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Rev. Antal’s book is Climate Church, Climate World: How People of Faith Must Work for Change.

To learn more about Rev. Antal’s response to the question, What is a climate church?, you can follow that link. Here is part of the text that we discuss in the episode:

“In covenant with God for all time, with all creatures, and with the earth, a climate church is:

  • responsive to God’s call
  • informed by the realities of the newest science
  • persistently focused on the common good, communal salvation, Golden Rule 2.0
  • living out the love and justice of Jesus
  • washed in the wonder of creation
  • driven by prophetic imagination
  • humbly unafraid to initiate a moral intervention to hasten, adjust, transition to a sustainable economy that honors the interdependence of all creation
  • unreserved its use of all its gifts and assets to help build a more resilient community
  • and prayerfully courageous to make use of its collective power to reshape our personal stories and animate the conscience of the nation as we join with people the world over to restore God’s glorious gift of creation.”

We also refer to The End of Nature, by Bill McKibben and Laudato si’, Pope Francis‘s 2015 encyclical. We also mention, Diana Butler Bass: “Awakening Now?

You might want to view that Newt Gingrich and Nancy Pelosi climate change ad. Or learn more about the Bangor Theological Seminary Center.

Finally, you might want to learn more about these organizations: Environmental Voter Project, Sunrise Movement, and Extinction Rebellion.


Jim Antal: You also may be familiar, and a lot of people outside of our denomination have heard this phrase we’ve embraced as a denomination that ‘God is still speaking.’ And what it points to is our core theological belief that revelation is ongoing. If we are to be faithful, we must address the emergent moral challenges. What could be more of an emergent moral challenge than climate change?

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 delighted to be talking with the Reverend Dr. Jim Antal. Jim is a denominational leader, climate activist, author, and public theologian. In 2018, he retired as United Church of Christ conference minister for the 350 UCC churches in Massachusetts. But he continues to serve as Special Advisor on Climate Justice to the UCC General Minister and President. He is the author of the 2018 book Climate Church, Climate World: How People of Faith Must Work for Change. He has been a champion of climate work since the first earth day in 1970, and in 2019, he received the steward of creation award from the national religious coalition for creation care.

Jim brings a long perspective on climate activism and organizing. So we talked together about his experience in this work, and what happens when congregations and denominations unite their efforts to address a moral challenge. I hope you’ll be inspired by Rev. Antal’s passion and conviction, his practical ideas for faith-inspired action, and his sense that Christians and people of all faiths are called to a communal vocation at this crucial moment in history, 

Debra Rienstra: Reverend Jim Antal, so glad to have you with me. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk today.

Jim Antal: Oh, it’s my pleasure. Absolutely.

Debra Rienstra: So let’s start with where this all began for you. You’ve been at this climate work for a long time. How did you come to it? What were the initial motivators for you?

Jim Antal: Well, I was an undergraduate during the first Earth Day in 1970. And that had a big impact on me, I have to say. We had a three day long teach-in at the college I attended, and I attended like all of the events. I had been backpacking in the Sierras, and I was an avid cyclist, actually then and all of my life, so I was very much in touch with nature. And those teach-ins just made a huge impact on the direction of my life.

So after I graduated, I went to divinity school, and I was intending to become an ethics academician. But what I really wanted to study was environmental ethics, and it was not a subject in the early seventies. But at Yale, I got into the PhD program then, and at Yale, they said, “Sure, this would be fine for you to do, you know, ethics and environment.” And one of the philosophy professors there was willing to oversee my work. John Smith was his name. And unfortunately, after a couple of years of work on that, it turns out I’m a little dyslexic, and I was unable to master French and German. So getting the PhD was simply not possible there, even though I had written most of my dissertation by that time. So I was teaching assistant for Henry Nouwen for a few years at that time, and he was a big influence on my life— he and William Sloane Coffin as well. And Henry said, “You know, Jim, this is a great turn in your life, actually. You’re not supposed to be an academician. You’re supposed to be a minister.” 

And so I went back to divinity school. I finished my MDiv, and I was ordained in the United Church of Christ. I still dragged my heels on becoming a pastor for several years. I led a couple of peace organizations; I was a chaplain in a couple of schools; but in 1986, I became a pastor, and I served for 10 years in Newton, Massachusetts, and then I served for 10 years in Shaker Heights, Ohio. And I preached my first sermon on climate change in 1988. It was a year before Bill McKibben published what was really the first popular book on climate change. So it was still a topic of great concern for me, and in the late eighties is when the United Nations was really waking up to the topic of what at the time was called global warming.

