Returned "missionary" Tim DeChristopher | Opinion | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

Returned "missionary" Tim DeChristopher 

Activist returns from jail more devoted to cause

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As I move into my 63rd year on this spherical space rock, I’m becoming ever more aware that humans—the technologically enabled, apex predator, bottom-dwellers in this planet’s ocean of air—aren’t as different from one another as certain artificial dividers like political parties, corporate brands, national borders or even religious affiliation would have us believe.

The most recent reminder came as I attended the welcome-home festivities for environmental activist Tim DeChristopher. He was released from federal custody Friday, April 19, after serving two years for monkey-wrenching a Bureau of Land Management gas & oil lease auction. The parcels of pristine desert lands, adjacent to central Utah’s national parks, were put up for bid during the final throes of the fossil-fuel-fetished Bush regime.

Then, the ostensibly “green” Obama administration continued to prosecute DeChristopher with equal zealousness, despite the fact that the leasing of those parcels would have violated federal law anyway. Corporately influenced, political institutions tend to resemble each other, too.

But this was a week of celebration for DeChristopher and his supporters, of which I number myself as one. Tim had done his time and was welcomed back with open arms by us greenie allies and members of his faith community, the First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City, where he provided the sermon April 21.

At first blush, one would think the decidedly liberal folks at First Unitarian couldn’t be any more different than members of Utah’s politically conservative dominant denomination, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but please indulge this comparison.

As a former 53-year member of the LDS Church, I’ve attended many a missionary welcome-home celebration. The highlight is the “mission report,” in which the returning triumphal spiritual warrior—most often a young male about age 20 or 21—speaks to the congregation that bid him farewell two years prior. Favorite themes are the changes he’d seen in the lives of others and the ones that had occurred within himself. It’s often a sweetly moving experience as the young “elder” (one of the delicious oxymorons in the Mormon lexicon) recounts how he’d been able to help influence previously directionless individuals to embrace a brighter future complete with a joyful salvation of eternal duration.

The Unitarian vision of salvation seems to be “this” world rather than “other” worldly, as its members join with greenies of all religious and nonreligious stripes in seeing the greatest evil force operating in the world not as some cosmic bad actor like a Satan/Lucifer type but our species’ own greed and appetite for material possessions. Unitarians believe that the over-consumption and misuse of finite resources is a form of slow suicide that destroys the land, air and water upon which we rely for our very survival.

So, hell for a Unitarian green activist like DeChristopher isn’t an afterlife of flaming torment for evil deeds, as envisioned by many Christians. Rather, it’s a gradually warming atmosphere that will eventually make life miserable and perhaps unbearable for all species, including humans. A possible Mars-like future created by the release of buried carbon and methane that ultimately cooks the globe into unliveability is what motivates a missionary like DeChristopher to try to convince humans to save themselves from themselves.

Taking a bidder’s paddle and winning leases that he had no intention or means to buy became an act of spiritual devotion, and, retrospectively, DeChristopher has no regrets. In fact, he could have easily gotten away with a light or possibly no penalty had he bowed early on to the system and confessed an “error in judgment.” He chose the opposite course and defiantly lectured the judge at his sentencing that the world was essentially going to hell in an SUV and that only sweeping, society-shifting changes in consumption could avert it.

Mormon missionaries are not typically as sure of themselves when they begin their missions—I certainly wasn’t at 19. Most gain their “testimony” as they study, pray and work nonstop under a severe set of rules. It’s really not all that different from a prison sentence, but one in which you wear a tie and talk to people all day.

Interestingly, the primary benefit to the LDS Church is not the converts that missionaries make. In some cases, as in certain European countries, missionaries return home without baptizing a single soul into the faith. However, those two years of sacrifice, dedication and effort often engender a lifetime of faithful devotion to the church.

A similar dynamic seems to have occurred in DeChristopher. When I asked him what’s next, he told me that he’ll begin studies for a master’s degree in divinity at Harvard this fall. His goal is to be become a Unitarian minister. He’s not quite as sure about which direction his future environmental activism will take, but he’s in for the long haul there, too.

Unitarians, however, do tend to be less averse to engaging in intramural squabbles than Mormons with their deeply ingrained reverence for divinely appointed hierarchy. One of DeChristopher’s first battles is an internal one, trying to convince local and international Unitarian organizations to divest their endowments of all fossil-fuel investments. He sees the integrity and messaging coming out of such actions as far outweighing the potential loss of income. Other, more bottom-line-oriented Unitarians think otherwise.
Over the summer, DeChristopher will be traveling and lecturing in conjunction with the showing of a lush and compelling documentary film titled Bidder 70, which was made about him. From everything I’ve seen, I suspect this won’t be the last we’ll hear from or about this particular returned missionary. 

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