Among environmentalists, the language used to describe their focus has often been an area of debate and contestation. Among Christians, describing our care for God's creation is even more complicated, as our call to till and keep the Earth precedes the modern environmental movement by a couple of millenia. There have been arguments against a narrow definition of the term “environment” that refers to natural outdoor landscapes full of undomesticated plants and animals. Some contend that this definition reinforces false opposites in which the natural world and the human world are seen as two separate spheres. Others contend that how one defines “environment” is often shaped by experiences related to one’s race, class, and geographic location. Dorceta Taylor, a professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment, once noted, “It's not necessarily that there is a 'black ecology' and 'white ecology.’ It's just that our lived experiences with environment are different. White people bring their experience to the discussion — that's why they focus on the birds, trees, plants, and animals, because they don't have the experience of being barred from parks and beaches.” Notably, the definitions of environment that came out of the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in 1991 focused on “all aspects of daily life—where we live, work, and play.”
The echoes of past debates over language continue today among environmentalists. Some assert that there is too much focus on a narrowly conceived natural environment and not enough focus on the social justice impacts of environmental degradation on poor communities and communities of color. At the same time, some feel there is too much focus on humans in general. These two contentions do not need to be held in opposition. Notably, in his encyclical on climate change, Pope Francis excelled in connecting climate change to economic inequality while also criticizing a modern anthropocentrism that views “nature” as an object to be exploited for human ends.
Pope Francis’s views reflect a historic and evolving current among faith traditions. This current regards environmental consciousness and social justice as intimately intertwined. As part of this prophetic current, the language of “creation justice” has emerged. The word “creation” inherently evokes meanings that transcend artificial divides between the “human” and “nature.” “Creation” signals the truth of our interconnected reality. Moreover, it evokes the sacred story of origin that not only speaks to our common connection to each other but to our common connection to God. As Genesis 9:15 reminds us, God’s covenant is not only with humans but with “every living creature.”
Within this covenantal understanding of the web of life, the emphasis on justice arises as a central guiding impulse. If the word “creation” signals the totality of relationships with God, then creation justice signals the movement toward right relationships among all of God's creation. Building on the concept of eco-justice, creation justice entails an integrated, holistic ecology. It entails an understanding of the world which includes the built environment, culture, economic and political activity, and all of humanity as part of God's creation.
Using the term "creation" instead of "eco" or "environment" demonstrates our humble self-awareness that we are part of the created order our Creator constantly is at work with us to redeem and sustain. Using the term "justice" rather than "care" indicates our commitment to not only heal, tend, and restore God's creation, but to ensure the protection of God's planet and God's people from exploitation, as well as provision for the remediation of the damage that has been done. Because of the connotations and meanings of the phrase creation justice, it was adopted in the naming of Creation Justice Ministries. More recently, the United Church of Christ has named their green church recognition program “Creation Justice Churches,” while the American Baptists have developed a “Creation Justice Network.”
Shantha Ready Alonso is the Executive Director of Creation Justice Ministries and Brooks Berndt is the United Church of Christ Minister for Environmental Justice. This piece originally appeared on the United Church of Christ Environmental Justice blog, "The Pollinator."
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This blog shares the activities of Creation Justice Ministries. We educate and equip Christians to protect, restore, and rightly share God's creation.