Debra Rienstra: Yeah. 

Jim Antal: And then it wasn’t just on Earth Day, but it was with greater regularity than that, that I began really preaching and focusing on climate change, and became a climate activist. I don’t remember when I first got arrested for climate. Back in the mid-eighties, I was arrested numerous times around preventing nuclear war and reducing nuclear weapons. And it may or may not be obvious the connection between a focus on the possibility of nuclear holocaust and the possibility of essentially climate holocaust, but that connection has been a deep and motivating factor throughout my life. Then after my years as a pastorate, I became head of the United Church of Christ in Massachusetts from 2006 to my retirement in 2018. And something really interesting happened at my interview. They were about to confirm with me that I was their candidate. And I said, “You know, there’s one more thing that I have to ask.” I said, “If I’m going to be the leader of our, at that time, 400 congregations in Massachusetts, I need to spend at least 10% of my time on climate.” 

Debra Rienstra: Hmm. 

Jim Antal: And they looked at me like I had two heads, like I didn’t understand this was an enormous job. And I said, “No, no, I get that. I cannot have this position and not do that because of the time we are living in.” And we had a little more dialogue, and then my board had my back for my 12 years as Conference Minister. And really by the end of my time in that role, I was probably spending 30% of my time on climate, and they were not just proud of it, but more than that, they were equally committed to that cause. So that’s the kind of span, if you will.

Debra Rienstra: Yeah. I mean, it’s fascinating that this was launched as an undergraduate for you on that remarkable Earth Day. I want to ask about the United Church of Christ, because as I’ve researched your work and read your book, I’ve been impressed with the active role of the UCC throughout your life. And, you know, so many of us are members of congregations and denominations that are just not paying much attention to the climate crisis. They’re obsessing about other things. And so the UCC has been working on this over the years, and what have they done right? I mean, other than having you in it, why has the UCC been so active and forward-thinking about this?

Jim Antal: Well, you know, Debra, I know that your audience here embraces a real wide range of folks in not just the Christian Church, but in houses of worship of all kinds. So I want to begin by answering this. The kind of biblical phrase that I frequently quoted in my leadership roles is something that perhaps other denominations don’t quite embrace. And it comes from Acts chapter 17, verse six, where it refers to the first disciples as “turning the world upside down.”

Debra Rienstra: Mm. 

Jim Antal: And those first disciples, they were responsible for initiating the greatest mass movement the world had ever known. And that’s at the core of our DNA in the United Church of Christ. So the other thing that’s at the core of our DNA is God’s inclusive love along with the love and justice of Jesus. So, you know, throughout our history in my denomination, we have been sort of early adapters, if you will. 

In 1700, we launched the anti-slavery movement with others. In 1773, we were the host at Old South Church in Boston for the original planning of the tea party. We were the first to publish an African American author and the first to ordain an African American pastor. In 1853, we became the first Christian body since New Testament times to ordain a woman. And, as many people today realize, in 1972, we became the first denomination to welcome gays and lesbians as ordained ministers. And we have persistently advocated for civil rights, human rights, and equal marriage rights for all. And, you know, all of these landmarks are an example of how the visionary actions of one part of the church have expanded the mission and the vision of the whole church. 

Debra Rienstra: Yeah. It’s remarkable. 

Jim Antal: So you also may be familiar, and a lot of people outside of our denomination have heard this phrase that we’ve embraced as a denomination that “God is still speaking.” And what it points to is our core theological belief that revelation is ongoing. And so, if we are to be faithful, we must address the emergent moral challenges—and what could be more of an emergent moral challenge than climate change?

Debra Rienstra: Yeah. So in your book Climate Church, Climate World, you use the phrases “moral crisis,” “theological crisis,” and “moral intervention.” And that’s just on page one! So clearly, you’re trying to awaken the church to something that we’re not necessarily perceiving. So what is your analysis of why so many churches and religious people, not like the UCC, have remained either apathetic or even resistant to working together on the climate crisis? What’s getting in the way?

Jim Antal: Well, you know, as I listen to your question, the phrase that comes out, Debra, is “working together.” And, you know, it’s very challenging right now and never in my life—I’m 72—and never in my life has, a greater focus been brought on the fact that, you know, America is really based in some myth of rugged individualism. And from the church’s point of view, we have a denominated religious landscape

Debra Rienstra: Hmm.

