I moved from a rural farming town to the “big city” to attend the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2008, and I’ve lived in Madison ever since. I felt that I’ve always fit in here, and I’m proud when I tell people where I live–after all, Madison and her suburbs consistently receive recognition in contests of “Best Place to Live, Raise a Family, #1 City to Live in 2015,” and that’s pretty cool. According to some sources, we are also the #1 Greenest City in America! Recently, I became aware of information that pretty much shatters my paradigm that Madison is a near-perfect place. The 2013 Race to Equity report, undertaken to promote greater public awareness of racial disparity in Dane County (where Madison is located), shows “the exceptional magnitude of Dane County’s Black/White Disparities,” especially in areas of education and the criminal justice system. Based on their criteria, Madison is simply not the best place for all skin colors; for those among us with brown or black skin, it’s among the worst in the nation.
My heart is heavy for recent news that put Madison in the national spotlight: Tony Robinson, a 19-year-old unarmed black teenager, was shot and killed by a (white) police officer March 6th on a street that I frequent. All of a sudden, the conversation about racism and injustice felt much, much more personal. Today, the Madison community feels the tension of frayed relationships as we try to find our way forward, and many are looking to Christian faith leaders for guidance.
I don’t think it’s a stretch to write about racial issues and the violence of injustice we Americans (indeed, every nation) inflict on one another on a blog dedicated to “God, God’s Creation, and our Role in Creation,” because we are part of creation, the only flesh-and-blood beings with the blessing and responsibility to imitate God, to reflect him to the whole world and everything in it. If we can’t act justly towards one another, non-human creation is…well…screwed.
Let’s jump into the deep end of the pool.
We all, Christ-followers or otherwise, hold beliefs about the value of other human beings. Jesus told the religious leaders of his time that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves (Matt 22:37-39). That sets the bar pretty high: the value of other people (our neighbors) is on par with our own worth. When we fail to love our neighbors, we discount their value; the disciples made this mistake in Acts 6 when the Hebraic Jews overlooked the widowed Hellenistic Jews in the “daily distribution of food.” We get Jesus’ command wrong when we undervalue life, intentionally or not. If we take a broad look at human history, we see many ways we have “gotten it wrong” by our oppression of one another: men over women, whites over blacks, Jews over Gentiles, adult over child, born over unborn. Instead of understanding that each person is equally loved by God, evident in the well-known passage of John 3:16, we love some and despise others. Instead of loving one another by putting the “other” before ourselves as a good neighbor would (as we are specifically called to do in Philippians 2:3-4), we allow our communities at every level to systemically favor certain cultures, genders, skin tones, et cetera at the expense of others.
Faced with the reality of injustices, movements spring up to raise the awareness of society and ultimately to restore those neighbors among us who suffer. A United States-based environmental justice movement is gaining momentum as study after study shows patterns of injustice related to the negative health impacts of pollution from coal plants and their proximity to non-white communities. From the EPA’s website: “Environmental Justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” However, black children in Chicago are more likely to have asthma than their white counterparts¹, and black residents of Gainsville, Georgia have a much higher likelihood of developing lupus than others in their community². Environmental justice seeks to make sure that our neighbors have clean air to breathe and uncontaminated soil suitable for a garden, no matter how rich or poor they are or the part of town they call home.
In Matthew 22:37-39, Jesus spoke of love being the main component of the two greatest commandments, one of which I mentioned earlier: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” Those of us who identify as children of God must wrestle with the issues of injustice that stalk our cities and rural towns, our neighborhoods and our schools, our courtrooms and our national parks. We have to be willing to open our eyes and hearts to those numerous threats to justice, so that we can love our neighbors well. Will we leave our brothers and sisters alone in the wilderness of inequity to fend off the lions, because it’s easier to pretend there is no such thing; or worse, that they are getting what they deserve? As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
If we train ourselves to look for opportunities to love God and our neighbor, inevitably we will find what Aldo Leopold, founder of the wildlife management field and renowned author of A Sand County Almanac, described as “a world of wounds.” We must open our eyes to see that all of God’s creation suffers injustice. Due to humankind’s sin of rebellion against God, the very ground is cursed, a slave to decay and groaning for redemption (Genesis 3, Romans 8:19-22). This is evident in the loss of species at the hands of humankind due to over-exploitation, habitat loss and degradation, pollution, invasive species, and now climate change; currently, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) Redlist of vulnerable, endangered and critically endangered species worldwide is 76,199 (go to iucnredlist.org and use the “search” tool to enter in the assessment criteria and see for yourself). Thousands more face that threat today as entire ecosystems (the structures that provide people with clean water, air, soil to grow crops, animals to hunt, fish to eat, plants to research for cutting-edge medical breakthroughs, and land to live on) collapse in utter exhaustion due to human overuse and abuse.
I believe that Christians are called to prevent and make right these injustices, not just for our own sake but so that God’s love is known. Psalm 33:5 says, “The Lord loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of his unfailing love.” Matthew 5:3-10 illustrates that we actually are blessed in our pursuit of righteousness (justice) and peace. When we stand face to face with injustice, we should remember that God has prepared us to do good work (see 2 Timothy 3:16-17, and Ephesians 2:10).
Some will say that creation care must take a back seat to social justice, like racial reconciliation. I believe we must address both social justice and environmental justice, both creation care and people care. Life, all of it, from the microbes in the soil to your grandfather to rhinos and butterflies, are created for the glory and enjoyment of Jesus, and we are inextricably connected to the world God put us into. That was not an accident on God’s part! God’s creation is the framework of our ability to live: our air, water, food supply, and shelter all come from God’s world, not to mention the inspiration for countless artists, whether musicians, painters, sculptors, architects or dancers. Compartmentalizing spiritual disciplines like stewardship, contentedness, loving your neighbor, reconciliation and making disciples into “good for people” and “good for the creation” is counter-productive; actually, these practices are beneficial for both.
And if you’re like me, perhaps you undervalue life at times and need to have your eyes opened to the abundant opportunities for doing good work in pursuing restoration and justice. Tony Robinson’s death brought the national dialogue on racism, individual and systemic injustices close to home. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted,” Jesus declares in Matthew 5:4. I pray for that comfort to be felt in Tony’s family and friends. I realize now that there’s so much to do, and as a Christ-follower, I have no desire to “warm the bench.” What can I add of value to the conversation? I need to listen well, read helpful articles from others who are already having this conversation, and repent when I get it wrong.
It’s time for me and you to “seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with [our] God” by working towards an equitable, opportunity-filled world for all people and all of creation where Jesus, Creator, Sustainer and Savior is known.