The prophets’ preoccupation with justice and righteousness has its roots in a powerful awareness of injustice. That justice is a good thing, a fine goal, even a supreme ideal, is commonly accepted. What is lacking is a sense of the monstrosity of injustice. Moralists of all ages have been eloquent in singing the praises of virtue. The distinction of the prophets was in their remorseless unveiling of injustice and oppression, in their comprehension of social, political, and religious evils. —Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Prophets
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. —Martin Luther King, Jr.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, environmental justice is defined as:
The fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.
As we consider this definition, and look around our communities, do we find this fair treatment taking place? Are we aware of how economic and environmental decisions are made? Many times it can become so overwhelming that we think it best to leave it to the experts. Unfortunately, this can lead to exploitation, as discrimination typically takes place in poor and underserved communities where people may not understand their rights, or they choose not to fight back out of fear. As we dig deeper and the shackles are removed, we begin to see how economic and environmental justice are connected and how this exploitation is directly related to incentives like government funding, tax breaks, and land grabs that favor corporations over human beings and the environment. Does the end result benefit all God’s creation or just a wealthy few?
As people of faith, we are called to stand up against injustice. We are also called to be good stewards of the earth, honor all creation, and respect the interconnectedness of life. When we consider practical ways to do this, it becomes challenging. There are as many priorities as there are denominations in our various Christian circles. What does one do?
At the Micah Institute we educate and equip faith leaders to fight poverty and injustice. We help provide guidance in these sensitive areas. Our Environmental Justice and Health Committee has endorsed two campaigns that cross denominational, religious, and partisan lines for the betterment of all creation. A nationwide effort, the Carbon Fee and Dividend, is a market-based solution that would deliver deep emissions reductions, add jobs to the economy, and return a dividend to U.S. households. The other is a New York State-based initiative, which commits to 100 percent green energy in the state by 2030.
Each focuses on tangible, practical, and bipartisan efforts. Both offer opportunities to think globally and act locally in light of the upcoming United Nations Paris Climate Summit.
This year is a big one for creation care advocates. The United Nations will be having an international climate conference at the end of the year in order to achieve a legally binding and universal agreement on climate, with the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to limit global temperature rise. Pope Francis, who is dutifully living out his namesake St. Francis of Assisi’s will of living in harmony with all of creation and paying close attention to the plight of the poor, is coming out with an encyclical on the environment this year as well.
There is much work to be done for us all to come together as a unified voice of creation care advocates and support efforts to communicate about the importance of addressing climate change. Our committee is reaching out to churches across New York City to talk about the spiritual and moral imperative for people of faith to take action to address climate change.
With this in mind, we mustn’t forget that the communities least responsible for climate change are also the most vulnerable to its effects. This is seen in the examples of climate injustices and rising sea levels that those who live on islands or close to the waterfront experience. It’s also seen as environmental injustices in towns and cities everywhere, as toxins from industrial processes contaminate our air, water, and food and contribute to health disparities and poor quality of life. It is essential that we talk about climate change in a way that is sensitive to the needs and capabilities of those living in poverty to respond to the crises they may be facing in their own lives. As people of faith, we are called to ensure that all people are fairly treated and meaningfully involved in these conversations.
In doing this we will be keeping with the call for inclusiveness issued into the United Nations by former United Nations Assembly President, Father Miguel d’Escoto in 2009, when Earth Day officially began to be recognized globally as International Mother Earth Day:
“International Mother Earth Day promotes a view of the Earth as the entity that sustains all living things found in nature. Inclusiveness is at the heart of International Mother Earth Day; fostering shared responsibilities to rebuild our troubled relationship with nature is a cause that is uniting people around the world.
Let us celebrate, with hope and determination, a new relationship between all humanity and Mother Earth.”
As we consider this call for inclusiveness in light of our faith, may we think about the whole of creation, and the interconnectedness of life as we seek to honor God in our churches, communities, and lives. May we reflect God’s grace back out into the world as we put our faith in action for love and justice.
Leah Kozak is Associate Director and Co-Chair for the Environmental Justice and Health Committee for The Micah Institute at New York Theological Seminary. You can find her on Twitter @leahkozak. Kelly Moltzen is Program Coordinator for Bronx Health REACH and Co-Chair for the Micah Institute Environmental Justice and Health Committee. She is a member of the board and the Franciscan Earth Corps for the Franciscan Action Network. You can find her on Twitter @kellymoltzen.
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