Jim Antal: And you combine those two things and the whole challenge of working together becomes enormous. I don’t want to say impossible, but it becomes enormous. 

Debra Rienstra: Yeah, we have been a little bit obsessed with defining ourselves over against one another and drawing boundaries and, you know, deciding who’s in and out. And of course that’s been worsened by American political partisanship and cantankerous division. 

Jim Antal: And your point that you just made about kind of defining who’s in and who’s out, getting back to what I was saying about my denomination: that’s something that the United Church of Christ—the hair on our back stands up when we hear that phrase, “defining who’s in and who’s out.” You know, when I was a conference minister, I preached in about 300 of our churches, all different churches, all different pastors, right? But almost every single one of them began: “Whoever you are or wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.” And that has become a kind of a defining call within our denomination. and frankly, I don’t see any reason why it shouldn’t be a defining call, you know, in every religious context.

Debra Rienstra: Yeah. And that idea that we have to all agree on a huge checklist of things before we even begin to cooperate with each other is a huge block to getting anything done. 

Jim Antal: Well, and to that point, you’re absolutely right, what you just said. As I’m sure you are familiar with, and many of your listeners may be also, Brian McLaren—his new work over the past five years has really focused on the need for religious practitioners to shift from identification around belief to identification around common values.

Debra Rienstra: Yeah. And maybe a common project. So let’s talk about vocation because I love the way you talk about vocation in your books and in your other writings. At Calvin University, where I teach, vocation— that concept—is kind of baked into our campus discourse and even into our curriculum to the point that by the time our students are seniors, they’re really sick of it. The poor things. So we talk through it again anyway, because it’s part of what we do in our senior seminar in my department, anyway. And they have plenty to say about their frustration with this idea of vocation as the one secret path, usually equated with career, that God wants them to follow in their lives, but for some mysterious reason is not revealing to them, which is very frustrating. But I wonder if we could get over that hurdle of that idea of vocation by thinking about vocation the way you do, which is to say, as a communal project. So can you explain your view of vocation as communal?

Jim Antal: Well, so, partly this is connected to my climate change work, but it’s also, I just have to say: it’s connected to opening the Bible, for God’s sake. Here’s how I think of it. If you take two highlighters, a pink highlighter and a yellow highlighter, and with the pink highlighter, you highlight in pink all the biblical passages where God calls individuals. Then with the yellow highlighter, you highlight all the biblical passages where God calls communities. And what you realize is that the yellow in your pages totally overwhelms the pink. 

But in America, you know, we have, as I said earlier, this centuries-long celebration of rugged individualism and we’ve kind of built that into our religious practice as well. So we need to expand the idea that God calls congregations in a unified way as a unified community, or, under our current circumstances with COVID and climate change and other more universal challenges, that God calls a nation, or God calls a whole people, or that God can call a generation. That’s been the focus of my most recent work.

I’m utterly convinced that God—that the way God is acting in our world today—is trying to rattle us in such a way that we recognize, “Oh my God, I am part of this unique generation, which has the enormous opportunity to set the stage so that future generations might live.”

Debra Rienstra: Hm. What a profound thing to think about. 

Jim Antal: You know, I might add one thing also to what you said about your undergraduates and vocation. One of the things I would point out to them is that scientists today—I come from a family of scientists, you know, I probably should have been a scientist, but I took this turn into religion—scientists today have accepted a new understanding of the vocation of being a scientist. That was never the case, with the exception of Carl Sagan. It was never the case that scientists thought of themselves as public communicators. And now what’s happening is scientists the world over are recognizing that their calling to science must include effective communication, and also that they must become effective motivators. Later on in our conversation, we might talk a little bit about civil disobedience, but when I’m talking about scientists, now, I just want to say that in the past year, there have been hundreds and hundreds of scientists all over the world who have, in this shift of their understanding of their own vocation, they have embraced civil disobedience as part of what it means to be a scientist. 

Debra Rienstra: Yeah, part of their job now is prophetic speech.

Jim Antal: Exactly. 

Debra Rienstra: Yeah. Yeah. And one of the things I’m excited to do at Calvin in our English department is help train writers to be science-explainers, to work with science people, to help with that communication process. I have students who are very excited about that and I wish more young people would see that as their, perhaps, way to participate in this larger communal vocation, which is to help communicate these messages clearly and persuasively.

Jim Antal: Well, God bless you, because I triple underscore that is so important.

