A month from now, on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, Jews all over the world will read the book of Yonah in synagogue. The book is an appropriate selection for the day when the Torah instructs us to “afflict your souls and don’t do any labor…because on that day he will atone for you, cleansing you; of all your offenses before the Lord you will be cleansed.” (Vayikra 16:29-30) In contrast to Vayikra (the Book of Leviticus), which describes an elaborate ritual to cleanse the sanctuary of metaphysical impurity, the book of Yonah explores the sometimes tortuous processes through which individuals and societies repent of past misdeeds and change their behavior.
The book tells of the prophet Yonah’s flight from the word of God, culminating famously in the prophet’s being thrown overboard from a ship and swallowed by a large fish. After the fish vomits him up on a beach, Yonah finally accepts his prophetic mission to the people of Nineveh. The text tells us “Nineveh was a city great to God, a three-day’s walk across. Yonah set out, came one-day’s walk into the city, and declared ‘In another forty days, Nineveh will be toppled!’” (Yonah 3:3-4) Then, in perhaps the most incredible part of the story (much more surprising than the business with the fish): the people of Nineveh immediately accept Yonah’s message and declare a public fast. The king of Nineveh himself not only participates in this public mourning but issues a decree calling for real change: “let all turn from their evil ways and the violence which is in their hands. Who knows, maybe God will turn and relent, turning from his anger so that we are not destroyed?” (Ibid. 3:8-9) In the end, God does relent in response to Nineveh’s repentance, making Yonah the only prophet in the bible whose warnings of imminent destruction are heeded, and thus avoided.
On Sunday, September 21, along with about 200,000 other people, I will be participating in the People’s Climate March, a “one-day’s walk” into the heart of New York City to demand immediate action on climate change. The march has been planned to coincide with a gathering of world leaders in New York for the 2014 UN Climate Summit. I am marching because the experts agree that if we as a global society do not meaningfully cut our CO2 emissions, we can expect to see uncomfortable changes coming our way. In recent years, as a New Yorker, I have seen first-hand the devastation wreaked by extreme weather events, the frequency and severity of which are expected to increase as atmospheric CO2 levels rise. If our society continues along the path that we are on, then, if not in forty days, perhaps in forty years, or a hundred and forty, our Nineveh will be toppled. That is why we must march, to demand that our leaders stand up to the powerful economic and political interests that would have them ignore or deny the very real threat of global climate change.
I have heard people ask whether a march in the streets to demand action by political leaders is a futile exercise. If past experience is any indication, it certainly does not seem likely that the leaders gathered at the UN Climate Summit will react to the warnings of climate scientists and activists with the same alacrity exhibited by the king of Nineveh. However, I don’t think that the answer is to give up and stay home. It’s important to remember that in this story, we are not just Yonah. We are also Nineveh.
Marching to the center of the city to deliver a prophetic warning of coming destruction is only one part of the mission of the People’s Climate March. The other part is to hear the warning ourselves, and be inspired to turn back from our evil ways (to borrow a phrase from the king of Nineveh). If, on September 21, 200,000 people march through the streets carrying signs and chanting slogans, and on the 22nd, we all go home again to business as usual, it’s safe to say we will have wasted our time. But if those same 200,000 people, or even a fraction thereof, are inspired by the experience to become more active in the global climate movement and to take concrete steps to reduce their own carbon footprint (e.g., taking mass transit or biking to work instead of driving, avoiding air-travel as much as possible), then the march will have been a success, whatever decisions are or are not made that day at the UN Climate Summit
In the story of Yonah, it was only after the people declared their fast and took action themselves that the king was moved to make the fast official and legislate the changes that would save their society. If we follow in the footsteps of the people of Nineveh, changing our behavior as a society from the ground up and building an ongoing mass movement to fight climate change, then our leaders will have no choice but to follow. If that happens, then, to once again quote the king of Nineveh, “perhaps God will turn and relent, turning from his anger so that we are not destroyed.”