Brief video: Facing the Pharaohs of Global Scorching

By Rabbi Arthur Waskow

My life-partner Rabbi Phyllis Berman and I spent a week in Sweden at the Interfaith Summit on the Climate Crisis.

Watch the live 5-minute video of my "words of hope" for the thousand people who filled the Uppsala Cathedral, intertwining a vision of empowering ourselves and drawing on the Spirit. Then read the message just below about the FREEDOM SEDER FOR THE EARTH that the Shalom Center is organizing, and how you yourself can face the Pharaohs of today.

We met mainly in the Cathedral under the sponsorship of the Archbishop of Uppsala, head of the Church of Sweden. Our goal was to shape and build support for a Climate Manifesto that the Archbishop has now taken to the Prime Minister of Sweden (which will chair the European Union during 2009) and to the world-wide governmental climate-crisis meeting in Poznan, Poland, and – after January 20- -- will take to the new American Administration.

For a copy of the Manifesto, see --

Our participation --- about fifty religious leaders from all around the world and a thousand Swedes who packed the cathedral and filled the smaller workshops that the fifty of us led -- was a way of building both religious commitment and a new political constituency for vigorous action to prevent climate disaster.

And the Manifesto we wrote and signed delivered a strong message about the obligation of rich nations to meet the needs of the poorest third of the human race. They have done the least to scorch our world, but are both more much exposed to climate-induced floods and drought and hurricanes, and far less able to draw on accumulated wealth to deal with their effects.

For me, the most important plenary speech was not by a religious leader but by a scientist who spoke with the clearest of facts and the most powerful of spiritual passion. That was Dr. James Hansen of NASA, who almost thirty years ago became the first scientist to lay before the US Congress and the public the facts of global warming.

Again and again, Hansen said that setting goals for diminishing Carbon Dioxide, goals for reducing the use of fossil fuels, did not matter: The point was to change what we do. That has not happened, he said.

And then he described some acts of civil disobedience on behalf of "adam" (the human race) and "adamah" (the earth): Activists in Virginia gathering where a new coal plant was scheduled to be built, blocking the passage of the trucks to build it, calling its emissions of mercury and CO2 a murderous poison spewed into our lives.

It takes, I muttered to myself, a scientist to echo Shifra and Puah, the midwives of the Torah story who invented civil disobedience by disobeying Pharaoh's order to kill the children of the Israelites. Where, I asked myself, is the religious commitment to nonviolent action? (Including, on this issue, my own.)

Several moments of the Summit stick in my brain like powerful paintings:

The opening: Into a full Cathedral came a procession of Lutheran clergy all dressed in black, surrounding one woman in a bright red dress – the Crown Princess of Sweden, who opened the Summit. Her brilliant red in the midst of that blackness was like a watchfire at deepest midnight. It seemed to symbolize the Summit itself –a watchfire at the darkest moment of human history.

Another: One of the multireligious services in the Cathedral – a shofar blown, Buddhist bells, passages chanted from Quran and Gospels and Gautama's writings.

And then a large green globe, made of living moss, was carried into the cathedral. Watching awestruck by this miniature of our planet, and feeling a second level sense of awe, moved by my own emotion. I found myself wondering –--

What if ALL our communities – where now for some the central sacred symbol is the Torah Scroll, or the Cross, or the Quran, or the Wheel of Life, or the peace pipe -----– What if we ALL affirmed this living ball, this planet, as a sacred symbol for every one of our communities and traditions?

Some humor, too: A moment of private conversation: A teacher from India, looking at the printed program, seeing Starhawk, re-creator of the Wiccan community in our generation, listed as a "pagan." "This word," he whispered to me, "this 'pagan," it is now all right to say?" I laughed and said it depended whom you asked. For me, admiring Starhawk, yes, OK. (After all, long ago she was a Jewish girl who went to Camp Ramah and who says she might have become a rabbi if that had been possible when she was young.)

Later I told the Archbishop I was happy Starhawk had been invited. He glanced at me quizzically, said: "There was a ..... -- discussion. We decided she has done too much work this generation to focus on healing the earth for her to be left out." And Starhawk herself, smiling as she toasted the Church of Sweden, "To the first Archbishop ever to consult a witch – in public."

And there were other ironies as well: At the end, four of us, including me, were asked to say "words of hope," for all of us to carry into the world -- each of us for no more than five minutes.

Our words were supposed to be stirring, passionate – not academic. I think I carried out my assignment, crystallizing into five minutes and a tone of hopeful passion my teaching about how to face the Pharaohs of our planetary Plague as Moses did, with the words of hope that are the Names of God he was given at the Burning Bush.

Again, the live video of that talk, intertwining a vision of empowering ourselves and drawing on the Spirit, is on this posting.

(The video gives the feel and color way beyond what I could describe in words.)

I won't say whether the other three fulfilled their mission, but I saw an amusing picture: The Archbishop himself, carrying the six-foot Shepherd's Crook that is the symbol of the bishop's pastoral task to gather the flock, came sidling toward the pulpit.

As one speaker droned on and on and the Archbishop crept nearer and nearer, I suddenly saw the Crook as what in Harlem's Apollo Theater on Amateur Night was The Hook that literally dragged untalented performers off the stage. "Give 'm the hook, the Hook," the audience would chant.

He never used the Crook to yank the speaker off, but the undone act stayed vivid in my brain.

One contribution we brought the interfaith assembly was a Shabbat service built on chant, led by Phyllis Berman in such a way as to open the Shabbat experience and Jewish prayer to these myriad religious representatives. Thirty-six people came – four or five of them Jews, all of them enthralled by the power of this path of prayer.

As Phyllis pointed out, this is an interfaith experience very different from that of the "prayer salad" in which many different forms are poured into a single bowl. Instead, it invited everyone into the spiritual depths of one tradition. That is the way we have learned to pray in The Tent of Abraham, Hagar, and Sarah: deep into Islam, deep into Judaism, deep into Christianity – deep enough to experience the ONE Who is at the heart of each.

After the Summit, Phyllis and I met with Muslims and Christians who were pursuing a spiritually rooted politics in the Swedish public square. And to our delight, we unexpectedly met the leaders of a Muslim-sponsored school for migrants to Sweden -- with whom Phyllis, founder and director of a renowned 30-year-old school for adult immigrants and refugees to the United States, was able to have a long conversation at the highest professional level – a level we might call Vocation, not even just Profession.

More on that in a separate letter to you. For now, I invite your thoughts in general – and especially on the question whether we should be planning religious acts of nonviolent civil disobedience like the ones Dr. Hansen spoke about – acts to challenge the scorching of our planet, acts to confront the Pharaohs of our modern Plagues.

Blessings of shalom, salaam, peace –


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