Let’s begin with a few questions:
Does your theology work?
How does your theology move from good ideas to good work?
What impedes it?
Erin Biviano has researched why society has been aware of a global environmental crisis for decades; the church has sponsored countless gatherings, conferences and conventions; sponsored well attended forums and discussions; produced many theological journals, videos, books, and position statements… and yet the matter is not well placed in congregations and faith communities; little is being done.
Inspired Sustainability: Planting Seeds for Action ( Orbis, Maryknoll, 2016) is a thorough discussion of her research, procedures and finding. This blog is the third in a series of reflections, addressing now “patterns in green spirituality.”
Drawing from more than twenty-five focus groups, between 2007 and 2009, Biviano gives voice to spiritual leaders representing the following groups: Baptists, Buddhists, Catholics, Episcopalians, megachurch evangelicals, Hindus, Jains, Jews (Reconstructionist, Reform, and conservative), Muslims, Native Americans (Navajo and Gwich’in), Reformed Christians, Presbyterians, Unitarian-Universalists, migrant workers, and urban environmental justice advocates. She reports these people represent a rich diversity of religious values but share a spirituality with perceptible patterns. These people are taking action in their communities. They have found sources of certainty in scientific literacy and religious teaching about their neighbor. “They draw energy from their faith, reverent love of nature, and hope for justice. They feel free to act on their green inspiration and have a gift for building roads and bridges over thee ‘gaps.’”(p.1)
And yet there remains a strong capacity in society for “ecocide,” a dangerous form of self-contradiction and self-betrayal.
Here are “features of green spirituality” as described by Biviano.
Scientific literacy. All of the focus groups identified scientific literacy as a shared concern for religious environmentalists. Literacy included awareness of the diversity of life, the complexities of ecosystems, familiarity with ecological interrelationships. One group sought to make the congregation a “green sanctuary”, encouraging members to strive for a carbon neutral footprint at home. One congregation replaced the familiar, simple crucifix with a cross made of two beams circled by two golden rings. This symbol embraced the suffering of Christ with the representation of the atom, the intersection of scientific reality and religious conviction.
Participants identified the knowledge gap to be a major obstacle in motivating others to take climate change seriously and act accordingly. The gap embraces both scientific illiteracy and deliberate denial. Without scientific literacy moral connections about climate change and ethical responsibility were harder to make. The willful blindness to the consequences of personal and social actions complicates the necessity for basic information. It is essential then for the congregation to create opportunities not only for sharing information but trusting opportunities for listening, questioning, learning and reworking beliefs.
A body of evangelicals recognized that there sometimes are conflicting sources of scientific data. Nevertheless, the biblical mandate to care for God’s creation was “deeper and more enduring than the need to fix immediate problems.” Scripture outweighed the crisis of the day. It doesn’t matter whether the earth is in pristine condition or horrible condition. We have an obligation out of obedience and out of stewardship to do these things” (Raymond,p.7) Biviano reported a distinction that evangelicals “took the gospel side of the message” and liberals “took the social side of the message” (p. 9). This reinforces a difficult position among evangelicals to publicly embrace scientific authority. Publicly, scripture is the first authority. Nevertheless, on a personal basis, high scientific literacy adds a second authority.
Scientific literacy influences environmental justice. It could be argued that minority communities directly and disproportionately affected by pollution and environmental degradation were protesting out of selfpreservation. The focus on the care of the wilderness “out there” somewhere, has been criticized as a privileged concern of the affluent or elite. Conversely, it is argued that the urban poor can’t identify with the destruction of nature beyond their experience. Increased awareness through exposure to the rural outdoors has been a crucial approach among some environmentalists. At the same time, many have seen that they too are victims of toxic waste and have been led to realize the threats to their own health.
Here is Biviano’s definition of environmental justice. “Environmental justice is the name given to the movement within environmental advocacy that demonstrates and protests the disproportionate burden of ecological degradation borne by vulnerable human communities.” (p.10)
Race has been discovered to be the key determinant in where toxic waste facilities are placed in the United States ( p. 11, quoting the National Resources Defence Council in “The Environmental Justice Movement” , http://www.nrdc.org). “Given these findings, the justice implications of the link between the destruction of the environment and the vulnerability of the poor cannot be understated” (p. 11).
Biviano cites personal research into a Navajo reservation near Flagstaff, Arizona, close to coal and uranium mining operations. The indigenous community was at risk for lung cancer from inhaling radioactive particles. Radionuclides in drinking water caused bone cancer and impaired kidney function. Similarly, Episcopalians living near Newark’s giant power stations faced risks of increased asthma. Rural Washington migrant workers connected exposure to toxic wastes to experiences of headaches, increased school absenteeism, and increased cancer. Children in low-income neighborhoods are more exposed to toxic waste than other communities. Exposure to mercury begins to affect learning disabilities from the womb according to the American Association of Pediatrics (p.13).
Such examples of communities at risk reinforce the necessity to educate and empower those most affected. “Environmental action is self-defence in a situation where the attacker will not stop” (p.12). Knowledge is a motivator, a source of action and power to protect the environment and those persons most threatened.
It’s one thing to approach the industries that are behind toxic waste and environmental degradation. It is equally necessary to approach the workers themselves, those in the mines and the fields, so they may protect themselves.
It can no longer be said that environmentalism is” a hobby of the rich whose basic needs are met” (p.14). Continuing, “the wealthy can afford to worry about polar bears.’ Those who have rent to pay, and grocery bills cannot.
(Keep this in mind, and the resistance to environmentalists in Alberta, as we discuss obstacles to action in later blogs.)
One last thought before moving to other patterns for faithful environmental action: “Toxins in the air, water, and soil, and climate are borne by all in an interdependent world.” (p.15)
Next, Awareness of Global Interdependence….. To be continued…