Soon after he returned from the march for voting rights in Selma, Ala., in the spring of 1965, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote to Dr. Martin Luther King. “For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer,” he wrote. “Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.”
Sometimes being there and bearing witness is more important than words, more expressive than prayer.
For many people of faith, the People’s Climate March, this coming Sunday, Sept. 21, in New York City, is an act of witness and prayer that cannot be contained in any of our traditional texts or rituals. We will be praying with our legs and our bodies will be our message, even as we will chant and sing some of our traditional texts.
The People’s Climate March will include more than 35 different faith communities and more than 700 organizations representing environmentalists, environmental justice communities, unions, students, community groups, scientists, human rights groups, teachers, parents, and grandparents. It is estimated that as many as 250,000 people will attend. There will also be companion marches and events all over the United States and in many other countries including Israel. The march has been endorsed by more than 70 Jewish institutions.
The march was created out of a growing frustration by people around the world over the lack of government action on climate change. It is happening this Sunday because UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has invited world government, finance, business, and civil society leaders to a climate summit on Sept. 23 to press for a new climate treaty that will reduce carbon emissions and limit the rise in world temperature to a less than two-degree Celsius rise. The process of negotiating a new treaty will be concluded by the end of 2015. The organizers of the march believe that solving climate change should not be left to government or international bodies alone, given their poor record on achieving anything. The march is meant to reclaim the process of responding to climate change in order to ensure that people’s voices are not ignored.
And for many of us, especially in the faith communities, what has been lacking in these discussions is the moral element that we believe is at the heart of the climate crisis. The people and nations that are most affected (and will be most affected) by climate change are the least responsible for it. These communities have enjoyed the fewest benefits from the consumption of fossil fuels, and have the fewest resources to deal with their negative effects. This is unjust.
Most people do not perceive this injustice because the impacts of climate change are not close to them in either time or space. We have trouble seeing how our actions will affect future generations. And the people who are already being affected are generally not close to us geographically. Climate change, except where there are major weather events like Hurricane Sandy, seems too gradual and too abstract for us to act. Or we believe that because it is such an enormous problem, we as individuals can do nothing to stop it. And there are many people who believe that because we live in one of the wealthiest and most powerful countries in the world, we will be insulated from most severe impacts of climate change.
But we must think beyond our immediate borders and beyond our own lifespans. We must realize how important our actions are to the whole of life now and in the future. Each one of us can be either a part of the problem or a part of the solution. This collective responsibility is expressed well in a Midrash:
Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai taught: It is to be compared to people who were in a boat, and one of them took a drill and began to drill a hole beneath him. His companions say, “Why are you doing this?” He replied: “What concern is it of yours? Am I not drilling under myself?” They replied: “But you will flood the boat for us all!” (Midrash Leviticus Rabbah, 4:6)
To respond to this moral crisis, Aytzim and GreenFaith have formed a new organization, Shomrei Breishit: Rabbis and Cantors For the Earth, an international, multi-denominational network that will provide a Jewish religious voice on environmental justice and climate change. Shomrei Breishit will partner with other Jewish, interfaith, and secular environmental organizations in publicly advocating for strong climate action by national and local governments.
We are all in the same boat, humans born and still not born, animals born and still not born, the whole of the great Seder Bereshit, the Order of Creation that God declared “very good.” Whether we will journey through calm waters or continue to drill holes and flood the boat for everyone is up to each one of us. So join the march and let your legs do the praying.