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Care for creation and environmental justice

A challenge for Anabaptists

By Randolph Haluza-Delay
Aug 15, 2012 | Volume 18, Number 16

Nate Howard, an MCC worker from Muncie Ind., shows visitors this mine in San Miguel, Guatemala. The mine uses vast amounts of water which eventually leaks potent chemicals into the water table. (Photo by Melissa Engle)

When Bob Lovelace, a chief of the Ardoch Algonquin of Northeastern Ontario, wrote about his people’s struggle over uranium exploration on their land, he did so from a Canadian maximum security prison. To protect their traditional territories from uranium exploration, the Ardoch Algonquin had set up roadblocks. For his part in the nonviolent resistance, the grandfather and university lecturer was convicted by federal court, fined $25,000, and sentenced to six months incarceration.

Lovelace wrote the first draft with a pencil sharpened on the metal staircase outside his cell. His manuscript was lost when given to prison authorities to be mailed. Lovelace wrote an entirely new copy, which was finally published in our book on environmental justice in Canada (see suggestions for further reading).

One lesson from Lovelace’s story is that environmental issues cannot avoid being contentious and may include matters of social justice.

When it comes to future environmental sustainability, several Mennonite characteristics may be important. The Mennonite commitment to discipleship rooted in community, and Mennonite awareness of how peace and justice are integral to faith are two such characteristics. Both of these lead Mennonites to self-examination of faith and practice and a willingness to be countercultural witnesses. Improving environmental sustainability may demand these characteristics, but we have to go beyond individualized remedies like changing light bulbs and buying recycled products.

Environmental issues not easy

Most Christian discussion about the environment suffers from several weaknesses. First, it tends to be too theological—as if people act primarily on the basis of their theologies and ethics rather than on habituated practices. Second, it tends to ignore social systems—how culture shapes us and how political, economic and other institutions create damaging social-environmental systems such as urban sprawl or expanding energy use. Third, it proposes mostly individualized solutions to complex systemic processes causing problems of ecological degradation.

Another lesson is that environmental sustainability (or unsustainability) is not just a matter of environmental science. It is a function of how we build our cities, how we use energy and resources and what we do to get those resources, what we believe about the human place in the world, and how we have organized our societies. That means also that broader social and political and economic forces are at work, which is why simple lifestyle changes are only a piece of the puzzle. It is also why addressing environmental sustainability requires involvement of social scientists like myself.

A final lesson is that the environment is a moral issue. Our ways of doing things are moral choices whether we are aware of them or not. Who gets access to resources and who is potentially harmed by pollution show that justice concerns are part of the environmental equation, even if inequitable consequences were not intended by decision-makers. The environment is a moral issue because of what we might discern from Scripture about duty to God who is Creator.

Times have changed

Nowadays, most Christians agree that we have some responsibility to care for the environment. Thirty years ago, when I was an undergraduate biology student coming to faith, it was different. Environmentalists thought Christianity was one of the major causes of ecological degradation and Christians thought those concerned about the environment were misguided. Popular Christian author Tony Campolo titled one of his books, How to Rescue the Earth without Worshipping Nature.

Times have changed. Many Christians now find it astonishing that Christians would question the legitimacy of environmental stewardship. After all, wouldn’t it make sense for those who acknowledge the Creator to respect the sanctity of the Creation also? The 1995 Confession of Faith in Mennonite Perspective asserts, “We acknowledge that God as Creator is owner of all things.” Scripture clearly shows the purpose of the Creation is to worship God. The Psalms are not the only place where trees clap their hands and rocks shout out to their creator. All creation groans in Romans 8, and the prophets declare even the land feels the pain of sin (e.g., Isaiah 24, Hosea 4). The redemptive action of Christ is for all creation, not just the human portion. How else to understand how the peace made by Christ is a gospel reconciling “all things” (Colossians 1)?

Consumption not sustainable

The global scale of ecological degradation challenges us theologically. The litany of statistics—species extinctions, water degradation, ecosystem decline, disappearing glaciers and sea ice, ocean acidification—demonstrate that seemingly puny humans now have the power to change the entirety of creation. According to some social science research, many Christians feel concern about the environment is not as important as the pressing concerns of human needs. However, poverty, famine, community development, global inequality and war are often connected to environmental conditions. As well, militarism, power imbalances and economic institutions that generate social inequality also generate ecological degradation.

