Wednesday, April 3, 2013

An Insight: It's not "Climate Change" that's the trigger for some people, it's "Interfaith"

I had what I think is an important insight about my organizing work for Kansas IPL. (I just celebrated my second anniversary in this role.) There's been a lingering sense that I/we were "preaching to the converted" because most of my presentations are in the urban areas of Kansas, and there's obviously a large number of people who live in smaller towns and rural areas that I haven't yet reached, and am unlikely to reach with messaging that relies, as IPL's does, on climate change.

My answer to that has been that preaching to the converted is actually a pretty important thing to do. We live in Kansas, after all, where many of the politicians are conservative extremists, where a large percentage of the people is very conservative, and where even the moderate pastors are loath to talk about "political" issues that could cause them hassles with the lay people. So it's not like people are getting a lot of climate change messaging, no matter where they live. Someone coming in and saying to them that climate change is an issue and God wants you to do something about it, can be pretty powerful. At least, I hope so.

But that's not the insight. The insight has to do with the word "interfaith" in the name of the organization, "Interfaith Power & Light." The definition of interfaith dialogue, according to Wikipedia, is "cooperative, constructive and positive interaction between people of different religious traditions (i.e., "faiths") and/or spiritual or humanistic beliefs, at both the individual and institutional levels." It's not a great definition for our purposes because we're not doing interfaith dialogue as such. What we're doing is cooperative interfaith action toward an exterior goal or goals: congregational energy efficiency, advocacy for clean energy, action against climate change, etc.

Now, Kansas is about 86% Christian, but the question is, can people stand to be around, and work with, a worldview that is different than their own? The mutual respect, the development (or realization might be a better word) of shared values, the recognition that people can be as authentically right in their practices and beliefs as you are in yours, and that this makes them neither a threat to be managed nor a soul to be saved, are all vital to the interfaith experience - and to the work of Kansas IPL.

When the organization started we had one fellow on the board who was from a conservative religious tradition (politically and theologically), he was very concerned about climate change and clean energy but a lot of people he spent a lot of time with saw the issues as partisan or hippie and he was very concerned with not messaging anything that would close off the conversation with them. He didn't want us to put "climate change" in the mission statement (fortunately national overruled him on that) or to do any advocacy. Hashing out all those issues took a long time and it kind of crippled the organization for a couple of years.

But my insight now is that it's not the words "climate change" that present the problem - well they do, but not as much as that other word: "interfaith." You may have seen this article, about the Missouri Synod Lutheran pastor who was severely criticized from within his denomination for taking part in an interfaith service in the aftermath of the Newtown. There are many people in this world, and in this country, and I daresay in the state of Kansas, who would agree with those who criticized this pastor.

But as vocal as they can be, I don't think they're the majority, and further, while I would be happy if they did efficiency work on their churches, I would not want them involved in Kansas IPL, even if they wanted to be. Because "interfaith" isn't a strategy, and it isn't a message - it's a deeply held value, central to what IPL is and - more - to the kind of world we want this world to become.

I'm still left with the issue, as I do my work, of how to talk to people who are not coming from the same worldview as mine. Interfaith has a lot to teach me there: honest witnessing, respectful dialogue, and the search for shared values. But, if someone has trouble with the "interfaith" part, then I know that's not fertile ground for us. For it's only in the acknowledgement that there can be shared values, that the search for shared values can begin.