The Moral Imperative of Climate Activism

A moral imperative, as explained by the hive-mind of Wikipedia, is “a strongly-felt principle that compels a person to act.” In this postmodern era of relativism however, inaction often sneaks in through the backdoor of our consciousness in the form of burnout, information overload, and spiritual bypass. As television and movie streaming companies distract us with their endless content, and Facebook’s algorithmic news feeds show us only what we already believe in, the big picture, including what’s right, good and true, can seem less than obvious and even lost. This might be the philosopher’s worst nightmare as reason is overtaken by fundamentalist dogmas of every kind. In this light, it makes sense that we are so often confused, unfocused, and apathetic.

In our recent book Order of the Sacred Earth, David Korten remembers the biblical admonition that no one can serve two masters. In our times, it seems our choice between masters is no longer God and Lucifer, but rather between an Earth-based relational approach to life and the capitalist/colonialist practices that reduce the Earth to an object for the taking. This clarifying choice is the deepest moral and spiritual issue of our times. Cosmologist Brian Swimme says it this way: “The medieval doctors in their ignorance thought they could bleed their patients to health. The industrial nation-states in their ignorance thought they could bleed the planet and arrive at wealth.”

You have probably heard the term “Climate Crusader” in recent discussions about climate activism, used as both an insult pointing out the hypocritical nature of the fundamentalist disposition of many climate activists, and also used as a rallying cry by the world’s Earth defenders. “Climate Crusader” refers to people who act vigorously and even aggressively on behalf of ecological justice for the health of this planet. It’s an ironic metaphor, and yet somehow a fitting one. It seems like the more imminent and dire the climate crisis becomes, the more standing up to the institutions and industries that are the primary source of these crises feels like a holy war.

In its broadest definition, a crusade is any concerted effort or vigorous movement either for a cause, or against an abuse. When it comes to preserving the natural world, and therefore all life on this planet, the crusade is certainly both. We climate crusaders are standing for a cause — the inherent goodness and sacredness of Gaia – whilst we also stand against countless abuses: all of the many violations of thousands of years of history, including the exploitation and the consumption of precious life and resources.

But this link between religious fervor and climate justice is not only a metaphor. Across religions and their sacred texts we see Gods and Goddesses, and all manner of divine powers, imploring humans to relate to every dimension of this planet and its creatures and ecosystems in a careful, conscious, and sacred way. In many indigenous traditions, the elements of Earth are the Gods and Goddesses themselves. And across history and contemporary culture we see these divine invitations being misunderstood, abused or ignored altogether.

Take the very beginning of the most widely read text on the planet: Genesis, in the Bible. Verse 26 describes the creation of the Universe. Here, God says

“Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”

The word “dominion” is where the entire battle plays out – the crusade against overconsumption of the Earth. “Dominion” has been misinterpreted for generations to mean that humans have divine authority and power over all other creatures and over the Earth herself. How misguided.

If you look elsewhere in the bible, in the Gospels, you will find a completely different interpretation of the concept of dominion. The Gospel according to Matthew, verses 20:26-28, describes Jesus speaking to his disciples. There is a moment when each of the twelve squabble and fight to sit by the side of their beloved teacher. And in response to their fighting, Jesus says:

“Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them…”.

There it is again, that word, dominion. Jesus continues,

“But it shall not be so among you: But whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister. And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant. Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister.”

Jesus is saying to his disciples, if there is a person of authority amongst you, let him, let her, serve. Let her minister by shapeshifting the power dynamics into more true expressions of authority and dominion.

So the passage in Genesis can be, and has been, reinterpreted. The word dominion does not give humans divine authority to have power over, but rather to serve. It is now being read, in the context of our climate emergency, that the Creative Impulse (Creator/God) continues to give humans stewardship of the Earth. We are a unique species on this wonderfully and dynamically biodiverse and conscious rock, and we have the awareness, the tools and the morality to care for our own species, and for our entire Earth mother. What a gift we have been given — the ability to serve with the others that live here to help life to thrive.

In fact, if you look at the origins of the word “dominion” you find far back in its linguist root, the word “domus” – Latin for “house.” It is our moral imperative, we humans, to home our Earth. To honor her as the most beautiful and sacred of lovers, to enrich, purify and strengthen her, the way we would our own personal houses, sanctuaries, and temples. We are her and she is us.

There are countless other examples in the Bible that point to the human – earth relationship as a symbiotic mother and child. Job, speaking of the source of wisdom, says “ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds in the sky, and they will tell you. Or speak to the earth, and it will teach you, or let the fish in the sea inform you.”

This truth was not discovered in Christianity, however. This is what the medicine people and shamanic traditions of every earth-based culture have done for countless millennia to access healing, wisdom, and togetherness. Every other tradition also speaks of humans as being gifted with the ability to participate directly with the Earth. This special relationship is articulated again and again, in every text, of every religion.

The Quran says “He raised the heaven and established the balance, so that you would not transgress the balance.”

How balanced is our relationship with Mother Earth right now?

Hindus live by the principle of Ahimsa – to do no harm to others.

To whom and to what are we humans doing the greatest harm at this time?

Black Elk, the Lakota elder says “all things are our relatives. What we do to anything, we do to ourselves.”

How are we, in our actions toward the Earth, harming our own spirit and our most essential relationships?

The most important question is, no matter where we source our spiritual wisdom, how can we as people of faith best act on the moral imperative to love and defend our home right here and now?