Calculations of human use of energy and resources show that creation does not have enough resources or waste disposal capacity for the growth in human consumption in recent years. This is especially true for the rapid increase of greenhouse gases produced by industrial civilization in the last couple of centuries. There is little evidence to suggest that Christians have less profligate lifestyles than the average of their social class in a society. Sociologically, even committed Christian believers are affected by the culture that surrounds them and if they hold back at all, it is only a lag in lifestyle expectations.

Clearly, these are all moral issues, but natural science and social science can help us understand what ethics and theology ponder for Christian discipleship. The ecological footprint data makes me wonder whatever became of the idea to “Live simply so others could simply live”? We do not hear much in the overdeveloped world about lowering our standard of living (which is not the same as reducing quality of life) so that necessary improvements in living standards can happen in the underdeveloped world. The frugal discipleship of Mennonites and its association with global justice was part of the witness that drew me to Christ years ago.

Anabaptist witness

The Anabaptist commitment to discipleship has allowed Mennonites a willingness to be counter-cultural in the societies in which they have lived. As “moral communities,” churches are ideally suited to discussing and helping each other with countercultural questions of lifestyle, such as “how much is enough”? Church members can share goods with each other—does every house need its own lawnmower? How big a house? How many cars? Can we share cars? Should we live closer together to facilitate such sharing? This could be one form of fulfilling the new social and economic relations in the Body of Christ: “they will know you are mine by the way that you love.” Acts 2 and 4 show the early church as cooperative economic societies; this might be a tradition to recover.

The Mennonite commitment to peace and justice is another contribution. There is a violence being done to creation. That violence spills over to human beings. This article began with a story about social inequity associated with an environmental issue. This is called “environmental justice.” Disadvantaged human groups frequently face higher burdens of environmental contamination, poorer water quality, less protection from corporate malfeasance, and are pushed onto marginal land. Toxic waste sites, for example, are much more common in poorer communities than wealthier ones. More complicated than cleaning up such sites is to learn who created such disproportionate effects and who should be burdened to fix them. Even better, of course, is not to create problems that need remediation, especially since in many cases it is the public purse that pays for past toxic industrial activity.

Another aspect of environmental justice is to ensure equity in participation. Decision-making power is not even. Environmental hearings often require technical knowledge or access to information that is not fair. Understanding political processes and being able to speak and write in culturally-acceptable ways in order to have one’s concerns heard are other aspects of participatory justice. These components of improving just sustainability are far harder to protect, assess, or even to understand when they are impaired, but they cause tremendous disadvantage. The issues at Ardoch had to do with lack of consultation before the uranium exploration went ahead, despite court decisions and treaty procedures.

Mennonites have been active in environmental justice and sustainability. Christian Peacemaker Teams maintained a supportive presence at the Ardoch roadblocks. CPT has also been present at Grassy Narrows First Nation’s disputes over logging on their traditional territories in Northwestern Ontario. (Grassy Narrows has also recently been in the news because mercury poisoning from three decades ago still affects community water quality and health). The ecumenical Christian group Kairos has been one of Canada’s foremost proponents of eco-justice—one of few groups consistently linking environmental sustainability to social justice. One of its major campaigns has been to demand Canadian mining companies follow the same environmental, labour and health and safety requirements overseas as they do at home. Political will does not yet exist to enact such simple fair treatment expectations into law.

There are other promising signs. The MCC Canada website has an entire section on environment as it has sought better ways to do development and justice work in Canada and abroad. Like much of the international community, MCC has become increasingly aware that much so-called “development” had ecologically damaging side effects that were counterproductive to improving human wellbeing. MCC projects include soil conservation, land reforestation, water quality and appropriate technology. Similarly, World Vision has recognized that climate change will make much of its development work far more difficult, leading that organization to become an active member of the Climate Action Network.

Congregational action

The Mennonite Creation Care Network (http://www.mennocreationcare.org/) has collected examples of action that Mennonite churches, schools and agencies are doing in North America. Examples include community gardens, water conservation, solar panels on rooftops, bicycle racks, collecting e-waste, and more. These actions are steps in a process. The danger would be if further steps and deeper change do not occur.

The first step for any congregation is to do the easy, high impact actions. The environmental committee at First Mennonite in Edmonton began by exchanging incandescent light bulbs for energy-efficient CFC bulbs. Although there were comments initially, no one notices if the lighting seems different now. The energy audit First Mennonite conducted showed that efficiency upgrades on the decade-old building would have minimal benefits. Older church buildings could probably do more. But because upfront costs for retrofits are often large, perhaps congregations with newer churches could donate into a revolving common pool which could support congregations with older buildings to reduce their impact.

