First Person: This Generation Must Fight Carbon Pharaohs

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The burning of fossil fuel has dangerously wounded The Breath of Life — the most sacredly intimate aspect of the Divine.

In the fall of 1982, in the midst of teaching a course at Swarthmore College on the great Jewish theologian/philo­so­pher Martin Buber, I uncovered what for me has become the heart of my religious understanding of the climate crisis: the YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhhName of God is “pronounceable” as Breathing.
 
The Breath of Life is the most sacredly intimate aspect of the Divine. We breathe in what the trees breathe out; the trees breathe in what we breathe out. 
 
The burning of fossil fuel has dangerously wounded exactly that Breath. The climate crisis is a crisis in the Name of God, and it affects human communities through drought and famines, floods and superstorms. 
 
Out of that Swarthmore history as well as my own religious commitment to protect the lives of our children, I was especially moved to learn recently that Swarthmore students were sitting-in at the college administration building to insist that the college move its money out of the fossil-fuel companies that are burning our world and killing human beings.
 
Some have sneered at this effort on the grounds that Pennsylvania has been a coal state and cannot change. But that is as silly as saying that Detroit in 1940 was an auto-making city and could not change. By 1942, it was making no autos and thousands of tanks. That was because we faced — and knew we faced — an emergency. 
 
Now we face an even worse emergency. Coal producers can become solar/wind producers, and give life instead of death to our children. Moving our money to protect our planet will make that possible. 
 
Or — the billionaire owners of big coal, big oil, and big unnatural gas can arrogantly and cruelly behave like the ancient Pharaohs and Caesars, bringing plagues upon all our countries. 
 
The prophetic Haftorah we read each year just before Passover calls upon Elijah the Prophet to turn the hearts of parents and children to each other, lest the Earth be utterly destroyed. This is not just a quaint remark from the distant past. For as the Passover Haggadah says, in every generation some arise to destroy us; and in every generation, we must struggle to free ourselves. 
 
In this generation, the greatest danger of destruction comes from the Carbon Pharaohs. And freeing ourselves requires moving toward a new society of shared and sustainable abundance, powered by renewable energy. As our forebears sought the Promised Land, today we must all seek to shape the Promised Earth.
 
To honor the Passover and the Holy Week that grew out of Passover — and to join in their commemoration of past resistance to Pharaohs and Caesars by emulating their resistance today  — with joyful determination I joined the Swarthmore sit-in last week.
 
A dozen students and two faculty members — both from the Department of Religion in which I had taught more than 30 years ago — were sitting-in at the administration office when I arrived. I shared with them The Shalom Center’s program we call Move Our Money/Protect Our Planet (MOM/POP). 
 
It points toward four levels of money-moving: (1) moving our household and congregational purchases of energy from coal to wind power; (2) moving our credit cards and bank accounts away from national banks with major investments in big coal or oil, to local banks and credit unions that invest in neighborhood enterprises; (3) moving our own investments (as the students were demanding Swarthmore do) from lethal fossil fuel stocks and bonds, to life-giving profitable companies; and (4) in the decisions of Congress and state legislatures, moving the present huge subsidies to big oil that come from our tax money, to encourage instead the development of wind and solar energy. 
 
In the sit-in room, we had a wonderful conversation about the possibilities. I encourage others to join this conversation by taking up the question with your own alma mater, your own congregation so as to “become” Elijah — turning our hearts toward all our children and their children, to make sure the Earth and their lives are healed from the dangers of destruction.
 
Rabbi Arthur Waskow founded and directs The Shalom Center in Philadelphia. The author of numerous books, he last year received the Lifetime Achievement Award as Human Rights Hero from T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights and the Forward recently named him one of the country’s “most inspiring” rabbis.
 

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