December 8, 2019
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Love God, Love thy Neighbor, Love the Trees: Environmental Justice in Orthodox Christianity

Your All-Holiness, It is an honor beyond words to have been invited to speak today, during this historic visit of His-All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew to the Republic of Korea, and to be among so many inspiring leaders, scholars, and people of faith and good will. I ask your forgiveness from now, because my words will be poor in comparison to what you have already heard. The title of today’s symposium highlights three terms— Ecology, Theology, and Human Dignity— and points to the Orthodox Christian tradition as a worldview and way of life that, despite being less well-known in many parts of the world (including here in Korea), provides much-needed insights into each of these distinct areas of reflection: insights into Ecology, into the dignity of human persons, and into Theology. However, the central message I hope to communicate today is that part of the promise that Orthodox Christianity holds for responding to some of our greatest social and global challenges lies precisely in the way that ecology, human dignity, and theology are inseparably interrelated and integrated within an Orthodox worldview. For far too long, much Christian theology around the world was pursued and taught without a significant connection to ecology— without a direct concern for ‘the relations of organisms to one another and to their physical surroundings.’ While theologians traditionally provided some account of the origin of the cosmos, and of God as the Creator, there was little discussion of the organic relationship between ecology and theology Thus, when he destruction of the environment became a matter of wide-spread concern in the 20th century, Christian theology was perceived as being irrelevant or worse, as Dr. Woloschak has discussed, it was seen as the culprit, or cause, of environmental destruction because of: (1) its sharp distinction between Creator and Creation, which emphasized God’s transcendence; (2) its account of creation, which placed human beings hierarchically above the rest of the natural world and seemed to sanction humanity’s domination and unrestricted use of nature; and (3) its emphasis on ‘saving people’s souls’ and on reaching a
‘heavenly kingdom’ beyond this world Thankfully, especially over the past 50 years, good work had been done across many denominations to correct the false interpretations of Christianity as harmful or indifferent to the environment. In addition, many scholars have advanced our understanding of the intimate relationship between ecology and Christian theology, a field sometimes referred to as “ecotheology.” Similarly, for far too long, much Christian theology around the world was pursued and taught without significant connection to liberating oppressed and enslaved persons from their dehumanizing condition. While ‘care for the poor’ remained a central theme in most Christian communities, critiquing the laws and other social structures that sustain inequality and undermine the full dignity of so many human beings was not a major focus among theologians Once slavery became illegal in nations around the world during the 19th and early 20th centuries, too many Christian thinkers either assumed, falsely, that slavery had in fact ended or they accepted that equally false belief that the poor are poor because they are sinful, or undisciplined, or lazy. Thankfully, again, over the past 50 years many theologians have refocused upon the central message of liberation within Judaism and Christianity. They have drawn the Exodus story and from Jesus’s words recorded in the Gospel of Luke, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. he has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor”(Lk. 4:18-19). They have identified and critiqued not only the reality of human suffering but also the social structures and cultural attitudes that promote and perpetuate such neglect, exploitation, and abuse. These Christian thinkers, sometimes, referred to as “liberation theologians,” have focused on the connection between theology and human dignity, between God’s love and the liberation of those human beings who are treated unjustly – and even enslaved – because of their poverty, their race, their nationality, their gender, their disability, their refugee status, or some other characteristic beyond their control. While the connections are being rediscovered between theology and ecology, on the one hand, and between theology and human dignity on the other, we rarely see the integration of all three areas of reflection. Those Christian theologians who embrace ecology usually do not pay attention to the ways that harming the natural world affects those who are poor and oppressed disproportionately more than it affects those who are wealthy and free. In other words, they do not connect human dignity to their reflection on ecology and theology. And the same holds true for theologians who examine the deep interconnectedness between theology and human dignity While they proclaim the gospel’s message of liberation for human beings, they typically do not pay attention to the ways that modern slavery– the horrifying reality of forced labor, sex trafficking, child soldiering, exploitation of migrants and refugees, and other violations of basic human dignity– are inescapably tied to the environmental crisis. In other words, they fail to connect ecology to their reflection of human dignity and theology. However, there are a few scholars and theologians who, in recent decades, have