Tags: Consumerism, Donald Trump, Mark Hertsgaard, Marxist Education Project, Nicholas DiMarzio
I have to confess, I am having a hard time with Christmas this year. Part of it, of course, is the election of Donald Trump and his nomination of billionaires, generals, climate change deniers and anti-labor activists to the cabinet. Not much to carol about in all this.
I am also sobered because last fall, in the perfect preparation for the Trump election, I took a course title, “Marxism, Science, and the Anthropocene,” offered by the Marist Education Project at the Brooklyn Commons on Atlantic Avenue. (Anthropocene is a term used to indicate that human activity has radically altered the earth’s geological reality.)
Now to say that I had not previously thought of myself as a Marxist is to grossly understate the case, growing up as I did as a working-class American Catholic in the 1950s. Communist executions of Catholics priests and bishops in China and eastern Europe didn’t much incline us in that direction.
But the Marxism course changed all that. As a result of reading and discussing Andreas Malm, John Bellamy Foster, Ian Angus, Jason Moore, Donna Haraway and others, I came away convinced that capitalism is the cause of climate change and the Anthropocene. The problem is the essential place of growth, especially the growth of profit, and thus infrastructure, in the capitalist system when the earth is fundamentally and irrevocably finite. The unfettered ecstasy generated by growing GDP and a rising stock market illustrates the problem pretty well.
As a result of having my imagination reconstructed around the incompatibility of capitalism and God’s creation, I have found the consumer obscenity of the Christmas season pretty hard to swallow. Why in the name of Jesus (literally) do we buy all this stuff? Nicholas DiMarzio, the bishop of the Catholic diocese of Brooklyn, in which I live, even had buttons handed out to every member of the diocese half way through Advent. He requested that we all wear the buttons in the weeks remaining until Christmas. Here’s the checklist on the button:
(X) Go to Church
Kind of like George Bush urging us all to go shopping after 9/11.
I am trying to focus on the fact that Mary and Joseph were homeless people and that the beauty of God’s creation was a central part of the celebration of Christmas throughout Christian history. Green grow the holly and all that.
But I am also getting ready for 2017. As Mark Hertsgaard argues in the January 2—9 issue of The Nation, we’ve got to take to the streets to prevent the incoming administration, the billionaires and the fossil fuel moguls, from destroying this undeniably limited creation that the infant Jesus came to save.
Tags: "the right to life", Cardinal Raymond Burke, Cardinal Spellman, Climate Change, Donald Trump, God's creation, KellyAnne Conway, Myron Ebell, Paul Ryan, Pope Francis, Senator Joseph McCarthy, Steve Bannon
In a blog posted soon after the presidential election, I argued that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops colluded in the election of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency. But that’s not all there is to Catholic collusion in the Trump phenomenon, not by a long shot.
In a preliminary analysis published on November 9, the Pew Research Center reported that 52% of U.S. Catholics voted for Trump. But 60% of white Catholics voted for Trump. And while only 26% of Latinx Catholics voted for him—67% went for Clinton—the percentage of Latinx voters going for Clinton was an 8% decline over the percentage that went for Obama in 2012. This was another component of the Trump victory
And when we examine the individuals central to Trump’s campaign, the picture is no less disheartening. Though I could find nothing about her current religious affiliation, if she has any, Trump’s campaign manager and current top advisor, KellyAnne Conway (née Fitzgerald) graduated from a Catholic high school and from Trinity College, once a leading Catholic women’s college.
Then there’s Steve Bannon, the former head of the Breitbart News, an unambiguously anti-semitic, white nationalist news site, and soon to be Trump’s chief counsel in the White House. Bannon is a Catholic. In a talk he delivered at the Vatican on June 27, 2014, sponsored by the Institute for Human Dignity, he spoke of “a crisis both of our Church, a crisis of our faith, a crisis of the West, a crisis of capitalism.” The U.S. Cardinal Raymond Burke, who has also recently assured us of Donald Trump’s Christian values, arranged to have Bannon speak at the Vatican conference.
