To open Season 3, we welcome homiletics professor Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade. We talk about the prophetic role of churches and about working for long-term transformation through preaching and structured dialogue. Leah has a heart for supporting clergy and congregations in responding well to the climate crisis.
The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade is Associate Professor of Preaching and Worship at Lexington Theological Seminary in Lexington, Kentucky. Before she became a professor, she pastored three congregations in Pennsylvania in suburban, urban, and rural contexts. Leah has written, co-written, or edited a number of books on preaching as well as on the climate crisis and ecotheology. As a researcher, preacher, teacher, and leader in her academic field, Leah combines scholarly mastery with in-the-weeds practicality.
For more background
We reference Leah’s books Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology, and the Pulpit and Preaching in the Purple Zone: Ministry in the Red-Blue Divide, as well as the book she co-edited with Margaret Bullit-Jonas, Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis.
Leah points us to several resources like the Kettering Foundation, National Issues Forum Institute, Wabash Center for Teaching and and Learning in Theology and Religion, Great Plains Conference, and ecoAmerica surveys.
She mentions communities of faith that are leading examples of eco-activism, including Blessed Tomorrow, Interfaith Power and Light, Poor People’s Campaign, and Creation Justice Ministries. She also references her work with Ecopreacher 1-2-3, an initiative of the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development.
She recommends the additional resources For the Beauty of the Earth: A Lenten Devotional and Apocalypse When?: A Guide to Interpreting and Preaching Apocalyptic Texts.
You can follow Leah’s ongoing work on the EcoPreacher blog, the EcoPreacher monthly resource for “green” preaching, Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.
Leah Schade: People who are in power want to silence the prophetic voice and the prophetic function of churches. But that is actually one of the reasons the church came into existence in the first place—was to challenge the power structures that victimized and profited and oppressed and exploited vulnerable peoples.
And so, I think it’s important for churches to embrace that role and find a way to talk about these social issues so that we can find some common ground, think critically about these issues, and equip people with the tools to be able to think biblically and theologically and bring that to the public square.
Debra Rienstra: Welcome to Refugia, a podcast about renewal. Refugia are places of shelter where life endures in times of crisis. From out of these small sanctuaries, life re-emerges and the world is renewed. We’re exploring what it means for people of faith to be people of refugia. How can we create safe places of flourishing—”micro countercultures” where we gain strength and spiritual capacity to face the challenges ahead?
I’m Debra Rienstra, professor of English at Calvin University. Today, I’m honored to welcome the Reverend Dr. Leah Schade as my guest. Leah is Associate Professor of Preaching and Worship at Lexington Theological Seminary in Lexington, Kentucky. Before she became a professor, she pastored three congregations in Pennsylvania in suburban, urban and rural contexts. Leah has written, co-written, or edited a number of books on preaching as well as on the climate crisis and ecotheology. As a researcher, preacher, teacher, and leader in her academic field, Leah combined scholarly mastery with in-the-weeds practicality.
I talk with Leah about the prophetic role of churches and about working for long-term transformation through preaching and structured dialogue, and we reflect on some big theological topics like incarnation and resurrection in light of the climate crisis. I think you’ll appreciate Leah’s heart for supporting clergy and congregations, providing resources and guidance for navigating these difficult days in the strength of the gospel.
Debra Rienstra: Reverend Dr. Leah Schade, I’m so glad to have you with me. Thanks for being here today.
Leah Schade: Debra, it’s great to be with you on the Refugia Podcast.
Debra Rienstra: All right. So let’s start with your PhD work, which you did at what is now United Lutheran Seminary in Philadelphia. And you worked on a project concerning preaching about the climate crisis, and that work later became your 2015 book, Creation Crisis Preaching. So tell us a little bit about how you decided to work on that topic. Did you have a kind of ecological awakening at some point like so many people do?
Leah Schade: That’s a great question. There’s no one moment for me that was sort of an “aha” moment. Looking back on my life, the environment and creation has always been integral to who I am. My dad owned a nursery, and we had a cabin in the woods, and so I grew up around plants and trees and walking through creeks and, you know, climbing mountains from the time I was just a little kid. And what I noticed early on—I didn’t have the words for it, but there was a lot of ecological destruction going on when I was a kid. I would see clear cutting of forests. I would see creeks that I played in poisoned by runoff from the surrounding urban area where I lived.
Debra Rienstra: Where was this? Was this in Philadelphia?
