promised the Israelites a new thing on their return from exile. Yet on their arrival, they built a system that included injustice, oppression, and hunger. This was not the fast that God chose. Today, climate change and environmental degradation lead to issues of injustice, oppression, and hunger. This is not the fast that God chooses.

Reflections are planned for Ash Wednesday, each Sunday in Lent, Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter. We hope that you find these reflections helpful and hopeful in this Lenten time of journeying to the cross.

Ash Wednesday Reflection
by Sue Smith
Is not this the fast that I break every yoke? (Isaiah 58:6, NRSV)

As we enter this season of Lent and our journey to the cross, a time of considering how we can make changes in our lives, those of us in the mainstream of the environmental movement might try to understand the efforts of the environmental justice movement, and how we can work together to promote that work. To help my understanding, I reached out to one of the leaders in the environmental justice (EJ) movement, Dr. Nicky Sheats. We talked about carbon trading, and how the mainstream environmental groups and the EJ movement look at the issue differently.
The journey to the cross goes through Environmental Justice Communities
What is carbon trading? Usually it is reducing overall carbon dioxide emissions by some defined amount coupled with the trading of emissions. Then it is called “cap and trade.” All polluters must obtain an “allowance” before they can emit a certain amount of carbon dioxide. Overall reductions are achieved by setting the amount of available allowances, and therefore carbon dioxide emissions, at a lower level than previous emissions. Overall emissions may drop, but individual corporations can avoid or limit reductions by buying allowances. Mainstream response? Great, reduces greenhouse gas emissions, positive impact on global warming and climate change. EJ response? If you emit carbon dioxide, you also emit other air pollutants that make people sick. So it matters to communities where these reductions occur. But it doesn’t matter to the trading program.

EJ ask: Make sure that polluting facilities in EJ communities are required to decrease emissions. Mainstream response: we need the carbon trading deal, let’s not complicate matters.

When discussions on carbon trading began, was the EJ movement consulted? No. As far as Dr. Sheats knows, no one reached out to the EJ movement. Did the EJ movement pitch a fit? Yes. Their perspective? Let’s take this opportunity to do some planning so that we make sure there are emissions reductions in communities overburdened with pollution.

Let us remember that everyone’s context is different. The EJ community wants to ensure emission reductions occur in neighborhoods most affected by pollution. The mainstream environmental movement wants an overall reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. These are very different goals. But they are not necessarily conflicting goals.

Have things changed over the years? Yes. Now that carbon trading is EPA policy, the mainstream seems more willing to listen to the needs of the EJ movement. As Christians, is this good enough? I don’t think so.

God asks us to break every yoke. One of the yokes is that suffered by EJ communities. As we enter this season of Lent, and reflect on how we might change our lives and break yokes, let us consider how we can make sure that that we not only hear all voices in the environmental movement, but that we take every opportunity to ensure that the concerns of all voices are included in planning solutions.

Prayer: Dear Lord, make our hearts open to the possibilities of the needs of all peoples in the care for your creation. Amen.

Sue Smith is the former Treasurer of Presbyterians for Earth Care, a recent M.Div. graduate of New Brunswick Theological Seminary, and a member of the First Presbyterian Church of Rumson, NJ.

I want to thank Dr. Nicky Sheats for participating in this conversation. He is the director of the Center for the Urban Environment at the John S. Watson Institute for Public Policy of Thomas Edison State College, Trenton, NJ, which provides support for the environmental justice community both locally and nationally. 

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