Environmental Justice and the Witness of Creation
As Christians, when we think about God's revelation to us, we are prone to think that the Bible is his primary revelation. It's true that Scripture is God's special revelation about his mission to redeem and restore our hurting world.
But Scripture also reveals that we have been wired to learn about God’s character through the created order of the world.
Romans 1 says, "For since the creation of the world, God's invisible qualities ⏤ his eternal power and divine nature ⏤ have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.”
Creation is meant to testify to the nature of the eternal Creator God. Scripture testifies to his plan for rescuing and restoring his broken world. Taken together, Creation and Scripture are what theologians call the “two great books” of God’s revelation.
But we’re discovering that we haven’t always handled either of those two great books of revelation responsibly.
For example, for many years, our written Scriptures have been twisted to defend institutions like chattel slavery and segregation. Events sweeping the USA after the murder of George Floyd have caused many Christians to look back over the church's role in establishing white supremacy, and how our misinterpretation of Scripture came to justify and undergird evil institutions. Some of us (including my ancestors) ignored the civil rights movement and took refuge in a truncated gospel, missing the revelation that God created everyone in his image, and that Scripture calls us to work for justice in this life.
But we’ve mishandled the revelation that comes to us through Creation as well. The Bible says the primary way we know about God's nature and character is from creation. From the time we enter the world as children, we learn about God's providence, his power, his wisdom, by observing nature. Psalm 19, as one example, starts with the heavens declaring the glory of God, and only later shifts to "the law of the Lord."
If you didn’t have the written scriptures, and you had to learn about God from the environment of your childhood, what would you learn as you grew up?
In my home city of Atlanta, you'd see stark differences, not just in wealth and political power but in the environment.
You'd see that some people (in Atlanta, they tend to be white and well-off) enjoy beautiful, safe neighborhoods, and that other people (in Atlanta, they tend to be black, Latino, or recent immigrants) are left with dirty, dangerous, and unhealthy neighborhoods. Moreover, you'd notice that it’s not unusual that black people live where the air is most polluted, among dirty industrial sites, landfills, toxic chemical plants, sewer overflows, and interstate highways. You might come to believe it's "the way the world works" that white people enjoy cleaner air, safer streets, leafier parks, and more functional sewers. The correlation of environmental goods and bads according to race would not seem out of place to you ⏤ it might even seem normal.
Thus, you might come to some very strange conclusions about God from seeing his creation. You might conclude that people get to enjoy certain privileges based on the color of their skin. You might not know instinctively that the disparities are the result of sin ⏤ that it is a perversion of God’s plan for some kids to have clean air and healthy environments, while other kids endure dirty air and filthy environments.
The environmental patterns apparent in Atlanta demonstrate that human sinfulness is interfering with God’s created order. And kids take lessons from these disparities.
Environmental injustice damages and distorts kids’ perceptions of Jehovah-Jireh, the God who provides. A threatening environment, filled with contaminated water and polluted air, makes kids less likely to trust that God shows no favoritism.
One of the reasons COVID-19 is affecting African American communities so disproportionately is that many brothers and sisters bear in their bodies the effects of growing up in polluted environments. Asthma hits black communities harder than white communities because they tend to live where fine particulate air pollution (the kind of pollution that gets sucked down deepest into the lungs) is the worst. Kids suffer more damage than adults, because they process more smog-ridden air, relative to the size of their bodies, than adults do. Those lifelong breathing difficulties make them more vulnerable to COVID-19 as adults.
Similarly, low-level lead pollution from substandard housing with peeling paint, and from soil contamination near dirty industries and highways, affects children greatly. Lead is a powerful neurotoxin that does terrible things to developing brains, and in the US that harm is unequally heaped on poor black and brown kids.
Environmental injustice leads to permanent disparities in health for poor and minority populations, which in turn continues to exacerbate inequality, in a vicious cycle.
What’s true about environmental injustice in Atlanta is true in most US cities ⏤ and around the world. And on a global scale, the distribution of environmental goods and bads is unfavorable to groups on the margin of the dominant culture.
There are solutions to these problems, but because the problems are often unrecognized, the solutions aren't prioritized. Political power is unequally distributed, and that affects which kinds of public problems get on the agenda of political institutions, and it also affects which environmental laws get enforced and where.
As God calls his people to seek justice, we have to remember environmental injustice. God wants to fill the earth with his glory, to extend his kingdom to every neighborhood and household, and to bless the least among us, especially children. The church is his chosen instrument to point the way to his kingdom. By God’s grace we can learn to be the people of God restoring the witness of creation that he wants everyone to have access to.