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By Benjamin Perry 5-31-2018

Starting today, Presbyterian activists are walking from denominational headquarters in Louisville, Ky., to the PC(USA) General Assembly in St. Louis, Mo., to pressure delegates at the assembly to divest all of the denomination’s fossil fuel holdings. It’s a bold, dramatic action within a denomination that’s often better known for being decent and in order, than for causing a stir. The action is particularly noteworthy because — when compared to demonstrations confronting racism, promoting immigration justice, or decrying war — mainline advocacy responding to the climate crisis has largely remained a cognitive commitment to change, not an embodied resistance. This walk shows the that is swiftly changing, and it may herald a new level of mainline climate activism.

To better understand this change, it’s worth looking to where we have seen faith-rooted strident climate activism. The months-long encampment at Standing Rock, for example, was deeply rooted in indigenous spiritual practices — defending sacred water and land. Across the border, indigenous groups in Canada have been by far the most formidable resistance to expansion of the Alberta tar sands, and have done so on explicitly religious grounds. As Rueben George of the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation frames it, “We need the money [the project would bring], but we don’t need it enough to sell out the things we love and are spiritually connected to.” In both the U.S. and Canada, indigenous groups have gone toe-to-toe with police and fossil fuel companies’ private security in defense of the sacred, suffering extreme abuse in defense of planet and people.

So why has indigenous resistance been so deep-rooted and robust but Christian denominational engagement so timid? I think the answer lies in how both groups perceive the threats of climate change and fossil fuel extraction. At Standing Rock, for example, it was clear the moral urgency people felt in defending their sacred water from being defiled. Much mainline discussion of climate change, however, still sounds like we’re talking about a problem that will manifest sometime in the coming decades — rather than an evil that’s already ravaging communities and, indeed, entire countries.

As Stephanie Quintana-Martinez, a Puerto Rican woman in the Presbyterian ordination process, told Sojourners, this myopic view of climate change must end if mainline denominations are to seriously engage in faithful resistance. “We are treating divestment from fossil fuels as if it didn’t have the moral urgency that it already has,” she says. “We are not listening to the people who are dying, not listening to the people who are crying, and not listening to the Earth.”

In speaking with the organizers of PC(USA) Walk for a Fossil Free World, it’s clear that this is precisely the shift they’re trying to evoke within the denomination.

“So much of the conversation in the Presbyterian Church around divestment, the fossil fuel industry, and climate change have been about the fossil fuel industry — so much about the need to talk to them,” Rev. abby mohaupt, moderator of Fossil Free PCUSA, said. “And so little has been focused on talking with frontline communities, on understanding that there are already people who have been forced to walk away from their homes because of climate change.”

To try and shift the focus of this conversation, walkers will hear directly from affected people, such as victims of hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, a woman whose Florida community is suffering from sea rise, and members of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.

I spoke with one of their presenters, Oluwatosin Kolawole, a refugee from Nigeria who was forced to seek asylum in the United States after fossil fuel companies in his home country threatened his life because of his activism. Kolawole discusses climate change with a sense of immediacy that’s sadly lacking in much Western debate — adding that he sees it as a major cause for Boko Haram’s rise.

“These are people who are from poor farming regions; we see in the North the encroaching desert, the lack of arable land,” he said. “When you have drought and lack of rainfall, people cannot farm and the land cannot sustain them. You have people who were displaced and without hope.”

More than simply describing the palpable effects of climactic shifts in Nigeria, however, Kolawole also names the moral culpability of the global North in this crisis. “Over decades, advanced countries in the global North have developed money and wealth, but it’s come at the expense of us being killed.”

Indeed, both Kolawole and Quintana-Martinez both articulate how the contours of U.S. climate engagement betray the colonialism that so often colors how Americans engage suffering in the global South. In Puerto Rico, Quintana-Martinez notes, “people are buying properties that are worth ‘nothing’ right now on the market,” displacing people who were forced to flee their homes after the hurricane. Moreover, Kolawole notes, suffering in his country generally isn’t generally considered when people talk about the “costs” of climate change.

“What about the costs to human communities?” he posited. “That’s what people aren’t factoring in when they talk about the economy. We can’t destroy the planet on the altar of economic gain.”

Rev. Emily Brewer, the Director of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship and another walk organizer, says that she hopes reframing divestment around ongoing human suffering — rather than economic impact — will get Christians to view climate change in a new light. The entire conversation right now, she says, reveals how, “so often the church has confused capitalist values with Christian values. At the root of this is the problem of capitalism, which values profits over people.”

If the group is successful in getting the PC(USA) to divest from fossil fuels it will be an accomplishment for which activists have been striving for years within the denomination. On the other hand, however, regardless of whether divestment passes, this walk seems to mark a significant turning point in how mainline Christians are discussing climate change. By establishing bonds with affected people, organizers are forcing others to grapple with their suffering. They are helping those who are so-far insulated from climate change’s effects see that this is already an issue of life and death.

This shift in framing reveals the reality that has long lurked beneath denominations like the PC(USA)’s progressive façade: By retaining shares in fossil fuel companies, Presbyterians and other denominations actively invest in global suffering. Once this truth is confronted, maintaining these investments becomes difficult to reconcile with following Jesus.

“We have people who are dying, but we don’t see them as worthy of protection,” Quintana-Martinez said. “It’s a preference for capital, treating our lives as disposable. And that’s simply not the gospel.”

Benjamin Perry is a Presbyterian minister. He received his Masters of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary, where he works as the Assistant Director of Communications and Marketing. Follow him on Twitter at @FaithfullyBP.

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