The Sacred Sector, Creation Care, and Public Justice
By Tricia Bosma
Tricia Bosma is a seminarian at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan, following a 20-year career in elementary and middle school education. She will graduate from seminary in 2021, and looks forward to working in a ministry in the nonprofit sector, using her varied passions, skills, and experiences. Tricia is a 2019 Sacred Sector Fellow, where she served at Plainsong Farm in Rockford, Michigan. She and her husband have three adult children.
Abstract: Public justice insists that caring for the earth is the responsibility of every human institution in society, including government, individuals and diverse civil organizations – from churches and schools, to families and organizations that care about the environment. Many such organizations are inspired by sacred animating beliefs about their responsibility to steward the care of creation. In fact, there are many religious nonprofits of diverse spiritual backgrounds that are committed to supporting the environment through sustainable practices, education, service, advocacy, and more.
This article will outline the key philosophical principles undergirding a public justice approach to creation care, holistically addressing the vast environmental challenges Christian citizens and other individuals face today. It will then explore reasons why having such a variety of organizations representing distinct sacred beliefs and missions is critical in order for our pluralistic society to holistically address the vast environmental challenges we face today.
Whether scrolling through internet headlines or catching the evening news, the likelihood of an environmental or weather-related headline story is high. Depending on the time of year, there will be reports of hurricanes, wildfires, or droughts. This ranges from record-breaking arctic cold fronts to heat waves that result in human fatalities. Climate change is fueling drastic variation in weather patterns, leading to human pain and misery across the globe. It is clear that human flourishing depends on an environment that is clean and relatively predictable. In her Tedx Talk at Texas Tech University, Katharine Hayhoe, a prominent evangelical atmospheric scientist, commented regarding climate change, “We’ve been building our buildings and infrastructure, growing our crops, and planning for water and energy as if the past is a good predictor of our future. That assumption is no longer valid.”
When the changing climate causes disruption that impacts communities across geographic, socioeconomic and cultural divides, all people share a responsibility to act.
Public justice insists that caring for the earth is the responsibility of every human institution in society, including government, individuals and diverse civil organizations – from churches and schools, to families and organizations that care about the environment. Many such organizations are inspired by sacred animating beliefs about their responsibility to steward the care of creation. In fact, there are many religious nonprofits of diverse spiritual backgrounds that are committed to supporting the environment through sustainable practices, education, service, advocacy, and more. This article will first outline the key philosophical principles undergirding a public justice approach to creation care. Then, it will explore reasons why having such a variety of organizations representing distinct sacred beliefs and missions is critical in order for our pluralistic society to holistically address the vast environmental challenges we face today.
The natural environment, God’s created world, is a compilation of resources that are held in common with all people. Because of the mutuality of every element and resource in the created world, it is the ultimate responsibility of all human beings, as God’s image-bearers to steward God’s creation well. As the Center for Public Justice’s (CPJ) Guidelines on Environment state: “The creation’s vast diversity holds together as an interdependent unity. That which is not human has its own identity and purpose by God’s design and does not exist merely as a means for human ends. Consequently, ecological carefulness should be a condition of all development.” Public justice insists that honoring God’s call to love our neighbors in creation care does not apply only to individual acts such as recycling, conserving water, or purchasing our food locally. CPJ’s Guidelines make clear that God created humans for a diversity of roles, lived out through a diversity of human institutions, including religious and nonprofit organizations that “must exercise care in how they use resources and how they shape the habits, habitats, and practices of their members. Yet all of this is not enough.”
God also calls us to love our neighbors through our civic and associational actions that advance environmental stewardship for the current generation, and the generations yet to come. A public justice framework holds that the natural environment is a commons, and upholding the commons is the primary responsibility of governments, which are made up of political communities of citizens. It follows that public policy regarding environmental stewardship should consist of laws that hold everyone - including individual citizens and the diversity of organizations that make up civil society–accountable for ecological stewardship, assuring continued health and human flourishing for generations to come.
Public justice affirms that each distinct sphere of human responsibility, and its corresponding institutions and communities, should work together to fulfill the unique role that only they can fulfill in responding to complex and massive social challenges. This is especially true of creation care, because as the CPJ Guideline on Environment concludes: “As certain kinds of environmental degradation are reaching, or have already reached critical levels, the responsibilities articulated above are all the more urgent and should receive the highest level of attention by governments and organizations.” Faith-based organizations should be especially emphasized in this, as religious groups of various animating beliefs and truth claims reach similar conclusions regarding the primacy of stewarding our natural environment well.
Hayhoe, the evangelical and atmospheric scientist quoted earlier, cites that in our pluralistic society, 75 percent of individuals have motivations which flow out of religious convictions. Increasingly, the actions of faith-inspired individuals and civic organizations are engaging the environmental crisis that plagues our contemporary age.
