Facing the Facts
November 12, 2015
Wen Stephenson was invited by the Reverend Kyle Childress, longtime pastor of Austin Heights Baptist Church in Nacogdoches, Texas and one of the key voices in What We’re Fighting For Now Is Each Other, to speak to the congregation. The church's congregation plays a crucial role in the resistance to the southern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline. They supported the Tar Sands Blockade and welcomed young blockaders into their homes.
Stephenson tells us: “By uncanny coincidence, I was in Houston, doing an event with the grassroots group TEJAS (Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services)—whose founders Juan and Bryan Parras, and organizer Yudith Nieto, figure prominently in the book—when the news broke that President Obama had rejected the Keystone XL pipeline, or the northern leg of it. And the very next day I went up to Nacogdoches. Too many people, especially in our national media, have forgotten that the southern leg of the pipeline was built with Obama’s blessing, and that it began pumping tar-sands crude to refineries in Port Arthur and Houston in January 2014.”
He adds: “I realize now that this book project wasn't truly finished until I went back to Nacogdoches and spoke to the people of that church community. It really closed the circle for me, in a profound way.”
“Be still, and know that I am God.”
Those words from the Psalm are among my mother’s favorite in the entire Bible. And believe me, my mother—who will be eighty-four next month—knows her Bible.
My mother always wanted me to be a preacher. As some of you know, although I was born and raised in southern California, my whole family, going back several generations, is from Texas, and I was raised in the Church of Christ. My mom prayed that I would go to Abilene Christian—where she met and married my dad, who was born and raised about three hours north of here, just east of Paris, Texas, where my grandparents were sharecroppers in the Great Depression. And she prayed that I’d become a preacher. Well, it didn’t quite work out that way. And yet here I am, at the age of forty-seven, almost forty-eight, finally delivering a sermon in a Texas church. When I told my mom about it, she was pretty excited. She didn’t even mind that it’s a Baptist church! (evidence, if there ever was any, that we are truly entering an ecumenical age.)
Maybe because of my family background, the first time I walked into this church, in July of 2013, I felt instantly at home. I felt like I was among family. And because I still feel that way, I’m going to go out on a limb right now, and take a leap of faith, and get real personal with you.
I’m coming up on a big anniversary. In April 2006, ten years ago this coming spring, I woke up. It’s that simple. I woke up. It’s hard to put an exact date on it. There wasn’t really any single moment, any more than there’s a single moment when night turns to day. But sometime in the early part of that month, almost a decade ago, I woke up to the reality of my situation—and somehow, by the grace of God, I was able to accept it, and act upon it.
You see, I woke up and accepted the fact that I had a very serious drinking problem—that I was, in fact, addicted to alcohol. I had reached the point where I had to accept the fact that if I didn’t change my life, and I mean radically change it, then I would not only end up killing myself, I would cause my children—my son who was then six, and my daughter who was two—and everyone else I loved, especially my wife, Fiona—incalculable and irreparable suffering.
That’s right. And as I stand here today, I can tell you that I have not had a drop of alcohol, or any other inebriating substance, since April 18, 2006—and I feel no desire to ever again. It’s no longer a struggle.
“Be still, and know that I am God.”
That’s the verse, and the deep, deep realization, which I learned from my mother, that helped me save my life and my children’s lives. I had to learn how to “be still, and know”—to accept God, or whatever it is that I, in my feeble humanity, understand as “God”—and know that I can live, day to day, even moment to moment, without alcohol. That I can be sober—completely, stone-cold, sober—for the rest of my life. And so I learned to be still, and to sit still—literally, sit still. I even took up Zen Buddhist meditation, something I practice to this day—indeed, I practiced this morning. And slowly but surely, I learned that I could live with the fear and anxiety—fear and anxiety that gnawed at my gut, and some days still gnaws at it, like a starving animal. I’d been trying to medicate myself, anesthetize myself, with alcohol. But in that place of stillness, and silence, as I faced the facts, I found a peace that passes all understanding, and I knew then, as I know now, that by the grace of God, I can do what needs to be done.
Why am I telling you all this about myself?
Because about four years later, in the spring of 2010, I woke up to another, far bigger, and, if possible, even more devastating set of facts. And if I thought coming to terms with my addiction was difficult, coming to terms with this new set of facts would be, if anything, even more so. Indeed, I’m still struggling to come to terms with them.
I’m talking about the set of scientific facts about human-driven climate change, and the political facts about our failure to address it. I mean the fact that because we have delayed so long—living, like addicts, in collective denial—catastrophic global warming is now upon us, arriving sooner and faster than the world’s climate scientists ever predicted.
I woke up to the fact that massive climate disruption is all but guaranteed within my own children’s lifetimes, quite possibly my own lifetime, and that if we don’t, as a society and a global human community, take radical steps, starting now, to transform our energy systems and decarbonize our economies—which, in this country, will require a profound political transformation and a society-wide mobilization—today’s children and future generations will inherit a planet inhospitable to human life and civilization, with all the chaos that comes with it.
Friends, this is really happening. In the summer of 2012, some eighty percent of the so-called permanent Arctic sea ice was gone—melted. The rate at which the Arctic is melting far exceeds what scientists predicted. And the stability of the global climate system depends largely on the Arctic.