Leah Schade: Well, I grew up in York, Pennsylvania, which is central Pennsylvania. And so the creeks that I played in—we never understood why they had a smell to them and would see this nasty looking orange and greenish and foamy stuff coming out of the drain pipes. But we could see the dead fish, and we knew something wasn’t right about the waters that we were playing in, so we had to, you know, find places further upstream, because we just knew that this couldn’t be healthy. So—and again, I didn’t have the words for it then, but I knew something wasn’t right with the way the adults and the society around us were treating the very land and the waters that were our home and also our playground and the places that nurtured us as kids.
Debra Rienstra: Hmm. So what happened in grad school?
Leah Schade: Well, so when I became a pastor, I knew that I wanted to be able to help people connect their faith with caring for God’s creation. So I started an ecology ministry in the first congregation I served, Reformation Lutheran Church, in Media, Pennsylvania, which is a suburb of Philadelphia. And I got a lot of pushback from some of the more conservative members who felt that this was too political, so to speak, which of course later leads to my work and Preaching in the Purple Zone. But we’ll start with the green zone first.
Debra Rienstra: We’ll get there.
Leah Schade: So I knew pretty early on in my ministry that I wanted to teach preaching, because I love preaching, I love homiletics, I love studying it. And I also love environmental issues and love helping people understand this. So when I decided to go into a PhD program, one of the most pivotal questions that someone asked me—John McClure said, you know, “What is your laser focus? What do you really think that you can contribute to the academy?” And I had to do some serious praying about this. And it came to me one night as I was rocking my daughter to sleep. She was about a year old. And it came to me like: you’re doing this to help save this planet that God created. And there was nobody really doing this work in the Academy of Homiletics at the time, connecting preaching and faith and environmental issues. And so I realized, okay, this is my niche. And so that’s how I decided to really focus on this in my PhD work—to be able to think about ecological theology and practical theology in terms of homiletics. And that’s how Creation Crisis Preaching was born.
Debra Rienstra: Yeah. So how many epiphanies have occurred while rocking small children in the middle of the night, right?
Leah Schade: Exactly.
Debra Rienstra: Okay. So we’ll get to preaching specifically about the climate crisis in just a little while, but first of all, I want to ask more generally about your overall vision for your work since that dissertation phase. When I invited you to be my guest today, you responded to the refugia concept immediately, and you remarked, “I’m all about creating micro countercultures!”
Leah Schade: Yes.
Debra Rienstra: And as I read your books, I can see your concern for building healthy capacities among clergy and congregations. So let’s start with kind of that big picture view. Could you describe a little bit your sense of how churches could be healthier micro countercultures right now?
Leah Schade: First of all, I just want to thank you for bringing this concept to my attention. I’m always learning new things, and this was a revelation to me. Like I did not know about this concept of refugia. And why it was so helpful is the idea that there are these little systems where organisms, plants, animals, microorganisms can find refuge within a hostile environment, made so much sense to me in terms of characterizing the work that I’ve been doing, but really didn’t have a word for it.
So the idea that within, say, a purple congregation where you would have some people who’d be very hostile, like I said, to focusing on environmental issues as a matter of faith and, you know, sort of creating this hostile environment, but also knowing that there are people who see this work as very life-giving, as speaking to their faith—like having a planet that’s livable and just, and equitable for all beings is something that is really important to a lot of people. So to create a ministry where those people can have those conversations, ask those questions, and try to look to biblical and theological resources to give us the language and the rationale to structure this sort of ecosystem of faith is exactly what I’ve been doing all this time. I just didn’t have the language for it.
Debra Rienstra: Oh, I’m so glad.
Leah Schade: Yeah. So then the other way that I see it applying to my work is in creating this “purple zone” that I talk about in my book, Preaching in the Purple Zone: Ministry in the Red-Blue Divide. So it’s not just about environmental issues. What I’ve realized, what I did in my first book, is that there are many issues of public concern that are like the third rail for preachers. Whether it’s gun violence or women’s reproductive health or the opioid crisis or economic issues, there are things that affect the people of God and communities that have become politicized because the powers don’t want clergy and congregations talking about this because if we bring a moral and ethical lens, then that means there has to be accountability.
Debra Rienstra: Yeah, exactly.
Leah Schade: And they don’t want to have accountability. They want to be free to exploit and oppress, unfettered. And so what I’ve been trying to help pastors do is to find ways to talk about issues of public concern so that people from both conservative and progressive areas can find values that bind them together.
