Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Different from Dr. King
distributed 1/13/06, 1/24/14 - ©2014

Last weekend, communities across the United States observed the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a true national hero.

More broadly, the King holiday serves as an occasion to celebrate the extended struggle for racial justice, freedom and dignity. When we do our best at honoring Dr. King, we affirm him as a representative for countless others who have led, worked and died in that long and ongoing cause. We dishonor him, and miss the point of his leadership, when we lift him up as an individual who spoke and acted alone.

During this month when we observe King's birthday, may our worship services, seminars and protest events -- and our personal moments of reading and reflection -- help us remember the richness and detail of Dr. King's life, and of the diverse movement of which he was a part.

+     +     +     +     +

The US civil rights movement has been studied and admired, not only for its own meaning, but also as a model for many other social change movements. Many people have drawn such parallels with the modern environmental movement.

My own sense of the issues, dynamics, strategies and perspectives for the eco-justice cause has been profoundly shaped by the civil rights movement. There is much common ground between the two, and there is great wisdom to enrich the environmental movement. But I have also become aware of some important ways in which the environmental movement is very different from the historic racial justice struggle -- especially when we look at those parts of the eco-justice movement that are acting urgently on issues such as climate change, resource depletion, and the distortions of economic systems.

Both of these causes are very diverse and very complex. At the risk of dramatic over-simplification, let me suggest five ways in which the eco-justice/environmental movement is unlike the historical racial justice cause we celebrate in relation to King's birthday.

  1. The driving power behind the civil rights movement came from a large and self-interested population of African-Americans. In the fight against racism, people of color were passionately engaged on their own behalf; they were defending and enhancing their own families and communities.

    In the environmental cause, the other species who have so much at stake are silenced, powerless, and unable to organize. It is humans who must speak and act on behalf of these other parts of God's creation. Our own self-interest often turns us away from action. Our motivation to organize and act is tempered and diluted because many of us benefit from the systems of exploitation.

  2. The civil rights movement had a deep grounding in the Black church. Through hundreds of years, the preaching, prayers and community life of those churches built a rich and implicit theology of liberation. The church community developed a powerful collection of songs, stories and images that infused the movement with meaning. Pastors were recognized and encouraged as leaders in the cause (think of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference), and church buildings were used for countless meetings.

    The environmental movement -- including the faith-based environmental movement -- is too young to have that sort of deep and powerful grounding. We don't have a library of sermons and songs, and our emerging environmental theologies are so diverse that there is little common ground among them. Clergy, buildings and budgets are rarely offered in support of the cause. The church has relatively little influence in the environmental cause, and no other institution provides a comparable base of tradition and respect.

  3. At least in some key aspects, the civil rights movement was rooted in the American dream. Speeches and writings would often hearken back to Declaration of Independence and its assertion of the self-evident truth "that all [people] are created equal." By reference to a founding document of the nation, the movement was able to call on the dominant society to expand its norms and vision to include the entire population.

    The environmental movement doesn't have that deeply-claimed call to unity. Rather than affirming core parts of our heritage and values, environmentalism critiques some of the most foundational ideas and principles of US society. Instead of seeking to expand the American dream, some strands of the eco-justice movement announce a need to change the American dream.

  4. Any careful study of the civil rights movement will reveal that racism runs deep in the fabric of US law and culture. The struggle for racial justice went far beyond new laws, and dealt with family structures, housing patterns and school neighborhoods, language and the arts.

    The roots of our environmental problems go even deeper, and their expressions are even more wide-spread. The eco-justice movement must deal with almost every aspect of law, government and business. It questions the core assumptions of our economic systems. It makes us look at everything we eat, every product we use, every use of energy, every synthetic chemical that is produced. We must come to grips with the limits of natural resources, and the limited resilience of natural systems.

  5. Racism has become embedded in US law and culture though hundreds of years. Generations of hard and intentional work have been devoted to rooting it out, and that work must continue for many decades to come. The work of Dr. King and others in the 50s and 60s is just one short chapter in an ongoing cause.

    Our ecological crisis has been growing for hundreds, even thousands of years, but we do not have the luxury of centuries to reshape our institutions, reorient our values, and bring healing to the earth. We are at a particular moment of crisis, a tipping point, where a failure to act does not just prolong the current suffering, it launches us into very different situations with climate change, species extinction, modified genetics, and persistent new chemicals.

There are important parallels and resonances between the civil rights and environmental movements. There is much to learn and share. But we, in the faith-based environmental cause, must also be aware of the distinctive challenges we face.

We must do our work without the passionate communities, philosophical and theological roots, and institutional grounding that were so central to the civil rights movement. We must address problems that are even more pervasive than racism, and we must do so an a far more urgent timeline.

In the face of such a challenge, I pray that we may we find the faith, courage, passion and grace to live and act accordingly. May we be inspired by Martin Luther King and others from the civil rights movement to devote ourselves fully to the cause that lies before us.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

Eco-Justice Ministries   *   400 S Williams St, Denver, CO   80209   *   Home Page:
Eco-Justice Ministries ended all programming on July 31, 2020. This site is an archive of writings and resources.
To contact a representative of the agency by e-mail, please use the contact form