Debra Rienstra: Yeah. And I wonder if we could think about the church that way too, as being called in this vocation, to prophetic speech and to witness as a church to what God is doing in the world, as you say, you know, to kind of wake us up. That really hasn’t been the way we’ve thought about church, I think, but maybe it’s time to think about church that way.

Jim Antal: Well, you know, I have known some churches in my work that are waking up, let us say. One of them—maybe this would be a time where I could share this story of one of them. It’s the Church of Christ in San Mateo UCC. And they asked me—I don’t know, about a year ago, I had spoken out there and keynoted a big public event that they had. And then they got back to me about a year later and they said, “you know, what is a climate church?” You know, within the title of my book. And I shared with them, in the form of what your listeners would recognize as a kind of a covenant, this following brief statement. Here’s what I wrote.

I said: “In covenant with God for all time, with all creatures, and with the earth, a climate church is: responsive to God’s call; informed by the realities of the newest science; persistently focused on the common good, communal salvation, ‘golden rule 2.0’—we can talk about that if you want to; it means future generations as neighbors—and living out the love and justice of Jesus; washed in the wonder of creation; driven by prophetic imagination; humbly unafraid to initiate a moral intervention to hasten, adjust, transition to a sustainable economy that honors the interdependence of all creation; unreserved its use of all its gifts and assets to help build a more resilient community; and prayerfully courageous to make use of its collective power to reshape our personal stories and animate the conscience of the nation as we join with people the world over to restore God’s glorious gift of creation.” 

Wouldn’t it be something if, you know, thousands of churches, not just in the United States, but really the world over, were to just study that covenant and try to embody it in their own work? 

Debra Rienstra: Yeah, it’s rich and wonderful. We’re going to link to that in the show notes. I wonder if we could just sort of dwell appreciatively on a couple of those fantastic phrases. “Persistently focused on the common good.” And it seems to me, one of the blockages to work on the climate crisis is this anemic sense of the commons. And that’s true not just in churches, I think, but all over our society as Americans. We’re not used to thinking in terms of the commons. “Persistently focused on the common good.” And then talk a little bit about “Golden Rule 2.0.” This is a great concept that I’ve read in numerous places in your writing, so explain what you mean by that. It’s wonderful. 

Jim Antal: So, it turns out, as you and many of your listeners know, that the Golden Rule, to love your neighbors as yourselves, is embraced by every religious tradition. There are some beautiful posters with all the symbols of, you know, 15 or 20 of the world’s religions and their unique way of phrasing this same concept of the Golden Rule. And the problem with the Golden Rule is that neither Buddha, nor Jesus, nor any of the other religious founders of our major traditions, lived in a world where the current generation could have a decisive impact on all future generations. And over the past—depending on how you want to gauge it—five or six or seven generations since the industrial revolution, humanity has gained that power. And we first gained it with nuclear weapons, and that’s why geologists now speak of the Anthropocene—that we are now in geologic time—we are in that period where humanity’s impact on the earth is decisive.

Now on a moral basis, what that means is we need to expand our moral thinking of who our neighbor is, because it’s not just that we need to have a loving and just attitude toward the person who happens to be near us, which is how Augustine defined neighbor. We also have to have that same loving and just attitude toward everybody who is alive today, and we have to have a loving and just attitude to people who are yet to be born—all future generations—because they are as much our neighbors as the person sitting next to us in the pew.

Debra Rienstra: We have a really weighty neighbor responsibility right now, because our neighbors are across the globe and across future time. And that is really overwhelming, but I keep thinking back to that phrase that you mentioned before, that characteristic UCC phrase, “God is still speaking.”

Jim Antal: Mm-hmm. 

Debra Rienstra: And it seems to me like, in order to understand the weight—the moral weight of our time and of our role as people of God in this time—to understand the weight of what you like to call the “repurposed church,” we have to accept that premise that we can’t go back to some olden time that we repristinate, you know, to make pristine that which never was pristine, and imagine there was some past when the church was pure or life was good or something, but we have to continually listen to the Spirit. I mean, it seems to me, this is just orthodoxy, right? We have to continually listen to the Spirit and perhaps allow this Fourth Great Awakening that Diana Butler Bass talks about or this great hurting and to accept a responsibility at this inflection point, and it’s really overwhelming. And you know, I think we have to remember that we’re supposed to trust in God, that we can accept this responsibility because we can trust in God’s inspiration and in God’s purposes.

And that maybe brings us back to a couple other phrases in that wonderful covenant: “Humbly unafraid to initiate a moral intervention.” Could you unpack that one? Because there’s a lot going on there. 