And then they can say, “Alright, we know that these things are important to us. We may disagree on how the policies will work, but if we can at least say, ‘this is important, where can we go forward on this?’ then we can start to build again these communities, these little refugia that allow congregations to carve out niches of care and concern and ethics and justice again, in a society that is hostile to that in general.
Debra Rienstra: Yeah. So I love how this refugia concept is a way to talk about creating these places where people who disagree in churches can learn the capacities to still remain together and actually act together in productive ways. And you know, it’s not just a lovely idea for you. You’ve really researched how to do this, and it’s so helpful. So in particular, I mean, you talk about a lot of things other than preaching. But tell us a little bit about this sermon-dialogue-sermon approach, which you’ve been researching and teaching and testing out for quite a number of years now. So talk about that approach a little bit.
Leah Schade: Yeah, thanks. The sermon-dialogue-sermon method came about from my work with people at the Kettering foundation. And the Kettering foundation is all about equipping citizens to be better at democracy. So it’s not a specifically religious organization, but it does have a research exchange within the larger foundation that looks at: how can houses of faith be contributors to a healthy discourse within a democracy? And this country actually has a history of churches serving as sites of public deliberation from the very beginning. You know, churches are the gathering places for people of different ages, different walks of life, different political ideas—churches were sites for this. Recently, as I said earlier, people who are in power want to silence the prophetic voice and the prophetic function of churches. But that is actually one of the reasons the church came into existence in the first place—was to challenge the power structures that victimized and profited and oppressed and exploited vulnerable peoples. And so I think it’s important for churches to embrace that role and find a way to talk about these social issues so that we can find some common ground, think critically about these issues, and equip people with the tools to be able to think biblically and theologically and bring that to the public square.
Debra Rienstra: Yeah.
Leah Schade: So in the sermon-dialogue-sermon method, what I realized is that the first sermon that a pastor would wanna preach on—let’s say immigration—would be an invitational sermon that would say, “Okay, let’s look at how the Bible looks at the movement of peoples. And what are the ethical issues around this? And just make the case that it’s okay to talk about this because it’s in the Bible. People are moving all the time.
Debra Rienstra: That’s very true.
Leah Schade: Right? So people were immigrating and moving from place to place all the time for different reasons. And it was political then, and it’s political now. But we’re authorized by scripture to talk about this, so a preacher can say, “I don’t have all the answers, but I have questions, and I think you do too. So let’s talk about this together. Let’s discern this.”
So then we move into what’s called deliberative dialogue. And this was developed by the Kettering foundation. It’s a form of civil discourse that brings people together from different walks of life, different ages, different races, ethnicities, different sexual orientations to discuss a matter of public concern, and we use nonpartisan issue guides developed by the National Issues Forum Institute, which is a part of the Kettering foundation. And these issue guides give us some ground rules for how we have productive, healthy, and respectful conversation. They invite people to share what’s at stake for them in this particular topic. So, you know, getting away from news media spin to really talking about: what’s your personal story? What’s your skin in the game in this?
And then weighing the pros and cons of different approaches to the issue—not solutions, but just approaches, so that we can identify the values that we share, the common ground, and then we can think about next steps. Where do we wanna go from here? And then the follow up sermon takes the insights and the wisdom from that community sermon and weaves it into a sermon that says, “Alright, here’s how we talked about this really difficult, challenging conversation. Here’s how the Spirit was moving and working among us, and here’s one vision for maybe the way that God is calling us to move as a congregation going forward.”
Debra Rienstra: Hmm. I really love the way that you describe it in the book Purple Zone as based on the idea that churches have the advantage, one hopes, of committed relationship to each other as a community, which is this huge, important element in actually successfully doing this kind of difficult conversation. And as I read through the chapter on how to do this, you know, I kept having these questions like, well, what if somebody takes over? And what about the voices who always win? But every little question I had was answered, you know, not like definitively, but there are ways to deal with these very nitty gritty ins and outs of these difficult conversations. It was really impressive.
Leah Schade: Yeah. And I mean, you can be trained to be a good moderator in a deliberative dialogue, and I’ve trained like hundreds of people to do this now. And it’s really great to see both pastors and lay leaders equipped to help facilitate these conversations, because what happens is congregations— yes, they have these relationships, but sometimes they’re on a superficial level. Like, okay, we just talk about the weather over cookies and punch after service. We don’t really talk about the important things.