An interfaith organization, Religions for Peace, has created a resource book for faith communities who want to work toward Climate Justice but don’t know where to begin. Christina Lee Brown, Founder of Religions for Peace,  identifies four key areas that faith communities can turn their attention to, to make a bigger difference than any one person could make on her own.

Personal choices: cultivating our ecologically sensitive virtues,
Community action: engaging congregations in ecological education,
Economic action: fostering a sense of social responsibility in our consumption, and
Political action: advocacy by faith leaders.

What exactly is at stake should we humans fail to rise up to our moral imperative to be warriors and mystics? We can look back to our religious texts for an alarmingly detailed picture of what our future might hold. Isaiah Chapter 24, verses 4-6, detail a prophecy of the fate of the world should people turn from God.

The Earth dries up and withers, the world languishes and withers, the heavens languish with the earth. The earth is defiled by its people. They have disobeyed the laws, violated the statutes and broken the everlasting covenant. Therefore a curse consumes the earth; its people must bear their guilt. Therefore the earth’s inhabitants are burned up, and very few are left.

We interpret this not as a picture of a spiteful God of wrath punishing her people, but rather as the inevitable outcome of “breaking the covenant” to be stewards of our planet and to have a respectful, balanced relationship with all of her creatures and resources. By taking more than we need and more than we are giving back, we are breaking the laws of nature. A desolate, dried up earth, with humans bearing the guilt, is one possible future should we continue to misuse and abuse our power.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Salish Rao calls us a “thermostat species” because of our ability to affect the planet’s temperature. This is a big responsibility to carry and yet we know how to do this. As David Korten says, we now know that we can create “an Ecological Civilization grounded in the emerging living Earth narrative of a Second Enlightenment that recognizes and honors the true wonder of creations order, complexity, intelligence, and purpose.”

This is what is most important.

Every time we write, we ask ourselves: why are we writing this? What do we want to happen as a result of this time and energy? The answer that has almost always come (and is here now) is to remember what is important. To inspire community action…to love and defend our planet and ourselves. To belong. There’s nothing more important than this and nothing easier to forget.

~ Skylar Wilson and Jennifer Berit Listug



I attend two large and growing church’s (weekly attendance 1500 +/-). In summer it is “bible based” Baptist, and winter a United Methodist Church. Down the road from the Baptist church is a former Episcopalian church, now a Mosque.

Why are some Christian Churches growing in numbers and outreach? Is there any room to find agreement and move on with the work of Jesus Christ ?

~ Leon


Dear Leon,

Thanks for these important questions. Regarding the first question about why some Christian churches are growing, beware of anyone who gives you a simple answer. There are many factors influencing why some churches grow, others hold steady, and others decline and disappear. But based on my experiences, churches that grow have at least three things in common:

1. The members treat each other well. If a congregation is full of backbiting, unresolved conflicts, and distrust, people coming in will "smell it in the air" and look elsewhere. The qualities of love, kindness, warmth, and welcome are not sufficient causes for lasting growth, but they are necessary conditions.

2. The members simply can't shut up about their church. They are so inspired on Sunday that they want to talk about it on Monday at the water cooler or on Facebook. Not only that, but they honestly feel, "My friends' lives would be better if they could be part of a community like ours," so they invite them out of generosity.

3. Visitors almost always come because of #2 - a friend who welcomes them. But visitors only become members when existing members welcome them, include them, make space for them, and involve them. Churches that are warm to each other (#1) aren't necessarily warm to newcomers.

There's a lot more we could say, but I think any list of reasons for growth would begin with those three.

As for your second question, I think there is definitely room to "find agreement and move on with the work of Jesus Christ." But here's the problem: churches are about many things beyond, or even instead of, the work of Jesus Christ. And frankly, many churches aren't clear on what the work of Jesus Christ is. Is it telling people that God will torture them in hell forever if they don't join our religion? Is it becoming the chaplaincy for a political party or economic ideology? Is it resisting change and always wishing for "the good old days" and "the old-time religion?" Is it preserving a European subculture? As I'm sure you know, all of these possible reasons for existence have a big pull in many congregations.

That, of course, raises the essential question: what is the work of Jesus Christ? If you ask me, the answer is clear: to learn to love God, neighbor, self, and the earth wholeheartedly. And that's my dream: that more and more of our churches would rediscover love as Christ's prime directive (and Paul's too - remember 1 Corinthians 13 and Galatians 5:16?). Imagine what would happen if our churches became schools or studios of love, and that all who joined us became a more and more loving version of ourselves?

If we agreed that love is the point, I think that everything would change. Yes, we'd still have our differing viewpoints, but we would consider it necessary, not just to be right, but to be loving, as Christ was.

~ Brian McLaren




2 thoughts on “The Moral Imperative of Climate Activism

  1. Yes, we are a “thermostat species” and that is both good and bad. It’s good because we have added enough heat-trapping greenhouse gases to the atmosphere to prevent the earth from going into yet another extinction-threatening, 100,000 year-long glacial phase. It’s bad because we’ve already overshot the levels needed to accomplish that and significant planet-wide disruptions due to global warming and sea level rise are already built into the system. So yes, we can – and should – work diligently toward “an Ecological Civilization grounded in the emerging living Earth narrative of a Second Enlightenment that recognizes and honors the true wonder of creations order, complexity, intelligence, and purpose.” However, we must also recognize that we must traverse some difficult, dark, and brutal times before we can begin to enjoy such a second enlightenment. I think that looking at our travails as an initiation process necessary for attaining a new, more mature postcritical consciousness can help in navigating the difficulties that lie ahead.

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