If the earth, sea and skies are “God’s Cathedral,” as environmentalist John Muir called them, climate change has set this cathedral on fire. In his wonderful little book, “Cathedral on Fire,” UCC climate justice minister Brooks Berndt writes that environmental justice isn’t just one more cause on Christians’ task list. It’s the taproot cause with which every other form of injustice intersects. And it’s the most important way of seeing ALL justice work by people of faith as grounded in caring for the place where all people live no matter the color of their skin, how much money the make, who they love or how they worship.
I’ve told you how my mind has changed about climate change and the church’s witness—about what happens when we make climate justice “our first calling,” as Brooks Berndt puts it.
Over 30 years ago, UCC minister Benjamin Chavis had been researching the placement of toxic waste dumps, refineries, landfills and waste incinerators in high-poverty areas with minority populations. He eventually coined the term “environmental racism” to describe this phenomenon and mobilize Christians passionate about racial justice to address the link between corporate profits and pollution.
For a long time, environmental action and racial justice have seemed to compete for our attention on our lists of causes. But in the last five or six years, we’ve witnessed the way various forms of injustice intersect with each other, aiding and abetting one another and making life worse, especially for populations of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color who exist on the margins of society and have no voice in the halls of governmental power.
Brooks Berndt writes of how pivotal Pope Francis has been at disabusing us of the idea that the environmental crisis is separate and distinct from our social crises of racism, xenophobia, and income inequality. For a long time, White, middle- and upper-class people made a lot of noise to keep toxic waste dumps, refineries and landfills out of their back yards—only to discover that companies and legislators simply decided to put them in poor neighborhoods where lots of Black, brown and poor people live.
In his encyclical on climate change, Francis writes, “We are not faced with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental.” For too long, preachers in pulpits, Berndt writes, have unwittingly placed humans on a pedestal at the center of the cosmos, and this has blinded us to how interconnected everything is.
We need a broader and more inclusive ethic of justice, says Francis. That’s why terms like “creation care” and “creation justice” or “green justice” are becoming more mainstream: Finally, we’re beginning to see that justice is a seamless whole, not individual items, causes or concerns. So, I can be pursuing racial equity in my work with ISAIAH and you can be pursuing creation care, and we not only have a lot to talk about, we have a lot of things we can do together!
Humans are not the center of the universe, nor is “man…the measure of all things,” as the Greek philosopher Protagoras believed. Brooks Berndt reminds us that God’s covenant with creation in Genesis 9:15 is not with humans only, but with “every living creature.” Life is more of a web of relationships than a hierarchy of species or a wheel with humanity as the hub.
What would happen if you and I reclaimed the Bible and its language for creation from the hands of the so-called “creationists”? What if we de-centered humanity and placed God once again at the center of our view of the universe?