Sermon: Stories Of Humans And Earth: Tim DeChristopher

2016 December 11
by Rev Ana Levy-Lyons

I want to share with you a true story of humans and the earth. It was during his last weeks in office in 2008 that George W. Bush made a last-ditch, lame duck effort to fulfill his promises to the oil and gas industry by opening up a large piece of BLM land in Utah for drilling (BLM, which in this case does not stand for Black Lives Matter, but rather Bureau of Land Management). They would auction off leases covering over 22,000 acres of land. The land was a sensitive watershed area near Arches National Park and Dinosaur National Monument. If you’ve ever had the privilege of being out there, it’s incredibly beautiful – it’s all red rocks in crazy formations, like you’re in a Roadrunner movie. Of course, environmental groups and the National Park Service opposed the leases, saying that the process was too rushed and there had been no time for an environmental review of the land. Despite the protests, the auction was scheduled and the auction happened. Bush was determined to get this done before he left office. It was a time in many ways parallel to this one.


The auction house was full on that December afternoon in 2008 – mostly older oil and gas men wanting to get in on the good deal before Obama took over. But one young 35-year-old had slipped in as well. His name was Tim DeChristopher. (The name might sound familiar because he actually preached here last year.) He was a Unitarian Universalist and an environmental activist. He declared his intention to bid on the land and took a paddle. The bidding began. DeChristopher initially intended to just force the companies to pay more for the land by bidding the price up. But as he sat there and watched this scene unfold, something shifted in him. He was watching humans selling and buying public land in order to drill holes in the earth in order to extract oil and burn it, humans in real time creating the climate crisis, humans blithely causing the scorching of the earth, humans accelerating our own demise. He saw a fellow activist from his church across the room quietly crying. Something shifted inside him and he decided to go all the way. He kept bidding until all of the other bidders fell away. At $1.8 million, he won the land, the gavel fell, and the auction ended. It didn’t take long for them to figure out that DeChristopher had no $1.8 million dollars. He was arrested by federal agents and taken into custody.


This year at First U we are telling a series of stories about humans and the earth, one story from each of our Unitarian Universalist sources. Today’s story comes from the second source: “Words and deeds of prophetic people which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love.” Tim DeChristopher is our “prophetic person” this morning. Two things happened as a result of his illegal land grab: 1. In the time it took to reschedule the auction, Obama’s administration had taken over, they declared the lease of the land illegal on environmental grounds, and the auction never happened.  2. After a long court battle, Tim DeChristopher was sentenced to prison and ended up serving almost two years. These two facts are closely intertwined. It was Tim DeChristopher’s prophetic words and deeds that were responsible for both.


It’s clear enough how his deed was responsible – his fake bidding led to both saving the land and to his being charged with two felonies. But his words and the indirect effects of his action turned out to be the most powerful thing of all. It took two years for his trial, conviction, and sentencing. During those two years he became defiant. He became a leader in the environmental movement. He started an organization called Peaceful Uprising. He became a public speaker calling out those in power, warning of the dangers of climate change, calling on people to follow his lead, to engage in civil disobedience with the moral authority of knowing that the future of humanity is at stake. He preached wherever he went in the tradition of the biblical prophets, warning that we have to change our ways or we will be destroyed. The spiritual force of his message galvanized the climate movement.


And it was this power – the moral power of his convictions – and the people’s movement that it inspired, that was the biggest problem to the courts. Their fear was palpable: The jury was shielded from information about climate change or DeChristopher’s motivations. They were shielded from literature that said they could vote their conscience. The judge allowed only jurors who would decide on the basis of whether he had broken the law – anyone who might factor in why he broke the law was dismissed. After his conviction, the judge made it clear that he wanted a prison sentence to serve as a deterrent to others who might try something similar. And he made it clear that it was because of DeChristopher’s outspokenness and remorselessness that he had to be punished. He said that were it not for DeChristopher’s “continuing trail of statements” after the auction, he might have avoided prosecution and prison. “The offense itself, with all apologies to people actually in the auction itself, wasn’t that bad.”


So there you have it: the profound insecurity and fear that people in power feel in the face of moral, spiritual, nonviolent resistance. DeChristopher said, “[My message] may indeed be threatening to the power structure. The message is about recognizing our interconnectedness. The message is that when people stand together, they no longer have to be exploited. Alienation is perhaps the most effective tool of control in America, and every reminder of our real connectedness weakens that tool.” They were so afraid of what might happen if people realized their interconnectedness, they had to cover the ears of the public to what this trial was really about. In a more general sense, this covering of the ears of the public to environmental crisis has defined the relationship between humans and the earth for the past hundred years. Just think about the fact that in the three presidential debates this year, there was not a single question about climate change or the environment.


