Rev. Ellen Jennings
~ Isaiah 24:4-13 ~
This summer I saw Spike Lee’s film, Do the Right Thing, for the first time. When it came out in the late 80s, I was in Divinity School, and I honestly can’t remember going to any movies back then…
But, thirty years later, I found this film even more powerful than I would have in 1989. For those who haven’t seen it (or haven’t seen it in decades), it’s shot on one Brooklyn block of Bed-Sty on a brutally hot summer day, follows the lives of multiple characters, black and white, and culminates in the police murder of a black man and a riot that burns down a white pizzeria.
Though the absence of guns and cell phones is weirdly jarring, the film is disturbingly contemporary. Of course, there were plenty of police murders of black men in the 80s, but they weren’t typically reported (no cell phones). And though there have always been super-hot days in New York, they weren’t the norm. In any case, the police brutality and hundred-degree heat make it a film that could easily have been written and directed in 2019.
But it wasn’t. And, sad as it is that the challenges of today are not new, there’s something reassuring about the fact that the question raised by the film’s title is just as relevant now as it was thirty, three hundred, or even three thousand years ago. “What is the right thing to do?”
And here’s the version of this question I want to consider this morning: what does it mean to “do the right thing” in a world that’s emitted as much atmospheric carbon since Spike Lee made his movie with that name as it did in the previous two centuries of industrialization?
Have we done the right thing? No. We have not. Rather, we’ve chosen to ignore or deny climate science (neither being a morally superior choice) and are now, colloquially, in a pickle. I.e. stuck in a vat of brine that’s sucking our juices.
There are so many antecedents (not the least of which involve financial greed and religious perversion) that have collectively led to this crisis. But here we are. We’ve been told for three decades that if the earth heats up an average of 2 degrees Celsius virtually all coral reefs will die, retreating ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica will unleash massive sea level rise, and summertime Arctic sea ice, a shield against further warming, will begin to disappear. And now, many places in our own country have passed the two-degree mark. Meaning, we’re well down the road of irreversible climate change.
Which is both horrible and depressing. As Jonathan Franzen writes in a recent New Yorker piece, What If We Stopped Pretending?
If you’re younger than sixty, you have a good chance of witnessing the radical destabilization of life on earth—massive crop failures, apocalyptic fires, imploding economies, epic flooding, hundreds of millions of refugees fleeing regions made uninhabitable by extreme heat or permanent drought. If you’re under thirty, you’re all but guaranteed to witness it.
And, 16-year-old Swedish climate activist, Great Thunberg, bluntly states:
I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if the house is on fire, because it is.
Agh. Yes! Our house is on fire. It’s urgent. However… panic is not a good response. Humans are never our best selves when we respond out of fear. For when we flip into flight, fight, or freeze mode, nothing productive gets done. Which is, I suspect, why the Hebrew Prophets were never very successful. I mean, listening to Isaiah go on about a curse devouring the earth (24:6) or Jeremiah presciently ranting about a “wind too strong” that will doom the people (4:12) does not make me want to act. It makes me want to dive, headfirst, into the nearest bunker.
So, what does inspire us to action? How do we do the right thing?
Well, with gratitude to Jonathan, Greta, Spike, the Twelve Steps, and serendipity (meaning, G-d connecting them all), I’d like to share a few ideas.
Greta Thunberg (who, mind you, will be living with the results of our actions far longer than most of us) says:
I often talk to people who say, ‘No, we have to be hopeful and to inspire each other, and we can’t tell [people] too many negative things’ . . . But, no — we have to tell it like it is. Because if there are no positive things to tell, then what should we do, should we spread false hope? We can’t do that; we have to tell the truth.
I understand her, and God knows I admire her, but I’m not sure I agree. I mean, I don’t think we should spread false hope, but is there no room for any hope at all?
Perhaps it’s my age, but I’m inclined to go with Franzen, who suggests we rethink hope:
If you care about the planet, and about the people and animals who live on it… You can keep on hoping that catastrophe is preventable and feel ever more frustrated or enraged by the world’s inaction [false hope]. Or you can accept that disaster is coming and begin to rethink what it means to have hope.
