Green the Congregation through Public Ministry and Political Advocacy
The church exists for the sake of the world. We diminish our understanding of the church and, more importantly, the work of God, if we limit the activity of God to the church. There has been a tendency to bifurcate the work of God into a spiritual/ religious realm separate from the rest of the world by divisions we make into distinct spheres of influence: religion and politics; church and state; Sunday and the rest of the week; the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of the world; spiritual and material; heaven and earth. All these separations tend to isolate and limit the activity of God to things that explicitly have to do with religion.
God’s activity in the world.
The Work of God in the World. The whole concept of the kingdom of God is based on this idea, namely: What would the world be like if God were the governing force? What love and justice would reign if the God who cares for the poor was the driving force behind human activity? What care would be taken for all of nature—human and non-human, living and non-living—if human beings followed the guidance of the Spirit of the one who created all things in the first place? God is concerned over wars and poverty and famine and oppression and rampant illnesses and disease and earthquakes and holocausts and loss of species and destruction of the fragile earth that has formed over billions of years. A theology of incarnation does not limit God’s presence in the world to religious figures and religious movements and religious organizations. Rather, God is present and active in all places and at all times—not to cause and control all things but to influence the developments of life in the face of human aggression, human greed, and human resistance.
We also reduce the life and activity of God when we limit the work of God to the lives of individuals. To be sure, much of the power of Christianity as a religion has been to affirm that God cares infinitely for each individual. God has numbered the hairs on our head and cares for us as surely as God cares for each single sparrow. The transformation of individuals by conversion, by the encounter with grace, by the forgiveness of sins, by the healing of the body, by the renewal of the mind, by the infusion of love, by the empowerment for goodness and honesty, by the inspiration of the Spirit, by the awakening to hope, by the freedom from addictions, by the blessedness of peace—all these have been the source of human renewal of individuals and those around them who are affected by their transformation. No one can take away from Christianity this attention to the life of the individual that has instilled people with freedom and a sense of meaning and purpose in life that promotes goodness rather than destructiveness.
At the same time, we do God and Christianity a disservice when we limit the activity of God to individuals. We have learned that institutions and structures too can be evil and destructive: governments can oppress, corporations can exploit, economic systems can generate a great division between the rich and the poor, narrow national loyalties can lead to wars and ethnic cleansing, religious bodies can engage in wars and purges and domination of people both inside and outside of their group, and conventional wisdom can discriminate and abuse women, people of different races, people of different sexual orientation, and people of different religions. Can we imagine for a moment that God is not concerned to transform such structures so as to rid exploitation and oppression and poverty and war? God is working to bend these structures toward justice and mercy. God is concerned for the larger issues of life. And God has called the church into existence to join in this work for the sake of this world.
Furthermore, we do God a disservice when we think that God is concerned only to save people for a life after death, as if this world were only a temporary place of pilgrimage preparing us for the real world in heaven. Such views have led people to ignore the problems we face in the world and to believe that God will save them out of the world, either when they die or when Jesus comes to rescue believers by some kind of rapture. However, there is nothing in the biblical materials that would lead us to think that God’s commitment to offer humans eternal life keeps us from a concern for this world. Quite the contrary. It is precisely the promise of the gift of life and of eternal life that liberates us to give ourselves in the present to the care and redemption of all that God has created. It is the assurance of our ultimate fate that frees us to make sacrifices and to expend ourselves on behalf of others and on behalf of the Earth.
Doing God’s work in the world. As a church, what we do is for the world. We seek to understand how God is working in the world and join that activity with our own actions. Our life together can be an alternative way of being in the world. And our lives can serve as leaven in the world to bring peace and justice, compassion and healing. When we convert others to our congregations, we bring them in to send them out again. Together, we can address many issues as individuals. But we are called also to address problems as institutions—to advocate for just laws and fair business practices and the preservation of wetlands and the cleanup of brownfields. These approaches represent the public ministry of the church—the church’s commitment to act in the public realm to educate and advocate and act for a better world for all.
Some of these actions may include community organizing to protest some environmental condition—a plant that pollutes the air, a green area being lost to urban sprawl, the strip-logging of a local forest, the urging of an incinerator upon a neighborhood. Or the congregation may advocate for those most affected by these environmental degradations. Or the congregation may assist in urging some legislation be passed or defeated by sharing information about the issue and providing opportunities for members to express their opinion to the relevant legislators. Unless we oppose environmental degradation and urge environmental restoration at the corporate, legal, and structural levels our efforts to join the work of God in the world will be limited and counterproductive—because inaction will only support the status quo. As congregations, we need to find ways to address these issues that are in consonance with our church polity and in ways that respect many different views in the congregation.
