Last year I read Connie Willis’ novel, Doomsday Book, a blend of historical research and character fiction set during 14th Century England’s bout with plague. It’s a terrifically disturbing book because it challenges the reader to engage a period of deep, legitimate, mortal fear and doesn’t offer characters or readers the usual mid-crisis escape hatches.
It wasn’t possible for the people of that time to detour into denial: death was visceral and ever-present. As much as some tried, they couldn’t use religion to block out reality: the plague and attendant violence and social chaos affected the religious and the non-religious without discrimination. And science and technology also failed them until the epidemics had run their course.
The only way for them to survive the experience was to be fully present and engaged, and then to rebuild their world with those who survived.
Deep engagement from people of faith is essential.
That’s how we’ve handled crises. We don’t want to have to do that on a global scale again if we don’t have to. And the scientists are telling us that we really don’t have to.
People and communities of faith seem to have had a major awakening about environmental stewardship over the last few years. More and more faith-based groups and coalitions are speaking to our ability to influence the health and stability of Earth, our ecological home.
Earlier this month, I returned to the InterFaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington’s 2016 interfaith summit and participated in an end-of-the-day conversation about faith leadership and climate change.
The question we asked: What can people of faith uniquely contribute to the climate action movement?
Our answer was hope.
Hope is what people of faith can offer the world.
Faith and spirituality can generate an orientation of hope based on humanity’s capacity to not only create problems but also solve them, to not only break down order but also build new orders from periods of chaos.
People of faith can ground their hope in Christian teachings about human will and the divine inspiration that draws us toward the good; or Jewish teachings about our responsibility to safeguard human welfare and protect what future generations need to thrive; or Muslim teachings about the deen, the comprehensive religious duty that includes managing resources without waste or excess.
Hope drives coalitions like Blessed Tomorrow, a multi-faith advocate of environmental responsibility that offers faith-full responses to carbon pollution and climate change. Hope motivates Green Faith, which trains people of faith and encourages them to lead in their local communities on stewardship and justice issues like auditing the environmental sustainability of their congregations or working with other groups to lobby for more effective toxic chemicals regulations. And hope propels organizers like the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life and Green Muslims to amplify their traditions’ historical teachings about our ecosystem and encourage faith institutions to make more progress.
Our language doesn’t always align with our motivations.
“People are motivated to make wise choices more by hope and opportunity than by fear, cynicism, hatred and despair.” —David Brooks, NYT (2/9/2016)
George Lakoff, a linguist, and Mark Johnson, a philosopher, have spent their careers studying how we think. In their classic book Metaphors We Live By, Lakoff and Johnson show that the figures of speech we use don’t simply color our conversation, they also “govern our everyday functioning, structure what we perceive, how we get around in the world, and how we relate to other people.”
The language we use shapes our thinking, with core concepts opening up some possibilities and foreclosing others. (I wrote about these linked ideas, what Lakoff and Johnson call entailments, last year in connection to Christian moral theology and exclusivism.)
How we analyze the raw facts of an complex issue like climate change isn’t the only thing that matters. The metaphors we use to discuss the issue and the casual language we use to describe the other people at the table also impact us more than we realize: “metaphorical thought is unavoidable, ubiquitous, and mostly unconscious,” and we also make significant decisions “on the basis of inferences we derive” from our metaphors.
One of my favorite extended examples from Lakoff and Johnson’s research is the metaphor of war:
This metaphor is reflected in our everyday language by a wide variety of expressions:
ARGUMENT IS WAR
Your claims are indefensible.
He attacked every weak point in my argument.
His criticisms were right on target.
I demolished his argument.
I’ve never won an argument with him.
You disagree? Okay, shoot!
If you use that strategy, he’ll wipe you out.
He shot down all of my arguments.
It is important to see that we don’t just talk about arguments in terms of war. We can actually win or lose arguments .We see the person we are arguing with as an opponent. We attack his positions and we defend our own. We gain and lose ground…
Though there is no physical battle, there is a verbal battle… The essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another. It is not that arguments are a subspecies of war. Arguments and wars are different kinds of things—verbal discourse and armed conflict—and the actions performed are different kinds of actions. But ARGUMENT is partially structured, understood, performed, and talked about in terms of WAR…
Our conventional ways of talking about arguments presuppose a metaphor we are hardly ever conscious of. The metaphor is not merely in the words we use—it is in our very concept of an argument. the language of argument is not poetic, fanciful, or [theatrical]; it is literal. We talk about arguments that way because we conceive of them that way—and we act according to the way we conceive of things. (pp. 4-5)
We act according to the way we conceive of things. Our metaphors and entailed language shape how we conceive of things. And therefore our language has real world, relational consequences. Language matters.
We need both a values shift and a language shift.
As part of his fierce criticism of the Vietnam war in 1967, MLK proclaimed that the world needed a values revolution. He told the Riverside Church that the logics of war, surveillance, topsy-turvy budgeting, eroded communal trust, and systemic poverty and structural disadvantage were a “way of settling differences [that] is not just.” He argued that they drew energy away from constructive care for the vulnerable “like a demonic suction tube,” and, if they were not checked, they would lead to “spiritual death.”
King insisted that he would “study war no more”—and then he framed war itself as an “enemy of the poor,” and announced his plan to “attack it as such.”
This War On War has not helped the Pentagon; in fact the government allocated the military $598 billion last fiscal year. And it has not helped poor people; in fact income inequality is worse in 2016 than it was in 1967. It is more likely that children will grow up impoverished and no more likely that they will transcend their birth economic class, especially if they are children of color, and we persist in a perpetual state of national insecurity under the DOD and the DHS.
As Lakoff and Johnson explain, the metaphor of war travels through our thoughts with networks of dominance, pain, and power-over, all entailments that work against the equity, justice, and freedom from violence that we aim for. It’s just not worth using this cognitive bundle as we work toward a stable climate or the policymakers we share our world with.
“It is a sad commentary on our society if we cannot say that something important is at stake in a societal debate without resorting to the inflated rhetoric of warfare.” —James Childress
Wars On Social Problems aren’t wars that seem to end, though they do entail plenty of human casualties. The War on Poverty hasn’t ended; nor has the War on Drugs, and only God knows when the War on Terror will be over. In The Leader’s Imperative: Ethics, Integrity, and Responsibility , James Childress explains the implications of the warfare metaphor in healthcare, HIV/AIDS response, and culture change. Our rhetorical wars have human, fiscal, and moral consequences, and as much as they entrain our thinking and problem-solving, they also heighten our fight/flight responses and limit our cognitive capacity to imagine more than we currently see.
We can use faith-based hope to answer the fruitless polarization of war.
Denial comes in more forms than the overt debates of a coal-funded think tank or a policymaker lobbying on behalf of his state’s export. Our casual language, especially in the context of politics, sometimes reveals our own reliance on polarized attack-and-defense at the very time we need trans-partisan cooperative action, not war.
Language can be as imperceptible as the consensual world of norms and customs that we’re all born into and operate in unconsciously every day. That social universe is as real as the rocks outside, and yet is more subject to our amendment than we realize: the great illusion of the social universe is that it’s less malleable than the physical universe that set us up to develop our societies in the first place.
We made our societies. We’ve made our wars. And we can get off the thought-train that requires us both to have “enemies” and to “defeat” them.
The fact is that we are one humanity on one planet, our political camps don’t exempt any of us, and we need the discipline of language from our best traditions to help us to remember the facts, cooperate, and resolve what challenges us all.