And so the structure and the format of a deliberative dialogue allows people to really talk about the things that matter to them, but to do it in a respectful way—to learn how to listen to each other and to respond in a way that helps us build community instead of dividing us, which is a very strong force in our society, and I would say even globally, right now. There are a lot of forces that want to divide us because we’re much easier to exploit—you know, for authoritarian, voices to come in and take control when a democracy is fraying and falling apart. So this is part of the larger work of preserving that which makes for healthy communities—again, the refugia within these hostile forces that are trying to divide us and drive us apart on purpose.
Debra Rienstra: Yeah. So these community capacities are good for democracy as well as just church, Christian community. And I can see the idea that the leadership is building capacity too.
Leah Schade: Right. And so, like I said, I’ve been training pastors and lay leaders to do this. I’ve had a grant from the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion, and we studied this with ten congregations. And then I’ve been working with the United Methodist Church, the Great Plains conference, and training pastors there and congregations. And I’ve been doing surveys of the congregations and the clergy before they learn the sermon-dialogue-sermon process to kind of get a baseline on what their attitudes and their experiences are with ministry preaching and social issues.
And then once they learn this process and they practice it a couple times, I come back and do the survey and see: what difference do we notice in people’s willingness and capacity for civic engagement and social action? And I’ll just give you one example of some of the data that we found. One of the things that we noticed is that in the survey, we gave them a list of terms and we asked, which of these terms do you think is too “political” to hear in a sermon? And the topics ranged—or the terms ranged from everything from guns to Black Lives Matter to climate change. And in that list of terms, we included the word dialogue.
Debra Rienstra: Hmm.
Leah Schade: It wasn’t a really controversial term to begin with, but we noticed that it cooled off in terms of its volatility after the congregations had done the sermon-dialogue-sermon process, which indicates that this idea that we can talk to each other became more normalized within the congregation, whereas before there were some people who were like, we can’t do this at all. We can’t talk about this. This is not the church’s role. I just come to worship. I just want to praise Jesus and go home. You know, like this is not a place where I want to engage this. And so seeing that shift in people being more willing to engage in dialogue is an indication that this method can be effective.
Debra Rienstra: Wonderful. Okay. So let’s talk about preaching specifically about the climate crisis. So in your book Creation Crisis Preaching that we mentioned before, there’s this little, almost throwaway line where you write, I suggest that much of today’s preaching suffers from vitamin C deficiency, with C being for creation. Which I—I think that’s an awesome line. I’m not sure why it’s not in the back cover.
But anyway, you did a survey in preparation for that book to study how often preachers talk about the climate crisis, and when the book came out in 2015, your answer was well, not very much, but I know you’ve done some follow up research since then. So has anything changed? Are people talking about it more?
Leah Schade: Yeah, that’s, that’s a great question. And I have good news to report. When I did the survey, we sent it out to Protestant pastors and we got about a thousand respondents and we gave them a list of topics. And we asked: what have you talked about in your sermons in the last 12 months? So we did this first survey wave in 2017. So this was following the 2016 election. And we noticed that environmental issues were among the lowest priorities for preachers to address. It was just not a priority. We did the survey again in 2021, and we got a lot more respondents. We got over 2000 this time. And we noticed that environmental issues came into the top 10—
Debra Rienstra: Oh!
Leah Schade: —and about 50% of pastors said that they had addressed environmental issues in the previous 12 months. Now the question is what accounts for this?
Debra Rienstra: Well, your book, obviously.
Leah Schade: Yeah, I wish. But well, that’s part of a, you know, a larger, movement of people within religious circles saying, “Yes, we need to talk about how our faith, is important for equipping us to protect God’s creation.” And so you see some of that. You also see surveys by ecoAmerica, which does surveys of attitudes of Americans about climate change, where I think their most recent survey was that 78% of Americans believe that climate change is a problem. That’s a big shift from even five years ago. So people are no longer thinking that it’s in the future, it’s happening right now. They can see it on the news. Some of them, you know—I live in Kentucky and I’m about like two hours from eastern Kentucky where all of the flooding just happened. So it’s no longer not in my backyard. It literally is in our backyards now.
And so it’s not as political an issue as it was before. And I do think that seminaries and denominations and clergy and congregations are starting to see, “Yeah, we need to bring a faith lens to this because it’s a matter of faith. Like protecting that which God created is part of our responsibility as Christians, as Muslims, as Jews, you know, that’s part of what we’re called to do. It’s our vocation.”
