A Papal Encyclical, a Mennonite resolution, and the relevance of Anablacktivism

2015 8 4 lawrence jennings photoLAWRENCE JENNINGS of Infinity Mennonite Church in New York City has been involved in community and economic development for more than three decades. Since 2013, he has been affiliated with GreenFaith, first as a Fellow, and currently as a lead organizer of the new Restoration Nation faith communities/green jobs initiative. A member of the Thomas Berry Forum for Ecological Dialogue at Iona College, he was one of the key organizers of the People’s Climate March faith contingent, and has ongoing involvement with the People’s Climate Movement, the organizing body that took shape after the March. In these involvements, as well as his work with The Groundswell Group and Moral Mondays, he works closely with faith communities and inner city and “frontline” groups that often are overlooked or excluded. He authored the Open Letter from African American clergy on Climate Change as part of the “Our Voices” campaign, and is on the Steering Committee of Interfaith Moral Action on Climate, both of which aim to encourage people of to speak out about the moral and scientific urgency of the environmental crisis. Lawrence was asked by GreenFaith to write a response to the Pope’s newly released environmental teachings from the Anabaptist/Mennonite perspective. It will appear in two parts. Below is the second.

We Must Act

The Mennonite Confession of Faith includes the following statements: “We believe that everything belongs to God, who calls us as the church to live as faithful stewards of all that God has entrusted to us,” (Article 21) and “As followers of Jesus, we participate in his ministry of peace and justice. He has called us to find our blessing in making peace and seeking justice.” (Article 22). And the Creation Care Resolution adopted by Mennonite Church USA in 2013 calls members to “commit to growing in their dedication to care for God’s creation as an essential part of the good news of Jesus Christ.”

Our challenge is to bring those words to life, to work for the common good and express God’s will for shalom, peace.

In Laudato Si, Pope Francis takes on that challenge with vigor. And concurrent with the release of the Encyclical, a series of tweets from the Vatican summarized and expanded on two themes that are completely congruent with Anabaptist-Mennonite theology: Climate change is a moral issue. And Christians are called to take seriously the needs and experiences of others.

In the midst of the events unfolding in Charleston that day, two @Pontifex tweets were especially powerful: “At times more zeal is shown in protecting other species than in defending the equal dignity of human beings,” and “The teachings of the Gospel have direct consequences for our way of thinking, feeling and living.”

Sisters and brothers, we need to embrace and emulate the direct language and willingness to agitate for change that Pope Francis demonstrates.

After all, following Jesus is a radical journey! Let’s find more ways to visibly engage in the struggle for every kind of environmental justice – everything from fair wage jobs and reduced gun violence to clean air and water. It is our call as Christians. And let’s embrace opportunities – create them, even – to let others know where we stand.

As a GreenFaith Fellow, I was one of the organizers of the faith contingent of the Sept. 2014 People’s Climate March in New York City. The tagline for the March, “to change everything, we need everyone,” described the broad participation that organizers desired (and accomplished). Everyone who wanted to call for action on climate issues was welcome – the “big green” organizations, the Environmental Justice groups, indigenous peoples and frontline communities, labor unions, people of faith. Individual Mennonites and congregations participated but, to my surprise, Mennonite Church USA did not sign on as an official supporter of the March. Neither did Mennonite Central Committee nor Mennonite Creation Care Network. Why so hesitant?

One reason I heard was that we had no system in place for processing how we all felt about the March. But the delegate Assembly had adopted a new Creation Care Resolution just a year before! And we have an excellent Creation Care curriculum created by Mennonite Creation Care Network! Surely this reflects a collective commitment to speaking and acting on behalf of creation. Another concern: Perhaps “officially” participating in this event would somehow link us to groups whose beliefs are not congruent with ours. But within our own denomination, we can choose to work with each other without reaching unanimity on all things – so why not lend our support to broader collective efforts to protect creation – a value that is central to our beliefs as a peace church?

I also sensed surprise that it would actually matter to anyone whether or not we were officially present. I assure you: It does. People who are familiar with Anabaptist-Mennonite thought and practice are eager to have our partnership and hear our perspective.

And in this era of social media and unrelenting news coverage, it makes sense to engage in the public sphere in positive ways that will introduce those who don’t know much (or even anything) about us can learn about us, from us.

By avoiding, rather than engaging in, an event that brought together hundreds of thousands of people to demand urgent action on climate change, we missed a chance to “officially,” visibly advocate for creation care, to share our belief that everything – and everyone – belongs to God.

When Pope Francis visits the U.S. and speaks before Congress in September, there will be a plethora of statements issued and public actions held. Right now, planning is underway for a Week of Moral Action on Climate Justice in Washington, DC. Let’s not miss this opportunity to lend our name, our voices, our presence, and prayers to the cause.

In Laudato Si, Pope Francis pleads, “Lord, seize us with your power and light, help us to protect all life, to prepare for a better future.” More than 160 years ago, Frederick Douglass’ speech on The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro included a similar call to urgent action: “For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes must be proclaimed and denounced.”

How sad that those words are still so relevant today. How fitting that Douglass invokes the natural world to describe the need for urgent action. And how vital to future generations that we take heed – and act.