Then there is Paul Ryan. An article I read recently argues that we should be more worried about Reince Priebus, Trump’s soon-to-be chief of staff, than Steve Bannon. Why? Because Priebus will ultimately be more influential than Bannon—having major impact of administration hires, for example. And he is totally on board with Paul Ryan’s campaign to eviscerate the social safety net. And what’s Ryan’s religious affiliation? Roman Catholic, of course. At least the U.S Catholic Bishops did call him out for the cuts to social programs he proposed during the 2012 election, something they hardly did at all with regard to Trump’s threats during the 2016 campaign.
Now this is by no means the first time in U.S. history that white Catholics, and their bishops, have come down on the wrong side of pivotal ethical issues. In his recent book American Jesuits and the World, the distinguished scholar of U.S. Catholicism, John McGreevy, documents how the American church, and the Jesuits, were strongly pro-slavery for a stunningly long time. I believe the church called slavery “just servitude.”
And in the 1950s, the Catholic press, and the highly influential archbishop of New York, Francis Cardinal Spellman, strongly backed anti-Communist and anti-gay “witch-hunts” by the Catholic senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy. McCarthy was eventually censured by the U.S. Senate, and died, probably of alcoholism, in 1957.
But the support of slavery and of Senator McCarthy by American Catholics and the U.S. bishops pales in significance beside their support of Donald Trump. This is so because Trump is a complete climate change denier, pledged to roll back President Obama’s already inadequate climate change initiatives, and restore the fossil fuel industry. And he has already appointed a “notorious climate change denier” and “head of a coal industry funded think tank,” Myron Ebell, to lead the transition at the Environmental Protection Agency.
Some may think this is no more significant than the threat Trump poses to Muslims and undocumented immigrants. But as an editorial in this week’s issue of The Nation argues compellingly, climate change is the “worst crisis that human beings have ever faced.” And as the U.S. Catholics who voted for Trump, and those who work for him, and the bishops well know, this is an increasingly irreversible crisis that the head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis, has called out emphatically in an encyclical, the primary teaching instrument of the Catholic Church.
But who cares about that? What really matters to the majority of white U.S. Catholics, a minority of Latinx Catholics, and the vast majority of the U.S. Catholic bishops, is the “right to life.” And everybody understands that the earth, God’s creation, has nothing to do with life.
Tags: abortion, Donald Trump, freedom of religion, Rev. Frank Pavone, The climate crisis, U.S. Catholic Bishops
When I began writing this article in my head, I envisioned accusing the U.S. Catholic bishops of colluding by their silence in the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States.
But as I began researching the matter, I realized that the bishops actually colluded in Trump’s election, that is, by what they said about the election, as well as by their silence about it.
Now let me be clear: I am not suggesting that every Catholic bishop in the United States colluded personally in Trump’s election. A few may have raised questions about him or his policies and statements. What I aim to indict here is the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and its leaders, who are elected by and represent the American bishops.
In truth, the USCCB did not say or publish a great deal about the election. But what they did publish is very telling. On October 13, four weeks before the presidential election, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, the president of the USCCB, issued a “news release” under the heading “The Gospel Serves the Common Good, Not Political Agendas.” Here are the first two sentences of the first paragraph of that ”news release.”
“At this important time in our nation’s history, I encourage all of us to take a moment to reflect on one of the founding principles of our republic – the freedom of religion. It ensures the right of faith communities to preserve the integrity of their beliefs and proper self-governance.”
The second paragraph elaborates on the fact that the truths of the faith are not formed by a consensus of contemporary norms. The third paragraph calls on public officials to respect the rights of people to live their faith without interference from the state. And a middle sentence of the last paragraph says, “Too much of our current political discourse has demeaned women and marginalized people of faith.”
