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Can eco-justice go mainstream?

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Albuquerque, N.M.

The Rio Grande Valley spreads in Edenic splendor of early springtime beneath the great turtle form of the Sandia Mountains. The river is a brown streak of liquid glass lined by cottonwoods just greening along the bank.

Beyond, the city of Albuquerque hulks at the base of the mountains.

High on a bluff on Albuquerque's sprawling west mesa, the Santa Fe archdiocese's Madonna Retreat Center overlooks the Rio Grande.

Twenty-six influential New Mexico Catholic and Protestant leaders are meeting here to discuss what they believe is a revolution that will shake Christianity to its foundations.

They want to formulate practical ways to move current concerns about ecological crisis to the theological center of Christian ritual and practice.

So-called ecotheology has generated a flood of books and articles as theologists and ethicists have tried to close the gap between contemporary scientific knowledge and Christian belief.

Early in 1990, a group of 32 internationally eminent scientists headed by Carl Sagan delivered an open letter to the North American religious community saying there was no technological fix for unparalleled worldwide environmental devastation. They called upon religious leaders and churches to react to the crisis as the only social agents with the ethical power to respond to "crimes against creation."

In New York on June 3, 1991, religious leaders at the Summit on Environment promised to take on this challenge from the secular scientific community. Six years have passed. Is anyone out there listening?

Crimes against creation

Near dusk a few New Mexico conferees lounge in the center's meeting room looking out through a large picture window to the broad swath of river turning gold in the late afternoon light. Charles E. Little sweeps into the room like an affable but prophetic St. Nicholas.

Author of 11 environmental books, Little served as president and editor for American Land Forum, head of the Natural Resources Policy Group, senior associate with the Conservation Foundation and executive director of the Open Space Institute.

Ten years ago he left Washington, D.C., to live in New Mexico. A member of the New Mexico Conference of Churches Eco-Justice Task Force, Little is an articulate and persuasive spokesman for his new cause -- ecotheology. He was active in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s when churches played a key role in creating social change.

He believes the only way to effect environmental salvation is by convincing millions of churchgoers that environmental sacrilege must stop. This conference, sponsored by the Eco-Justice Task Force, is the kickoff for a series of such gatherings that Little hopes will eventually be held on a national basis.

Keynote speaker is John Haught, a Catholic theologian from Georgetown University in Washington and author of The Promise of Nature, which attempts to re-ground Christian belief in the sanctity of the natural world. Haught believes the recovery of religious vision is the only way the earth's ecosystem will survive.

For Charles Little, hope is a big theme these days. One of the attendees compliments him on his recent book, The Dying of the Trees: "Your book is great but it's really depressing." Little smiles broadly. He has struck home. The book, a finalist for the 1997 Los Angeles Times Book Award, examines the wholesale destruction of America's forests through clear-cutting, acid rain, ozone layer depletion and resulting ultraviolet radiation -- all human-caused destruction. After writing the book, Little says he sank into a period of despair from which he is now emerging.

Little waves a copy of Tom Hayden's new book, The Lost Gospel of the Earth. "Have you seen this?" he asks. California State Sen. Tom Hayden condemns mainstream religions for maintaining silence in the face of corporate and government polluters who are committing what Hayden terms "mortal sin against God's creation."

"If the churches don't have anything to say about the environment," Charles Little is fond of proclaiming, "they have nothing to say at all."

Surrounded on all sides

The mood shifts as conference participants take their seats and introduce themselves. Most of the group is white, and there are more women present than men. They espouse the ecofeminist view that exploitation of the earth and exploitation of women go hand in hand. Participants are educators, pastors, church members and missionaries, many of whom have advanced degrees in subjects like marine biology, wilderness theology, ethnobotany and environmental studies.

"Why do so many Christians seem so unconcerned or even object to eco-justice? It troubles me," says Paul Seto, a retired Japanese-American Presbyterian minister from Santa Fe, N.M.

Seto expresses deep spiritual commitment as well as a sense of isolation that other participants also seem to feel.

The nascent ecotheology or eco-justice movement has had a chilly reception in this area, where fundamentalists recently offered prize money to students developing creationist projects for the annual high school science fair. Fundamentalists have lobbied hard to have creationism taught in Albuquerque schools along with evolution. To them, ecotheology smacks of New Age paganism.

People of color in the social justice movement have so far ignored efforts by the Eco-Justice Task Force to form alliances. Affluent white environmentalists and indigenous communities have often come to loggerheads here in New Mexico where employment and poverty are core issues.

