Last month I attended an environmental justice retreat led by a Chicago-area interfaith group. I expected the retreat would be depressing. I thought that because of the Trump administration decisions involving the environment- pulling out of the Paris Climate Accord, removing all references to global warming from government websites, appointing a coal lobbyist to be head of the EPA, defunding the EPA- would have all the attendees in a rather glum mood. I was happily surprised. Everyone was actually quite upbeat and had a can-do attitude. This was largely because Illinois had passed a multi-million dollar clean energy/clean jobs bill and this group had a lot to do with its passage. More about that governmental bill later.
At the end of the day, I was at a reception and talking to one of the pastors. I said something like, “Well, with all these big hurricanes and the warming climate, should anyone be that surprised?” The minister said to me, “You know, we don’t feel comfortable any more preaching about how natural disasters are the result of bad behavior. For example, this earthquake is a result of gay marriage or legalized abortion. But with climate change and the amount of carbon we are contributing to the greenhouse effect, well, it is hard NOT to preach that message!” And I admit, I feel like all these destructive hurricanes are just the chickens coming home to roost. As the surface water of the ocean heats up, storms get more intense and destructive. This hypothesis is not a liberal conspiracy: it is supported by empirical facts. We can measure the water temperature, we can measure the storm intensity. In the 21st century, the activities we do as human beings, particularly in developed countries like the USA, produce vast amounts of carbon dioxide which affect our global climate. With more CO2 in the atmosphere, our climate has greater chance of producing droughts, intense storms, cooler summers, warmer winters, melting polar caps and rising ocean levels. The more energy we require from fossil fuels, the more we grow our economy with these fuels, the more we change our climate with often unpredictable and unwanted effects.
In the Quran there are many examples of communities whose behavior and spiritual practice led to unwanted effects, typically resulting in their own destruction. Noah told his people:
“O people, if you find my staying with you and warning through God’s signs unbearable to you, know that I have reposed my trust in God. So plan your move, and call your associates, and make certain of your plan: then do whatever you intend against me, allowing me no respite. If you turn away from me I do not ask any recompense from you. My reward is with God. I have been commanded to be one of those who submit to Him.' Even then they denied him: so We saved him and those with him, in the ark, and established them in the land, and drowned those who denied Our signs. So think of the fate of those who were warned.” 10: 71-73
Lot warned his community,
“Would you commit this abomination with your eye open?Must you really approach men with lust instead of women? Nay, but you are people without any awareness!” But his people’s only answer was this: “Expel Lot’s followers from your township! Verily, they are a folk who make themselves out to be pure!” Thereupon We saved him and his housefolk- all but his wife, whom We willed to be among those that stayed behind- the while We rained a rain upon the others; and dire is such rain upon all who let themselves be warned.” 27:54-58
Salih preached to the people of the Thamud tribe unsuccessfully. The Thamud people said,
“Are we to follow one single mortal, one from among ourselves? In that case, behold, we would certainly sink into error and folly! Why- on him alone from among all of us should a reminder have been bestowed? Nay but he is a boastful liar!”54:24-25. They asked Salih for proof of his divine warning, and God said,
“On the morrow they will come to know who the boastful liar is! Behold, We are letting loose this she-camel as a test for them; and thou but watch them, and contain thyself in patience. And let them know that the water is to be divided between them, with each share of water equitably apportioned.” But they summoned their companion and he ventured and cruelly slaughtered (the camel) and how severe was the suffering which I inflicted when My warnings were disregarded! Behold, We let loose upon them one single blast and they became like the dried-up, crumbling twigs of a sheepfold.” 54:26-31
The prophet Hud was sent to warn the people of ‘Ad: “Will you not be conscious of God? Behold, I am an apostle to you, worthy of your trust: be then conscious of God and pay heed unto me! And no reward whatever do I ask of you for it: my reward rests with none but the Sustainer of all the worlds. Will you, in your wanton folly, build altars on every height, and make for yourselves mighty castles, that you might become immortal? And will you whenever you lay hand (on others), lay hand (on them) cruelly, without any restraint? Be then conscious of God and pay heed unto me and be conscious of Him who has amply provided you with all that you might think of- amply provided you with flocks, and children, and gardens, and springs. For verily, I fear lest suffering befall you on an awesome day!” They answered, “It is all one to us whether thou preaches or are not of those who preach. This is none other than that to which our forebears clung, and we are not going to be chastised. And so they gave him the lie; the thereupon We destroyed them. In this, behold, there is a message , even though most of them will not believe.” 26: 124-139
Before they were destroyed by an earthquake the people of Midian were warned by prophet Shu’ayb,
"O my people! Worship God alone: you have no deity other than Him. Clear evidence of the truth has now come unto you from your Sustainer. Give, therefore, full measure and weight (in all your dealings) and do not deprive people of what is rightfully theirs, and do not spread corruption on the earth after it has been so well ordered: this is for your own good. If you would but believe. And do not lie in ambush by every road, threatening and trying to turn away from God’s path all who believe in Him, and trying to make it appear crooked. And remember when you were few and He made you many: and behold what happened in the end to the spreaders of corruption. And if there be some among you who have come to believe in the message which I bear, the while the others do not believe, then have patience in adversity till God shall judge between us for He is the best of all judges.” 7:85-87
Now out of these many tales of destruction, there is one prophet whose community did listen to him and they averted disaster. This prophet was Yunus, Jonah. Intially, Jonah balked at warning his community, seeking to escape his responsibility by taking a sea voyage. This didn’t work out, he was swallowed by the whale. Quran tells us:
“And him of the great fish? When he went off in wrath thinking that We had no power over him! But then he cried out in the deep darkness, “There is no deity save Thee! Limitless art Thou in Thy glory! Verily, I have done wrong!” And so We responded unto him and delivered him from distress; for thus do We deliver all who have faith.” 21:87-88
After that initial set back, Yunus resolved to warn his community, and they actually listened to him, changed their ways, and successfully avoided disaster.