been discerning and directing our attention to the mutuality between ecology and and human dignity– between the abuse of the environment and the abuse of human beings. One shining example is today’s keynote speaker, His-All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. In his book “Encountering the Mystery,” which, as we know, is now available in Korean, His All-Holiness writes: “Orthodox theology … recognizes the natural creation as inseparable from the identity and destiny of humanity, because every human action leaves the lasting imprint on the body of the earth. Human attitudes and behavior toward creation directly impact on and reflect human attitudes and behavior toward other people…. Scientists estimate that those most hurt by global warming in years to come will be those who can least afford it. Therefore, the ecological problem of pollution is invariably connected to the social problem of poverty; and so all ecological activity is ultimately measured and properly judged by its impact and effect upon the poor(see Matt. 25).” And similarly, last year in his opening address in the Ecumenical forum on modern slavery, His All-Holiness stated the following: “We are convinced that responding to the problem of modern slavery is directly and inseparably linked to creation care… The entire world is the body of Christ; just as human beings are the very body of Christ. The whole planet bears the traces of God, just as every person is created in the image of God The way we respect creation reflects the way we respond to our fellow human beings. The scars we inflict on our environment reveal our willingness to exploit our brother and sister.” The vision that His All-Holiness expresses in these passages, and throughout his ministry, bears witness to Orthodox Christianity’s integrated understanding of ecology, theology, and human dignity. In the time that remains, I will first offer two concrete examples that highlight the interconnectedness between ecology and human dignity. After this, I will discuss briefly two of Orthodox Christianity’s teachings that highlight the Church’s integrated worldview. Two Examples:
Environmental Racism and Modern Slavery So, in the city of Chicago where my family and I are living presently, ecologists recently published a study analyzing the distribution of environmental risks and benefits. The report included a map that showed all of the various sections of the city, and color-coded the quality of environmental health in each section based upon a large set of factors, including levels of air and water toxins, quantities of heavy metals in the soil, and proximity to industrial factories and waste treatment centers. Neighborhoods that were colored blue or blue-green on the map had the lowest levels of pollution and the healthiest overall environment. None of these blue neighborhoods included facilities that produced or process large scale industrial waste. In contrast, neighborhoods that were colored red or red-orange on the map had the highest levels of pollution and the most dangerous overall environment. Often these “red” neighborhoods included multiple factories or waste disposal sites. So can you guess who lives in the blue neighborhoods? Primarily wealthy Chicagoans who are almost exclusively white or Caucasian. And can you guess who lives in the red neighborhoods? Chicago’s economically poor, who are primarily racial minorities – African-Americans and Latinos. The study also showed that the public schools in the red zones are often located very close to major pollution sources, which puts children in these neighborhoods at even higher risk for exposure to neurotoxins that are linked to learning disabilities. And on top of this, because they are viewed as a financial risk, “red zone” neighborhoods are likely to have no local supermarkets that offer fresh fruits, vegetables, or other healthy foods. It is a grim and offensive picture: some human beings are breathing clean air, drinking safe water, enjoying easy access to healthy foods, and attending schools far from industrial sites, while other human beings living in the same city experience the opposite reality. This is an example of what scholars call “environmental racism,” which is one form of environmental injustice. It provides us with a picture of the interconnection between polluting the environment and oppressing human beings; between abuse of the natural world and abuse of persons; between ecological harm and loss of human dignity. Citizens of Chicago who live in red zones carry a disproportionate amount of the environmental risk because they are less wealthy, less educated, and less connected to the politicians who determine where high polluting businesses can be located. In short, the poor are trapped, and any effort to move elsewhere presents different obstacles and injustices. Simultaneously, those living in “blue zones” confront minimal environmental risks yet maximum environmental benefits – from better health, to increased property values, to excellent schools, to profits from investing in the companies that dump their waste in red zones. Ecology and human dignity are inseparably connected, for good and for ill. While environmental injustice in Chicago grows out of decades of racism and segregated housing, other parts of the world confront similar challenges. Recent studies on Environmental Inequality here in the Republic of Korea, for example, consider the “Toxic Release Inventory (TRI)” and show that distribution of environmental risks and benefits are not evenly balanced across different sociopolitical groups on the peninsula here. In addition, the study