11/21/2007 05:13 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Which Kind of Courage Are We Thankful For?

One of my great blessings this Thanksgiving has been reconnecting with a family from West Helena, Arkansas, whose father's Methodist Church I attended faithfully during the summer of 1965, when I was a voter-registration field organizer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. After church I would go over to Reverend Price's house for Sunday dinner, and in the past several weeks three of the daughters I used to hang out with have located me and shared their memories of that summer.

I knew, of course, that the segregationists in Arkansas didn't like what we were doing and that there was risk -- I spent one very scary half hour being threatened and beaten behind the jail myself -- but I didn't know that Reverend Price and his family had been threatened for letting me come speak at their church. Nor did I know that someone tried, unsuccessfully, to firebomb their house, with this result as one of the daughters described it:

Thus, the story goes, that as the family sat in the "front room" eating popcorn, drinking Kool Aid, and swapping lies one Saturday night, they heard a rush of footsteps in the front yard.

Just as my mother opened the door to investigate, an object was hurled in her direction. She caught it in her wicked left hand. Examining it momentarily, the story goes, she sent it back on its course. Then when it landed, without exploding, on the heels of the scampering interloper, she yelled, "Don't even know how to make a damn Molotov cocktail. If you ever bring your ass onto my property again, you'll feel the damage one can do."

That's how I understood American courage growing up -- the quiet determination of ordinary people to stand up for what was fair and right, not the blustering braggadocio we hear today from an appalling number of presidential candidates determined to convince us that on their watch torture will remain part of America's imperial arsenal.

We have lost part of our soul. And once again, as happened with the civil rights movement, it may be our institutions of faith -- churches, synagogues, temples, mosques -- that call us back to what is right. Six days a week, Reverend Price was a carpenter -- his ministry was on Sunday only -- but I'm convinced that his courage came in part from his Sabbath role -- as well as from his wife. As Congress gets ready to deal with the climate crisis, the churches are speaking out again. They are saying, as Patriarch Bartholomew I warned in Greenland in September, that this is a moment of kairos. And the churches are also reminding us that this is not just about us, it is also about the rest of the world, the poor in particular.

But Congress is not yet listening. Efforts to insist that some percentage of the proceeds from a carbon-reduction auction be allocated to help poor countries cope with the consequences of global warming that we have visited upon them are being stonewalled. Senator John Warner, one of the cosponsors of the Senate bill that came out of subcommittee, has been told by the White House and other Republican Senators that he must not concede the point that we owe the rest of the world for what we are taking from them with our carbon emissions.

Thus far, sadly, Warner is heeding this dictate and is framing the issue as one of "welfare" and "foreign aid." Well, it's no such thing -- it's rent for the carbon sinks and the climate that the coal and oil companies are using as if they -- and America -- owned them. As I've said before, there is no deed to the Maldives in Exxon-Mobil's corporate vaults, no agreement between Peabody Coal and Bangladesh allowing the coal company to flood the coastal regions of that country by raising sea level, and General Motors doesn't own the rights to the glaciers of the Himalayas that its SUVs are melting.

What the religious community is asking for is a very modest, humble recognition of this fact -- that global warming is theft and that the first world is stealing from the poor.

We can't solve global warming until we face this basic fact and, just as in the '60s, we should give thanks that voices of conscience are being raised, if not yet heeded. Will we find the courage to accept this truth?