Promoting Enduring Peace asked John Grim, Yale F&ES, YDS, Religious Studies, to introduce Bill McKibben at the Gandhi Peace Award ceremony at the Unitarian Society of New Haven Thursday, April 18, 2013.
These were his remarks:
I want to thank the organization, Promoting Enduring Peace, and the organizers of this event for the invitation to say a few words as a way of introducing the author, environmentalist and activist, Bill McKibben. Bill has helped to create the largest social movement since Civil Rights that mobilized forty thousand people in Washington D C to protest the proposed Keystone pipeline. May his efforts continue to foster the peace that transforms the social and environmental violence of our times.
This is the first time that the Gandhi Peace Award has been given to an environmentalist since it was created in 1960. This marks a shift in our expanding awareness of what it means to be a peace-maker in contemporary society, namely, engaging in peace projects that are not simply human-centered, or centered on ethnic groups or nation-states, but centered on the dynamics of the whole Earth community. This shift reminds me of what my mentor, Thomas Berry, used to say: “There will be no peace among humans until there is peace with the Earth.” I take this peace to be a fusion, as our program notes say, of socio-economic justice and environmental harmony necessary for sustainable civilization.
This is certainly descriptive of Bill McKibben’s work evident from his first book, The End of Nature. Published first in “New Yorker” magazine and as a book in 1989, this work alerted readers to the fundamental changes that human impacts had affected over the Earth. His wake-up call in that book and in his ongoing work has been for shifts in consciousness in the ways humans relate to the Earth, namely, a turn from projects focused exclusively on human aggrandizement at the expense of nature. Bill leads us to imagine the voice of the Earth saying in the face of unending extractive relationships: “I have given freely of my bounty, but you used me!” He brings us into awareness of these use-relationships through the physics of climate change as well as the morality of Earth systems. Acknowledging and acting on these relationships is the deep peace project of our times.
Certainly this is akin to what Gandhi spoke of as satyagraha, a truth-force or soul-force. Many felt that Gandhi’s call could only be implemented through non-violence in the political arena of his time. But Mohandas Gandhi’s agendas were diverse and complex. They were first and foremost ways of moving the human quest for truth into the real-politik of nation states. As well Gandhi’s truth-force, satyagraha, brings one into the possibilities of a deeper spiritual transformation that he described as a divine encounter. That is, in the action of resistance to oppressive forces individuals open themselves through suffering to spiritual transformations simultaneously within and beyond themselves. Gandhi expressed this saying: “God never occurs to you in person but always in action.”
I recall a gathering we organized at Harvard in 2001 where Bill was present. It was the first conference on religion and climate change. Bill’s call to us there was to a similar act of imagination. He said: Imagine gatherings where theologians and scholars and activists came together—and did not leave until they had worked out plans for closing down a polluting power plant, opening up new funding for alternative energy, or any of a hundred other tasks: specific actions, which they would help to carry out in the days and weeks ahead. [Daedalus Fall 2001] Action…that was the call then and it is still Bill’s call now to religious leaders and laity.
For it is Bill’s belief that people will rise up to the moral challenge of climate change. What makes tonight’s award so poignant is that we remember a spiritual teacher, Gandhi, and honor an environmental leader, Bill, who share an understanding that in conflict both sides are joined together in a deeper reality. The unique disposition of Gandhi’s satyagraha campaign was that each side had a chance to make the outcome a mutually beneficial one. Truthful action governed by the readiness to get hurt and yet not to hurt, was manifest in the principle of ahimsa, or non-violence. What we see in Bill McKibben’s work is a powerful expansion of truthful action into the community of life.
What is it in our day that calls forth satyagraha campaigns in which the goal is to undertake suffering so that others may not suffer, so that others may simply live? This is what Bill was pondering when he got dengue fever in Bangladesh. He realized he could eventually leave, while others could not who were adversely affected by climate change and profligate energy use in the First world. This was a wake up call for Bill and all of us to climate justice, and restraint in energy use and material consumption. These are environmental concerns that preoccupy many of us late into the night.
Indeed, this is what inspires the work of the Forum on Religion and Ecology that Mary Evelyn Tucker and I have brought to Yale. We are attempting to mobilize religious traditions to rediscover their embeddedness in the Earth and their solidarity with those suffering from climate injustice, drought, and flooding. All religious traditions are struggling to find the language, symbols, rituals, and ethics for altering our life-threatening behavior, and for encouraging changes of lifestyle in the face of global warming. Religions are themselves challenged by their own bilingual languages, namely, their characteristically strong language of the transcendence of the divine above nature, and the relatively weak language of immanence of the sacred within nature. Not only do religions puzzle over the meaning of matter, they often turn towards applied science and market rationality for language to express utilitarian relationships to the world. For example, only recently have the extractive powers of the fossil-fuel corporations been questioned in religious settings as leaders ponder the negative consequences of unrestrained energy production by mountaintop removal, fracking, and tar sand oil extraction. The horrific effect of these extractive processes on human and natural communities is becoming more visible. Yet, the majority of the religions are still unable to bridge the gap between the American way of life, and an integration of justice, peace, and environmental harmony.
Indeed, at the Harvard conference that I mentioned above, Bill McKibben pointed out that ecology may rescue religion at least as much as the other way around. This is an important point that I want to conclude on, namely, that religions awaken to the sacred in the act of responding to the ecological dilemmas of our time. Climate justice signals the alliance and fusion of a satyagraha campaign in which all sides have a chance to make the outcome a mutually beneficial one. This awakening of consciousness to the effects of our actions, to the signs of our future is what I see in Bill McKibben’s satyagraha work.
Such transformations of consciousness that lead directly to changes in the ways we interact with the world will hopefully enable life to flourish for future generations. Human activity as planetary creativity may now become religious not simply for autonomous individuals, or self-selected societies, but in relation to the larger Earth community. This challenges the religions at the heart of their teachings.
Our contemporary call to climate justice cannot be answered simply on the basis of doctrine, dogma, scripture, devotion, ritual, belief, or prayer. While all of these are necessary for individuals and communities, our challenges cannot be met by any of the religions in themselves. Religions are necessary for the transformative turn that we need to make, but they are not sufficient in themselves. The individual religions must explain, acknowledge and undertake massive spiritual engagement with the reality of the moral dimensions of climate change. Religions as cultural expressions must act not simply for human needs but to enhance the community of life. If the religions can participate in this ecological creativity they may again empower humans to realize action that is an encounter with God, namely, renewing the integral Earth community.
This is what I hear in Bill McKibben’s work that both echoes Gandhi’s satyagraha and calls us into the resistance and regeneration of our times. Please join me in thanking Bill for leading and sustaining the most important soul-force movement of our time.