Albuquerque's Center for Action and Contemplation, a Catholic outreach ministry, offers a unique blend of prayer, social action and internship programs. Permaculture projects at the center's Tepeyac Guest Residence have recently been criticized by some center staff members for taking staffers away from their social justice projects to complete work-intensive natural agriculture.

Permaculture attempts to integrate self-sustaining, pesticide-free vegetable production with an environmentally conscious lifestyle. Staff members say permaculture projects, such as installing a natural water collection system, are an outgrowth and vital expression of their ecotheological concerns. This values clash between human-centered social activism and earth-centered ecotheology has caused conflict as some local religious activists apply new theological understandings that challenge traditional assumptions.

An unlikely Elijah

John Haught seems an unlikely Elijah as he steps to the podium to address the conference group. He is tall and lanky, and his deliberate movements reveal him as the Virginia farm boy he is, one of nine children born to parents who raised chickens, hogs and cattle.

Haught's self-effacing style contrasts with the sophistication of his message. Can Christianity, with its emphasis on future redemption and salvation be ecologically responsible, Haught asks. Dualism, otherworldliness, anthropocentrism, patriarchy and dominion over the feminine powers of nature have made modern Christianity indifferent to the natural world. Likewise, secular attempts to demystify and reduce nature to material for human exploitation have led to the cosmic pessimism of our industrial consumerist age, Haught says.

He sees three ways in which faith and ecoethics might be connected:

  • First, many Christian theologians -- reacting against charges that religion is impotent in the face of today's unprecedented environmental devastation -- have become apologists, citing biblical summons to stewardship as a call to protect the natural world.
  • A second view holds that traditional Christian beliefs and theology are sufficient in and of themselves and do not have to be altered in the face of ecological crises.
  • A third approach, however, is sacramental ecotheology, which attempts to reinstill sacredness of earth and universe as an intrinsic value through which God reveals himself. Nature is a sacramental disclosure of God, a view compatible with Catholic practice, but, in Haught's opinion, not an ultimately satisfying proposition.

For Haught, nature reveals the future perfection promised by God, a central theme that runs through Hebrew and Christian scripture. However, theologies prevalent today that are concerned primarily with the end of the world and life beyond death become diverted from that theme. The attention of believers is thus turned away from dealing with the present.

It is obvious Haught is preaching to the choir, yet he seems strangely detached from the devastating significance of his message: If humanity cannot respond to the current trends by reversing ecological destruction, we may disappear from the face of the earth. Such a dire warning would more suit fundamentalist radio doom prophets than John Haught, who concludes his presentation in a quiet voice warmed by a sense of promise.

The next morning Haught is up early. He strolls to the cafeteria for breakfast as conference participants say morning prayers.

No prophetic voice

"There's no Martin Luther out there," he says. "There's no one radical prophetic voice speaking out right now in the religious community. There are so many factions and nothing will really happen until the government reacts. The call for voluntarism is OK, but what we have now is lip service from both political parties that are really two wings of the American business party, all dominated by the ethic of unlimited economic growth. What we really need is a massive restructuring of life, a redefinition of what it means to be a man or a woman today, a wider, more encompassing movement that sees the connection between ecological crisis, economics and poverty."

Throughout the day, groups discuss how they will bring back their convictions to their communities. There are no earthshaking ideas, no great practical revelations.

That evening Haught is again a featured speaker, this time presenting an address for the public at the Newman Aquinas Center near the University of New Mexico. Attendance is moderate. Conference participants are geared up, but after the presentation, a couple expresses disappointment.

They had expected Haught to rally the troops, but instead he delivered an academic address clarifying his view of nature as God's promise. For Wallace Ford, executive secretary of the New Mexico Conference of Churches, the presentation is a revelation.

The next morning Ford conducts the closing morning service for the conference. He talks about the tree as an ecumenical symbol, the sacred tree, the tree of life, the crucifixion tree, the Bo Tree under which the Buddha sat, how trees were thought from ancient times to hold up the sky, how they nurture and sustain us with oxygen. Ford quotes from Alice Walker's The Color Purple, and he cites Nelson Mandela who planted a tree to keep his hope alive when he was in prison.

"There is also the tree as promise," Ford says, "a promise of the universe as opposed to violence, as the social glue that has held societies together and that now threatens to destroy us. We have a choice -- either hope or violence. The church is not to be found in any building, but it is the community of life, the tree of life." Ford produces what he calls eucharistic seedlings. He holds one of the small trees in his palms as he presents it to a worshiper.

"Do you accept this as the Tree of Life?" Ford asks.

National Catholic Reporter, June 6, 1997