Ecological conversations place us in political arenas, fundamentally because power resides in land. An environmental ethic began to take shape in the consciousness-raising 1960's as Martin Luther King, Jr.’s work began to expand the focus of his civil rights movement to extend to economic human rights throughout the world. The laws of economics and ecology are one and the same, each derived from a fundamental principal of sustainable habitat, or household for all life. The intersection of King’s economic human rights intersected the environment (ecology) in the understanding that our planetary household requires space and the means for a flourishing life for all living things. Environmental ethicist and theologian Larry Rasmussen argues that, “Without adequate hospitable habitat, nothing lives.”
Dr. King understood the work that was required of us all to live together in peace in our “inherited large house, a great ‘world house’ in which we have to live together."
This beloved community, this “world house” must be integrally and harmoniously connected with the earth community, for the earth is every creature’s home.
This sense of an interrelated home planet (oikoumene) invited new interpretations of Christian stewardship and dominion, and countered theologies that would see humanity as perpetually disconnected sojourners finding solace and home in heaven alone. Pope Francis’ encyclical letter, Laudato Si’ On Care for Our Common Home, famously represents the movement the Church’s social and moral teachings are taking in response to the human causes of the ecological crisis. With a deep lean towards the consensus of sciences, the liberal Christian environmental movement was born, which created political agency and demand for regulations and policies that would protect the whole of life.
Whereas an ecologically focused interpretation of biblical scripture landed liberal streams of the Christian faith at home on Earth, faith in the Apocalypse has been another powerful driving force in American politics, especially for Christian-right views. This belief underscores Capitalism and empowers climate deniers, because ultimately for Christian fundamentalists, a future on our planet is irrelevant because within an apocalyptic lens, the Earth has no future. Environmental destruction is not only disregarded, but welcomed—even hastened—as a sign of the coming Apocalypse. This particular hermeneutic finds anchoring in the author of Hebrews words, “This world is not my home, I’m just passing through.” Couple a theology of being heavenly bound with a world that is going to be destroyed by hellish brimstone, then what is there to save? Indeed, conservation becomes a moot point especially when subduing the earth is translated as resource consumption for capitalistic and colonizing culture, and is more in line with the End of Times. To be fair, the theological lens of stewardship was used by evangelicals to address environmental problems.
Problematic to a theology of stewardship is that what it lacks in mutuality, it makes up in capitalism and colonization without limits.
It was also co-opted by the conservative evangelicals, including many leaders of the Religious Right. In 1999 the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty gathered clergy, theologians, economists, environmental scientists and policy experts in Cornwall, CT to develop a “Judeo-Christian” understanding of stewardship to be applied to environmental policy. The Cornwall Declaration of Environmental Stewardship, which came out of this gathering, promotes a “strong anthropocentrism, a commitment to libertarian, free market economics, and a deep mistrust for mainstream science…and that the human person is the most valuable resource on earth.”
The Cornwall Alliance calls the environmental movement “radical” and claims “this so-called green dragon is seducing your children in our classrooms,” while “millions [are] falling prey to its spiritual deception.” Peter Heltzel argues, “It is clear that the Cornwall Declaration is more than a call to environmental stewardship; it was a vigorous apologia for free market capitalism.” The agenda behind the straw-man, or shall we say, straw-dragon, of environmentalism was deeply embedded in the consumption-driven spirit of capitalism. Emphasizing the close relationship between evangelical and capitalism, William Connolly writes, “The right leg of the evangelical movement is joined at the hip to the left leg of the capitalist juggernaut.” Because of these deep connections between nationalistic evangelical monotheism and capitalistic consumerism and colonzation, attempts at evangelical environmentalism often perpetuate a theology of capitalistic conquest and white dominion even amidst its best attempts to respond as stewards and care for creation.
