toward a christian theology of environmental justice

"Being green" isn't about tree-hugging, liberal guilt, or pride: taking care of the earth is integral to faithfulness, and making choices to reign in our consumption is intimately tied to how well we love our neighbors. Land, water, air, climate, plant, and animal life are hardly the only things that bear the effects of a mistreated planet. In the two-thirds world and our own backyards, the people most adversely effected by environmental degradation are the poor, the elderly, women and children, and communities of color: the very "least of these" whose treatment, Jesus said, will demonstrate the authenticity (or not) of Christian faith and salvation.

Environmental justice is about so much more than eating organic or recycling. Do we care about where trash transfer stations and medical waste dumps are built and the children living nearby who suffer disproportionately from asthma and other illnesses? They miss school, their parents miss work, and no bootstraps can make up for the health, educational, and economic setbacks we unleash upon our neighbors.

We must actively choose not to obey our desire for more or better at the expense of the earth and our brothers and sisters' quality of life. We honor the image of God in one another by acknowledging the ecological and human costs of our lifestyles and consciously choosing other paths.

Sadly, Christians are not often known for "creation care." There is a rarely articulated but widely held belief that if the world will 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, since God created Adam and Eve to rule over the earth. Genesis 1 gives the priestly account of creation, and its concerns include order and authority: the verbs rada (have dominion) and kabas (subdue) position Adam and Eve firmly in charge.

But the creation story is told twice in the first two chapters in Genesis, likely indicating different authorship. 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 as 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 and flourishing is inextricably linked to the health of his crops and and the fertility of the land. The Yahwist language reveals that the earth exists not to be exploited but rather as something that must carefully tended in order to demonstrate obedience to God. It is fitting that the same word "serve" is used in Scripture to describe people's relationship both to God and the land, for how can we truly serve God who made the earth if we harm it (and our kindred co-bearers of God's image) with our greedy, acquisitive lives?

The word "repentance" doesn't mean apologizing so much as turning around and actively heading in a different direction. Perhaps this Earth Day, God is calling Christians to repent not merely of personal failings but the devastating social and ecological sins of our consumerist culture. When we truly believe that we belong to one another, the answer to the question, "Who is my neighbor?" is obvious, and we'll love each other as well as we love ourselves, our God, and the earth.

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.


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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