A priest friend recently said that the bishops could not speak out against Trump because it would be a violation of the separation of church and state. But this “news release” clearly speaks out for Trump, or if not Trump per se, then for the Republican candidate for president who was, in fact, Trump. This is so because the words “freedom of religion” are code for the culture wars agenda that the bishops have pushed throughout the Obama administration. “Freedom of religion” of course, means the bishops’ freedom to deny gay people the right to marry and adopt children and to deny women the reproductive health covered under the Affordable Care Act. Certainly this statement, and the court cases the USCCB have backed in recent years, are nor referring to the “religious freedom” of American Catholic women, the vast majority of whom report using or having used artificial contraceptives while sexually active.
It is also worth noting that the word “immigrants” appears nowhere in Archbishop Kurtz’s statement, although Donald Trump’s statements about Mexican immigrants contradict Catholic social teaching and were rebutted by Pope Francis.
The next “news release” from Archbishop Kurtz on behalf of the USCCB appeared the day after the election. The first two paragraphs congratulate Donald Trump and other elected officials, call for unity and acknowledge that “millions of Americans who are struggling to find economic opportunity for their families voted to be heard.”
The longest and most substantive paragraph, however, begins with the following sentence: “The Bishops Conference looks forward to working with President-elect Trump to protect human life from its most vulnerable beginning to its natural end.” It includes in that category of human life “all people, of all faiths, in all walks of life…migrants and refugees…(and) Christians and people of all faiths suffering persecution around the world, especially in the Middle East.” Then the final and longest sentence in the paragraph says,
“And we will look for the new administration’s commitment to domestic religious liberty, ensuring people of faith remain free to proclaim and shape our lives around the truth about man and woman, and the unique bond of marriage that they can form.”
I would argue that this “news release,” like the October one, makes quite clear that the most important thing about the election of President Trump is his working with the bishops on “life” issues and “religious freedom,” that is, outlawing abortion, depriving women of basic reproductive health care and gay people of their rights. Trump’s commitment to turning back already inadequate climate change regulations and deporting perhaps millions of the members of the growing majority group in the U.S. church are secondary.
Two events provide context for these statements. First, on the Sunday before the election, a Catholic priest, Frank Pavone, head of the anti-abortion group Priests for Life, held an aborted fetus up over an altar, with a crucifix behind it, and spoke out in favor of Donald Trump and the Republican platform because of their position on abortion. By Monday evening, the night before the election, the released video of Pavone and the fetus had several hundred thousand views.
The diocese of which Pavone is a priest, Amarillo, Texas, issued a statement saying that they were opening an investigation into Pavone’s actions and that his actions and the presentation in the video that he released are inconsistent with the Catholic faith. The archdiocese of New York, where the Priests for Life organization is located, stated that it does not have a relationship with Pavone and has no comment on the video. There has been no news from the Amarillo Diocese since, nor any further comment from the archdiocese. The video seems to have been taken down.
Then two days after the election, Cardinal Raymond Burke, the former archbishop of St. Louis and of a major Vatican secretariat under Benedict XVI, in an interview published in the Italian conservative daily Il Giornale, said that President-elect Donald Trump will uphold Christian values, and that he doesn’t “think the new president will be inspired by hatred in his handling of the immigration issue.” Burke went on to state that Trump understands the fundamental vales that are of importance to Catholics and will do everything he can to fight abortion.
To be fair, one U.S. bishop, Mark Seitz of El Paso, spoke out after the election about his concern for “brother and sister refugees and migrants who have escaped …unimaginable violence and suffering in their home countries…about our bothers and sisters who are Muslim who may be singled out…” But even this was after first expressing his joy that those at the first stages of their lives prior to birth would be receiving more protection. At least when he segued into his concern for refugees and migrants, Bishop Seitz began the sentence with “but,” acknowledging that the election of Donald Trump brings with it certain tensions, not to say contradictions. I have been unable to find anything from any other bishop, and certainly not from the USCCB itself, that was nearly as strong as Seitz’s statement.
