A Theology for Environmental and Social Justice
Updated: Aug 16
In his poem ‘Saint Kevin and the Blackbird,’ Seamus Heaney portrays the myth of St Kevin who, arms stretched out in prayer, shelters a nesting blackbird in his palms until her young are “hatched and fledged and flown.” Through his compassion for the blackbird, St Kevin finds himself “linked into the network of eternal life.” In the midst of the tragedy of the current global pandemic, a renewed appreciation for nature’s rhythms has brought comfort to many as we adapt to a new way of living; reviving an intimate relationship with nature that has been largely lost for many in the Western world.
Despite just criticism that the anthropocentrism of the Judeo-Christian religion has contributed to the West’s exploitative relationship with nature, environmental voices have endured within these traditions. Twelfth century German mystic, Hildegard of Bingen, who likened the universe to an egg in the womb of God, saw that "God's word is in all creation, visible and invisible. The word is living, being, spirit, all verdant greening, all creativity. The word manifests itself in every creature." This was later echoed by Francis of Assisi who was reported to have called all creatures, no matter how small, by the name of "brother" or "sister." This fraternal/sororal relationship was extended to the elements "brothers wind and air," "sister water," "brother fire" and "mother earth who sustains and governs us." This familial naming should not be dismissed as mere sentimentalism, but rather as an acknowledgement of the intrinsic value of all of creation and a decision to approach our shared home with humility and respect.
In the Global North today, we increasingly relate to nature with what Jewish philosopher Martin Buber identified as an "I-it" attitude, viewing our environment as an object to be acted upon for our own use and gain. Buber contrasts this with an "I-Thou" attitude.
Viewing the other (whether human, animal or plant) as "Thou" creates a relationship of mutuality. This view not only acknowledges the intrinsic value of the "Thou," but also elevates the status of the "I" to that of a relational being, fulfilling our innate human desire for relationship and connection.
For many of us living in what is often referred to as the “developed world,” we face a paradox in which technological advances allow us to travel more freely and communicate more easily, yet we simultaneously experience an increased disconnect between the food we eat, the items we purchase and the human, animal and environmental cost they incur. We can lose sight of the sacredness of the earth which was declared to be “good” and where God “pitched a tent among us” (Jn 1:14)
It is in John 1 that we read that the “word became flesh” (Heb, basar Gk sarx). In her eco-hermeneutical reading of John’s Gospel, Margaret Daly-Denton suggests that the biblical use of this word in some instances refers to “all people” while in others it means “all living creatures” (see Job 34:15) with whom we share the same remote origin “in the dust of exploding stars.” The fact that “the word became flesh” therefore has implications of “interconnectedness within the whole biotic community of life on earth.”
This interconnectedness led theologians including Leonardo Boff to expand the attention of liberation theology, which affirms God’s preferential option for the poor, to include our shared home in creation, recognising that the same socioeconomic forces that threaten life on earth are also responsible for enforcing the suffering and poverty of millions of human beings. This theological outlook mirrors the environmental position that there is “no environmental justice without social justice” and urges us to respond to both “the cry of the poor for life, freedom, and beauty… and the cry of the earth groaning under oppression.”
This concern for the marginalised was central to the life and teachings of Jesus. This is exemplified in the four Gospel accounts of a story in which Jesus "cleanses the temple", commanding the traders to "stop making my Father's house a market-place." The writings of early Jewish authors indicate that the temple was believed to be a microcosm of all of creation and here we can draw clear parallels between this small-scale exploitative trading and the large-scale abuse of humans and nature in the name of economic growth. In all four accounts, Jesus' rebuke is directed towards "those who were selling the doves"- the animals that were purchased by the poorest members of the community as a temple sacrifice. Justice for those on the margins is also a recurring theme in the Hebrew Bible which declares:
"This is the kind of fast day I'm after: to break the chains of injustice, get rid of exploitation in the workplace, free the oppressed, cancel debts." (Isa. 58:6)
“Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat. Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price." (Isa. 55:1)
These verses surely speak to us today in our world in which economic injustice is intensified by climate change and biodiversity loss. Furthermore, their message arguably aligns more closely with an economy that centres on wellbeing rather than endless growth. As an urban dweller in the Global North, I recognise that I am part of the one third of the human population that has benefitted from and contributed to the oppression of the rest of humanity and the destruction of our shared home. We owe an environmental debt to our global neighbours and must act with urgency to end the mutual abuse of earth and humanity. As we look towards moving our lives out of lockdown, there is a growing sense that our “normal” way of life was in fact built on systemic injustice, placing an unsustainable demand on people and planet. We have an opportunity to create something new, which will involve examining our daily living habits and evaluating the human and environmental toll of the conveniences to which we have become accustomed. Recognising our interconnectedness, and acting at a local level for the global good, we must act now to create a system for living that will “correct oppression” (Isa 1:17) and proclaim “good news to the whole creation.” (Mk 16:15)
Lauren has a degree in Religions and Theology and a Masters in Human Rights Law. She is from NI and lives in Belfast where she works for a non profit organisation.