by Lowell Bliss
… so long as local regulations during this pandemic allow it.
… so long as you hike only with those with whom you are already sheltered-in-place.
… so long as you stay six feet away from strangers.
… so long as you wash your hands thoroughly when you get home.
On Saturday, my dog and I found a padlock on the pedestrian’s gate onto Nickel Beach, a public space owned by the City of Port Colborne, ON. The dog appeared uncomprehending and frustrated. It was a bonding moment for us. I myself almost started scratching at the chain link fence. Truthfully, I felt a moment of panic: How am I going to survive this coronavirus quarantine if I can’t leave our small house and go for our daily tramp down the length of Nickel Beach?
The definition of a “scofflaw” is easily sussed out if you divide the syllables correctly: “scoff·law.” A scofflaw is someone who “flouts the law, especially by failing to comply with a law that is difficult to enforce effectively.” Our need to “flatten the curve” on new cases of infection means that the laws and/or guidelines regarding social distancing is absolutely nothing to scoff at. But Nickel Beach is NOT some crowded beach in Fort Lauderdale during Spring Break. Nickel Beach is not some cramped park in New York City where six feet apart from anyone is impossible. The sanctuary that is Ontario’s north shore of Lake Erie is NOT the Life Tabernacle Church near Baton Rouge which, despite state restrictions, attracted 500 worshippers yesterday.
True, groups of scofflaws could gather on Nickel Beach if they wanted to, or a crowd of teenage scofflaws could use it to party—but prior to the padlock, I saw little to none of that behavior. I saw families with young kids—whom I assumed were sheltering-in-place together anyway—letting those kids play in the sand. Retired couples were walking slowly together. People with dogs also had poop bags with them, proving that they aren’t scofflaws even under normal circumstances. One couple was out in the water, wind surfing. In every encounter, we all purposefully stayed six feet away from each other. Nickel Beach isn’t huge, but it could have easily accommodated a few hundred more strolling nature lovers, without turning a single one of us inadvertently into a scofflaw.
The term scofflaw was apparently coined during the Prohibition, which is ironic now because our premier, Doug Ford, has declared that along with grocery stores and pharmacies, liquor stores and cannabis shops are officially considered “essential services.” Yep. The measure has been supported by mental health officials, like Larry Grupp, an associate professor at the University of Toronto and an expert in the neurobiology of alcoholism: “If you’re a real alcoholic, then you’re going to have epilepsy, and (if) you’re going into withdrawal because you don’t have access to alcohol, you could die. . . I think they’re just trying to avoid any more kind of social unrest on top of the (COVID-19) problems.”
Mental health is actually what I think of when I think of Nickel Beach. If hops and hemp are parts of nature considered “essential” to our mental health, well then why not sand and surf? Has Ford never listened to John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High”? Yesterday, our prime minister addressed the nation. Justin Trudeau said, “Over the past few weeks, our daily lives have been transformed because of COVID-19. You might find that this crisis is having an effect not just on your everyday routine, but on your mental health, too.” (He gets me!) Trudeau helpfully encouraged us to “reach out.” I wish he had also recognized that he was recording his message outside the front door of his residence and had taken a moment to look away from the camera to say, “reach out AND go out.”
We are staying at home because our government wants us to care for our neighbours and for the potentially over-taxed healthcare system that will need to care for our most vulnerable. Yet, to do so faithfully for the length of time required to “flatten the curve,” means also that I need to engage in self-care, and I need to attend to the care of my wife and two adult daughters who are stuck in these four walls with me. We all need to use the therapeutic value of going outside to help us endure this period of social distancing. We need the sun on our faces and the wind in our hair. We need to see a horizon that stretches beyond our wallpaper. If anything, we need to spot the first jonquil of Spring and hear the first robin to return. They are harbingers of hope. This quarantine is like a fallow winter. We will re-emerge.
