Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

St. Francis and Eco-Justice
distributed 10/4/19 - ©2019

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Jeff Odendahl, of Maplewood, Minnesota, in memory of Mary Krantz. His generous support helps make this publication possible.

It is exhausting to be in a constant fight against bad things, an ongoing struggle to stave off local and global disasters. I often feel that exhaustion, and I hear from many dedicated eco-justice advocates about the dangers of getting worn down.

Today, by Catholic calendars, is the Feast of St. Francis -- the "environmental" saint. It seems like a fitting occasion to recall some of the positive vision that can guide us, nurture us, and sustain us. Remembering what we are working for and finding ways to voice our positive commitments can reduce the exhaustion, and it can make us more effective in our work to protect Creation.

Today, in the tradition of St. Francis, let's reaffirm the term "eco-justice" -- a principle which has shaped religious environmental work for almost 50 years, and which is central to the identity and the work of Eco-Justice Ministries.

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The hyphenated word was coined in the very early 1970s by two American Baptist leaders, Richard Jones and Owen Owens. In those early days of the broad-based environmental movement, there was an often voiced sense of conflict and trade-offs between environmental concerns and social justice. Caring for the environment, some said, was contrary to work for justice.

The two Baptists recognized that ecology and justice are intertwined, and began to promote the conjoined word of eco-justice to reflect those connected needs. It was a profoundly insightful and bold assertion way back in the 70s, and it still speaks to the principles that have shaped the contemporary Green New Deal. Climate justice, economic justice, racial justice and intergenerational justice are all connected, and are dependent on each other.

The splicing of ecology and justice was a brilliant step, but the new term was (and, I confess, still is) awkward and not widely understood. So I've been profoundly grateful to one of the leaders of faith-based environmental concerns for providing a short and vivid descriptions.

Rev. Bill Gibson gives us the affirmation that eco-justice seeks "the well-being of all humankind on a thriving Earth." In 1985, Gibson wrote an elaboration of the 9-word definition, making it clear that a thriving earth is necessary for the health and prosperity of humans. He also affirmed that eco-justice calls for humans to practice "a way of living within the natural order that is fitting: respectful of the integrity of natural systems and of the worth of nonhuman creatures, appreciative of the beauty and mystery of the world of nature."

(A short article by Dieter Hessel -- another scholar and leader of the eco-justice movement -- summarizes this history and provides the quote above. It continues into a good summary of "21st Century Earth Ethics.")

In 2019, after many decades during which eco-justice theology and ethics have expanded and become more comprehensive, it might be time to tweak Rev. Gibson's definition ever so slightly. I'd suggest that, with today's deepening ecological awareness, we might say, not "humankind on a thriving earth," but perhaps "humankind as part of a thriving earth." It is good to stress that humans are part of the whole Earth community, that we are in and of nature and not separate from it.

As Pope Francis wrote in his 2015 encyclical, "Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live. We are part of nature, included in it and thus in constant interaction with it. ... We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental."

Eco-justice -- which is really close to what Francis calls "integral ecology" -- speaks of the one complex crisis, and it also reminds us of the affirmative vision that motivates us and guides us. We are for "the well-being of all humankind" and we are for "a thriving earth."

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"The well-being of all humankind" is a big idea, and long conversations could delve into the details and the subtleties of what it looks like. For today's short reminder about what we stand for, I'll just make two brief points.

Bill Gibson reminds us that our ethical concern is for all humankind. Eco-justice is not about my neighborhood, by political tribe, or my nation. Ethically, and for the survival of the planet, we seek the good for all of our human kin.

We can find some clarity about "well-being" through the UN's Sustainable Development Goals. Those 17 internationally recognized goals -- ranging from "no poverty" and "zero hunger" to gender equality, affordable and clean energy, and responsible consumption and production -- are both visionary and pragmatic descriptions of justice and equality. You might recall that last October's major UN report on climate change said that we'll be able to make the most progress in addressing the climate crisis if we do so with those sustainable development goals in mind.

A "thriving Earth" is certainly an enticing and hopeful vision, even as it seems so far removed from current reality. It is good for us to remember that we're FOR a healthy biosphere. It is that positive promise which motivates our efforts against so many threats -- the frightening loss of biodiversity, the pollution of oceans, the poisoning of soil, the warping of climate.

A thriving Earth is one with vibrant and healthy ecologies, with resilient and strong ecologies. A thriving Earth does more than meet human needs. It is abundant and energetic in its own ways, and as it lives out God's joyous love for all creation.

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Today is the Feast of St. Francis. Those of us who are not steeped in Catholic traditions may think of Francis primarily because of his love and respect for animals. But Francis also was a radical advocate for justice.

Heather McDougall wrote, "St Francis offers a vision of a different world, where we share more equally the abundant wealth of goods and life itself as we focus on the right relations to the earth and all our fellow creatures.

Over 800 years ago, Francis held together the well-being of all humankind and a thriving Earth. The good saint can stand as an icon of what we now call eco-justice.

Through St. Francis, and contemporary voices like Bill Gibson, we are called toward both social justice and ecological health. When we get tired in the fight against great crises and deep evil, let us find hope and energy in that comprehensive love for all creation.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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