Let me conclude, then, by making a few obvious points. Donald Trump has been divorced twice—the only president in the history of the country for whom that is the case. He has claimed the right, on a widely viewed video, to assault women sexually, and has been accused of sexual harassment or assault by twelve or thirteen women. I myself strongly suspect that he has paid for abortions for more than one of the many women he has forced himself on sexually over the years. Why wouldn’t he have done so?
Trump has also called Mexicans criminals and rapists, and promised to deport millions of undocumented immigrants. And let’s be clear, many of these are the same people who are saving the U.S. Catholic Church from the plummeting memberships that afflict mainline Protestant denominations. Trump is also planning to revoke the nuclear arms deal the Obama administration forged with Iran–one of the most significant steps away from nuclear war in recent years. And he has declared the global climate catastrophe about which Pope Francis, the head of the universal Catholic Church, has spoken out in galvanizing and unambiguous terms, to be a hoax.
This is the man whom Cardinal Burke believes, and that almost all his brother U.S. bishops seem also to believe, is going to uphold Christian values? Seriously?
Tags: Dorothy Day, John Hugo, Lacouturism, non-violence, Pope Francis
Here’s a review of a book about the history and influence on Dorothy Day of a spirituality called “Lacouturism.” It was published on the Pax Christi Metro New York webpage a few months ago.
The Bread of the Strong: Lacouturisme and the Folly of the Cross by Jack Lee Downey. (Fordham 2015).
It’s almost a truism among progressive Catholics, myself included, that the changes introduced by the Second Vatican Council were good ones. But it also seems that the world is not in much better shape—is perhaps in worse shape—than it was in 1965. In The Bread of the Strong, Jack Lee Downey, assistant professor of religion at LaSalle University in Philadelphia, offers some hints as to why this may be the case.
The Bread of the Strong is a study of the distinctly pre-Vatican II spirituality of a French-Canadian Jesuit, Onésime Lacouture, and his followers, and of the massive impact of that spirituality on Dorothy Day. The book traces the trajectory from Lacouture’s maximalist spirituality to Day’s radical politics.
The first three chapters of The Bread of the Strong explore Lacouture’s life and the development of his spirituality. Once intending to become an academic, Lacouture underwent a series of powerful mystical experiences during his formation at a Jesuit mission in Alaska. He emerged from these experiences with a radically changed vision of the faith in which academic theology, and even much of the Catholic Christianity of the time, were vile, inadequate pursuits. Fundamental to Lacouture’s transformed world-view was an absolute dichotomy between nature and grace, Christianity and paganism, self-mortification and pleasure. Lacouture preached this ascetic theology passionately in clergy retreats over the next several decades. So absolute and unambiguous was his position that the Jesuits eventually silenced him.
One participant in the Lacouturist retreats, Pittsburgh diocesan priest John Hugo, was so profoundly influenced by their ascetic spirituality that he began giving his version of the retreats to Catholic laypeople in the United States. And let me be clear: these were retreats aimed at “spiritual withdrawal and moral perfectionism,” albeit with a social-justice dimension that Lacouture himself did not include.
Dorothy Day was one of the laypeople who participated in these Hugo-led retreats. Day, after her conversion, had struggled to integrate her radical sociopolitical activism with her newfound Catholic faith. Peter Maurin’s spiritual iconoclasm helped Day to integrate these seemingly contradictory dimensions of her identity. But Downey shows that it was the Lacouture retreats, with their emphasis on “a redemptive spirituality of suffering” and ego-transcendence that solidified Day’s spiritual/political identity. This identity in turn undergirded Day’s heroic leadership of the Catholic Worker from the early 1930s to her death in 1980.
I myself am not much inclined toward asceticism or self-mortification. And as a feminist theologian, I have argued vociferously against the nature/grace, spiritual/material, male/female binaries that characterized the Church for millennia.
Yet I am also aware that the challenges facing the human race, and perhaps especially those of us who consider ourselves non-violent, or justice seeking, are nearly incomprehensible. Take, for example, the climate crisis that Pope Francis addresses in Laudato Si’. The vast majority of us do not begin to comprehend the changes in our consumerist, convenience-oriented way of life that saving God’s creation demands. What kind of spirituality, what return to self-sacrifice and self-mortification, is required so that we will be able to face up to these inconceivable challenges?
