The Common Good
March-April 1997

A Partnership for the Earth

by Aaron McCarroll Gallegos | March-April 1997

Churches and the environmental movement.

For the most part, the church now accepts a role in saving the integrity of the environment as well as saving humans. Some still have qualms, seeing ecology as the first step on the slippery slope toward worship of the creation instead of the Creator, but many people now see environmental concerns as an important expression of their faithùor at least part of their civic Christian duty, along with obeying oneÆs parents, telling the truth, and being kind to strangers.

As people look at the ever-increasing rates of consumption and population growth and the dwindling open spaces around them, there is growing recognition that we are linked, uniquely and integrally, to God’s creation—not simply masters over it.

The National Religious Partnership for the Environment has been an important catalyst for this paradigm shift. Responding to a 1990 call by scientists for the religious community to get involved in environmentalism, the partnership brought together the U.S. Catholic Conference, the National Council of Churches of Christ, the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, and the Evangelical Environmental Network. Since 1993, this broad-based interfaith and interdenominational alliance has distributed environmental education and action kits to nearly 100,000 congregations and has held leadership training for 2,000 key clergy and lay people.

While member groups develop their own public policy initiatives, the partnership has coordinated some joint lobbying and advocacy actions, such as last year’s campaign opposing revision of the Endangered Species Act. The partnership sees its role as facilitating the religious voice on the environment as it emerges "spontaneously, independently, and diversely."

IN FEBRUARY THE National Religious Partnership launched a three-year, $4 million campaign to make environmental protection part of the churches’ response to the bipartisan abandonment of the poor, welfare reform, and other social justice issues. Citing the disproportionate rate of pollution-related disease in low-income neighborhoods—such as asthma, which is now the number one reason urban children are admitted to hospitals—the campaign is calling on the Clinton administration, Congress, and environmental groups to prioritize the needs of the poor in their programs to protect air, land, and water.

According to leaders of the Partnership, the siting of toxic waste incinerators and dumps in low-income African-American and Latino neighborhoods and the deaths of more than 100,000 workers from exposure to hazardous chemicals and poisons are among the signs that poor people are the most vulnerable segment of our population to the dangers created by environmental degradation.

"It’s hard enough to be poor in America, without bearing disproportionate burdens of poison and pollution," said Rev. James Parks Morton, the chair of the Partnership. "The moral integrity of environmental protection is at stake here."

Theologian and author Rosemary Radford Ruether said in a recent sermon that the environmental movement needs to move beyond conservation to prioritize issues of justice. "The environmental movement needs to be about more than saving seals and defending public parks from lumber companies, although these are worthy causes. It needs to speak of environmental racism and classism, about the poisoning of the environments where poor black, Latino, and indigenous people live in inner cities and rural areas."

Ruether continued, "An environmental movement that does not make these connections across class and racial lines is an escapism for hikers, and not a serious call for change in the industrial system’s disregard of its ecological base."

The emerging connection between the environmental and justice movements could be the most important sign that the church is getting serious about the well-being of creation—including humans, animals, and the Earth. Environmentalism is being integrated into the historic prophetic mission of the church that has previously been seen as applying only to the human community. Perhaps, as the church moves into its third millennium, it is moving a little closer to embracing Jesus’ commission to "Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation" (Mark 16:15).

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