Jim Antal: Well, I’ll give you a very concrete example of it. One of the things that I do when I talk to churches, and it’s fortunately my opportunity to talk to churches all over the country, is that I ask them, “So, how close are you to a railroad track?” And most of them know the answer to that. If I were to ask them, “How close are you to a natural gas or oil pipeline?” most of them would probably not know. So, you know, railroad tracks are a sort of a current version of pipelines actually, because so much oil and coal is transported by railroads. Then I suggest to these churches, “What would it be like if you were to convene worship on the track? What would it be like if you were to celebrate communion on the track?” 

And, as you and some of your listeners may know, there have been church groups—a group of Presbyterians out in, I think it was Seattle; it might have been Oregon, and a group of nuns in Pennsylvania—who have essentially done just that. I’m sure there are many, many others. And, you know, in both of those cases, and the opportunity is there, I think for just about every congregation in America, what we need to do is to make ourselves aware that it’s our moral obligation to intervene with the fossil fuel system. 

We are at a point now where scientists tell us and economists tell us that— and I could not say this two years ago, but I can say it today—the cheapest form of energy is wind, solar, and water. Period, full stop. And all the stuff that we hear that counters that is all simply made up nonsense in order to allow the profiteers of those industries—of oil, coal, and gas industries—like Joe Manchin, for example, to continue to make the profits they have been accustomed to over the past seven generations, and we have to be the generation that ends that.

Debra Rienstra: Hmm. So how do you respond to church people who would say, “Wait, we’re supposed to be involved in business and politics? No, we’re just church.” How do you respond to that argument? It’s such a common one. 

Jim Antal: Well, it is such a common one, and the most important thing—and, you know, when I was in my role in UCC in Massachusetts, every two years, I would revisit the question of: what is the difference between being partisan and being political? And I would urge every pastor, at least every four years, if not every two years, to offer a sermon on their understanding of the fact that, of course, as followers of Jesus, we are called to be political. Everything Jesus did was political. He was interacting with the empire of his time with every word that came out of his mouth. But that has nothing to do with being partisan—you know, supporting one party versus another! How in God’s name could advocating for the restoration of God’s creation be viewed as, I don’t know, inappropriate for a church or a body of faith to engage in? It’s, to me, it’s just unimaginable! But, as everybody listening to this knows, the issue of climate change has been politicized. 

Debra Rienstra: Yeah. 

Jim Antal: I’ll just add one more thing, Debra, and then you may have additional questions. Few people remember that back in—I’m trying to remember when it was, I think it was 2008—Newt Gingrich and Nancy Pelosi did a TV ad together.

Debra Rienstra: It’s laughable now, isn’t it? 

Jim Antal: Yeah, it’s incredible. They were sitting on a couch and behind them was kind of a dried out lake. And they were sort of looking at each other and sort of not looking at each other. And one of them said to the other, I think Nancy said to Newt Gingrich, “You know, you and I don’t agree on much, do we Newt?” He said, “Yep. That sure is right.” She said, “But we can agree on one thing, can’t we?” He said, “We sure can, and that’s climate change.” And then he went on and said something. She went on and said something. It was a 30-second ad. He, within a year, he said it was the dumbest thing he had ever done politically. But pursuant to this conversation you and I are having, it was a momentary setting aside of partisanship and engaging in the most important moral conversation of the moment.

Debra Rienstra: And I, you know, I think one of the arguments in response to that too, is to say that to stay out of it is also political. That is also a political choice. You are essentially allowing the current unjust systems to continue to exist without accountability, without challenge.

Jim Antal: This is such an important point you’re making, Debra, and you know, as you know, in terms of the sort of background of, kind of the fundamentals of ethics, you have sins of commission, but you also have sins of omission. And your point is that we cannot stand idly by in this time. I’ll put it very bluntly: we cannot claim to be people of faith living in the age we are living and not be engaged in restoring creation and combating climate change.

Debra Rienstra: I appreciated in your book, you draw the analogy between now and the civil rights movement, and even before that, the abolition movement, where churches were involved in what they perceived—Black churches, especially, but some White churches too—involved in what they perceived as the moral challenge of the times. And I think it’s incumbent upon those of us involved in this to continually point out that the climate crisis is a moral challenge that the church has to be involved in. 

Jim Antal: That’s right. Yeah. And those analogies that you’ve just made are really critical in attempting to wake people up to that.