Climate change has been described as a gun with a silencer on it. We can see the deaths, but we don’t know where they’re coming from. The warming and changing of the climate is already killing people, already creating climate refugees, already destroying ecosystems. And it is on track to cause mass starvation, flooding of coastal cities, and extinction of species like there hasn’t been since the age of the dinosaurs. Not in the distant, distant future, but in our grandchildren’s lifetimes. Climate change is on track to bring about, quite literally, the end of the world as we know it.


Do you hear how that sounds? It sounds ridiculous. Because we never hear it from anyone with real authority. The end of the world as we know it. It can’t possibly be true. Sure, we’ve got environmental problems, but come on. Mass starvation? Mass species extinction? New York City under water? That’s a Hollywood movie, that’s a sci-fi novel; that’s an REM song, that’s not reality. People have been talking for centuries about the end times coming. Conspiracy theorists and UFO aficionados and prophets have said, “the end is nigh!” over and over. They’ve been wrong every time. On top of that, the liberal religious preaching tradition is a restrained, reasonable tradition. We pride ourselves on moderation in all things. We seek balance. And so when I say things like, “climate change is on track to bring about the end of the world as we know it,” the words feel awkward coming out of my mouth. It’s uncomfortable; it’s embarrassing to say them. I feel silly.


I don’t know how to say it in a way that doesn’t sound like some quack from the middle ages. I don’t know how to say it in a way that retains my credibility as a reasonable, balanced minister. So I have to take my inspiration from the words and deeds of prophetic people like Tim DeChristopher and say it anyway: If you believe the science, which I do, humanity has never been in this position before. This is a unique moment in history. This is real. These disasters are coming if we – the human family – don’t radically change our ways and even to some extent if we do. And right now we are speeding in the other direction, especially with fossil fuel moguls poised to take the most powerful positions in the land. Right now is an emergency.


In our reading a few minutes ago, we were reminded of how “always it is easier to pay homage to prophets than to heed the direction of their vision.” So how can we do more than just talk about how great Tim DeChristopher is? How can we heed the direction of his vision? We can align our words and deeds with our faith calling. We can become willing to take risks, including risking the disapproval of reasonable, moderate people in order to take the silencer off the gun. Not all of us are in a position to commit civil disobedience and go to jail. But some of us may be. And every one of us can get involved on some level in making climate change the public emergency that it has to be. We need to get really loud.


For example, you have an insert in your order of service, listing a bunch of different interconnected areas that you could jump into. When I preached a couple weeks ago about Standing Rock, I talked about the power of working at the intersection of what used to be thought of as separate issues. I’m personally working with two organizations. One is called Greenfaith. I’m working with them to organize New York City faith communities to speak out during the first hundred days of the new administration. The other organization is The People’s Climate Movement. They sponsored the big climate march in New York a couple years ago. They’re committed to the intersectional approach I just mentioned, meaning that their demands include justice issues like $15 minimum wage and just transition for workers from fossil fuels to renewable energy. We are planning another huge People’s Climate March, this time in D.C. on April 29th, at the end of the first 100 days. I invite you to work with me through one or both of those organizations. Put the People’s Climate March in your calendar, along with the women’s march. I know it’s a lot, but we need all hands on deck right now.


The important thing is to both do the deeds and speak the words. It’s very important, for example, to change our consumer practices – eat mostly plants, recycle, use less energy, repair stuff instead of buying new stuff. But if we just do these things silently, privately, it will have virtually no impact. We need to tell companies and people and our kids that we’re doing it and why we’re doing it. We need to be willing to risk being seen as a little extreme, a little holier than thou, a little whatever in order to take the silencer off the gun. Because when our deeds are matched with words, then we help create culture change, which is ultimately the change that will save us. The government can deregulate polluting industries all they want, but if people aren’t buying the products of those industries, they won’t get made. We take the silencer off the gun by speaking out over and over, and my faith tells me that the gun will stop being fired.


In DeChristopher’s case, the deed, the bidding on the land, was actually silent. And the judge himself said that the offense itself wasn’t that bad. It was his words that landed him in prison and his words that had the impact. It was his words that inspired thousands of others; it was his words that gave the moral and spiritual power to his actions. After he was sentenced, DeChristopher was allowed to speak to the court. He explained that he is not going to stop fighting and that the people are not going to stop fighting on behalf of our common home. He ended by saying, “This is not going away. At this point of unimaginable threats on the horizon, this is what hope looks like. In these times of a morally bankrupt government that has sold out its principles, this is what patriotism looks like. With countless lives on the line, this is what love looks like, and it will only grow.”

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