Advent: Let’s start to heal our planet

December 13, 2010
By Mallory McDuff
USA Today

As a child during Advent, I fought with my three siblings over Jesus. We didn't argue about conversion, but rather the right to put a one-dimensional infant the size of a thumbnail onto the Advent calendar made from red felt and glitter glue. My mother devised a rotational system, which meant that every four years, each child would place baby Jesus into his glittered manger on Christmas Day.

For my children, that same Advent calendar represents one step in our preparations for Christmas. (In a more secular waiting game, my cousins use the Elf on a Shelf, that magical spy for St. Nick.)

The start of Advent, this season of waiting and watching, coincided with the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Cancun, Mexico. We are not waiting for climate change. It is here. And religious communities are taking the lead with incremental solutions to a warming planet.

Advent comes from the Latin word adventus, meaning arrival. It might be more apt to consider Advent as a season of imagination, says Jack Jezreel, executive director of Just Faith Ministries. Advent thus becomes a time to imagine a just world in the face of environmental changes that result in disproportionate impacts on those who contribute the least to the problem.

In a recent issue of The Economist, the cover story " How to live with climate change" calls us to respond to current climatic conditions, not some apocalyptic prediction. We must reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, adapt now with changes in infrastructure and food security, and focus on how we deal with human migration.

People of faith involved in disaster relief have already become first responders to climate change. "The church was the catalyst for getting things back in order after (Hurricane) Katrina, not the government," says Jackie Robinson of St. John Baptist Church in New Orleans. On an international scale, religious organizations such as Catholic Relief Services in Guatemala are helping farmers adapt to less predictable weather conditions by diversifying crops and soil management practices.

Faith communities, unlike legislative bodies, emphasize justice and helping your neighbor. Many of the 10,000 congregations involved in Interfaith Power and Light have joined a Carbon Covenant, which connects congregations in the Global North and South to mitigate the impacts of global warming such as deforestation.

In the U.S., congregations are adopting innovative financing to harness solar power. Beth El Synagogue in Margate, N.J., leveraged $175,000 from a state grant to install 286 solar panels, which will produce 50% of its energy needs. Such imaginative change challenges our society based on fossil fuels, much as abolitionism contradicted the economic foundations of the 19th century.

Confronting climate change will require societal shifts similar to those that changed attitudes and behaviors around smoking and even slavery, according to a study by Andy Hoffman at the University of Michigan. "If we developed feasible and scalable renewable energy tomorrow, public opinion on climate would shift fairly quickly," Hoffman tells Social marketers know that increasing benefits and decreasing barriers can change behavior and attitudes.  

During this season of Advent, we must not wait for polls or votes to harness the power of religion for the challenge of climate change. We also need to imagine the possibilities and passions that children see in the spirit of Advent, in glittered mangers and even an elf on a shelf. Let every heart prepare for innovative actions grounded in a moral imperative. The time isn't coming. It's here.

Mallory McDuff is the author of Natural Saints: How People of Faith are Working to Save God's Earth. She teaches at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, N.C.