Tags: ecofeminist theology, Elizabeth A. Johnson, God's suffering, Vatican Council II
In the half- century since the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council, debates about its true meaning have proliferated. Did the Council continue the Catholic tradition or rupture it? Did it renew the church or eviscerate it?
In his 2013 book, A Council that Will Never End, theologian Paul Lakeland introduces a more helpful, less polarizing category: the “unfinished business” of Vatican II, that is, the issues that were raised but not moved very far forward at Vatican II. Primary among these, for Lakeland, is the relationship between the horizontal and the vertical: between the laity and the ordained, but also between the bishops and the pope.
Let me suggest another category to accompany Lakeland’s, that of the “unstarted business” of Vatican II. Two issues virtually unaddressed at the Council are the role of women and the implications of the doctrine of creation for church and society. Indeed, there are only fourteen direct references to women in all of the Council’s sixteen documents. And because the church at the Council had finally come to terms with the modern emphasis on the dignity of the human person, the further significance of God’s unity with creation may have been more than the Council fathers could handle.
In recent decades, of course, women, and creation—particularly the environmental crisis—have become increasingly pressing issues. Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’ certainly comprises a welcome update to the Catholic understanding of creation and its growing destruction—though it is less than groundbreaking on the question of women. Latin American liberation theologians like Leonardo Boff have also powerfully addressed the link between the destruction of the earth and the oppression of the poor, with Brazilian ecofeminist theologian Ivone Gebara pushing their analyses even further. We can only speculate about how much more influential such work might have been had the Vatican under John Paul II not seriously repressed it.
No work has done more to move the church forward on the issues of women and the environment, however, than the ecofeminist theology of Elizabeth A. Johnson. Johnson is of course best known for her 1992 book She Who Is. But already at the end of her first book, Consider Jesus: Waves of Renewal in Christology (1990) Johnson addresses Jesus Christ as the savior of the whole natural world and all of its creatures. In fact, in that book she paraphrases one of the signature expressions of Vatican II, “reading the signs of the times,” by writing that “Jesus could read the signs of the sky.” (140)
Then, in She Who Is, Johnson addresses the presence of God in the whole cosmos, not only in human beings; especially in her chapter on Spirit-Sophia, she argues that the presence of Spirit-Sophia is mediated through the natural world as well as human history. She also addresses the suffering of God, which is central to the question of the horizontal and the vertical, because a God who suffers is one with the horizontal in a way that an impassible deity can never be.
Then, a year after the publication of She Who Is, at the annual Madeleva Lecture at St. Mary’s College in Indiana, Johnson connects the “ecocide crisis”—desertification, ocean harm, species extinction, and so forth—with the “two-tiered universe” in which women and the earth are both exploited. Here she explicitly links three of the most pressing unfinished/unstarted Vatican II issues: women, creation, and the dominance of the horizontal by the vertical.
Johnson’s next two books, the first about the Communion of Saints, and the second, Truly Our Sister, about Mary of Nazareth, might seem focused on human beings rather than on the wider natural world. But Friends of God and Prophets: A Feminist Theological Reading of the Communion of Saints actually gives the communion of saints an ecological dimension in which the whole world will share in life after death, and identifies Mary with the Creator Spirit who vivifies the evolutionary development of the entire community of life.
Then, in Quest for the Living God, Johnson’s most famous (or infamous) book, one chapter focuses on the Spirit as the “Vivifier” of the Natural World and another, “The Crucified God of Compassion,” discerns a cruciform pattern in all of creation, because the Spirit dwells throughout a suffering creation. This emphasis on the God who suffers was a primary reason for the USCCB’s 2011 condemnation of Quest, since according to the bishops’ Committee on Doctrine, that suffering is caused by sin, so God cannot suffer.