So, get outside. (. . . so long as you don’t scofflaw it.) Go outside for the sake of your mental health and for your sense of hope. This article is the first in a series. A steel padlock on Nickel Beach, and my reaction to it and my interactions with Port Colborne city officials because of it, have launched additional reflections: about a vision for public space and for wilderness space, about discovering that our own small backyards can be enough, about recognizing our own privilege, about how Wendell Berry’s poem “Stay Home,” is both NOT the perfect poem and is the perfect poem for this time.
For now though, go outside! Attached are links to two helpful articles about how to adjust your outside time during a pandemic—for your own health and for the health of your neighbours. They mention the same guidelines that I listed above (obey laws, hike only with your household, stay six feet away, wash hands) and then add another one: don’t take unnecessary risks while outside, since our emergency rooms should be reserved for COVID-19 patients, not for cocky knuckleheads. In the words of our prime minister: “I know this is tough, not being able to see your friends at school, not being able to have your support network close by or do the things that keep you feeling healthy. It can take its toll. It’s okay to be vulnerable. It’s ok to have tough days. But I want you to know that you are not alone.” Take one step outside and you will realize that this is true. You are not alone. There is no shortage of flora and fauna providing essential services for you 24/7. Biologists call these “ecosystem services,” named so because they are services provided to society free-of-charge simply because grassy swales naturally purify drinking water, lakes naturally provide recreation, or fertile soil naturally provides food. In our case, go outside and meet the honking geese, the twittering robins and the welcoming daffodils. Don’t be deceived: they are actually a phalanx of therapists mobilized by God during this time of our crisis.
Outside Magazine: “The Rules for Going Outdoors During Coronavirus”
BBC News: “Coronavirus: How to go for a walk safely, without getting shamed”
by Lowell Bliss
I woke up this morning with a scratchy throat and a dull headache. No running nose. . . yet. No fever. . . yet. No coronavirus reported in our small corner of the huge Ontario province. . . yet. But of course, my symptoms were enough for me to turn to Robynn and say, “Can you lead the book study tonight?; I shouldn’t go.” By the end of the morning, we had received a phone call from one of our most faithful book study members: “Maybe we should cancel altogether?” she said. Linda takes her cues from her a daughter, a health care official in Niagara Falls, who told her on the phone last night, “Mom, you have to start taking this seriously.” Robynn turned around and notified the church office.
It was absolutely the right decision to cancel our Tuesday evening book study, but it brought to mind the appeal I had put on Facebook just last week. The year 2020 is a crucial year for climate action, and I had encouraged all my friends to proliferate book studies using the text our parish is using, namely my friend Ruth Valerio’s Saying Yes to Life: The Archbishop of Canterbury's Lent Book 2020. Sure, we could have organized a book study around the book that our bishop recommended to the diocese--Rachel Held Evans’s Inspired--but we can read Evans’s book in May or in 2021. Ruth’s book seems to have some time-constraints attached, not the least of which are its Lenten references. More importantly, this is the type of book that we should have been reading as a church back in 1989 when James Hansen first told us that global warming had started. In other words, we can’t afford any further delays in reshaping our thinking on climate change, let alone. . . a cancellation.