Debra Rienstra: Yeah. So there’s been this shift in the zeitgeist a little bit, and you have the data to prove it.
Leah Schade: Yeah. So 50% is a lot better than like 30%, but that still means that only half of the preachers in this survey said that they were talking about it. I’d like to see that number go a lot higher. I’d like to see it get up to like 75-80% when we do the survey again.
I’m hoping to do another survey. I was going to wait until after the 2024 election, but with these midterms coming up—which are going to be so volatile—I think we’re going to try to do the survey in early 2023 and see if there are any shifts again. So, I’m hoping that with more and more voices talking about this—you’re talking about this—that people will start to see, “Yes, this is not just an add-on to our faith. This is primary to who we understand ourselves to be.”
Debra Rienstra: So for listeners who are interested in actually, you know, maybe trying this out, one of the things I really admire about Creation Crisis Preaching is this sense that dealing with the climate crisis as church communities is not just a one-off day or sermon or an occasional mention, but it’s about kind of playing this long game and engineering a kind of culture shift.
You’re right that preaching that addresses the climate crisis requires at least three modes “consciousness-raising, calling for action, and discourse for long-term cultural and individual transformation.” That was all a quotation. And I love the way that you talk about combining biblical exegesis with local specificity and action and even ritual action. So it’s kind of this holistic picture. It’s not just the sermon. So could you describe a little how you think about that big—picture long term approach? Maybe even give some examples.
Leah Schade: Metaphorically, the way I try to frame this consciousness—raising, calling for action, and discourse for long—term cultural and individual transformation is to draw on the imagery of a tree. So consciousness—raising is what I call flowering. So this is just raising awareness: helping people see that, “Hey, this is going on in our community, this is going on in our world,” pointing to the ways in which the Bible talks about creation all the way from Genesis to the Psalms to Jesus’ parables to revelation. Nature is all the way through scripture. So if they, you know, if the biblical writers thought it was important to talk about this, then it’s probably important for us to talk about this too. And how do we want to apply these biblical ideas to our own way of being in relationship with God’s creation today? So that’s sort of the consciousness—raising.
Calling for action is what I call leafing. So once you raise people’s awareness, you’ve gotta give them someplace to land. You’ve gotta give them something to do. Otherwise people just get frustrated. I was reading an article in Time magazine where Katharine Hayhoe talked about the psychology of climate change. And when people start to realize just how awful things are and how they’re going to get, you can feel disempowered, depressed, disillusioned, hopeless, and that’s not going to be helpful in terms of finding solutions.
So we have to help people see these are ways in which communities of faith can be involved. And there are great organizations like Blessed Tomorrow, which is part of ecoAmerica, and Interfaith Power and Light, and the Poor People’s Campaign, and Creation Justice Ministries. There are all kinds of great organizations that are already doing this work that we can plug into to help congregations find, “Okay, where is my niche? Where can I help with the refugia in our particular context?”
And then the long—term change is what I call fruiting. So once the tree has flowered and leafed and produced the fruit, this is what helps create the long term change. This is what—people start to eat the fruit, metabolize, it, digest it, birds take the seeds and they’re planted elsewhere, and this starts to help replant the forest of faith, so to speak. So it is playing the long game, and we don’t have a lot of time. We have a very small window of maybe a decade to try to right the ship here, but we’ve gotta start somewhere. And if each of us is doing as much as we can for as long as we can, we’re gonna see even more shifts that, you know, just with the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act—
Debra Rienstra: Yeah.
Leah Schade: This is the biggest climate legislation we’ve seen. That would not have happened if faith communities, if people of goodwill had not been pushing for this for decades. So it’s happening. And we need to share the good news about this and not just the doom and gloom.
Debra Rienstra: Yeah. Doomism is a big problem psychologically sort of across the climate movement. But we have the theology, one would hope, to address doomism. So let’s talk theology. Yeah! I really appreciate the way you repeatedly return to these big theological categories and reflect on them anew in light of ecological concerns.
So I noticed, sort of across your work, meditation on incarnation and crucifixion and resurrection. So let’s start with incarnation. There’s a wonderful quote in your edited collection, the one that you did with Margaret Bullit—Jonas called Rooted and Rising. And one of the writers in that collection, the Reverend Dr. John Chryssavgis—I hope I pronounced that correctly—who’s an Orthodox theologian, writes:
“Early Christian writers, especially in the East, have normally perceived the incarnation more as a normative movement than as an isolated moment. Self-emptying as divine identification with the world is an essential, not an exceptional characteristic of God. And if God’s presence in the world is not accidental, then neither is the sacredness of creation coincidental, nor our relationship to the environment incidental.”
