Tuesday, January 28, 2014

"Every one 'neath their vine and fig tree": a vision of the earth and city restored


Although my wife Jill and I come from very different theological perspectives—I am a liberal Quaker, and she is an Evangelical Christian—we share many core values in common, including a deep concern for God’s creation. We both believe that the “earth is the Lord’s” and we have a responsibility to treat the earth, and all life, as sacred. We also take seriously the prophets who called for “Jubilee”—cancelling debts and redistributing land to their original owners so wealth (land) will not become concentrated in fewer and fewer hands (as has happened, with dire effects, here in the United States). Human greed and systemic injustice are among the leading causes of environmental degradation.
When we were married two years and a half ago, we chose as our “theme song” a hymn based on the prophet Micah: “Every one ‘neath their vine and fig tree/ Shall live in peace and unafraid. And into plowshares turn their swords/Nations shall learn war no more” (Micah 4:4) When guests come to visit, we love to sing them this song!
This vision of the Peaceable Kingdom is at the heart of the biblical vision of shalom—a healthy society based on justice and peace.
“God’s green earth” begins in our own background and local community. Jill and I do what we can to make our lifestyle sustainable. We grow our own organic fruits and vegetables, using innovative watering techniques like Netaphim (an underground watering system developed by the Israelis). And we lovingly share with our neighbors the fruits of our bountiful garden. Even though we live in the poorest and most crime-ridden area of Pasadena, we feel at peace and unafraid.
We have a passive solar system to heat water for our showers. We are installing a solar power system and are using gray water. We hope to reduce our water consumption by 20-25% and electricity bill by 100% within the next year.
Another way to reduce our carbon footprint is to live in smaller homes, or share our homes with others. American homes are twice the size they were a generation ago, which is one reason we use so much more of the earth’s resources. We have opened our home to a homeless man who helps us to maintain our property; and it’s a win-win for us, our guest, and the environment.
We also advocate for policies that will benefit the poor and the environment.
As a member of the Christian Community Development Association—a multi-ethnic, interracial group of Evangelical Christians committed to economic justice—Jill advocates for policies to create walkable, less car-reliant communities that are racially and economically mixed.
When people have to commute long distances to find work, they have less time for families, friends, and community involvement. If every community allowed sufficient density and affordability, we would have less traffic, less air pollution, and safer neighborhoods. Smart growth creates healthier and more environmentally friendly community.
Jill’s views on housing and the environment are grounded in the biblical idea of Jubilee, which means the God is the ultimate owner of all land.  She argues for the creation of more community land trusts (CLT) because in a CLT, people own their homes but lease the land. CLTs ensure that housing will remain permanently affordable. Over 200 cities have CTLs that provide affordable housing to low income workers.
We believe that suburban sprawl and low density policies contribute to pollution.  Cities like Portland, OR, have shown there is a better way. Portland has an urban growth barrier around the city to preserve farm lands and open space; it also encourages higher density development along with excellent public transportation. Policies were instituted requiring that a significant portion of inner city housing be set aside as affordable. As a result, the residents of Portland use 35% less energy per capita than those in comparable cities. Portland has also become a more livable and friendly city.
When we look at pollution from a global perspective, we see that war, poverty and the desecration of the earth go together. Numerous studies show that war is the greatest polluter on the planet. Each year millions of people are displaced from their homes and impoverished because of war.
If we want to end war and restore “God’s green earth,” we must speak truth to those in power, like the prophets of Israel. Friends Committee on Legislation, a Quaker lobbying organization in Washington, DC, decided both to model and advocate for an “earth restored.” When the FCNL office building had to be remodeled in 2003, it was made as green as possible, with geothermal heating and air conditioning, a vegetative roof, bamboo floors, light scoops and other ways to reduce energy consumption.  (Jill’s book on affordable housing includes a section on alternative, sustainable construction methods, such as super adobe and straw bale.)
Concern for the earth is shared by people of all faiths: Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, and those who see themselves as “spiritual, but not religious.” In 2007, I edited a book called EarthLight: Spiritual Wisdom for an Ecological Age, which explores the spirituality of environmentalism from a variety of faith perspectives.
As this book shows, and as my wife and I have discovered, we don’t have to agree on theology to work together to save our planet. We see around us the growing effects of climate change—increasingly erratic weather patterns, storms, melting glaciers, droughts, desertification, resource wars—and we cannot help feeling concerned for the future of our children and grandchildren. We know we must not bury our heads in the sand and deny what the world’s leading scientists are telling us. Nor can we ignore the words of the prophets. We have to do what we can to preserve this beautiful and fragile planet. After summing up God’s laws on land use and the just treatment of the poor, Moses concludes: "Today I have given you the choice between life and death, between blessings and curses. Now I call on heaven and earth to witness the choice you make. Oh, that you would choose life, so that you and your descendants might live!” (Deut 30:19).

Anthony Manousos, a retired Quaker magazine editor and college professor with an Ph.D. in English literature, has edited and authored many books relating to peace, environmentalism, and compassionate listening. He serves on the board of Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace and Friends Committee on National Legislation. He is married to Jill Shook, a housing justice advocate, teacher, and “catalyst” who gives workshops around the country. Together they have revised Making Housing Happen: Faith Based Affordable Housing and work together to promote housing justice, peace and environmentalism.

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