Debra Rienstra: Yeah. So give us some examples of what this looks like on the ground. What does a climate church look like? What are they doing? What are their activities? What is their worship like? You have so many great examples in the book, and I really commend the book to people who are interested in getting their church involved because it’s full of good examples, but give us some that are especially important to you. 

Jim Antal: You know, I think the way I want to answer that question is to say that the church, the congregation, any particular congregation, it needs to become a safe enough place and a relevant enough place to do four things. So, so keep in mind, as I say these four things, keep in mind: “Oh yeah, are we a congregation that is safe enough to actually pull this off?”

And the first one is clergy need to preach on the climate emergency. Now you and I both know there are many, many clergy who have never preached on the climate emergency. And why? Because they don’t think it’s safe enough for them to do it. They think they might be run out of town if they preach on the climate emergency. So this is why I begin by saying the house of worship needs to be safe enough and relevant enough first for clergy to preach on the climate emergency, and not just that, but to help people realize the intersectionality of racial justice, economic justice, and climate justice. So much in our churches, what we do is we—you know, whether we call it the mission committee or the benevolence committee or whatever we call it—they have their little siloed commitments. And what they often fail to do is to recognize the intersectionality of injustice. And one of the things that climate change does is it helps people realize, “Oh my God, all these justice issues we care so much about are all amplified by climate change.” 

So then the second thing we need to do is that we need to create enough space in our worship so that people can bear testimony to what they or their family are doing in relation to the climate crisis. And that could be anything from, you know, installing a solar panel to having a conversation with their child about the grief that their child is experiencing over the climate crisis. 

That leads to my third thing, which is we need to process our grief. Houses of worship are places where we’re supposed to be good at helping people process grief. But what about the grief over the degradation of the earth that we love? We need to create the conditions in which existential dread can be dealt with so that it itself, that existential dread, can serve as a precondition of hope. And I think churches and houses of worship of all kinds can be places where that happens. 

And then finally, as a fourth thing, congregations need to get involved in advocating for and supporting policies to restore God’s creation. So, in many of our congregations in my denomination, but I know this is true in congregations in other denominations, they’re involved in the Environmental Voter Project. And one concrete example is—and I know dozens of congregations that did this—two years years ago, you know, in the 2020 elections, that in October, prior to the election, they handed out the Environmental Voter pledge cards. And it was a simple pledge, something along the lines of a pledge to make, you know, climate change and environmental concerns, a top-order consideration in all of my voting. And then people sign it, they put it in the offering plate, and then the pastor offers a blessing over those cards. And, you know, as you and probably everybody in your audience knows, the best way we can assure that people will actually take action on something is that they actually make a promise to somebody else that they’ll do it. So that’s one of the reasons why that pledge card thing is so important. So those are a few of, of, of my responses to—I could go on and on. 

Debra Rienstra: Yeah, that’s really helpful. I want to come back to activism, but first I want to go back to preaching, because when you say: “Preach about the climate change,” I can just hear voices in my head saying, “Oh, but I preach about the Bible.” So could you connect maybe—or maybe further explain what you mean when you say preach about climate change?

Jim Antal: Well, this is really interesting. It gets back to something we talked a little about earlier. So I want to begin by saying God is still speaking. You know, it turns out climate change is not in the Bible. But all of the principles and all of the foundation, if you will, for caring for creation, or whatever other words in your tradition you’re accustomed to using—“tending and keeping” creation is what, you know, Pope Francis uses in Laudato si’—I don’t care how you phrase it; that foundation is laid indelibly in scripture. So when people, you know, who are on the more conservative side or even inerrantist side begin to make this argument, you know, I just direct them to Psalm 24: “The earth is the Lord’s.” Full stop. And as Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the head of the Orthodox Church, says, “It’s not ours to wreck.”

Debra Rienstra: Yeah. So preaching the Bible—it’s a matter of seeing what Paul Santmire calls that ecological motif that’s always been there, is there; we just haven’t been able to see it lately in, you know, post-industrial consumer capitalist context. We have to go back and recognize that ecological motif that’s in the Bible, in the theological tradition, and begin to surface it again. 

Jim Antal: Exactly. 

Debra Rienstra: So let’s talk about activism. You’ve been arrested dozens of times, I think you said once. And sometimes I feel like one hasn’t really been in the climate fight until one has spent time in jail with famous activists. It seems to be what people talk about. But I wonder if you could say a little bit about the dialectic between the fight and the vision. And what I mean is, it seems to be important to find some way to participate in the fight, but also to posit a compelling vision of where we’re headed. So how do you think about the balance between working in the fight and holding out that vision of where we’re going? And how do you bring Christian theology into that? 

