Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

The Longest Day
distributed 6/21/19 - ©2019

For those of us in the northern hemisphere, today is the summer solstice. For those in the global south, it is the winter solstice. These are astronomical events, defined by the seasonal variation in the position of the sun.

To be technical, the precise summer solstice for 2019 was several hours ago: "when the solstice occurs, the sun will appear to shine directly overhead for a viewer stationed on the Tropic of Cancer (latitude 23.5 degrees north) in the western Atlantic Ocean, roughly 600 miles (965 kilometers) to the northwest of San Juan, Puerto Rico."

In the north, June 21 is the longest day, and the shortest night, of the year. "On the chance you live near the Arctic Circle, the sun never really sets during the solstice."

The passage of seasons has been marked by virtually every human society. In many cultures and faith traditions, the solstice is a time for significant rituals -- some of them practiced very enthusiastically. ("A lot of children are born nine months after Midsummer in Sweden.")

I urge my Christian readers to take note of the occasion, not necessarily by dancing "skyclad" around a bonfire, and certainly not by enacting the pagan or neopagan notion of "the exchange of power between gods or the shifting of the god and goddess into a new form." For today, I'll suggest a rather stogy and cerebral recognition of solstice in the context of a biblical faith and the striving for climate justice.

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The solstice is absolutely predictable. By all kinds of measurements -- most especially the movement of the sun's arc across the sky -- it is easy for a careful observer to mark this longest day of the year.

Within a biblical faith, the solstice is part and parcel of the orderliness of God's creation. The structure of God's creation includes the astronomical regularity of days and seasons, the progression of solstice and equinox, the movement of the sun and moon that define the calendar.

We go way back to Genesis 1:14-15, the fourth day of creation in the magnificent Priestly telling of our beginnings. "And God said, 'Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years.' " Biblically, the solstice has nothing to do with gods and goddesses. Indeed, the priestly writers were careful in not naming "the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night" to be very clear that these are just objects, not divine beings.

A few chapters later in Genesis, at the end of the flood narrative, the text again affirms the regularity of these seasonal markers. God promises Noah, and his family, and every living creature, "As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease." (Genesis 8:22)

And that's where we need to be a bit careful. The sentence from Genesis 8 has been used by some to insist that God will not allow climate change to disrupt the world. One of those who has quoted the Bible to deny reality is Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe. Four years ago, I wrote an open letter to him, rebutting his two distortions of scripture. (He has never responded to acknowledge the truth I wrote, or the error of his thinking!)

God's self-spoken vow after the Flood -- in the language of modern astronomy -- is that earth's orbit of the Sun will not be disrupted. That is quite different from a promise about the stability of weather and climate. Throughout the Bible, and throughout history, there has often been drought, even devastating drought, where harvest never came. And the Bible frequently describes those devastations as a consequence of human sin.

The solstices will come like clockwork, but it is quite possible for biblical thought to imagine that humans can bring about distortions of global climate systems. Any responsible observer now has to admit that those climate distortions are well underway. Extreme weather events are becoming more frequent and stronger. Long-standing patterns of seasonal climate, monsoons and dry seasons, are becoming irregular.

Across the central US this year, massive amounts of unseasonable rain have devastated communities and disrupted agriculture.

Scientists say it's too early to tell to what degree this particularly relentless spring storm season is the result of human-induced climate change. But they agree that rising temperatures allow the atmosphere to hold more moisture ... which produces more precipitation and has been fueling a pattern of more extreme weather events across the US.

There are innumerable examples of this climactic turmoil. I have been moved by one account, told by Mary Robinson, in her book "Climate Justice: Hope, Resilience, and the fight for a Sustainable Future." Robinson writes of Constance Okollet, a small-scale farmer and community organizer from eastern Uganda, who testified at a climate hearing in 2009.

Constance recounted how her tiny village had been devastated since 2000 by drought, flash flooding, and erratic seasons. "In eastern Uganda, there are no seasons anymore. Agriculture is a gamble."

Robinson asked Okollet and other farmers who testified if what she was hearing was simply the long-standing pattern of farmers all over the world who complain constantly about the weather.

Constance looked me straight in the eye and did not waver as she delivered her retort. "This is different," she told me with quiet resolve. "This is outside our experience."

The instability of weather is an expected manifestation of climate change. The experience of chaos, that "there are no seasons anymore," is a fracturing of the climate predictability which has allowed the growth of human agriculture and civilization. Yes, there have been extreme and extensive droughts, but the breakdown of seasons themselves, across large sections of the globe, is "outside our experience."

So, too, of course is the primary driver of that instability. This week, the benchmark reading for carbon dioxide in Earth's atmosphere is 414.22 parts per million, far outside Earth's experience going back more than 800,000 years. And our collective human civilization continues to push up those CO2 levels, even as we know the consequences of our actions. (The United States, especially under the current administration, is most willfully contributing to this damage.)

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Today is the summer solstice for the northern hemisphere. It is an occasion to reflect on, and celebrate, the orderliness and predictability that are built into the natural world. It is a time to rejoice and give thanks that, astronomically, "seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease."

Precisely because we recognize the blessing of that orderliness, the solstice is an appropriate occasion to reflect on the disruption of Earth's climate, and the profound damage that we are causing to human communities and the rest of the natural world.

Our use of fossil fuels, our insistence on constant economic growth and ever-increasing luxury for the affluent of the world, is breaking the orderliness of creation.

On this very predictable day, I urge you to pause in reflection and prayer. Take time for both gratitude and confession. Consider this day how you will join the movement seeking climate stability and climate justice.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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