My heart pounded when we sang Amazing Grace in our service on Sunday here in Durban.
“… I once was lost, but now am found; was blind but now I see.”
Soul-naked words that stir hearts everywhere. Words that transcend all boundaries because they speak to the universal human experience of being confronted with a choice between good and evil.
John Newton wrote this hymn when he needed to make a choice. He was a slave trader – wealthy, no doubt. His heart was changed when he realized that he had to choose between moral and immoral commerce.
With his choice made and his heart changed, Newton crafted a song that expressed his deep sense of relief and salvation, putting it to a West African tune that he had heard slaves singing from the depths of his ship. He was no longer prepared to sell people – or his soul.
Every broadly based social change throughout history has begun when individuals like Newton decided to no longer sell their souls, when they realized that they were participating in a system they couldn’t live with and made a choice to change.
John Woolman is another example. Woolman was a Quaker living in colonial New Jersey in the 1700s. He was a tailor by trade who received a ‘leading from God’ that slavery was a moral abomination and that Quakers should free their slaves. He took his concern to his Quaker meeting, asking Friends to ‘test his leading’. Two things became clear to Woolman’s community: 1) his personal integrity was beyond doubt and 2) many Friends remained unwilling to free their slaves.
Freeing slaves would mean considerable financial stress for the well-heeled Quaker gentry. But Woolman carried on, believing deeply that God is in every person. He continued acting in a way that was true to his own beliefs while also respecting those whose views differed from his own. And the community kept talking.
At the end of the day, Quakers were the first religious community in the U.S. to free their slaves, some 80 years before the Civil War. And in 1783, a decade after Woolman’s death, Quakers petitioned the U.S. Congress to correct “the complicated evils and unrighteous commerce created by the enslavement of human beings.”
Here in Durban we are witnessing the effects of another set of complicated evils and unrighteous commerce.
Modern civilization’s economic wealth relies on the burning of fossil fuels that puts high levels of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. That carbon is disturbing the climate, depriving some nations of the world of the ability to grow food to feed their people. It’s causing catastrophic storms and droughts that are killing tens of millions a year right now. It’s even threatening some nations with disappearance, including the low-lying islands of the Pacific Ocean.
These are the countries that are already poor, that have not built wealth so far from the burning of fossil fuels. Yet they are the first to feel the harm from the changing climate. They did not create the problem. They don’t take part in the profit. Yet they are suffering, even dying, under a system they can’t change on their own.
In effect, they are giving up their security, their lands, their lives in some cases, so that others can get rich. And who can change the system? The very ones who are getting rich. The countries that are using fossil fuels to grow their wealth.
To me, it sounds like slavery by the name of economic development.
Just as slavery was an immoral economic system that harmed many and profited few, burning fossil fuels and emitting carbon dioxide into our common atmosphere is an immoral economic system that harms many and profits few.
The solution in Woolman’s day was to abolish slavery. It took a civil war. And then the U.S. grew to become the strongest economy in the world.
The solution today is to phase out fossil fuels and develop clean green fuels. The countries in the position to pay for that and press it forward are the rich ones. And among them all, the Europeans are the only ones who are taking significant action. They were also the ones, by the way, who questioned slavery early on.
This is a moment of choice. We must choose between either committing ourselves to agreements that will allow a fairer economic system or carry on with morally bankrupt and unsustainable economies that enslave the poor now and will eventually threaten life on the whole planet, even those living in the rich nations.
The poignancy that this moment is taking place on the continent of Africa, source of the world’s slaves in eras gone by, and that Africa will be the first hit as climate disturbances increase, is not lost on me.
And today I witnessed six members of the Canadian Youth Delegation as they stood in silent protest when Canada’s Minister of the Environment, Peter Kent, addressed the plenary. Their T-shirts read: ‘People over Profits; Turn Your Back on Canada.’
While I personally remain committed to talking and praying until unity is achieved, I understand these young adults’ sense of urgency. Justice could not have come soon enough for slaves, and yet that dreadful economic system wasn’t facing a natural limit. The Earth’s life support system, on the other hand, does have a natural limit. Hard choices need to be made today.
As they were ushered out of the meeting hall, I saw peace in the young protestors’ faces. Remaining disengaged or passive in the face of Canada’s resistance to a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol is not a defendable choice. These Canadian youth know that their survival – and their souls – are at stake if they don’t speak up. They are prepared to risk whatever consequences their peaceful protest will bring.
They left the hall with more friends than when they arrived. The applause that enveloped them arose from a very polite, normally restrained international crowd.
I think of the action of the Canadian Youth Delegation as an invitation to amazing grace.