Sunday, March 8, 2009

Renewing the Earth

By David Luhrssen
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Religion and nature have permeated each other since the dawn of humanity. And yet as environmental problems mounted during the Industrial Age, many religious leaders failed to perceive the obligation in their beliefs to care for the earth. Especially within those strains of Western Christianity where God was radically separated from man and the world, religious leaders were even hostile to environmentalism.

Renewal, a documentary by Marty Ostrow and Terry Kay Rockefeller, examines several enlightened approaches to the environment by a handful of faiths in the U.S. In Appalachia a Roman Catholic priest formed a coalition with Evangelical Protestants (who until recently were especially remiss in their responsibility to creation) to oppose the rape of the mountains by coal mining companies. An East Coast interfaith group has awakened churches to solar panels, energy efficiency and recycling. Another group in Chicago worked with the local Muslim community to connect that faith’s tradition of painless sacrifice of animals for consumption with the region’s organic farmers.

Meanwhile American Buddhists promote recycling paper and overcome their anger at the likes of Bush and Cheney through meditation. A Jewish children’s center reminds campers that environmentalism began in the Torah and continues in everyday life. Catholics in New Mexico invoke a patron saint of agriculture with a ceremony blessing irrigation water, a moving act of solidarity with farmers against the developers of McMansions and strip malls. The elders of the indigenous Apache faith look on with understanding and approval.

The paths taken differ. Buddhists and Jews speak of the oneness of the cosmos. An African-American pastor in a poverty and toxin stricken Southern town believes the Holy Spirit spoke to him, calling him to action against the corporate oppressors. Liberal Episcopalians organize with other faiths for political lobbying and conservative Muslims look to the sayings of Mohammed. Increasingly drawn together in a common cause, their work should influence public discourse and, perhaps, change the shape of public policy.

Renewal screens at 7 p.m. on March 11 at the UWM Union Theater. It’s free and open to the public.

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