Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Stretching the Notion of Neighbor
distributed 7/10/20 - ©2020

Rev. Peter Sawtell will retire on July 31, after 20 years of service as the Executive Director of Eco-Justice Ministries. Our Board of Directors invites you to join in celebrating his ministry. There will be an on-line reception on Sunday, July 26, and the Board is gathering letters, pictures and videos from our community of friends and supporters.

RSVPs for the reception, and submissions for the scrapbook, are requested by July 15. For details, please see a letter from the Board on our website. We look forward to hearing from you!

At the start of next week, look for an email that will share some of our recommendations for other agencies that will be helpful to individuals and congregations for church programming and activism. Peter will also offer ways that you can stay in touch after his retirement.

In the early years of Eco-Justice Ministries, a newspaper reporter asked me a challenging question. It is one that I'd heard fairly often from church people, but answering for a secular news article called for a different kind of response.

The reporter asked, "What Bible texts do I look to as a basis for Christian environmentalism? What passages are most important in seeing the need to care for all of God's creation?"

Coming up with an answer was hard. There are so many texts that generally point us in the right direction and inform our understanding -- which one to pick? And yet there are so few texts that deal directly with the sorts of issues we face in our technological, globalized, and hurting world. What one or two passages could I lift up which would make sense to a casual reader?

As I think back, I remember that that part of the way I responded wasn't terribly theological. I wanted a little bit of shock value. I wanted to give an unexpected answer. I wanted a few sentences that will make a quotable sound bite.

I was also aware that, for people who are not familiar with the idea of eco-justice -- whether newspaper readers or a lot of church members -- that it is important to use a very familiar text. An obscure passage gives the impression that eco-justice commitments are also obscure, so I wanted a text that is clearly at the heart of Christian faith and ethics.

So I decided to pick a few verses that are in every Sunday School curriculum, that are well-known to every church-goer, and that will be familiar to most who don't go to church. The words come from the Jewish scriptures, and are quoted several times in the Gospels. In Matthew, for example, Jesus is asked, "Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?" And Jesus answered:

'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. (Matt. 22:37-40)

"Love God, and love your neighbor" isn't usually thought of as an environmental text. This teaching does have a profound eco-justice meaning, though, as soon as we stretch the definition of "neighbor" into a broad realm.

I can claim a good precedent in stretching the definition of neighbor. That is precisely what Jesus did with the parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10). Jesus had affirmed the centrality of neighbor love, and then he was hit with the follow-up question of "And who is my neighbor?" As his parable makes clear, loving our neighbor calls us to look beyond our family and friends, and the people who live next door. So, too, a faithful love of neighbors moves us beyond abstract concern or warm feelings, and makes us act with compassion and responsibility.

Using "Love God, and love your neighbor" as a central text is fruitful in interviews -- and conversations and classes at church -- because it then requires the discussion to continue into three essential expansions of our ethical circles of being a neighbor.

1. Our neighbors include the whole human family.
We are to be neighbor to the poor and people of color who are the frequent victims of environmental injustice. We are to be neighbor to the residents of Pacific islands and Bangladesh, whose countries are beginning to be inundated by rising sea levels. We are to be neighbor to the indigenous people of the Amazon and Indonesia whose forest homelands are being clearcut, and in Africa where spreading deserts bring famine. We are to be neighbor to the residents of urban areas whose health is degraded by smog, and to agricultural workers who are exposed constantly to dangerous chemicals.

The command to love all of our human neighbors lifts up the justice components of eco-justice. Our compassion and concern are for those who have been hit hardest with painful impacts, and who have had few benefits from these environmental changes. We care for the poor and the powerless, the ones who the least ability to control their situation.

2. Our neighbors include future generations.
If we are neighbor to all of Earth's people today, we must also be neighbor to the coming generations who will bear the brunt of today's destructive lifestyle. Because of human actions today, they will be forced to live in a hotter world (a new report this week sees Earth hitting the 1.5 degree warming threshold within five years), a world without thousands of species, a world with more people but diminished resources.

Looking to the future also forces us to see elements of justice. Charity might incline us to leave some resources for those who will come after us. Justice, as a component of profound love, turns the equation around, and looks at what those future generations have a right to demand from us. Love demands that we provide them with a livable world. Love and intergeneration justice call for ecological stability and sufficient resources for their ongoing well-being. Love of future neighbors means that we must change our destructive and consumptive ways.

3. Our neighbors include the rest of creation.
Our ethical stretching has to go beyond our human neighbors. We are to be neighbor to all the variety of life with whom we share this planet and with whom we relate in ways both dramatic and subtle -- the whales and the coral and the salmon, the wolves and caribou and prairie dogs, the complex communities of life in grasslands and forests and wetlands.

Because God's love encompasses all creatures, the obligations of faithful love also hold us in relationships of compassion, respect and justice with the entire web of life. Now, and into the future, we must care for all the family of life, and for the natural systems which maintain life.

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What Bible texts provide a basis for Christian environmentalism? The biblical basis for eco-justice, of caring for creation, is not drawn just from interpretations of Genesis texts: of "dominion", and the Garden of Eden, and the story of Noah. It does not depend on subtleties of Greek meaning in God's love for the cosmos (John 3:16). Those are familiar and true, but we don't need to start there.

The biblical basis for caring for creation is found in the very message that Jesus named as most central, in the two commandments that support all of the law and the prophets. Love God and love neighbor. As our hearts and minds and spirits perceive ever-broadening circles of "neighbor," eco-justice emerges as an essential, basic expression of our faith. As Jesus stretches the notion of neighbor, we are called to live and act with expansive justice.

May God's Spirit move within us to expand our love and vision. May our individual and collective lives be shaped by deep and responsible love of all of our far-flung neighbors.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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Eco-Justice Ministries ended all programming on July 31, 2020. This site is an archive of writings and resources.
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