toward a christian theology of environmental justice

Our family's modest efforts and choices to become more environmentally responsible aren't about do-goodism, tree-hugging, or liberal guilt; I passionately believe that we honor God as Creator by caring for his creation.

Sadly, Christians are not often known for "creation care." There is a rarely-articulated but widely-held belief that if the world is going to end and we're going to heaven, what does it matter how we treat the earth today? Some look at the Genesis creation narrative to justify humankind's right to do as we please to the earth, since God created Adam and Eve to rule over it (Genesis 1:26). While I believe that particular interpretation to be grossly inaccurate, I don't wish to defend that passage here. Instead, I want to examine Genesis' other creation narrative, which makes clear that the earth is not ours to use and use up but rather something entrusted to our care.

The creation story is told twice in the first two chapters in Genesis. According to scholars, the retelling of the story with different emphases and details indicates different authorship. Genesis 1 gives the priestly account, and its concerns include order and authority: God creates Adam and Eve in his image, and the verbs rada (have dominion) and kabas (subdue) are God's instructions to them in relation to the earth.

The second creation narrative, found in Genesis 2, is called the Yahwist account. In it, the man (Adam) is made from the earth (adama), which more specifically translates arable soil, capable of being cultivated. God places Adam "in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it" (Genesis 2:15).
The verb employed by the Yahwist for cultivation is not kabas, "subdue," used by the priestly writer in Genesis 1, but abad, "serve." In the Hebrew scriptures, abad is the customary term to express servitude of slave to master (Genesis 12:6), of one people to another (Exodus 5:9), and of Israel's service to God in its life and worship (Exodus 4:23)...This way of speaking of agriculture views the human as the servant, not the master, of the land. It emphasizes human dependence on, rather than dominion over, the earth. 1
From the adama God creates Adam to be a farmer whose well-being is inextricably linked to the health of his crops and and the fertility of the land. The Yahwist language reveals that the earth is not ours to exploit, but something we must carefully tend and serve in order to be obedient to God. It is fitting that the same word "serve" is used in scripture to describe the people's relationship to God and to the land, for how can we truly serve the God who made the earth if we damage it with our lifestyles and choices?

As a Christian, I believe that taking care of the earth is part of what it means to be faithful. But being green isn't simply about serving the earth: making choices to limit consumption, reduce waste, and use fewer chemicals is intimately related to the biblical mandate to "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Mark 12:31). Land, water, air, and plant and animal life are not the only things that bear the effects of our mistreatment of the planet. In the two-thirds world:
the onset of economic development for corporate profit brings deforestation, soil erosion, and polluted waters, which in turn leads to the disruption of local cycles of nature and the sustenance economies on which poor people depend. Sheer human misery results. 2
The people most adversely effected by environmental degradation are often the poor, women and children, and communities of color--the very "least of these" whose treatment, Jesus said, will demonstrate the authenticity (or inauthenticity) of Christian faith and salvation (Matthew 25).

Living a green life is about so much more than recycling and reusable bags.

To be green is to care where trash transfer stations and medical waste dumps are built ("Not in MY backyard!") and about the children who live nearby who suffer disproportionately from asthma and other illnesses. It is actively choosing not to obey our desire for more or better at the expense of the earth and someone else's quality of life. We honor God and the image of God in one another by acknowledging the ecological and human costs of our lifestyles and consciously choosing another path.

Linguistically speaking, the word "repentance" doesn't mean apologizing so much as turning around and actively heading in a different direction. Could God be calling Christians to repent not only of personal moral failings but the ecological and social sins of our consumerist culture?

Jesus said that the greatest commandments are to Love God and Love People (Mark 12:28-31). When we faithfully care for the earth, we do both.

To discover more about the human face of environmental degradation, look up the phrase "environmental justice" or "environmental racism."

1.Hiebert, Theodore. "The Human Vocation: Origins and Transformations in Christian Traditions." Christianity and Ecology: Seeking the Well-Being of Earth and Humans. Ed. Dieter T. Hessel and Rosemary Radford Ruether. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000. 140.
2.Johnson, Elizabeth A. "Losing and Finding Creation in the Christian Tradition."
Same book. 15-16.


Cathy said...

great post--i really believe that too--we need to take better care of the earth. if we all make a little effort, it will pay off.

Penny said...

Yeah - I never could get that attitude of it's all going to end anyway. Personally I think Christians have been given a stewardship role.

Abbi said...

Thanks for the post! I appreciate you sharing your views which match mine pretty well. :-) I am a christain as well and that is also my reason for wanting to take care of the earth. I do believe that one day the earth will be destroyed with an intense heat (like the Bible says) but we don't know when that is going to happen and I agree that caring (being careful and not wasteful) with what God has given us is a part of showing our respect for Him.

Politically I am very conservative and I think this area is one that bothers me the most in my party. (There are other issues that I find more important than this one however.) It isn't that everybody in our party doesn't live green, that is not true but that some of them have such hard and fast ideas that it doesn't matter at all! Just do whatever you want and don't worry about how it affects the enviroment. Anyway, sorry for going on so. Thanks again for sharing.

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