And then there was the headline in my newsfeed a couple days ago: “U.N. cancels some meetings ahead of climate summit due to coronavirus.” Face-to-face meetings were supposed to take place in Bonn, Germany this week in preparation for the crucial COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland this summer. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres commented: “Our task is made more difficult by the postponement of many meetings due to the ongoing coronavirus outbreak. But even as we work to contain and address the virus, we must also look to use every opportunity to build our climate action agenda.” This recalled for me a blog post I had published after the COP25 summit in Madrid. COP26 is the summit where the Paris Agreement is actually set to go into effect. It is the summit where the nations are challenged to arrive in Glasgow with targets for greenhouse gas emission reductions that the scientists themselves could sign off on: namely that these revised targets will allow the world to achieve “carbon neutrality by 2050” and thus stave off the worst suffering that the poor and vulnerable will be facing. Unfortunately, COP25 didn’t get done all the preparatory work that it said it would, in part because they were catching up on work that COP24 in Poland had failed to finish in 2018. We entered COP26’s big year working our way out of a hole. These intersessional meetings are important, so is face-to-face interaction, and now the first important meeting has been cancelled. Here’s how Reuters alerts us to the importance of June’s meetings:
Jennifer Tollmann, a policy adviser with international climate change think tank E3G, said the upcoming meeting that had been due to take place in Bonn in March was a highly technical preparatory session, which should be easier to conduct via videoconference than a much more significant meeting that is still due to take place in Bonn from June 1-11. “If they cancel the June meetings, though, that would be a bigger issue for COP26 and the UK,” Tollmann said, referring to the acronym for the climate summit and its host. The June conference in Bonn is seen as an important opportunity for climate envoys from around the world to find ways to address outstanding issues ahead of the Glasgow summit. The June meeting also represents an opportunity for pre-summit diplomacy for the British hosts, led by Business Minister Alok Sharma, who Prime Minister Boris Johnson appointed to lead the Glasgow proceedings last month.
Of course, announcements of cancellations are springing up everywhere. Italy is “cancelled,” for crying out loud, as is, I hope, your plans for that ocean cruise. Harvard University has cancelled classes for after Spring Break. The South by Southwest music festival is cancelled. Athletes are worried about the Summer Olympics in Japan (a decision will be made in May, officials say.) We are all being encouraged to limit our face-to-face interactions, especially with large crowds of people who have crossed borders and regions. The disease control and healthcare officials who are advising this, I find them as believable as Linda’s daughter, and the cancellations as advisable as tonight’s book study. And yet. . .
What about the crucial opportunities that we are losing at this crucial moment where a Skype conference seems like a poor substitute for face-to-face interactions? Last week, Ed Brown told me that the Lausanne WEA Creation Care Network has just cancelled its Middle East Conference. Plans for the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day which intend to emphasize the severity of our climate emergency are also being re-evaluated.
What does a Christian do when the crucial work of a physical presence gets cancelled?
We’ve known the answer to that question since Sunday School days: we pray. “Work as if it all depends on you; pray as if it all depends on God” may have even been a poster on the wall in your Youth Wing. The coronavirus doesn’t change that equation; it clarifies it. The CDC may be turning our homes into self-quarantine units, but we can turn them into prayer closets, which is a term with an allusion to Matthew 6:10: “But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Certainly, the CDC would affirm Jesus’s earlier instructions—but for different reasons: “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others.”)
Mountain Rain, the biography of the famous missionary in Burma, J.O. Fraser, tells the story of Fraser’s particular burden for a Lisu village that was among the most isolated on his preaching circuit. It was physically impossible for Fraser the preacher to get to this village as much as he wanted. And yet, he was perpetually surprised to see how vibrant the church in that village was compared to the church in the city where he lived and ministered daily. One day, however, he came to realization, namely that because he couldn’t visit this village as often as he wanted, he found himself praying for those villagers more than he did for his local congregation. Locally, he was relying on his preaching and his energy and his physical presence. In that other village, he was relying more heavily on prayer.
I don’t think that God uses a stopwatch on our prayers, but I do think that part of the mystery of intercessory prayer is bound up in James 4:2: “You do not have because you do not ask God.” I’m not sure I would be praying for the success of the June Pre-COP26 Intersessional meetings in Bonn if there wasn’t the thought they would be cancelled altogether. I wouldn’t be praying for my parish’s reading of Say Yes to Life!—something that they are doing without me anyway—if I had remained so busy preparing tonight’s lesson plan. Be J.O. the pray-er, if you can’t be J.O. the preacher.