Johnson rebuts this assertion in her 2014 book, Ask the Beasts, a study of the relationship between Darwin’s theory of natural selection and the Nicene Creed. Since all species suffer, and non-humans cannot sin, then sin, Johnson argues, is not the cause of suffering. Instead, Johnson acknowledges that while God is fullness of life beyond suffering, it is also “right to say that God suffered and died on the cross because the human nature of Jesus who suffered is precisely the Word of God.”
Furthermore, according to Johnson, the logic of incarnation extends divine solidarity from the cross into the groan of suffering of all creation. The cross illuminates that the God of love whose love continuously sustains and empowers the origin of species is a suffering God who is in solidarity with all creatures dying through endless millennia of evolution from the extinction of species to every sparrow that falls to the ground.
Johnson’s compelling argument that God suffers is fundamental to moving the unfinished business of Vatican II forward, especially the problem of the relationship between the horizontal and the vertical, since the argument that God cannot suffer is invoked in the service of the hierarchical binary between the transcendent God (and the Church authorities who identify with that God) and the female-identified non-transcendent/material /earth/creation. Women and creation, the earth, are in fact the horizontal, traditionally bifurcated from and subordinated to the ostensibly omnipotent male God and those believed to image him: priests, bishops, and popes.
The survival of the church, and of God’s creation itself, depend on our understanding better the intimate connections between these three issues and acting on them. There are a number of ways to do this. One is by deepening our knowledge of Elizabeth Johnson’s work. Her book-length theologies are highly accessible. But fortunately, in 2015, Orbis Books published a collection of her articles, including a section on the “Great God of Heaven and Earth,” which can serve as an excellent introduction to Johnson’s ecofeminist theology.
But since, as Johnson makes clear, the issues of women, creation and hierarchy are so intimately connected, even work that focuses on only one of them will point ultimately to the other two. If you can’t get your parish discussion group to begin by reading Johnson, then perhaps they will begin by reading Laudato Si’. Questions regarding women and the hierarchical structure of the church are almost certain to follow.
This post appeared as a book review on page 1a in the April 22-May 5 issue of The National Catholic Reporter under the title “Theologian’s work connects God, women and creation.”
Consider Jesus: Waves of Renewal in Christology, Crossroad Publishing 1990, 1992, $19.95
She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse, Crossroad Publishing, 1992, 2002, 2014, $32.95
Women, Earth, and Creator Spirit (Madeleva Lecture in Spirituality), Paulist Press 1993, $7.95
Friends of God and Prophets: A Feminist Theological Reading of the Communion of Saints Continuum 1998, $42.95
Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints, Bloomsbury Academic 2006, $39.95
Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God, Continuum 2007, $24.95
Abounding in Kindness: Writing for the People of God, Orbis 2015, $24.00
Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love,, Bloomsbury Continuum 2015, $32.95
Tags: "Cancer Alley", Dr. Robert Bullard, environmental justice, environmental racism, Peggy M. Shepherd, Rev. Benjamin Chavis, We Act for Environmental Justice Harlem
Well, you haven’t heard from me for a while, in large part because I’ve been running around like a chicken giving talks and teaching classes. I’ll be sharing some of the other talks with you in the future, but today I’m going to fill you in on the first two of a series of luncheon seminars on environmental justice that my husband, Keith Russell, the Rev. Lori Hartman, and I are leading up at New York Theological Seminary this fall.
The first session was an introduction to the environmental justice movement and the environmental racism that made the movement necessary. We discussed two on-line videos, the first a case study of the dire environmental situation in Camden, New Jersey, a majority Black city a hundred miles south of New York. Some of the seminar participants were shocked that such things were going on so close to NYC; later they would be even more shocked by the situation in Harlem and the South Bronx.
The second video was “Environmental Justice on the Cutting Edge,” a lecture by Dr. Robert Bullard, the “father of the environmental justice moment,” about what the environmental justice movement is. We began viewing it about ten minutes in, when Bullard actually begins talking. People found the series of Power Point maps that Bullard shows especially informative.
