by Kara A. Kaufman
As The New York Times reported last month, Jewish laws and customs regarding the environment can affect everything from when to let lands lie fallow to where to build a staircase. To better understand the role of religion in the choices people make regarding the environment, Moment spoke with Matthew Anderson, the director of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment (NRPE). In a political climate where polarization is the norm, his organization brings together Jewish and Christian partners who share similar goals of environmental sustainability and advocacy. Below is a lightly edited transcript of the interview.
What first got you interested in this work? What does NRPE accomplish?
I had an adult conversion experience to Lutheranism about seven or eight years ago, and that corresponds pretty closely to the amount of time I’ve been doing faith-based environmental work. Our partners do a whole range of things—everything from worship materials and study guides, theological conferences and funding and supporting scholarship. We do some direct programming. We get into God’s creation. And then lots of education around different issues, be it water or toxics, and certainly advocacy, for people to bring their distinct theology and the values and ethics that flow from their religious convictions and practices.
What do you see as the differences, if any, between the Jewish and Christian approaches to the environmental movement from within your organization?
I don’t know if there are differences. There are different things that COEJL [the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life] emphasizes in its work that are rooted in the fact that it is distinctly Jewish. COEJL encompasses all of the main streams of Jewish life in America. [It’s interesting to note that] we don’t have an umbrella Christian partner, but we do have an umbrella Jewish partner. One of the things COEJL has always done, and done well, is to communicate environmentalism in the Jewish call to care for the environment in the Jewish year, the Jewish calendar, and to anchor it around the holidays.
Seventeen years ago, the endangered species coalition that involved COEJL and the Evangelical partnership [the Evangelical Environmental Network], formed something called the Noah Alliance. It was a head-turner 17 years ago and is probably even more so now. For both to claim fully and passionately this call to care for God’s other creatures and to both work under that same banner—that was really something. You still hear people talk about it.
Your website notes that the religious community has been slow to address environmental issues. One explanation is that “many religious persons have been so enmeshed in modern technological culture that they have had a hard time questioning the assumption that the earth is merely an inexhaustible warehouse.” How do your partner groups counter this tendency?
Our work on this comes in a number of different forms. You see that with the Jewish Energy Covenant Campaign and its focus on conservation. There is an effort to recognize that resources and life-sustaining resources on this planet are abundant–that they were made to be abundant and fruitful by God–but not infinite. That’s a tough thing to wrestle with. There’s a segment of society in which it is okay to talk about discipline and self-restraint and on occasion the nobility of sacrifice—it’s the religious community. If not us, then who? Who’s going to talk about sufficiency, not just what’s efficient and possible, but what’s enough?
One story that pops to mind is the story of manna, and the clear warning that [story] gives us about hoarding. It’s a tough thing, thinking about [the limits of the planet] as an individual; think about how tough this is for us as a society. Certainly different segments of society can raise these questions, but the religious community is uniquely poised to offer time-tested solutions. Maybe not the practical how-to-fix-it solutions (there’s nothing in our traditions that tells us how to reduce energy use directly), but it certainly provides us with the motivation to be willing to reduce consumption.
Have you witnessed any conflicts between the Jewish and Christian organizations within your partnership?
I have not seen that directly; I am not aware of it. I think it’s a testament to the caliber of the people who work with the partner organizations and who work on our board. Some of the most moving moments have been personal exchanges between members of different religious communities and the deep abiding respect they have for each other—not in spite of their differences but because they’ve remained distinct. Our unofficial mantra is “Walking together, separately.” We don’t try to find most common denominators, but rather, [try to find] the unifying elements and the distinct elements, and then figure out how to move forward in terms of our vision and our goals.
Do you feel environmental issues provide opportunities for interfaith dialogue?
I think so very strongly. You can look at the work of leaders like Patriarch Bartholomew (the head of the orthodox church); he’s known for work on the environment and on interreligious dialogue and cooperation. Those two things go hand in hand; they have to go hand in hand, because whether it’s water pollution or air pollution or climate change, these things impact us and our homes and families and communities regardless of our religious orientations or beliefs. In the face of crisis, religion often helps us be the best versions of ourselves. That’s hopeful.
How do you deal with people who hold different interpretations of sacred texts, and who feel that their religious traditions allow humans dominion over the environment?
Our partners definitely come across that. There’s one very common response, which is: “We’ll talk about it.” There’s a willingness to talk about it rather than just a lobbing of a very forceful derisive statement. Our partners more often than not will take up that opportunity–“Let’s look up these texts.” That’s the most common response from us: “Let’s visit that together.”
What are the highlights you’ve seen since you began your tenure?
One of the things I hear is [how remarkable it is] that this interreligious effort, this formal collaboration—that we’re still here and that we’re successful. A lot of efforts might not last or be very effective. You find very few folks now who think that religion has nothing to do with the environment.
Recently, I’d point to the work our partners did to support the EPA’s mercury air toxics standard. Also the launch of COEJL’s [Energy Covenant] campaign. Collectively, the four partners worked together to protect the health of families, and particularly women and children, and that work has been acknowledged by lots of different folks at the EPA, within Congress, within the environmental community. All four partners were able to make a real-world difference in the lives of women and children and the whole of the environment, and were able to work in their own unique way—that is a real highlight for us.
Listen to Moment’s interview with the director of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life here.