First and foremost in our prayer closets let’s pray for the swift end of the coronavirus pandemic, and for protection on those most vulnerable in our community because of age of pre-existing health conditions. Let’s pray for those who can’t afford to skip work, who don’t have health insurance, or who can’t pay for childcare. Let’s pray for wise and truthful government responses. Let’s not pray for just our families, but also for other countries (e.g. Italy!) including other countries we might consider enemies (e.g. China and Iran.) If you like liturgical prayers and lectio divina, my wife recommended to me this excellent meditation posted today by 24-7prayer: (10 March 2020). When I complained about the extra step of having to download the Lectio 365 app, she just said, “So what? It’s free,” and seemed to wonder why a self-quarantined person like myself should have to worry about a little extra work to do. It’s a wonderful prayer to bookmark. I can imagine returning to it often, and am thrilled to know that written prayers are one way that we can still “gather together” during pandemics.
Having prayed these prayers, let’s also turn to interceding for the crucial work that is being cancelled, for the missed opportunities which are passing by, for the work whose effectiveness seems to be diminished without face-to-face interactions. For example, you can join me now as I pray:
“Creator God, grant our climate negotiators extra grace as they try to conduct March’s business over the internet. Please don’t let June’s meetings be cancelled, and please continue to set COP26 up for success. Use the global outbreak of COVID19 to build into us a humility before natural forces and a vision for global cooperation. In Jesus’ name, Amen.”
Get Arrested on April 23 (or Don’t), but God’s Creation Needs Christians to Begin Acting Experimentally
by Lowell Bliss
As might be expected, Bill McKibben’s book Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet begins with an explanation of why the misspelling. He tells the story of the Apollo 8 mission in December of 1968 and their famous photo of our planet entitled “Earthrise.” Commander Frank Borman said that it was “the most beautiful, heart-catching sight of my life.” However, forty three years later, at the publication of his book, McKibben arrives at the conclusion:
As the director of Eden Vigil and the author of Environmental Missions, I spend my time with one foot in traditional Christian missions (evangelism and discipleship) and one foot in creation care. On the missions side, I’ve used McKibben’s conceit to declare that we need to explore new ways of doing missions—that, as per Acts 1:8, we are now called to be witnesses “to the uttermost parts of the Eaarth.” And even the Great Commission (Matt 28:18-20) gets a new colour scheme, with Jesus promising to be with our disciple-making “lo, to the end of the Anthropocene.”
Here in 2020 however, I pivot to my creation care colleagues and I am surprised to discover that I must say the same thing to them: on April 22, go ahead and celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, but please, on April 23, be prepared to celebrate the first Eaarth Day. You consider yourself a creation care advocate, perhaps even a climate activist? Praise God. But realize, your faithful and hardworking service is now being conducted on a planet that is different than the one on which you started your work. We spend a lot of time talking about business-as-usual CO2 emissions scenarios (BAU). We need to begin a conversation about BAU creation care strategies and tactics. Recycling, composting, changing lightbulbs, lobbying, writing letters to Congress, letters-to-the-editor, declarations, Days of Prayer, voting, conferences, the occasional sermon-- how’s that working out for you? It is time to experiment with new forms of activism.
The first Earth Day (1970). Francis Schaeffer’s book Pollution and the Death of Man (also 1970). But more in the timeframe of our activism: EEN’s What Would Jesus Drive? campaign (2002), the Evangelical Climate Initiative (2006), Pastor Tri Robinson’s interview with Bill Moyer (2006), Lausanne’s Cape Town Commitment (2010), NAE and Dorothy Boorse’s Loving the Least of These report (2011), Lausanne WEA’s Jamaica Creation Care Call to Action (2012), the Canada/US LWCCN conference at Gordon College (2015), Lausanne Base Camp at COP21 (2015). . . all of these events (and so many others before 2016) represent truly remarkable “Earthrise” moments. We contemplated the beauty of God’s creation and renewed our commitment to be good stewards of it. But we no longer live on that planet.
