What more perfect a passage to enliven our Earth Day celebrations than Romans 8:20-25?
Paul's letter to the Romans was certainly not an exhortation to deepen creation care by weighting it with environmental justice. It wasn't an exhortation for the middle-class church to listen to the groaning of people under the bondage of environmental racism. It wasn't intended to paint a picture of the intersection of climate change, poverty, and racism.
But we — two evangelical activists — are just foolish enough to give all that a try in this short space!
Our dear Apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans paints a picture of the new age inaugurated by Jesus' death and resurrection. Jesus has taken sin — that which infiltrated the world (5:12), enslaved the world (6:6, 17-18), and brought death and destruction (7:8-14) — and had victory over it. By our death in baptism and resurrection with Christ, we participate in his victory over sin (6:4). This is a new age, we put on our new selves, we live with the (re)new(ed) creation ahead of us.
This sin that Paul wrote of was not the sin of "missing the mark" but of principalities and powers, of governments, of misused authority. It is that sin which enlivens injustice. It is that which takes the earth captive and takes us captive, too — sometimes both at once.
One of us (Rebecca) has been in the midst of combating this double-layering of injustice.
In Long Beach, Calif., 15 percent of children suffer from asthma and 6 percent have less than 80 percent of their full lung function. High asthma rates, reoccurring prescription medicine needs, and high noise pollution are part and parcel of living along heavily trafficked highways and rail yards. Not too far away a plant in its recycling of around 25,000 batteries a day, also allegedly contaminates groundwater with lead and its furnace emits carcinogenic arsenic, affecting more than 110,000 people. These communities are where some of the most low-income, hardworking, people of color live in Los Angeles County.
But these are not just anecdotes: In the 1980s, environmental justice research gained momentum. Since then, the connection between environmental justice and race (not just poverty) has found consensus. And more recently, researchers have been documenting the cumulative impacts of airborne, mobile, and ground toxins as well as the connections between environmental justice and climate change.
As a community organizer, my (Rebecca) role is to listen to those experiencing environmental racism in Los Angeles and Long Beach and to ensure authentic community participation in decision-making. These are the voices of communities of color, the working poor, and immigrants. And we are working in solidarity with community members on the interconnected issues of environmental justice and climate change.
But I (Rebecca) am also noticeably one of the few white women from the middle-class — not to mention a Christian, and not to mention an evangelical! While I kind of stumbled into this work myself, I can't help but ask, "Where are my people?"
Let's return to the Bible, and specifically to the widows in Acts 6:1-7. In this story of the early church, the Hellenists complain against the Hebrews about their widows are not receiving bread in the daily distribution. In turn, the church leaders empower a group of Hellenists to take the reins in ensuring a more equitable distribution. Sounds like community organizing to us!
The church leaders listened to those among them who were the most vulnerable and put them in decision-making positions.
Are we listening, middle-class church? Are we listening to the voices closest to the ground — where the injustices of sin layer themselves against creation and the vulnerable in a double-offensive? Are we listening where our participation in Christ's ongoing battle over sin is needed so deeply? Are we listening?
This Earth Day we are proud to be among the ranks of Christians in this much greater battle against sin. May that our victory be with the Lord's will; may that our victory release creation; and may that our victory be in solidarity and participation with both Christ and his most vulnerable creations.
We would like to acknowledge the many environmental justice community organizers across the country, especially the Pastor Dr. Charlotte Keys of Jesus People Against Pollution, as well as Dr. David J. Downs at Fuller Seminary whose teaching influenced this piece.
Vanessa Carter is Senior Data Analyst at the USC Program for Environmental and Regional Equity (PERE; http://dornsife.usc.edu/pere); a student at Fuller Seminary; lead organizer of Justice, Advocacy, Compassion at Newsong Los Angeles; and member of Jesus for Revolutionaries (jesusforrevolutionaries.org/).
Rebecca Bacon is a Community Organizer for East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice (http://eycej.org) in West Long Beach, CA. She is passionately involved with a local initiative called, Building Healthy Communities--Long Beach (http://test2013.bhclongbeach.org). She is an active member of Fountain Of Life Covenant Church.
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