Kinship, interdependency, and relationship are themes that run through the three Abrahamic, faiths: Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Many, though perhaps not all, groups within these faith traditions believe that within the vast diversity of creation there is an interdependent unity that exists: kinship between humans and the land, between humans and creatures, and between humans and humans. The creation does not exist solely as a means for human ends. Every part of creation has a function in that interdependency and a coordinating design. The following scripture passages depict elements of this interdependency. Scripture passages like these animate the faiths of a Muslim, Jew, or Christian. Ancient texts like these are also inspiring many faith organizations to make modern declaration of their commitment to creation care work. In fact, the Koran reminds in Surah Al-An’am 6:165, “And it is He who has appointed you vicegerent over the earth, and has exalted some of you over others in rank that He may try you through what He has given you.”
For Muslims, this statement embodies three truths: (1) human beings have responsibility for everything in the earth on behalf of the Creator God, (2) individuals have varying levels of responsibility for the resources, and (3) God concerns himself with how his resources are used by mankind. The 2015 Islamic Declaration on Climate Change is based on these beliefs about environmental stewardship held by many Muslims. Islamic leaders urged Muslims to “play an active role in combating climate change” and provide impetus for organizations like Green Muslims.
Jewish scriptures challenge us in Micah 6:8 with the question, “What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God?” Hans Walter Wolff says in his article, Micah the Prophet, that the prophet of God, Micah, was speaking out against the oppression of people at the hand of spiritual and secular leaders. The root of the people’s evil is coveting, wanting all things for themselves. Conversely, justice is caring for others above yourself. Additionally, the biblical creation story informs Jewish theology of creation and places a high regard on God's creation. The importance of justice, coupled with Jewish theology of creation, has inspired the formation of Jewish creation care organizations like Hazon.
Christians are inspired by Jesus’ words in Luke 10:27: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” Christians profess that God is love, and the source of all love. In love, God creates, preserves, and redeems all of creation through Jesus. Love is the basis for kinship and relationship, therefore, we maintain a kinship with creation, and not only a duty to management. Kyle Meyaard-Schaap says in Beyond Stewardship, “Scripture-from Genesis to the incarnation to the sacraments and beyond-makes the case that our proper orientation toward the non-human creation is not management but kinship.” Kinship connectedness has led to the missional Lausanne Movement to develop its own creation care book using theological thinking flowing from the Christian understanding of humanity’s cycle: creation-fall-redemption-new creation.
The kinship shared with human and non-human creation is the inspiration that people of faith bring to their labors for environmental justice. In May 2015, Pope Francis released a papal encyclical letter calling the 1.2 billion Roman Catholics to also join the fight against climate change. He noted how “inseparable the bonds were between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace.” Christian denominational synods, or governing and/or advisory authorities, are also releasing pledge statements. The Episcopal Church Statement on the Environment contained the following statement to address its rationale for action, “We are deepening our biblical understanding and perspective with regard to creation and our relationship to the wisdom of the ages. However, the liturgy of the Episcopal Church must come to reflect and teach our interconnection to God through loving relationships with all things.” Buddhist communities are also engaging in faith-inspired work as well. A core principle of the environmental organization Green Sangha understands humans as inherently connected to the planet: “We are the earth, sky, oceans and the entire planet. Of course we love the planet. It is us!”
These faith communities and their corresponding nonprofit organizations constitute formidable and diverse forces committed to creation care. To fulfill its role in caring for the natural environment, government ought to seek out and partner with organizations, of all faiths and none, that are likewise committed to environmental protection. According to CPJ, a public justice framework recognizes that one of government’s roles is to promote “policies and practices that uphold the ability of other institutions and associations to make their full contributions to human flourishing.” In other words, the government should seek out the best organizational collaborators from civil society, without regard those organizations’ religious backgrounds, when forming partnerships in pursuit of specific goals, such as promoting clean energy, purifying bodies or water, and creating green jobs. CPJ’s Guidelines on Welfare can be adopted and applied here to stewardship of the environmental commons: “When government does partner with NGOs, it must protect their autonomy and diversity. Many of the NGOs that [government may partner with] are forthrightly faith-based. In keeping with the First Amendment, government must not discriminate against such groups. Instead, it should grant faith-based organizations the same opportunities offered to all other service groups and protect their distinctive religious character if they become its partners. Government can best honor [its role in protecting the natural world] by ensuring that a variety of providers with different philosophies...are available.”
Partnerships between all sectors, including the sacred and public sectors of society, are rich unions that will benefit creation care work and other justice work. This is especially true of many faith-based and government partnerships focused on mobilizing opportunities for those that are living in poverty. Marginalized populations are primarily the ones most adversely affected by environmental injustices. Green America cites a 2014 study from the University of Minnesota that confirms, “people of color in the United States are 38 percent more likely to be exposed to the asthma-causing pollutant nitrogen oxide from climate-warming cars, construction equipment, and industrial sources like coal plants.” People who reside in urban industrial areas are subjected to the ill effects of breathing the carbon-polluted air that causes climate change.