Likely few of us could contemplate waking up tomorrow, growing out our dreadlocks, inking up some new “tats,” and joining Extinction Rebellion by the end of the day. Certainly, Anglican minister from Sussex, England, David Baker couldn’t. Christianity Today asked him to comment on the Extinction Rebellion protests that were gumming up London commuter traffic in April 2019. It’s a good article, and Baker begins by reassuring us that “he gets it.” His first two points are “we should recognise the overwhelming consensus about climate change, especially if we have yet to do so” and “we should wake up to the fact that Christian campaigning about climate change is a natural outworking of our faith.” But his third point is to ask whether the Extinction Rebellion protests are “justified on this occasion” and his conclusion is “It seems to me on balance not.” Nonetheless, it is Baker’s concluding sentence that intrigues me the most. He writes, “But such would be the effect of unchecked climate change on the planet, especially its poorest and most vulnerable, that I would be open to being persuaded...”
I wrote Baker and asked. Actually, what happened is that Baker posted his article on my friend Ruth Valerio’s Facebook page. Ruth had attended the protest and Baker writes, “I have a lot of sympathy with the passion of the participants, and their willingness to take a stand. I silently cheered when Ruth Valerio of Tearfund wrote on Twitter: ‘So I get the questions around [Extinction Rebellion] but we need large-scale societal change & for that we need agitators as well as reformers.’" I read the article through Ruth’s Facebook page, and wrote a question to Baker in the comment stream: When will that line be crossed for you? What will it take for you to be not only open to persuasion, but actually persuaded to participate as Ruth did? In his article, Baker had included a quotation from Christian political scientist David Koyzis: "Civil disobedience is our very last resort, to be contemplated only with fear and trembling. But by no means can faithful believers rule it out of bounds." Consequently, this is how my actual question to Baker was worded: “Thank you for the article. Here's a serious question: if we take Koyzis's statement as a word to the wise, what set of climate circumstances would indicate for you that it has become a time ‘of last resort’?”
Baker never wrote back. (Fair enough; he doesn’t know me.) I didn’t mean to challenge him, as much as I meant to challenge myself. I was genuinely curious. When have we reached a point in climate neglect, where I myself would be open to try new tactics, things that for whatever reason—probably unfamiliarity and timidity—I have reserved for the category of “last resort”? What about you? The problem is that, as per the old adage, “tomorrow never comes.” Baker’s “the effects of unchecked climate change” always seem to stay one step ahead of us, one step ahead of our BAU activism. I am also challenged by the adage, generally attributed to Einstein, that “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” Maybe the line we eventually cross is not the pain of unchecked climate change, but rather the frustration of unfruitful climate actions.
One of the reasons we only nibble at the edge of last-resort activities is because we think we need to jump all the way in: dreadlocks, tattoos, and card-carrying ER association. Instead, the Kansas Leadership Center advises a better, more realistic path: we can “act experimentally.” We can begin by beginning. We can dip our toe in and test the water. We can try something new and different. The purpose of what are often called “SMART experiments” is to learn from them, to prepare yourself for a fuller, more effective act of leadership the next time, and the next time, and the next time. There was a time when lobbying my Kansas senators and representative was an experiment, though I did not think about it as such. It thought of it as climate activism, and it was. But I also learned from it—namely that the Koch Brothers, based in Wichita, KS, have such a headlock on these three gentlemen that they are deaf to this particular tactic. I learned that a visit to the Kansas offices on Capitol Hill is an exercise in indignity, where your assigned staffer will reassuringly explain to you how their party leader in the White House has “all the best climates.” Fah!