The connections to land subjugation, people oppression, capital gain, and a monotheistic god have far deeper roots than modern conflations. According to Hebrew Bible scholar Richard Elliott Friedman, the ancient Israelites produced the first enduring monotheism—the belief in a single god. The difference between Israelite monotheism and the pagan religions of that era was not simply a “matter of arithmetic: one God rather than many…. Pagan religion personified [nature’s] forces, ascribed a will to them, and called them gods.” In contrast, ancient Israel, for the first time in the history of human symbolic consciousness, conceived of a god above and beyond the now-desacralized forces of nature. This shift left land and its inhabitants vulnerable. Joshua 17:14-15, which is set in the context of two chapters of land distribution to the house of Joseph, has Joshua instructing his followers to bará (cut) down the trees in the forested high country to make more room for their expansive colonization. The Revised Standard Version translates bará as “clear”: “And Joshua said to them, ‘If you are a numerous people, go up to the forest, and there clear ground for yourselves in the land of the Perizzites and Rephaim, since the hill country of Ephraim is too narrow for you.” Commentaries on this passage are in agreement that there was an ancient stand of extensive forest in this region, and that Joshua was encouraging the House of Joshua to turn their complaints into action and enlarge their borders by taking matters into their own hands by dispossessing the original inhabitants of the country by cutting down the trees for their own advantage; partly for the building of more cities and towns, and partly for preparing the land for the use of pasture. Land was a resource to be used to both grow a nation state as well as to conquer people; it was no longer home to the imminent divine.
This separation had great significance in the forming of the Western Christian mind. Biblical writers imagined that humans occupied a more exalted position in the natural order than the nature-based pagan religions conceived. Humans, sinful though they are accord to this world-view, occupy “a position on earth comparable to that of God in the universe.” Church father Paul of Tarsus perpetuated this Hebrew concept of human primacy over the natural world into the early Christian church. In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he wrote that God had abandoned pagans because they “worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (Rom 1:25). This reinforced a theology of complete transcendence from the created world, and to venerate nature in any way would lead to a pantheistic Christian culture in which, theologian Paul Tillich noted, “the term pantheist is a ‘heresy’ label of the worst kind.” Herein laid the normative foundation for most of American Protestantism and Catholicism until the 1960s, one that was a human-centric and desacralized valuation of the natural world. An environmental movement that would see the other-than-natural world as having independent and inherent value apart from the human would be suspect and against the evangelical will of a deistic God.
The contemptuous mundi tradition delivers important moral consequences. Mark Wallace states, “If nature is not a sacred place, but a potential site for idolatry, then it is properly regarded as the domain of human beings, who because of their superior reason, have been designated by God to be God’s vicegerents over the entire created order.” Much of the evangelical critique in response to this seemingly scripturally sanctioned theme is that it lands itself squarely in the framework of pantheism or panentheism (i.e. God is the tree vs. God is in the tree).
A biblical, eco-centric model that supports Divine imminence and insistence that humans are not the center of the universe is a radical departure from our most fixed notions.
The life and work of the French mystic and Jesuit priest Teilhard de Chardin is an example of this sort of radical voice, who in Hopkin’s phrase, understood the “world as charged with the grandeur of God.” Teilhard had a profound understanding of the sacramentality of the cosmos, as both the signifier of the Divine and a location of divine action and energy.
Sacramentality is a way of seeing the cosmos as a holy arena in which the things of the earth are not only signifiers of divine love but in some sense are active participants in the Divine; the material world is the instrument through which God comes.
To this end, Teilhard delighted in progressive science and wrote prolifically around his scientific specialties of paleontology, geology, philosophy, and theology. His great contribution, amongst others, was as a Christian thinker in the field of evolutionary science, which altered the scope in which the Western world traditionally viewed the human. His study of humanity’s place within Deep Time allowed him to critique the predominant use of redemption oriented theology and return to a more functional creation theology where the sacramental subjectivity of the universe is embraced. Every single living being was sacred—all en-souled bodies, the soil and the stars!
