As anyone who has ever watched a genealogy television show such as Finding Your Roots knows, our ancestry may not always be what we initially assume it to be. We grew up hearing that we possess this or that ethnic heritage, but until we have done a DNA test or done some earnest research, our assumptions can often be wrong with surprising results. A similar argument can be made when it comes to our spiritual DNA. I suspect that many people are largely unaware that their faith traditions have any “green” or “environmental” strands. The word “environmental” may conjure up images of grungy activists hugging trees in a country decidedly different from the land of one’s presumed ancestral roots. Yet, such assumptions are often false.
Take my own denomination for instance. As much as I would wish that it were not the case, many in my denomination are likely unaware that the United Church of Christ played a central role in launching the environmental justice movement. Laity like Dollie Burwell as well as leaders of the UCC’s Commission for Racial Justice such as the Rev. Benjamin Chavis, Jr. and the Rev. Leon White were at the forefront of a six week civil disobedience campaign against the delivery of toxic waste to a predominantly black community in Warren County, North Carolina. Ultimately, this campaign was to the environmental justice movement what the Birmingham bus boycott was to the civil rights movement. It sparked a movement.
Chavis would go on to coin the phrase “environmental racism” and play a leadership role in a couple of major events. The first occurred when the Commission for Racial Justice issued a landmark 1987 report that detailed the environmental racism of toxic waste sites throughout the country. The second occurred in 1991 when the commission organized the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit, which led to a historic and widely circulated document called the Principles of Environmental Justice. To this day, such reports and documents are regularly cited as integral to the origins of the environmental justice movement.
For some in my denomination, this history may seem entirely unrelated to the history of their local church, but I would beg to differ. First of all, there is a biblical origin to our green spiritual roots that is as old as Genesis. We are to be stewards or caretakers of creation. Moreover, as the environmental justice movement pointed out, when we harm the environment, we inevitably harm our neighbors, especially those among the most marginalized and oppressed. Any Christian who takes love of one’s neighbor seriously has to take environmental justice seriously.
My general belief is that all humans are initially hardwired to care for others and to care for all of creation. It is part of the spiritual DNA with which we are born. For a variety of reasons, however, some of us become disconnected from that caring impulse. The great potential of our many faith traditions today is that they can help us reconnect to this impulse. They can awaken us to the best of our loving selves.