That was a very dense quote, but maybe you can unpack that a little bit. How have you come to think of the incarnation differently as you’ve gotten deeper into ecotheology and your preaching?
Leah Schade: One of the ways in which I am thinking about incarnation is really influenced by the, the work that I’m doing with ecological racism and just anti-racism in general. So one of the downfalls of the environmental movement is that it has traditionally been led by organizations that are headed by white folks. And we don’t always listen to those who have been most affected in communities of color, in marginalized communities, in communities that are outside of the United States. And so theologically, what we need to think about is the term ‘kenosis’. So that’s that self-emptying that Father Chryssavgis talks about. Kenosis is a Greek word that that does literally mean ‘self-emptying’. So it’s getting out of our own ego, our egocentrism, our, what I would call, anthropocentrism—so thinking of human beings as the center of everything, when in fact we are not. We are part of the larger web of life.
And when God creates, when we see that story in Genesis, God does this out of love, out of just generosity, just giving, giving, giving, but there are also limits so that we can be respectful of the systems of life. So when you look at the story of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, where God tries to put boundaries in place so that human beings will be respectful of the life processes. And human beings say, you know, are tempted, and you know, the serpent, you know, it’s all metaphorical, but it’s really instructive for us. You know, the serpent says, “Hey, you can have this fruit. It’s not gonna cause you to die. It’s gonna make you smarter and richer and better.” And human beings kind of go, “Oh yeah, we can do whatever we want. God’s given us dominion.” Right? There’s that language in Genesis chapter one.
So we can do whatever we want, forgetting that the original instruction to human beings in Genesis 2:15 is “to till and to keep.” And the Hebrew words there have a connotation of, again, self-emptying: seeing creation as your instructor, as one that needs your care and your attention, and you hold back from dominating and taking everything out of it, just for your benefit. So this self-emptying is about—it’s not a misanthropic thing where we just divest humanity of its dignity. If it’s in fact restoring dignity to those who have been demoralized and diminished by white supremacy and white savagery, that goes all the way down the pyramid that’s been created: people of color, women, and those who are living closest to the earth that are then exploited, and then the earth itself.
So we are trying to pull this theology inside out to say: human beings need to get out of its anthropocentrism, and I would even say androcentrism, from a feminist perspective, that it’s not male-centered either. It has got to be other-centered so that we are looking at holistically preserving that which allows the web of life to flourish for all beings.
Debra Rienstra: So that kenosis is our way of expressing being made in the image of God. God is a God who self-empties, and our kenosis is part of that image.
Leah Schade: Right. And that’s what you see in Philippians chapter two, where Paul talks about Christ emptying himself. That’s the model. So Christians can look to that biblical model to say, “Okay, this is something that we’re instructed, and I would say even required, to do—to think about the good of the whole, the good of the least of these, those who have no voice, those who have no agency, because they are the ones that are actually most important. You also see the language in Corinthians where Paul talks about: you honor the members of the body who seem to be less-than, actually give them greater honor.
So if you translate that to the policies that we have about how we deal with the environment, then you’re going to think about, okay, what protects the microbes? And what protects the fish? And what protects those things—the very building blocks of life. If that’s the case, if that’s what we’re going to prioritize, then we’re not going to create plastics that disrupt the hormones of fish and people so that we have these cancers and intersexed fish and, you know, just incredible pollution and toxicity. We’re going to say, “Okay, these practices are not honoring the least of these. So we’re going to find other ways that are self-emptying and honor the whole.”
Debra Rienstra: Hmm. Let’s go to eco-crucifixion and eco-resurrection, which are two terms that you use in a couple different places. So describe what those phrases mean to you and how they might suggest a sort of richer way to understand the work of Christ.
Leah Schade: That’s a great question. So I’m Lutheran, and the theology of the cross is very important for Lutherans, which is opposed to what we call theology of glory. So just to explain these two concepts: there are some who believe that God blesses those who are successful, and your success is evidence of God blessing you. But a theology of the cross says, “No, we’re actually going to go to the foot of the cross, and we’re going to see where people are abused, and, in a sense, crucified the way Christ was.” That’s who Christ chooses to identify with. The crucifixion is God’s and Christ’s way of saying, “I am in solidarity with those who suffer. And so what I want to do is to say it’s not just about human suffering; it is about other-than-human suffering as well.