“Why has there been no habitation that believed and profited by their faith, except the people of Jonah? When they came to believe, We removed from them the affliction of shame in the world, and made them prosperous for a time. “ 10:98
As Muslims we believe that Muhammad was the Seal of the Prophets, that prophesy ended with him. While we don’t have prophets and miracles, we do have scientists and empirical evidence which can warn us of imminent destruction and guide us to better behavior. The second half of my khutbah will be about what we can do, as khalifas of this world, to promote climate justice.
I spoke in the first part of my talk about climate change which can be defined by four parameters 1) changes in temperature ( extreme hot, extreme cold, seasonal) 2) changes in precipitation (floods, drought), 3) changes in sea level (rising levels, storm surges, salt water intrusion) and 4) extreme weather ( storms, hurricanes, tornados). These changes can effect our health in many ways: asthma, dehydration, famine, water borne diseases, vector borne diseases. The problem we face is that negative impacts of climate change (heat waves, droughts, floods) are disproportionately felt by people and countries that did the least to cause the problem, and can least afford to respond.
Therefore, we define climate justice as a local, national, and global movement to protect at-risk populations who are disproportionately affected by climate change.
For instance, in Illinois, we lead the country in the number of fossil fuel burning plants located in communities of color. This is a big problem because in addition to producing greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change, fossil-fuel burning power plants emit pollutants that exacerbate asthma. Children of color are four times as likely to be admitted to the hospital for an asthma attack and ten times as likely to die from one as white children.
In 1987 the United Church of Christ's Commission of Racial Justice issued a "Report on Race and Toxic Wastes in the United States” which stated."... race was the best predictor of the location of hazardous waste facilities in the U.S."
We clearly have a lot of work to do in this country when it comes to establishing climate justice and
I would urge you to consider making climate justice part of your spiritual practice. Justice is a common theme in Islam, and our stewardship of the earth is explained to us in Quran 2:30 where God tells the angels “Behold, I am about to establish upon earth a khalifah.” Well, how would God judge our term as khalifahs if we did not strive to achieve justice? Fortunately, this concept of stewardship and justice is shared by many billions of people in world, Muslims as well as people of different religions, people who can be our interfaith partners.
I’d like to share with you some words from Pope Francis’ 2015 Encyclical Letter:
“Climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods.”
“Many of the poor live in areas particularly affected by phenomena related to warming, and their means of subsistence are largely dependent on natural reserves and ecosystemic services such as agriculture, fishing and forestry. They have no other financial activities or resources which can enable them to adapt to climate change or to face natural disasters, and their access to social services and protection is very limited. “
“Our lack of response to these tragedies involving our brothers and sisters points to the loss of that sense of responsibility for our fellow men and women upon which all civil society is founded.”
I said earlier we don’t have prophets anymore, and I don’t believe we need strong political leaders to tell us what to do. We need a grassroots movement of like minded people telling the leaders what to do. While revolutions have a lot of drama and energy, they can also sputter out or turn in on themselves. Grassroots movements, while slower growing and a little more boring, allow for deep roots and committed change. Although a lot of khatibs like to go over the battles and victories of the early Muslim community, Prophet Muhammad himself saw the treaties and cease-fires as real victories. Because it was during peacetime where people had time to discuss and reflect, where hearts and minds could be transformed.
To end I would like to explain to you why the people at the event I attended last month were not depressed. Last year, the Illinois legislature passed a law which would ensure clean, renewable energy for Illinois as well as clean jobs (solar panel installers, wind turbine engineers, etc). Furthermore, this group made sure that introduced into the legislation was the creation of 2000 jobs for graduates of the foster care system and returning citizens (ex-convicts). They are planting seeds of opportunity for people who our society often forgets.
What can you do? Look for opportunities to reduce, recycle and reuse. Ask your electricity provider to only use renewable energy sources. Make climate justice your spiritual practice and work together with partners of similar mind set.
There is a famous hadith of the prophet narrated by Anas ibn Malik which says:
“If the Hour (of Judgment) starts to happen and in the hand of one of you is a palm shoot or seedling; then if he’s able to plant it before the Hour happens, then let him plant it”.
What is interesting about this hadith is not only the sense of impending doom and response to doom- plant a tree- but also the fact that a date palm takes at least ten years before it bears fruit. The people of the prophet’s time were keenly aware of the actions of their ancestors, they only had to walk past a ruined city or a palm grove or an olive orchard to the see the effect of past generations on their current prosperity. In keeping with the spirit of our role as khalifas of this planet, Let us work together to buck the trend of short-sighted decision making and aim for choices which will benefit our children and our grandchildren and the world in which they live.