With the discussion about these two videos as background, the second session focused on environmental justice as a grass-roots phenomenon driven by groups and actions in local communities. I started the session by giving a talk about the movements in which the environmental justice movement is rooted, after which we watched and discussed another case-study video, this one about community action against environmental racism in Chester, Pennsylvania. Finally, I introduced our distinguished speaker, Peggy Morrow Shepherd, director and co-Founder of We Act for Environmental Justice, the grass-roots environmental justice organization in Harlem.
Here’s my talk:
In the lecture video that we viewed last week, Dr. Robert Bullard said that the environmental justice movement isn’t a top down movement where experts tell the people what the problem is and what they should do about it. It’s a grass roots movement where the people being harmed by environmental racism come together, get organized, and fight back.
In fact, the environmental justice movement is intrinsically connected to, or even descended from, four grassroots movements that came before it. These four movements, as Luke Cole and Sheila Foster explain in their wonderful book, From the Ground Up: Environmental Racism and the Rise of the Environmental Justice Movement, are the civil rights movement, the anti-toxics movement, the United Farm Workers|, and the indigenous people’s movement. (Much of this talk is taken from the first chapter of the Cole/Foster book).
The first and most influential of these, of course, was the civil rights movement, with church-based civil rights leaders, Latino as well as African-American, pioneering the early actions against environmental racism. Martin Luther King Jr., for example, was in Memphis to support the garbage workers’ strike there when he was killed in 1968. The first protest against environmental racism, in 1992, against the dumping of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in African American majority Warren County, NC, was led by civil rights activist and African American minister Dr. Benjamin Chavis. The first national report on environmental racism was issued by the United Church of Christ’s Commission for Racial Justice, which was also led by Rev. Chavis.
Especially important in the development of the environmental justice movement was the civil rights emphasis on direct action and refusing to accept claims from experts who try to argue, for example, that environmental degradation in majority Black, Latino or indigenous areas are somehow random, unintentional. The five hundred people arrested in acts of civil disobedience against PCBs, the extremely toxic chemical compounds dumped in Warren County, NC, directly echoed earlier civil rights sit-ins and acts of civil disobedience.
Civil rights leaders in positions of political power have also made a difference; Congressman John Lewis introduced the Environmental Justice Act in 1992; it did not pass, but raised environmental justice as a public issue.
The anti-toxics movement was also really important. It burst into national prominence in the late 1970s when President Jimmy Carter declared Love Canal a disaster area and evacuated residents of a housing development built on a former toxic waste dump there. This was the beginning of “grassroots environmentalism” because it and similar actions were about the effects of toxic waste on human health, not only about wilderness and wildlife. Subsequently, seven thousand anti-toxics groups formed across the country, but they tended to lack the kind of national organizing skills that characterized the civil rights movement.
Nonetheless, anti-toxics groups advanced the national policy of pollution prevention by getting certain industrial chemicals banned. They also led the way by using (or in some cases, discrediting) scientific knowledge. Academic research has proven essential to getting toxics banned across the country. The anti-toxics movement also helped to shift the focus from legal to economic structures that were purported to be “natural” but weren’t. Profit fixation can be as harmful as unjust laws.
The third precursor of the environmental justice movement, the United Farm Workers, brought together the quest for Latino civil rights with labor organizing, focusing in particular, on the toxic effects of pesticides in the fields where farm workers labored. It started with successful organizing to ban the use of DDT in the later 1960s, an action that was the first instance of organizing against environmental racism in the US. Latinos have also organized against excessive logging that destroys the environment, and against strip mining, especially in the Southwest.
The fourth grassroots movement that has had a significant impact on the environmental justice movement is the indigenous people’s movement. This is so in part because indigenous people are all around the world, and so have helped build connections between environmental justice groups here in the U.S. and in other countries, especially in the Global South. One of the first indigenous environmental actions in the U.S. was in the late 1980s when a Navajo tribe in Northeast Arizona organized against the siting of a toxic waste incinerator on their reservation. This initial action has now grown into an international network of forty grassroots indigenous environmental justice groups.
