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Religious leaders explore mankind’s duty to protect Earth

What do different religions teach about humans’ responsibility to protect the environment? This was the question posed at Arm in Arm’s Oct. 8 virtual event to a panel of three scholars from the Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The program, supported in part by the Harvard Cultural Council, was moderated by Arm in Arm member Linda Dwight who, at the end of the discussion, expressed gratitude to the panelists for their comfortable and open exchange of ideas, their knowledge, and their inspiration for collective action.

Arm in Arm was established in 2016 with a mission “to uphold a safe, inclusive social climate that values diversity and fosters respect for one another.” Members have worked tirelessly to bring a variety of speakers and experiences to the Harvard community. Thursday’s program was the latest in a series of panel discussions in which religious leaders have shared their perspectives. It reflected Arm in Arm’s value that “with our dedication to cultural education and your willingness to learn alongside us, we can spread love and navigate this life arm-in-arm.”


Rabbi Michael Rothbaum. (Courtesy photos)

Rabbi Michael Rothbaum of Congregation Beth Elohim in Acton spoke first. Screen-sharing pages from the Torah, he read from the story of God’s creation of a human being from the earth, from red clay. As Rothbaum put it, “God created an earthling from the earth” and then set him in the garden to till it and tend it, or, more literally, to work it and guard it.  Rothbaum said these lines make it clear that man is a laborer, a guardian in Eden. The Torah says every seven years man must let the earth rest, lie fallow. “We are renters on God’s land, meant to take care of it and move on,” said Rothbaum.

In the last book of the Torah, Moses gives instruction about guarding earth: “If you go to war, don’t kill the trees.” The fruit trees especially must be protected. Mankind must not wantonly destroy and waste. Rothbaum said that later rabbinic writings make clear that when people err, other people have to pay for it. If you pollute the public domain, you are liable to fix it. “We are all connected,” said Rothbaum. “We are all stewards.”


Dr. Celene Ibrahim.

Dr. Celene Ibrahim, a faculty member in religious studies and philosophy at the Groton School, chanted verses from the Quran about being merciful and compassionate. She related the creation story and emphasized that man must not transgress against the balance of Earth and its creatures. Echoing Rothbaum’s metaphor of us as renters, Ibrahim said we are travelers on Earth and should use it for strength to do good.

Ibrahim said the Quran teaches that the very fact of being human corrupts the soul and makes us greedy and selfish. We must constantly strive to avoid corruption and excess. We must guard against our arrogance that keeps us from respecting other species. This is illustrated in a story about how a man must not build his campfire too close to an anthill. We should eat and enjoy, but not to excess, and we must give to the poor. Using the image of a scale, where our good deeds in the world are measured against the ill, Ibrahim said we must keep balance with the natural world. In Arabic, the word for balance is the same as the word for justice. Like Judaism, Islam teaches to do no harm; even in war, don’t pollute water or cut trees. Man’s place is to care for animals, and if animals are used for food, they must be treated and consumed with mercy.


Rev. Steve Garnaas-Holmes.

Steve Garnaas-Holmes, a Methodist minister retired from St. Matthew’s in Acton, had a more historical approach. He said he is part of a movement that is going back to ideas of Christianity before it was lost to Greek philosophy and used to justify oppression in the time of the Roman Empire. He said that initially, Jesus was thought of as closely connected to nature. He exemplified a way of life based on justice and liberation. He saw man not as having dominion over Earth but as being in service to it. But, said Garnaas-Holmes, Christianity lost that “earthiness” when it became part of the empire and the religion became a justification for destruction.

He said concepts became pitted against one another, such as the flesh vs. the spirit argument, where the spirit is good and the flesh is lesser. Garnaas-Holmes gave insight into how the flesh and the spirit can be seen as one with all creation. He noted that what his fellow panelists had said about Judaism and Islam reflects the real meaning of Christianity by stressing the connection of all things. Interpretations that emphasize separation must be countered by the voices of those who want to get back to the truer meanings of Christianity.

Collective voice for action

Ibrahim shared how she struggles between the core values of her religion and her lifestyle. She said she is aware of how her consumption impacts others, especially the poor, and she strives for sustainability. “But then there are those packages from Amazon,” she laughed. The others agreed we have to acknowledge our faults and then, despite them, speak out for our ideals. We all have to do it together; there’s too much focus on the individual trying to make changes, said Rothbaum.

Dwight put up a poll asking the audience to check one action they would take to help the environment. An action that got a lot of checks was to eat less meat. Another was to develop a real appreciation and connection to the land. Ibrahim said she wants to talk to more indigenous people, to connect to the knowledge they have about respecting Earth. Suraiya Suliman talked about emulating her mother, who used every part of the vegetables she grew. Rothbaum described the large solar array they now have at Beth Elohim. Ellen Sachs Leicher said Harvard has an arrangement with an electricity broker for the supply of 100% renewable energy to all town residents (unless they opt out), and Dwight announced there will be charging stations for electric cars at the new Hildreth Elementary School and at Bromfield.

The speakers agreed that we have to save the environment together; it’s not sufficient to make good personal choices. A collective voice needs to make itself heard in the offices of government.

A recording of the event is posted on the Arm in Arm website (

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