Jim Antal: So when I listen to this question that you’ve asked, Debra, the thing that unites, for me, the thing that unites the fight and the vision, to me, is leadership—that leadership has to embrace both the fight and the vision. And when I say leadership, what I’m thinking of is—I think it could apply to any form of leadership—but I’m thinking concretely of bishops, clergy, and lay leaders in the church. And no matter what their role, they are called to provide congregations with vision, and then, as Abraham Heschel said, they’re called to pray with their feet. And that means, you know, rolling up their sleeves and getting involved in the fight. I’m glad to, if you want to put this question to me in another way, that would be fine, but my initial response is to say that, you know, if you are in a position of leadership or you are purporting to be a leader, providing people with vision and engaging in the fight yourself, as an example, is essential. 

Debra Rienstra: Mm. That’s really helpful, actually. I don’t know that people necessarily think about that as a leadership role—that both of those things are necessary in a leadership role.

Jim Antal: Well, and wouldn’t it be wonderful if seminaries taught it?

Debra Rienstra: Ah!

Jim Antal: There we go. 

Debra Rienstra: Let’s just pause to imagine that for a minute. Yeah. I heard an interview with you for the Yale folks in which you posited this amazing vision that combined these two, actually now that I’m thinking about it. You posited this vision of churches everywhere uniting to push for these new climate policies, and it was sort of a powerful vision.

Jim Antal: Well, but what you’ve just said goes back to a couple of different parts of the questions that you have asked, which is churches uniting everywhere. I mean, imagine across denominations, and let’s not limit it to churches. Let’s involve synagogues and mosques and temples. What if the leaders of all of these denominations and faith groups, what if they came together and said, you know, “Listen, each of us in our traditions—we are caretakers of God’s creation. We talk about it in different ways, but that’s what our traditions are rooted in. And we are here to tell you—whether it’s you, the current president to the United States, or you, the heads of the EU, or you, the rest of the world leaders— we are here to tell you that we will not rest until you put the restoration of the earth above the profit of current-generation companies and shareholders.”

Because that’s the debate that we have going on right now—is that our politicians are unwilling to put the concerns for a sustainable earth that future generations can live in—they’re unwilling to put that above the sort of continuity, if you will, of corporate greed and wealth. And churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples—we can have an impact on that. That’s why, as we said earlier, this is a moral issue. This is not a political issue for God’s sakes. It’s a—I mean, it involves politics, but it’s a moral issue.

Debra Rienstra: Yeah. Yeah. And it has to do with holding accountable corporations that have used and abused the commons for their own profit. I’m so glad you brought up interfaith cooperation because you’ve had the privilege of partnering over many years with people all over the Christian spectrum, but also with people of other faiths and no faith. So I wonder if you could talk about the gifts that come with that partnership.

Jim Antal: Well, you know, I have to say, what’s been wonderful in terms of the ministry that I have allowed to serve has been sort of acting in solidarity with folks whose understanding of God and whose practice of religion is different from mine, but what we discover together as we sort of conspire, if you will, as we breathe together, is that we actually all care about the same things when it comes to climate and environment. So I’ve learned a ton from people of other traditions. I mean, when Pope Francis came out with Laudato si’, you know, I just cried my way through it. And then when a Jewish academician friend of mine, Naomi Oreskes, who is at Harvard as the head of the History of Science department, but she is focused on climate—she was asked to write an introduction for one of the published versions of Laudato si’ as a Jew and as a scientist. It’s just an example of what you’re asking about, which is how it is our various traditions can enhance one another. 

Debra Rienstra: It seems to me there’s such joy in discovering those continuities and connections. So I think that’s something that people who are considering this kind of work don’t necessarily expect—is the joy of discovering that in these partnerships among people that you wouldn’t necessarily do work with in other conditions. 

Jim Antal: That puts it so well. I’m so glad you uplifted the word “joy” in that, because that perfectly describes my own personal experience in all of these ways.

Debra Rienstra: Mm. So let’s say we have some listeners out there who are part of a church congregation that’s interested in getting more involved. They’re sort of working their way tentatively toward repurposing and taking the climate crisis seriously, or maybe not repurposing, but focusing their purpose of serving Christ, and having this climate work as part of that, but they don’t know where to begin. So what would you recommend as maybe a series of first moves?