The Black Church works to highlight injustice when the urban poor are plagued with asthma attacks, hospitalization, and premature deaths, due to health conditions brought on and aggravated by polluted air. Subsistence farmers in third-world countries like Bangladesh struggle against rainy season flooding that is becoming increasingly inconsistent. Faith-based organizations, like World Renew, regularly do the work of holistically caring for the world’s marginalized people who suffer injustices-many of which are climate related.
Inevitably, the effects of environmental crisis will intensify as this century marches on. Faith-based organizations will be called upon to advocate for and increase their care to the people and communities adversely affected by climate change. In A Better Planet: 40 Big Ideas for a Sustainable Future, Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim included in the chapter, “Moral and Spiritual Contributions to a Flourishing Earth Community” the following statement: “Moral influence, spiritual perspective, educational capacities, and institutional resources of the religions of the world are poised to make a difference in delivering effective responses to sustainability challenges … When moral and spiritual perspectives are brought to bear on social or environmental problems, innovative solutions often arise.”
The ultimate responsibility for creation justice extends beyond the government; the government must partner with a diversity of collaborators and organizations, including faith-based nonprofits, to tackle the varied and complex steps required to advance justice.
Living out our diverse faith claims in creation care will require strategic communication, inter-organizational partnership, and public positioning. Research from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication reveals Six Americas: the study classifies individual into six categories, according to their level of regard to the climate crisis: alarmed (high belief in, most concerned and motivated), concerned, cautious, disengaged, doubtful, and dismissive (low belief in, least concern and motivated). While not everyone in these categories will be persons of faith, the adherents of our distinct faith traditions are represented in these categories as well. The findings of the 2018 research reveal striking parallels between those classified as alarmed and those identifying their beliefs tied to moral values and fundamental beliefs. More than 90 percent of the respondents claim that the moral values and fundamental beliefs they possess influence their perceptions regarding the climate crisis. Moral values and fundamental beliefs are often defined by one’s religious faiths. And, in the last five years, the number of people alarmed by the climate crisis has risen fifteen percent. Individuals who were identified as having changed their level of concern cited reasons for their increased concern level. Responses included: experienced the effects of climate change, taking it more seriously now, became more informed, and learned of more impacts of climate change, among others. Further communication and education of faith-based communities is needed to continue increasing awareness and recruiting advocates to be willing voices for this justice issue.
Faith-based nonprofits working for increased climate care can inspire their stakeholders by utilizing strategic communication focusing on faith-based moral values and fundamental beliefs, such as kinship and interrelatedness of creation. As the Yale studies reveal, however, that cannot be the only way to communicate with constituents. The top three tiers (alarmed, concerned, cautious) often cite specific moralistic reasons for their concerns: better life for the next generations, saving plant and animal species, and preventing destruction of life on the planet. While themes common to diverse faith traditions inspire leadership’s work, inspirational communication with stakeholders is also an imperative. The people most concerned about climate change must be motivated to go beyond making “green” personal choices. The scope of nonprofit work needs to move people from concerned and cautious to alarmed and ready to effect large scale changes with an efficacy to provide a healthy future for future generations and for the planet. The alarmed group is poised to take action, if they are inspired to do so.
Increasing the public’s will, and the will of our faith-based sector, toward greater and widespread changes require that faith-inspired creation care work be a collaborative effort. Anthony Leiserowitz explains this and more, in his chapter “Building Public and Political Will for Climate Change Action” in A Better Planet: 40 Big Ideas for a Sustainable Future. Once faith-based leaders from various backgrounds are inspired to act, they then need to be empowered. Nonprofit organizations need to build communities of people who are poised and willing to flex their political muscle for the climate care issue. This, however, requires a different kind of organization; one that is committed to “developing and amplifying citizen voices and power.” Diverse faith-based organizations can collaborate under the common motivations for interdependence and moral action, as they become a faith-based voice commanding the needed influence.
Citizens of different spiritual beliefs, and their corresponding organizations, have a crucial role in the cause of creation care, especially climate change. Diverse faith-based organizations provide a full continuum of care, spurred on by faith traditions that value the interconnectedness of creation and work to maintain kinship with it. These individuals and organizations can be found in streams doing watershed work, providing educational opportunities to school-aged children, or providing fresh food for the hungry. They labor to increase awareness of creational needs, and together can plan strategy to influence public policy.
How will the planet look in 2030? What will the headlines say in 2040? In November 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported that changing climate is causing elevated sea levels, increased wildfires, more severe storms and droughts, threatening human life, communities and critical infrastructure. United faithful leadership in this work can positively influence what headlines will be read by the generations to come.
To respond to the author of this article, please email PJR@cpjustice.org. The articles in Public Justice Review do not represent a consensus of positions on questions of public policy. We do not expect our readers will agree with all the arguments they find here, but we believe that within the broad tradition of what we call public justice we can do more by providing a forum for the debate and exchange of Christians, within those bounds, to work out public policy faithful to God and in service of our neighbors. We do not necessarily share the views expressed, but we do accept responsibility for giving them a chance to appear.