The other significant contribution of the indigenous peoples’ movement to the environmental justice movement is the spiritual dimension it brings, specifically to the understanding of the environment by Christian and other western environmental justice groups. This is so because indigenous people understand themselves to be connected much more directly to the earth than many of us in the West do. Intrinsic to the indigenous movement is the sense that indigenous people are a part of everything, not set above it. This contrasts with the “dominion theory of creation” believed by many Christian groups, that God created us to have dominion over the earth and subdue it, not to be part of it.
But this indigenous notion of being one with the earth is precisely the “integral ecology” that Pope Francis called all people to in his encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’, last May. So some Christians do in fact share this notion of deep connection with all creation. This integral spirituality, introduced by the indigenous people’s movement, is present throughout the “Principles of Environmental Justice,” formulated by the first People of Color Environmental Justice Leadership Summit in 1991. These principles affirm the sacredness of Mother Earth, ecological unity, and the interdependence of all species.
One group that Cole and Foster do not mention in From the Ground Up, but that has played a highly significant role in the environmental justice movement, is women. But Bob Bullard and Damu Smith devote an entire chapter to women in The Quest for Environmental Justice. It’s called “Women Warriors of Color on the Front Line” of the environmental justice movement. They begin by mentioning three women of color who have received national and even international acclaim for their leadership in the environmental justice movement.
One of these is the Kenyan, Wangari Maathai, who received the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize for founding and leading the Green Belt Movement that mobilized poor women to plant 30 million trees in Africa over a thirty year period. Another is Margie Richard, from Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley,” who was the first African American woman to receive the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize. And the third is Peggy M. Shepherd, co-founder and director of We Act for Environmental Justice in Harlem, who received the 2003 Heinz Award for the Environment and who, I’m excited to say, will be speaking with us in a few minutes.
The rest of the article by Bullard and Smith allows Latina, African, and Native American women to speak for themselves about the grass-roots actions they have led across the country. In a certain sense, women’s leadership of the environmental justice movement is the unstated theme of our seminar today. I invite you to keep that theme in mind as we show a short video and then hear from our distinguished speaker, Peggy Shepherd. The video is about grass roots organizing against environmental racism in Chester Pennsylvania, a city on the Delaware River about an hour south of Philadelphia.
Before we begin, let me add that this video has special meaning for me because I was born in Chester, as were my parents. But after World War II, most of the white people moved out, and Chester now has a population that’s 85 percent people of color, and is a leading cancer cluster in the U.S. I also mention this because one of my earliest memories is of watching the smoke billow out of the oil refineries in Chester, back when it was a majority white city. And it happens that my mother, her sister, their mother and I, as well as my aunt’s only son, all have had terrible abdominal cancers caused by a genetic defect, and three of the five of us died from those cancers, the three who spent most of their lives in Chester. Now nobody has proven that the toxic chemicals in the air in Chester caused those genetic defects, but I myself strongly suspect that that’s the case.
I say this because I think it’s a great pity that in the U.S. since World War II, working class white people haven’t realized that they have more in common with people of color, especially with regard to toxic chemicals in the water and the air, than they have in common with rich white people who live up in the mountains or wherever.
So here’s the Chester video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Opr-uzet7Q (9 minutes) and do be sure to notice the significant role women play in the various actions.
Finally, I am honored to introduce Peggy Morrow Shepherd, director and co-founder of We Act for Environmental Justice in Harlem, and recipient of the 10th Annual Heinz Award for the Environment and many other honors. (In case you want to get a sense of our speaker, Peggy Shepherd’s bio is on the We Act webpage at http://www.weact.org/staff-peggy-shepard and her Ted Talk on environmental justice is on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zJX_MXaXbJA.
The third session of our luncheon seminar series, on the relationship between climate change and environmental justice, will be held at New York Theological Seminary, 475 Riverside Drive in Manhattan, on Wednesday November 11 from noon to 1:30 PM. Please join us if you can.