And that extends to the very earth itself. And there are a lot of theologians who’ve done this work: Mark Wallace has done this, Celia Deane-Drummond, Catherine Keller, just thinking about the earth not separate from human beings, but in community with human beings. And so anytime we do something that kills the body of earth itself—so anything from fracking to mountaintop removal to the productions of plastics to oil and gas—all of these things drill and cut and poison the body of earth itself. That’s crucifixion—that we are crucifying the earth. That’s eco-crucifixion.
At the same time, we also need to look for and be aligned with signs of eco-resurrection. So when we hear Jesus talk about—in Matthew where he says for three days, the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth, the kardia ge—so that’s the heart of the earth
Debra Rienstra: Yeah. I loved this part in your book.
Leah Schade: Right? Now we have to be careful—Jesus isn’t an environmentalist in the 21st century understanding of this, but the idea that Earth itself has a heart? In other words, it is a sentient being in a sense, like it has a moral and theological center to itself, and Jesus goes to that place through his own death? That is phenomenal. And then going to that place of death and destruction and coming back out saying, “This is not the final word. This is not the end. There is life that’s coming out of this and we will find a way to turn what is death-giving into what is life-giving—that is the eco-resurrection. And so I’m excited to see ways in which people are aligning with the eco-resurrection that God is already working on to help bring about new life and new hope.
Debra Rienstra: Mm, wonderful. This is connected to your idea in creation crisis preaching of Jesus as trickster and the preacher as trickster. So talk about that trickster archetype and suggest maybe how this could help our theological understanding in a time of climate crisis.
Leah Schade: One of the things that was difficult for me as an ecofeminist—and I just need to explain this term. So an ecofeminist is someone who is concerned about the rights and wellbeing of women and all vulnerable peoples, and how it’s connected to the rights and wellbeing of the environment. So you can’t save the environment unless you also are saving the rights and the lives of women who are vulnerable and exploited. And, you know, just seeing the reversal of Roe v. Wade, I mean, we’re seeing the implications of that. So if you want to preserve one, if you want to save one, you gotta save both. So that’s the ecofeminist perspective. So one of the things that ecofeminists really struggle with is the notion of a patriarchal God who impregnates a female—
Debra Rienstra: Mm-hmm.
Leah Schade: —and plays around with Earth’s processes in order for the resurrection to happen. Like ecofeminists really chafe at this idea.
Debra Rienstra: Mm-hmm.
Leah Schade: So I struggled with this myself. And then I happened upon the idea of a trickster theology—Donna Haraway and Chuck Campbell, who wrote a book on preaching fools—and the idea that God, through Jesus Christ, is upending the oppressive systems in a way that is both surprising and joyful and like the trickster figure.
Debra Rienstra: Yeah.
Leah Schade: Like Bugs Bunny or Br’er Rabbit. You know, in every culture you find a trickster figure that is able to find a way into the weak spots of the oppressive system and find a way for justice to be served.
Debra Rienstra: Yeah, through sort of wit and cleverness
Leah Schade: Yes. So Jesus does this all the time. Like we don’t always get the humor and the way he’s poking fun at the power structures, through his parables—— like he’s this sort of playful figure that that says, “No, what the domination system is trying to do, we are going to upend. And so the incarnation and the resurrection are ways to upend that—not through more violence.
It’s a nonviolent way, through creative resistance to violence, for life to find a way and for justice and peace and love. That’s what’s so attractive to me about the trickster figure.
Debra Rienstra: Yeah. And the way you describe it, it’s continuous with nature. Nature itself has this kind of playful trickstery quality to it so that the incarnation, the resurrection, are not a kind of dominating alteration of nature, but continuous with it.
Leah Schade: Exactly. We see the trickster aspect of nature all the time. And I would even say, you know, some of the ways in which the earth is responding to human domination—and it feels really awful to us to see a hurricane or a tornado or the floods go through. But part of that we have to admit is because we have taken an attitude of domination towards earth. And so earth turns around and says, “Yeah, not so much.”
