Faith and Forests is a special monthly series by Joseph Frankovic. In the series, Joseph will explore how his deep connection to spirituality and faith intersects with our forests and the work of Dogwood Alliance. The views and opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not imply endorsement by Dogwood Alliance.
When we use energy generated from fossil fuels, the emissions released during combustion raise carbon levels in the atmosphere. Climate scientists warn us that a direct and proportional relationship exists between carbon in the atmosphere and change in the climate. One of the more visible indicators of this global change can be seen in patterns of regional meteorology: Extreme weather events are becoming more destructive and more frequent.
Dogwood Alliance, a nonprofit organization based in Asheville, NC, has been raising awareness of the implications of more destructive and more frequent for frontline communities in the American South. The organization’s website connects the dots from climate change to increasingly severe weather, to greater damage being caused, to most of that damage being suffered by poor communities: “With climate change already affecting our coasts and severe weather events causing catastrophic damage in the South, vulnerable communities are being hit the hardest.”1
In this context, vulnerable describes communities where wages are low, educational opportunities limited, medical services insufficient, and means to evacuate inadequate. These communities tend to be populated by Americans of color and immigrants, and they are typically located near areas where intact forests were cut and natural resources extracted or land developed for industry without regard for either ecosystems or people who depend on them. By the way, intact forests mitigate the effects of powerful storms because of their capacity to absorb water and energy.
A very long time ago, people recognized that natural disasters disproportionately affect those who are poor. From a spiritual perspective, this disproportionality may conceal an obvious advantage for the struggle against social injustice.
For centuries, the Roman Empire once ruled the land between the Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea. After the destruction of the second temple in Jerusalem by the Roman commander Titus in 70 C.E., Jews continued to live and worship in their ancestral homeland. Sometime in the third century, the rabbis finished adding material to a collection of oral tradition, which they called mishnah. They also created a written version of this collection, which is referred to today as the Mishnah.
Jews living under Roman rule maintained a strong bond with the land of their ancestors. They built cisterns to store rainwater, terraced the hill slopes, and planted fields in the valleys. They raised sheep and goats and cultivated barley, dates, figs, grapes, olives, pomegranates, and wheat. Significant parts of their oral tradition centered on aspects of life that agriculture governed and seasonal weather patterns influenced.
One should not be surprised, therefore, to find guidance in the Mishnah for a public fast when extreme weather, in this case a drought, threatens the community.
מורידין לפני התבה זקן ורגיל,
ויש לו בנים וביתו ריקם,
כדי שיהא לבו שלם בתפלה
While standing for prayer,
they bring before the ark [in which the scrolls are kept] an elder who is familiar with the liturgy,
who has children, and whose home is empty,
so that his heart will be fully invested in the prayer.2
The elder whom they select to perform this task has three qualifications. The first he shares with other men who are present: He must be able to recite the appropriate prayer. The second qualification he also shares with other men who are present: He must be a father with dependent children. The third qualification he shares with fewer men who are present: He must be a father who lacks the means to provide adequately for his family. In other words, he is a poor man living in a vulnerable situation.
The poor man is chosen because he stands on the frontline of the consequences. He will be the first one to run short on food for himself and his children. He also will be the one who feels the effects most severely if drought persists. He recites the prayer before the ark in extremis: the lives of his family depend on it.
This old passage, which dates back to the early centuries of the Common Era, may be handled like a manuscript leaf that we place alongside big data and scientific research to humanize our conversation about vulnerable communities and the disproportionate load that they bear in an age of climate disruption. As civic-minded citizens and good neighbors, as people who are activated by a sense of urgency and responsibility and heightened self-awareness, we seek to help these communities prepare for the next extreme event, to support their recovery efforts in its aftermath, and to back them up in their fight against corporate and political freebooters who brutalize ecosystems for profit. This social justice agenda may sound a little naïve and appear to be sorely under-resourced, if we were to dismiss the opinion of one ancient epistle writer on struggling against evil. His perspective—when considered in the light of the Mishnaic passage that we analyzed above—nourishes the idea that a concert of prayers from the hearts of fully invested vulnerables can weaponize an ultraphysical struggle against greed and venality.3
- The Hebrew text of Seder Moed, Taanit 2:2, comes from Hanoch Albech’s edition of the Mishnah. I also relied on his commentary for translating the Hebrew to English.
- Christian tradition identifies the Apostle Paul as the author of the first-century epistle addressed to the Ephesians, the residents of Ephesus, an old Greek city whose ruins are located in modern Turkey. In the last chapter of that epistle, the author recommended that his auditors take up the armor of God. Although it is not metaphorically compared to a piece of armor, prayer is mentioned at the end of the section as part of the overall equipping process. At the time when the epistle To the Ephesians was written, the umbilical cord running from Judaism to nascent Christianity was tense, but still attached. Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity are sibling faiths whose roots lead back to the same source, namely Judaism of the late Second Temple period. I used the adjective ultraphysical after the manner of some authors who wrote on philosophy and religion in the late 19 th and early 20 th centuries.