The difficulty is that the significant high-impact actions really have to do with congregant lifestyles (including my family’s) but that is a very difficult discussion to have. And, as discussed above, much of personal lifestyle is affected by social systems outside personal control. Addressing these social systems may also be outside the perceived role of the church, as faith leaders across Canada are discovering. Mennonite Church Canada moderator Willard Metzger has said he received some negative responses after two stories appeared in the Canadian Mennonite last winter about his participation with other church leaders on climate change initiatives. He expressed concerns about whether Mennonites were ready to take action on the scale needed for effective care of creation, especially if it required challenging the inaction of governments.

Sustainability a challenge

Roman Catholic Bishop Luc Bouchard—whose diocese includes the Alberta oil sands—got extensive negative responses for his 2009 pastoral letter on the oil sands. Drawing on scientific and theological expertise, he had concluded, “it is when the damaging effects are all added together that the moral legitimacy of oil sands production is challenged.” Many people questioned whether the church had the right to speak out on such matters, said Bishop Bouchard. The oil sands were not a matter of morality, numerous letters, emails and opinion pieces had said.

The oil sands are morally problematic, not the least for the way they enable continuation of an energy-extravagant lifestyle. They are also socially and environmentally problematic for a society dependent on fossil fuels that evidence shows is contributing to global environmental changes in the biosphere, and unjustly harming the lives and livelihoods of people who did not contribute to the problem. Fossil fuel use has certainly been effective at raising standards of living. But if sea levels rise and storms increase as predicted, the planet may see increases in climate refugees, droughts, and other complications. National defence departments around the world predict conflicts over natural resources will also increase.

Meanwhile, new sources of hydrocarbon-based energy are pursued, such as the questionable practice of hydraulic fracturing of bedrock to release natural gas. Besides the carbon emissions and global warming, the energy output of these new sources is rapidly declining compared to the energy required for production. In the analysis of theologian-historian Jacques Ellul, “the technology of energy is closely linked to the spirit of domination, conquest and human lust” and can be an idolatrous form of security. Ellul also articulated technological domination as the substitution of human will for Godly restraint when human knowledge points to potential consequences and the actions are done anyway.

Given what we know currently about environmental declines around the globe, sustainability is a challenge. It challenges our current understanding of the good life. It challenges our understanding of God who is Creator and Sustainer. It challenges us to imagine different ways of living that are good news for the entirety of creation. On the other hand, the challenge can further discipleship and faith if Mennonites embrace it as an opportunity to develop creation care and just sustainability as elements of the shalom kingdom of God.

Randolph Haluza-DeLay is a sociology professor at The King’s University College in Edmonton Alberta. As an active researcher he has published Speaking for Ourselves: Environmental Justice in Canada (UBC Press, 2009) and is currently editing a book on how the World’s Religions are Responding to Climate Change to be published in 2013.

Suggestions for further reading

  • Agyeman, P. Cole, R. Haluza-DeLay & P. O’Riley, eds. Speaking for ourselves: Environmental justice in Canada. Vancouver, BC: University of British Columbia Press, 2009.
  • Jim Ball. Global Warming and the Risen LORD: Christian Discipleship and Climate Change. Washington, DC: Evangelical Environmental Network, 2010.
  • Luke Gascho. Creation Care: Keepers of the Earth. Herald Press, 2008.
  • Greening Sacred Spaces, http://www.greeningsacredspaces.net/
  • Redekop, Calvin ed. Creation & the environment: An Anabaptist perspective on a sustainable world. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000.

For discussion

1. What changes have you seen in people’s attitudes toward caring for the environment? How do Mennonite attitudes compare to the rest of society? Are younger people more passionate about caring for creation than older generations?

2. What is the Christian’s responsibility to God regarding creation? What does the Bible say about human interaction with the created world? Do you agree with Randolph Haluza-Delay’s interpretation of Colossians 1 that the “redemptive action of Christ is for all creation”?

3. What situations of environmental injustice are you aware of? How involved should Mennonites be in seeking greater environmental justice? If you had the opportunity to speak publically about new oil pipelines in Canada, what would you say?

4. We have experienced some extreme weather over the past few months. How was your community affected? Do most people believe that we are seeing climate change in action? How might droughts, floods and other natural disasters encourage us to change our way of life to better care for creation?


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