So we better find a way to work with earth. And so finding a way to live in harmony instead of trying to be adversarial and to be dominating. So the trickster figure also draws very deeply from indigenous cultures who really draw on this figure as a teacher, as a warning. And I think we need to really look at the wisdom of indigenous cultures. And so I think it’s really important that anybody who’s working in the environmental movement or in churches to really sit at the feet of our indigenous elders to learn from them so that we can start to restore and heal this broken relationship with earth.
Debra Rienstra: Mm. That’s a good segue to the idea of interfaith friendships, which is so important to your book Rooted and Rising, which is a sequence of essays—interfaith sequence of essays. And I know you’ve done a lot of interfaith work. It’s a theme in that book; it’s a structure for the book. So could you describe a little bit about how those interfaith friendships have changed you, supported you, affected you?
Leah Schade: Yes, interfaith work really became important to me when I started working with the anti-fracking movement in Pennsylvania. And I started to see that people from the Jewish faith, from Muslim faith, Hindus, Quaker, indigenous faith—we found common ground in wanting to oppose a practice that destroyed land and water and communities for the profit of a very few.
And I found much more in common with people outside of my Christian faith than I did with a lot of Christians I know, who believe that “Well, God gave it to us to use and, the big daddy in the sky is gonna come back down and fix it all up for us and pay the bill.” Like, that’s really, really, harmful theology. And so I actually find much more resonance with people of other faiths who value protecting the ark of the earth, so to speak, trying to do everything that we can to preserve the life that remains.
And so one example of that, that I’ve been working with recently, is I’ve started a partnership with Rabbi Yonatan Neril, who is one of the directors and the founder of the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development. And we have developed a resource called Ecopreacher 1-2-3. It’s a resource for preachers to be able to draw on an ecological exegesis, and Rabbi Neril has worked on a book, two books, called Eco Bible, where they go through the ancient wisdom of the Hebrew sages and find the ecological relevance for our time. It’s a treasure trove of Hebrew wisdom that can be applied to our current environmental crises.
So we do this eco-exegesis, and then I provide a way for preachers to think about: what is one eco-idea that you can use in a sermon based on a particular text? What are two eco-questions to help you go deeper in your study or with your congregation? And what are three eco ideas—so ways to apply what we’ve learned in your particular context with your particular congregation? So it’s Ecopreacher 1-2-3. It’s a monthly resource it’s free. Just google Ecopreacher 1-2-3, and you can find that and sign up for it.
Debra Rienstra: Okay, so listeners, there’s so much more. We’ve mentioned several of Leah’s books. She’s just mentioned another website. You have all kinds of stuff. So where should people begin? What are some great doorways for listeners into deeper engagement with all the things that you’re up to?
Leah Schade: Thanks for allowing me to do a little self-promotion.
Debra Rienstra: Absolutely.
Leah Schade: One of the best ways to follow my writing is to find my blog on Patheos and I am the EcoPreacher blogger. So if you go to Patheos, so that’s P A T H E O S, and you just type in EcoPreacher. I’m in the progressive Christian channel. They have different channels. And so you can subscribe to my blog, and I write all kinds of things, not just on ecology, but I write on culture, and I write on, you know, this ‘purple zone’ aspect of things—lots of things that I address. So that’s a great way to follow the work that I’m doing.
Leah Schade: Another way is yes, to sign up for Ecopreacher 1-2-3, and then some of the books that I’ve written—so the first one is Creation Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology and the Pulpit. The second one that I wrote is Preaching in the Purple Zone: Ministry in the Red—Blue Divide. Another one that we’ve already talked about is a volume called Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis that I co-edited with Margaret Bullitt-Jonas.
And that’s a great book to use in interfaith dialogue or in a congregational setting. It’s got essays from religious environmental activists who talk about the spiritual and the biblical and the religious resources that they’re using during this time of what I call “the dark night of the green soul.” Like how do we sustain ourselves when things seem to be getting worse? So it’s about generating the hope as we do the work together in communities. That’s what refugia is all about, and I think these books would be great resources for people who are trying to build these refuge communities that are like the yeast in the dough, the light on the hill, the little mustard seed—like this is what we’re all about.
Debra Rienstra: Yeah, and we will link to all these resources in our show notes for this episode too. Reverend Dr. Leah Schade, I’m so grateful for the work that you do, for your books, for your blog, for your interfaith work, for all the ways that you are resourcing the church out of love and passion and such marvelous knowledge and wisdom as well. So thank you so much for being with us today.
Leah Schade: And Debra, thank you for giving us this word, refugia, and for giving a platform to allow us to amplify this, and blessings on your ministry.