And I’m sorry, but it has to be said: in the face of facts like these, the fossil-fuel industry—which holds the fate of humanity in its carbon reserves—has doubled down, economically and politically, on business as usual.
We’re told that “catastrophic warming” can still be avoided—that’s what the negotiations in Paris starting at the end of this month will be all about. But catastrophic warming, by any humane definition, is already happening. Because even now, what’s “catastrophic” depends on where you live, and how poor you are, and more often than not the color of your skin. If you’re one of the billions of people who live in the world’s poorest and most vulnerable places—the vast majority of them people of color, historically and presently oppressed under the legacy of slavery and colonialism, under a global economic system built on white supremacism, the same economic system driving climate change today—if you’re one of those people, from Bangladesh to sub-saharan Africa, from the Philippines to New Orleans or West Port Arthur the east side of Houston, then the intensifying storms, floods, droughts, heat waves we’re already seeing can be catastrophic.
The question now is not whether we’re going to “stop global warming,” or “solve the climate crisis.” It’s whether humanity will act quickly and decisively enough to salvage civilization itself—in any form worth salvaging. Whether any kind of stable, humane, and just future—any kind of just society—is still possible.
And it is. It is still possible. From a technical standpoint, that’s what the world’s climate and energy experts want us to understand. The obstacles, as insurmountable as they may seem, are no longer technological or financial. They’re political. Which is to say, they’re moral. We need a political and moral revolution—what the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in his great speech at the Riverside Church in April 1967, called “a genuine revolution of values.”
Look, this is hard. Coming to terms with the climate catastrophe is hard. It’s frightening, it’s infuriating, it’s heartbreaking. It forces us into a dark night of the soul. One of the things I’ve found in talking with so many people, is that there’s a spiritual crisis at the heart of the climate crisis.
So in the face of all this, how does one respond?
Rather than retreat into various forms of denial and fatalism and cynicism, more and more people, and especially a young generation of activists, have reached the conclusion that something more than merely “environmentalism,” and virtuous green consumerism, is called for. That the only thing offering any chance of getting through what’s coming with our humanity intact, is the kind of transformative social and political movement that has altered the course of history in the past. A movement like those that have made possible what was previously unthinkable, from abolitionism to civil rights. A movement that is as much spiritual as political. Because the movements that change the world are moral movements. They’re spiritual.
Some of the people engaged in building that movement, engaged in creating communities of resistance, and communities of resilience—resistance and resilience—some of them I met right here in this church. Wide-awake people who have faced the facts, and honestly confronted despair—and yet, somehow, have found the resolve to keep fighting. Young people who went to jail and even risked their lives to try and stop a pipeline—and to bear moral witness before the eyes of the world to everything that pipeline represented and still, here in East Texas and Port Arthur and Houston, represents: the corporate greed, the political corruption, the environmental injustice and racism, the disregard for human rights and human life.
And those of you I met here in this church, who stood by those young people, in some cases literally stood with them, and who took them into your homes, and fed them, and comforted them, and loved them. Loved them.
And don’t you believe for a minute that what happened here, and up and down that pipeline route, didn’t matter or make a difference, or that it was a lost cause. The President of the United States of America just stopped the rest of that pipeline from being built, and the hundreds of thousands of barrels of tar sands it would have carried, in no small part because of the national resistance that was galvanized by what people did here, showing the world what it looks like to stand up against impossible odds. Yes, it’s a bittersweet victory. And yes, it’s just one pipeline. And yes, Montgomery, Alabama was just one southern city. And that bus that Rosa Parks sat down in, and stayed sitting, was just one city bus.
Those young people here and in Houston, and those of you here in this church, were among those who showed me what it is we’re really fighting for—who taught me that, given the facts we now face, our struggles for social justice and human rights and for community—what Rev. Dr. King called the “beloved community”—matter more than ever. Who taught me that, given everything we now know, it’s time to fight like there’s nothing left to lose but our humanity. Who taught me that what we’re fighting for now is each other. That’s what love looks like.
It won’t always look like fighting a pipeline, or keeping carbon in the ground. More often than not, it’s going to look like fighting for our brothers and sisters across town and across the tracks. Because it matters more than ever what kind of a society we’re going to have, what kind of community we’re going to have, what kind of a people we’re going to be, as we face this future together.
Jesus didn’t run away from the facts. He faced them. He accepted them. Jesus faced the facts, even though they led him to hell and back, though they led him into despair, and through despair, to peace and resolve and self-sacrificing action.
On the night of the Last Supper, Jesus told the apostles, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”
“Be still,” he might as well have said, “and know that I am God.”
The victory Jesus won that night, in the garden, as he prayed for the bitter cup to be taken from him, and found the resolve to answer his calling—the victory Jesus won was the triumph of love over fear. In the stillness of prayer, he faced the facts, and knew that God is love. And through love he overcame fear, and found the peace and the courage and the resolve to do what had to be done—to take up his cross. My friends, brothers and sisters, in our own darkest hours, may we, by the grace of God, do the same.
Click here to listen to Stephenson deliver his sermon to Austin Heights Baptist Church.
About the Author
Wen Stephenson, an independent journalist and climate activist, is a contributing writer for the Nation. Formerly an editor at the Atlantic and the Boston Globe, he has also written about climate, culture, and politics for Slate, the New York Times, Grist, and the Boston Phoenix. Follow him on Twitter at @wenstephenson.