Jim Antal: There’s so many places that folks and congregations can begin. And, you know, one of the things I learned in my position as leader or overseer of these 350 congregations is that the climate, the culture, of each of these congregations is different. So the answer to your question might be different for every single community that is out there.

But some of the things that come to my mind in response to that is it’s really essential for a congregation to look at all of its assets. So when I say all of its assets, I mean, first of all, the people—all of the gifts that the people bring in response to this particular challenge. So what I said earlier—inviting testimony that surfaces and kind of features those gifts and actions that individual families take as examples for other families—is something that’s really, really important.

But it’s also the case that many of our congregations have financial assets. And so, it’s important for people listening to this to realize, that in 2013, my denomination became the first national body of any kind and the first religious body of any kind to vote to divest from fossil fuel. And many, many congregations, thousands and thousands of congregations all over the world, have done exactly that over the past 10 years. And a number that is almost impossible to comprehend—if you were to add up all the portfolios of all of the congregations; all of the individuals; and all of the other institutions like philanthropies and like pension funds, which have purged their portfolios of stocks, fossil fuel stocks, that total of all those assets is $41 trillion.

Debra Rienstra: Oh my goodness. 

Jim Antal: And this has had a huge impact on the fossil fuel industry. They realize that altogether, these institutions—and if you add up all the different institutions that have publicly divested, over 35% of them are religious institutions. And the Pope has advocated for divesting. And the ecumenical patriarch has advocated for divesting. So that’s another thing that congregations which have financial assets can do.

Debra Rienstra: Mm-hmm. 

Jim Antal: Yeah. So those are a couple of quick answers to your question.

Debra Rienstra: Yeah, I appreciate it. Is there anything else you’d like to add or talk about or reflect upon as we conclude our time here?

Jim Antal: Well, I think the one thing that comes to my mind that we haven’t touched on—and I think it’s important, and I also think congregations are, in the moment, a little lost as to how to do this. And that is: every congregation I’m aware of is kind of tied up in knots and frustrated over the fact that what was once a thriving Sunday school and youth group has diminished. And I just want your listeners to know that first, that’s a universal phenomenon; you’re not alone. 

And secondly, that there are many congregations that are beginning to realize: not only do they need to be committed to this climate movement and to restoring God’s creation, but one way to do that is to align themselves with youth initiatives in their town or region, such as the Sunrise Movement or the Extinction Rebellion—they go by different names. Our church that I mentioned earlier, a UCC church in San Mateo, California—they’re in partnership and have been so for two or three years with the Sunrise Movement chapter there in greater San Francisco and the Extinction Rebellion there. And, you know, the kids will sometimes do stuff that the grown-ups kind of roll their eyes about, but oftentimes they can support each other, for God’s sakes! And guess what? Those young people are a little surprised that a church would be interested and share their values around climate change. That’s a good thing to realize.

And I think the final shout out I want to give to this is something you may be familiar with, Debra. And that is what used to be a seminary, the Bangor Theological School, is now a center focused largely on theology and climate change. And they are helping pastors and church leaders really dive into these issues in all kinds of ways.

So, anybody listening to this, if you just go to Bangor Theological School Center, or BTSC, you can find out more information for what they are up to. And some of what they’re up to connects with youth, which I was talking about a moment ago, it goes much more broad than that.

Debra Rienstra: Yeah, thank you so much for that. And the resources out there are proliferating, and they’re very rich; you just have to go seeking them. So we’ll try to hold those up as much as we can in the show notes. And I do recommend that listeners look at your book, Climate Change, Climate World, for the content in it, for the inspiration in it, and the footnotes! The footnotes are full of great resources, too. Typical academic, right? Championing the footnotes. 

Jim Antal: Indeed. But you’re right. 

Debra Rienstra: Yes, Reverend Jim Antal, it’s been so great to talk to you. I’m so grateful for your work, for your example, for your prophetic example in this work for so many years, for your leadership in the church and for your time together with me today. Thank you so much.

Jim Antal: Thanks so much. It’s been a great pleasure, Debra.

Outro Script: The Refugia Podcast is produced with support from the Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship. Our audio editor is Ian Gilbert. Our text editor is Michal Rubingh. If you enjoyed this episode, please help other listeners discover us. Write a review on your podcast platform or share this episode through social media. You can find us on Facebook and Twitter @RefugiaPodcast. You can also visit our website, where you can explore links and transcripts from this and all our episodes. You can find me on Facebook and Twitter @debrakrienstra. That’s D E B R A-K-R I E N S T R A. As always, thanks for listening.

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