Doctrine, Ecology, and Justice (part 1 of 3)

by Eric Daryl Meyer

Over the next few days I will post a reflection paper written for a course in ecological theology. The assignment was to draw connections between Christian doctrine, ecological integrity, and social justice.

To study the history of the human race is to encounter a startling variety of brutalities and barbarisms. When we learn about the Roman Empire and the pax romana, we inevitably hear rumors of the ardor surrounding the ritual blood and gore of the Empire’s arenas. The high-mannered civilization of Victorian England appears resplendent with strong moral fiber, but cast a long dark shadow over lands where putatively ignorant natives were either enlightened (by assimilation) or pressed into service. In the seemingly endless iterations of this dual theme, we marvel that people capable of such beauty and sensitivity can simultaneously be so crude, myopic, and morally deranged. In the unprecedented technological development and material standards living in North Atlantic culture (now making inroads as global culture through the machinations of the free market), what is the latent barbarism to which we are, presumably, anaesthetized?

When the students of 2200 or 2500 or 2700 AD recount the life of the 20th and 21st centuries, will they find that our short-sighted obsession with ever-expanding economic growth in the face of obvious ecological and social harm simply beggars belief? Will they ask how people could be so foolish as to undercut their own health and happiness while coercing billions of others with the whims and wastes of their greed in enforced and anonymous silence? Our seeming ignorance of the insoluble link between ecological integrity and social justice (or our willingness to disregard both) may be the most shameful aspect of our society’s legacy.

The public speaking advice to “imagine your audience naked” can be performed as a global antidote to pretense. The beggar from Delhi’s slums and the corporate officer in the Leer-jet overhead are, despite the “different worlds” they inhabit members of the same species—complete with moles, holes, wrinkles, and hair in bodily nooks. A little ecological imagination is a tremendous way to relativize the power relations that attend differences in class, wealth, or education! Despite modern (and pretentious) attempts to think about human history apart from creation—casting nature in the role of passive backdrop, raw material for development, or muse for aesthetic inspiration—human beings are organisms that arise from the dirt in order to breath air, take nutrients from plant and animal flesh, excrete their wastes, reproduce, socialize, and die back to the dust.[1]  Human history is natural history; there is no realistic trajectory of “progress” that leaves the integrity of the whole planet out of the picture.

Concurrent with the forgoing thoughts, [the assigned reading from] Professor Christine Hinze and James Nash establishes the inseparability of social justice and ecological integrity. The degradation of the natural world cannot but affect the people whose lives are inseparable from nature. From the perspective of the whole human species, ecological degradation is nothing less than suicidal self-endangerment. Injustice becomes apparent insofar as the wealthy and powerful are better able to insulate their lives from the effects of their folly, temporarily passing their impact off onto others. Christine Firer-Hinze argues, “If my ecological location includes my body, and my survival as an embodied, spiritual being depends on certain positive relations to my physical environment, then it is not possible to speak morally about human dignity apart from ecological concern.”[2]  The degree to which we actually honor the human dignity of others, then, is revealed by the way in which we protect the ecosystems and land in which others live, or by our failure to do so. Thus, the impulse to look after the health of the planet is not an aesthetic preference for those fortunate enough to enjoy “wilderness.” It is first of all a moral imperative relative to our fellow humans. Furthermore, it is a task with deep moral and spiritual consequence relative to creatures co-inhabiting the planet and the land on which they live. We cannot be whole and healthy human beings in abstraction from our place in the ecological order; thus, human flourishing (including salvation!) must be described in terms of re-integration with the natural world—or, more biblically, peace in the land.

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[1] Jürgen Moltmann (rather unusually) describes postmodern thought, not as the deconstruction of gender, identity, culture, or political discourse, nor as the final abandonment of metaphysics but rather as an attempt to think ecologically. Breaking the illusion that human history can be thought over-against nature as a line tracing human progress re-introduces the ecological interplay of every species of life with every other. Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ: Christology in Messianic Dimensions, trans. Margaret Kohl (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1993), xvi, 194-95. Or, as Joseph Sittler is reputed to have said often, “All the createds are relateds.”

[2] Christine Firer Hinze, “Catholic Social Teaching and Ecological Ethics” in And God Saw that it was Good, ed. Christiansen and Grazer. (Washington DC: US Catholic Conference, 1996), 176.

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