This very dynamic is why the environmental movement often refers to itself as an “ecological justice” (eco-justice) movement—so that it becomes clear that environmental issues are inextricably tied up with issues of human justice. The reverse is also true. Issues of human justice invariably have a connection with our human degradation of the Earth. For example, in our economic system we treat both people and natural resources as commodities to be exploited for economic gain.
The Bible knows well this connection between human justice and the state of the land. When there was economic exploitation of the rich by the poor, Isaiah wrote, “The earth dries up and withers. The world languishes and withers. The earth lies polluted under its inhabitants, for they have transgressed laws, violated the statutes, broken the everlasting covenant. Therefore a curse devours the land” (Is 24:4-7; see also Joel 2:2-20).
Environmental Racism. A recent article in a local newspaper in Wisconsin ran the headline, “State’s blacks more likely to live in polluted areas.” The article explains that 47 percent of Wisconsin’s black population (compared to 13 percent of white population) lives in the 10 percent of neighborhoods where industrial air pollution poses the most risk to human health. Back in the early 1990s, a report for the United Church of Christ Racial Commission first exposed this type of pattern. In that report, the Reverend Ben Chavis first identified environmental discrimination as environmental racism. This report led to the 1991 National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit as an effort to bring national attention to these atrocities.
All this comes as no surprise to black people. Over the last decade, many reports have shown how toxic waste disposal sites, polluting power plants, industrial parks, and waste incinerators have systematically been placed in neighborhoods of poor people and, in particular, poor people of color. The article cited above says that “nationally, blacks are 79 percent more likely than any other ethnic group to live in polluted areas.” The pretext for this placement claims that factories and waste incinerators should go in the most depressed areas because they bring needed jobs. However, the jobs of construction or maintenance seldom end up with the local people, and in any case the negative health consequences (and costs) for the residents of these crowded neighborhoods far outweigh any economic benefits.
The NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) movement has exacerbated this problem. When toxic waste is being distributed and disposed, many middle-class groups, most often white groups, are well-organized in their efforts to keep toxic waste out of the suburbs and wealthy areas. This means that the waste ends up in poor urban or rural areas—communities that often lack grass roots environmental organizations and political clout. The result is that the decisions about where to dump toxic waste are made not on the basis of scientific evidence or fairness but on political grounds by those who have power. The social statement on “Caring for Creation” of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America recognizes these inequities when it states that “The degradation of the environment occurs where people have little or no voice in decisions—because of racial, gender, or economic discrimination.”
Global eco-justice. Air, land, and water pollution in local contexts is but the tip of the iceberg in the relationship between environmental degradation and human injustice. When we look worldwide, we find the same dynamic of environmental injustice taking place in every country in the world in relation to every ecological problem—global warming, depletion of the ozone layer, deforestation, loss of arable land to desert, over-population, and the proliferation of waste. Most of these global problems are due to the exploitation of people and nature that enables people in first world countries to maintain their high standard of living. It will serve us well in the United States to understand the dynamics of these problems and to diminish the ways we contribute to these injustices.
Making eco-justice decisions/ taking action. Congregations in every context, particularly those working in impoverished communities, along with ecumenical organizations and local ecological groups, can be challenged to identify these dynamics and to address them. Those dealing with the ethical dimensions of environmental decisions often name four norms for decisions that address eco-justice issues: sustainability (provide for long-range needs of humans and long-range preservation of nature); sufficiency (grant all forms of life the right to share in the goods of creation); participation (involve all people and represent all life forms in decisions that affect their well-being); and solidarity (recognize the kinship of all life forms and assist those who suffer most from environmental degradation).
All this emerges for us as Christians out of our faith commitment. However, neither the efforts to pursue human justice nor the commitment to care for creation are issues to be relegated only to a “social ministry committee” or a “green team.” They are not add-ons to some more fundamental Christian discipleship. Rather, both human justice and the care for creation are integral to the foundational human/Christian vocation to which God has called us in scripture—to listen to the “cry of the earth” even as we listen to the “cry of the poor.” We are called to love God, love our neighbors, and care for creation. Our faith leads us to see the face of Christ in every person and to see the glory of God in all creation. Earth community as a whole is to be treated with respect and reverence. And restoring earth community—inclusive of all and everything—is the mission of every congregation.
Making a Difference in the Public Realm
In fact, “the pursuit of ecological justice” may be the most adequate way to express the mission of a congregation. Such a goal encompasses both the quest for human justice and the commitment to care for Earth. It emphasizes the sense of justice and care for creation both within the congregation and in the congregation’s mission in the world. It affirms the importance of taking the well-being of people and nature into consideration in all decisions, practices, and actions. It encourages every governing group, each committee, all those responsible for the building and grounds, and all planners of events to take into account the ethical/eco-justice implications of the life of the congregation. In this way, we can fulfill the dictum that “the church exists for the sake of the world.”