“Rethink what it means to have hope.” But how? And, if we’ve already passed the point of no return, what does it matter? Why not just fiddle as Rome burns? Or, be like one of the 18th century Antinomians, who figured there’s no point in living a moral life if one’s behavior has no impact on being saved or damned anyway…
Well, because in my view doing the right thing has never been about earning a reward, whether that’s a place in heaven or saving the planet. Doing the right thing is, rather, a way of living. In gospel terms, it’s “Kingdom” creating, right here, right now. “Now,” being the only moment we ever have.
So, there are ethical choices to make. Just as there were at the time of the prophets, and the Antinomians, and in 1989. Right now, we have the option of doing the right thing, of making life and planet and people affirming choices. And you know what? This gives me hope! Because, when I’m focused on right living, right action, right now, there’s always the next right thing to do. Meaning, it’s far less likely I’ll fall into despair, which comes from feeling impotent, powerless, and unable to act.
Doing the next right thing is also about connection. And this is the ultimate defense against despair. As the Twelve Step Programs teach, the next right thing is never just about us. It’s about others, the planet, G-d. Which means, as we move forward into the unknown, somewhat frightening future, it will be even more important for us to live out Jesus’s command to love one another, even more important to care about the least of these, even more important to create connected communities and solid, equitable structures of local, regional, and national government that promote just and peaceful societies.
In fact, Franzen says these are each climate actions. In his words:
In times of increasing chaos, people seek protection in tribalism and armed force, rather than in the rule of law, and our best defense against this kind of dystopia is to maintain functioning democracies, functioning legal systems, functioning communities. In this respect, any movement toward a more just and civil society can now be considered a meaningful climate action. Securing fair elections is a climate action. Combatting extreme wealth inequality is a climate action. Shutting down the hate machines on social media is a climate action. Instituting humane immigration policy, advocating for racial and gender equality, promoting respect for laws and their enforcement, supporting a free and independent press, ridding the country of assault weapons—these are all meaningful climate actions. To survive rising temperatures, every system, whether of the natural world or of the human world, will need to be as strong and healthy as we can make it. [repeat last sentence]
It’s all climate action. So, take heart: at this planetary moment, there are myriad ways to act, limitless opportunities to do the right thing.
And yet, we have to choose. Because none of us can do it all. We each have to choose our own next right thing. One of mine is to purchase as little plastic as possible. Which is shockingly difficult. But I ask myself: is there a reasonably accessible alternative to this product? Often, there is. Thus, I’m buying bar soap instead of plastic pumps, using my stainless-steel water bottle instead of ever buying water, and choosing glass over plastic jars of food. And, you know what? I might not be changing the world, but I am making a difference. Each time I make a life and planet and people affirming choice. You can, too.
In the closing scene of “Do the Right Thing,” it’s pretty hard to know, after the murder, in the burned-out rubble of the pizzeria, what on earth the right thing is. But we’re left sensing the two main characters will do it. They may not be able to change the cultural history that led to their present moment of crisis. But they can choose their role in it. They can determine their next right thing.
Some say the original end of the movie had these two characters make up. But I’m glad Spike Lee changed it, because it would have been dishonest. Sometimes the next right thing is not clear, and the best we can do is take a little time. In this case, there’s no way either character was emotionally ready to make a good choice. Fear (or anger) doesn’t typically result in right action. Thus, it makes sense to spend time in discernment, i.e. reflection alone and with others. As one Twelve Step participant put it, “Prayer, for me is the guiding force that helps direct my thinking in times of indecision. It allows me to trust the universe for what it is, and head in the right direction. … There are certain choices, certain crossroads that we come to when we make a decision in life. Do we choose that direction based on serving selfish needs, or do we make that choice based on what is best for everyone involved?”
And this is precisely what I’m asking: that we choose the next right thing, based not on our own selfish desires and convenience, but on the good of the world. That we love our neighbor, prioritize the least of these, and promote justice, peace, and equality. Choosing the next right thing is no different today than it was thirty, three hundred, or three thousand years ago. It’s just deciding how to act; right here, right now. No matter what happens in the end.