If you are like me—a white member of the American evangelical tribe, erstwhile or otherwise—then non-violent civil disobedience for the sake of the things you value may be new to you. But admit it: you’ve been intrigued by the idea, haven’t you? And maybe, as Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell and the ailing Paris Agreement process threaten to narrow traditional democratic options even further, you sense that new tactics of climate action are going to be required sooner rather than later. If so, I’ve got good news for you. There is a SMART experiment in non-violent direct action that is already on the schedule and coming to a location near you. (Save the Date: April 23, 2020). And—the best news of all—a team of veteran Christian creation care leaders, led by Sojourner’s and YECA’s Melody Zhang, is preparing a SMART place specifically for you. I keep using the acronym SMART because the letter S stands for “safe:” as we try new tactics, you can titrate the amount of risk that you want to begin with. You are a beginner. We understand. We bless your curiosity and we applaud your courage in trying something new.
#StoptheMoneyPipeline. That’s the name of the campaign. Here’s your chance to do a deep dive into the leading edge of climate action, and to do it safely. If you are interested in learning more about what is likely the highest leverage strategy to compel fossil fuel companies to “keep it in the ground,” then you can read McKibben’s article in the New Yorker:“Money is the Oxygen on Which the Fire of Global Warming Burns.” If you are interested in the data behind the campaign, you can read Rainforest Action Network’s report Banking on Climate Change 2019. Here’s the narrative: Chase Bank is the largest funder of new fossil fuel projects—$196 billion since the adoption of the Paris Climate Agreement. On April 23, from sit-ins and prayer-ins at national sites and local sites near you, or in on-line actions, we’ll be sending a message to CEO Jamie Dimon: “Defund Climate Change.” The shortest introduction to the campaign is this 5:12 video by 350.org and The Years Project. In the video you can get a preview of what the April 23rd direct action might look like. You can also hear from Rev. Lennox Yearwood what some of the Christian messaging sounds like. And all of it can lead you to the actual campaign website: https://www.stopthemoneypipeline.com.
But don’t be scared off by the police in the video, or by Jane Fonda and the list of other allies, if you find these things scary. Today’s SMART experiment is simply to “Save the Date” and to remain, like David Baker, “open to persuasion.” The next SMART experiment will be to explore what Melody and our team generate by way of a plan and a website. (Stay tuned.) You will learn that, whereas some people will be risking arrest, many others won’t (including myself who do regular border crossings on a brand new Canadian Permanent Resident card.) You will be provided training so that you will know what to expect. Equally as important, you will be provided with some good old-fashioned discipleship and Bible study. What is a Christian approach to an action like April 23rd’s? God has created the planet to be a house of prayer for himself, but polluters have participated in turning it into a den of thieves. You have a zeal for caring for God’s creation. If, on April 23rd, we are going to re-captiulate our Master’s confrontation with the money changers (cf. Matthew 21, Mark 11, Luke 19, John 2) then we dare not do so as just a religious gimmick to grab a cheap headline. Only an authentic engagement with our faith and with the Scriptures beforehand will give us the authority to say to Jamie Dimon: “Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not; defund climate change now!” Our team is grateful to Brian Webb of Climate Caretakers for launching the exploration of this idea and for organizing our first conference call with Bill McKibben. Kudos to Brian as well for discovering this quotation from Rev. Jim Antal: “We need to make civil disobedience a normative expression of Christian discipleship, just like prayer is a normative expression of Christian faith.” We can act experimentally even with Rev. Antal: you don’t have buy his statement today hook-line-and-sinker, but would you be willing to “rent” it for the next two months?
So, please join us on this journey. And if you are a leader of a church, creation care organization, or ministry, please consider joining the coalition that Melody is forming, and bringing your constituency smartly along. Some of you are already diving headfirst in the #StoptheMoneyPipeline campaign. You are familiar with this type of activism. We bless your faithful courage and zeal. But for the rest of us, and the rest of our organizations: please consider the possibility that the Eaarth of the year 2021 (as soon as that: namely, post-US elections, post-COP26) will have burned through our BAU options as effectively as a California wildfire through the town of Paradise. Christians won’t be ready for non-violent civil disobedience then, if we haven’t acted experimentally now.
Save the Date. Stay tuned. Write me with questions if you wish: firstname.lastname@example.org