Teilhard’s contribution to sacred evolutionary cosmology was profound, and in many ways provides the inroad to how the Church can move collectively beyond our historical divisions towards a posture that sees and serves the wounds of our planet through the lens of sacred personhood and poverty. The existence of poverty is a social cause the universal Church embraces. Key to the Latin American liberation theology movement of the 1960s and 1970s was that the agency of the poor gained a voice and it was they that demanded the structural analysis and change to restore their rights. Ecoliberation theologian Leonardo Boff, who was heavily influenced by Teilhard and Martin Luther King, Jr., claimed that the not only was the earth sacred, but it was now to be counted amongst the poor as it too has been systematically under assault from the plundering of development as practiced by capitalistic societies. This move towards environmental justice challenges both liberal and evangelical Christians to actively respond to the physical suffering and ecological vulnerabilities of poor communities.
Can the Church unify around this paradigm shift of not only seeing how the planet’s poor people are impacted by climate change, but that this environmental crisis is occurring because of an irrupted and impoverished planet?
Perhaps, but this positions the protagonist agent as the dominant culture in a hierarchical manner that doesn’t fully restore rights or dignity to the planet itself. Is it possible for the Earth herself to give expression of her sufferings and her hopes, and demand the systems that allowed for environmental destruction to be addressed?
In early 2017, the Whanganui River in New Zealand and the Ganges and Yamuna rivers in India were granted the same status as a person, much like the protective status given to humans and corporations. These bodies of land and water now have their own legal, living identity, “with all the corresponding right, duties and liabilities of a legal person.” To pollute or damage these rivers will be legally equivalent to harming a person. No longer constrained as a resource humanity could exploit, re-source, or manage, this move recognized the sacred design of mutuality between planetary systems and people. In this revolutionary judicial law, these bodies of water have been given personhood. They are no longer simply a resource to be subdued, used, and dominated for the sake of humanity. They have inherent value simply for their being. This idea of the personhood of planetary features isn’t entirely new.
In 1972 legal scholar Christopher D. Stone argued in his famous essay, “Should Trees Have Standing?”, that rivers and trees and other “objects” of nature do have rights, and these should be protected by granting legal standing to guardians of these voiceless entities of nature, much as the rights of children are protected by legal guardians designated for this purpose. Stone’s argument struck a chord with U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas. That same year, Justice Douglas wrote a dissent in the case of Sierra Club v. Morton, in which he argued for the conferral of standing upon natural entities so that legitimate legal claims could be made for their preservation. The river, Douglas wrote, “is the living symbol of all the life it sustains or nourishes—the fish, aquatic insects, water ouzels, otter, fisher, deer, elk, bear, and all other animals, including man, who are dependent on it or who enjoy it for its sight, its sound, or its life. The river as plaintiff speaks for the ecological unit of life that is part of it.”
Fifty years on the Christmas Eve preceding his assassination, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood in his pulpit at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta and told the congregation that in order to achieve peace on earth, “we must develop a world perspective,” a vision for the entire planet. “Yes,” he said, “as nations and individuals, we are interdependent.” He continued on with a statement that could easily have been proclaimed Wangari Maathai or today’s #NODPL water protectors, Dr. King stated,
“It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated.”
The earth is beginning to have a voice through this acknowledged personhood that will demand its inherent right to liberated life. This is the voice of the poor, the voice of the oppressed, the voice of the absent. The earth’s voice can now be included in the critical formula in how to serve the poor that has been advocated for by liberation theologians: “the preferential treatment of the poor.” This does not mean that we have the option to be committed to the poor; rather, this expressed primacy of the poor in Scripture is rooted in the unmerited love of God. This is the kind of renewed theology of creation that Tielhard imagined, and one that responds adequately to the anthropocentric supremacy in Christianity, together with biblically rooted commitment to justice for the poor and vulnerable ones. To an extent, the ecological crisis, and in particular, the climate change crisis within it, have given rise to this earth-centered spirituality that sees all created things-rivers, forests, oceans, and all the creatures therein-charged with the grandeur of God. “This is our faith,” Dr. King told his church on that December morning. “As we continue to hope for peace on earth,” he went on, “let us know that in the process we have cosmic companionship.”
This is our hope: a sacred world house, a collective planetary home in which together we advocate for the rights to life and a flourishing future for all.
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