suggests, as more foreigners move to Korea and settle in low-income urban neighborhoods, these immigrant-concentrated neighborhoods tend to be targeted as locations for new factories and waste management facilities, which further concentrates environmental harms among the most vulnerable and powerless members of society. A second example, modern slavery, further demonstrates the connection between ecology and human dignity in today’s world. In his 2016 book, “Blood and Earth,” Professor Kevin Bales details the vicious cycle of “ecocide” and “modern slavery.” One example that Bales develops relates to massive “shrimp farms” along the coasts of Bangladesh, Southern India, and Indonesia. The abusive cycle begins with increasing demand for inexpensive shrimp in countries like the United States. To meet this demand, and generate huge profits, miles of mangrove trees growing in shoreline swamps are cut down to give shrimp farmers clear access to the water. The destruction of the mangrove trees itself does extraordinary ecological harm. Not only are the trees killed and the creatures living in and among them displaced, there are at least two additional consequences: first, mangrove trees are what are called “carbon sinks”; like other trees they pull carbon dioxide out of the air and generate fresh oxygen but, unlike other trees, mangroves are able to lock away carbon by depositing it into the ocean, a process called “sequestration,” which has an exponential benefit in reducing global warming. Their destruction, therefore, carries an exponential loss. And second, mangrove trees growing miles deep along the coast of countries like Bangladesh and Indonesia have historically provided a natural barrier during cyclones and tsunamis. Now that shrimp farmers have removed more than 80% of the mangroves in some regions, the scale of deaths and damage during such storms has skyrocketed, as witnessed with the earthquake and tsunami that had hit Palu, Indonesia just two months ago. Yet even worse than the ecological effect of shrimp farming is the assault on human dignity but the industry fuels. The demand for inexpensive seafood increases the need for laborers. Recruiters often visit poor villages promising “good paying jobs” and offering small salary advances to families, only to then enslave children and adults in forced labor at the shrimp farms. Recruits often work for 24 or 48 hour shifts without rest, without sufficient food, housing, or basic medical care, all the while surrounded by the heads and shells of shrimp. In addition, girls and boys and female workers are frequently sexually assaulted by their “bosses,” while other recruits never even make it to the shrimp farm because they are immediately sold to sex traffickers. Big profits provide the incentive for those in power to expand operations – to clear more mangrove forests and build larger farms, which further harms local and global ecologies, which accelerates climate change and increases natural disasters, which destroys towns and increases poverty, which provides willing ‘recruits’ for slaved-based businesses. The cycle is complete. While this example centers on shrimp, similar vicious cycles exist around diamonds, gold, beef, sugar, steel, and the minerals that are necessary for cellphones and flat-screen TVs. As Bayles puts it, “Environmental change is part of the engine of slavery [and] the sharp end of environmental change … comes first to the poor.” So we can see that ecology and human dignity are inseparably connected, for good and for ill. Two Teachings from the Theological-Ethical Tradition of Orthodox Christianity Despite this heartbreaking reality, as Christians we worship the “God of Hope” and trust that, “By the power of the Holy Spirit, we may abound in hope” (Rom. 15:13). There is a relentless hopefulness within Orthodox Christianity, which is grounded in Christ’s Incarnation, Life, Death, Resurrection, Ascension and sending of the Holy Spirit; this hope is cultivated by the beauty and mystery of liturgy and prayer, and it is confirmed by the reality of saints across history. For those who are searching, or who are skeptical, The Orthodox Church invites you to ‘Come and see’ (Jn 1:39). How, then, might Orthodoxy help us as we strive to protect both human dignity and the environment? There are no quick, easy, or automatic solutions. As Father Maximos illustrated, the brokenness and corruption that we find around us, and within us, stems from passions that trace all the way back to the two most ancient of trees, and to humanity’s most ancient act of rebellion against the God who created us. Nonetheless, I repeat my earlier claim, part of the promise that Orthodox Christianity holds lies precisely in the way that ecology, human dignity, and theology are inseparably connected and integrated within an Orthodox worldview. So let’s consider just two of the many teachings from the orthodox tradition that highlight this claim First: A Way of Seeing. Icons are perhaps the most distinctive characteristic of Orthodox Churches. People who enter an Orthodox Church for the first time are struck – and sometimes overwhelmed – by the presence of icons throughout the church. There are small icons when one enters the narthex, large icons painted on the walls and ceiling of the nave, and a screen of icons between the nave and the holy altar. Within Orthodoxy, the meaning and purpose of icons is multi-layered. One function of icons is to engage us visually, to capture and hold our attention, and to lead us to a reality beyond what we usually see. Recalling Father Maximos’s words, icons are surfaces that take us into the depth. They reveal to our eyes a world we typically do not see. The basis, or foundation, for icons is Jesus Christ. In his letters to the Colossians, St. Paul writes that Christ “is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of creation; for by him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible” (Col. 1:15-16). Notice, first, that St. Paul describes Christ as “the image of the invisible God.” Christ, who is God incarnate, the “Word made flesh” (Jn. 1:14), is the visible presence that reveals the invisible God. Furthermore, in the original Greek text the word that St. Paul uses for “image” is “icon” (εἰκὼν τοῦ Θεοῦ τοῦ οράτου); thus, Christ is the ‘icon of the invisible God.’ Christ Himself is the first and the ultimate icon, in whom we see in the face of God While the term icon applies to Jesus Christ himself, it also applies to all that was created by Christ, “in heaven and on earth,” “visible and invisible,” as St. Paul stated. All of creation is “iconic” because all of creation points beyond itself to a depth to the God who brought all things into being. This is stated directly in the Genesis creation account, where God says, “Let us make human kind in our image, according to our likeness” (Gen. 1:26). In the ancient Greek Septuagint translation of this passage the word for “image” is, again, icon (“Κατ’ εικόνα και καθ’ ὁμοίωσιν”). Thus, since every human being is created in the image of God, every human being is an icon, a perceivable presence that reveals God. Christ’s words in Matthew 25 confirm this iconic quality, this connection between visible creation and municipal Creator, “just as you did it (or did not do it) to one of the least of these, you did it (or did not do it) to me” (Matt. 25:40, 45). For the Orthodox, non-human creation is also iconic. This was certainly true for Moses when he stood reverently before the burning bush and encountered the Living God (Ex. 3), but it is also true in our relationship to the natural world more broadly. The 8th century Saint John of Damascus, one of the greatest defenders of Christianity’s use of icons, draws a connection between Christ as icon and the natural world as icon when he writes, “Because of the Incarnation, I gaze upon all of material creation with reference.” His All-Holiness spoke of our need to acquire a “Eucharistic spirit,” seeing all of creation as a gift from God. This, too, is iconic, for to experience nature as a gift is to go beyond the surface to the depth, from receiving the gift to thanking the Gift-giver, from creation to the Creator. Much more can be said about icons and their significance for seeing the inseparable relationship between ecology, theology, and human dignity, but I offer just one further comment. The icons that we see in Orthodox Churches themselves play a vital role cultivating an iconic way of seeing and experiencing God, our neighbor, and the natural world. For as we gaze reverently upon a painted or mosaic icon, we are drawn into the depth; the depth works on us; it heals us; and we are reminded – given ‘another’ mind – by the icon. In other words, the icon promotes repentance or ‘μετάνοια’. The icon’s connection to the Creator, to Incarnate God, helps to heal us – to correct our vision so that we see God both in ‘the least of these,’ our fellow human beings, and in the most vulnerable of all God’s creatures, the voiceless animals, rocks, waters, and trees. A Way of Acting: The Greatest Commandment – Expanded A second teaching from the Orthodox tradition shifts us from ‘a way of seeing’ to ‘a way of acting,’ from icons to commandments. As the Korean people know very well, war and foreign occupation generate, not only human death, suffering, and multiple forms of slavery, but also environmental destruction. When my family and I spent a year here in Korea and Fulbright Program, we noticed the great care that Koreans show toward trees. And it was explained to us that during the Japanese occupation (1910-1945), and then again during the Korean War (1950-1953), many trees were destroyed and, when the Republic of Korea began its miraculous recovery, there was a strong emphasis placed on planting and protecting trees. Trees, therefore, became a sign of freedom and hope for Koreans. During the 18th century, when Greece was occupied by the Ottoman Turks, St. Kosmas the Aetolian (1714-1779) traveled around Greece teaching Orthodox faith in villages. As he journeyed, his practice was to plant trees. St. Kosmas famously said, “People will remain poor because they have no love for trees.” Notice the direct connection St. Kosmas makes between neglecting the environment and poverty – between ecology and human dignity. He taught that in order to escape poverty – which in his context, included slavery – the faithful must ‘love the trees.’ Seeing trees as icons leads to acting toward them with loving care. Having “love for trees” is not merely a sentimental statement within Orthodoxy, it is an affirmation of the Church’s integrated worldview. This point becomes especially clear when we consider the example of Orthodoxy’s most recently canonized saint, St. Amphilochios of Patmos (1889-1970). For St. Amphilochios, caring for creation was not an option – it was a divine command. Along these lines, the saint once made a very bold claim: “Do you know that God gave us one more commandment?” he said, “Which is not recorded in Scripture? It is the commandment ‘love the trees.’ ” In addition, when when St.
Amphilochios would hear the confessions of local faithful, he would frequently give them an unusual penance. He would tell them that they now needed to go plant and take care of a tree. In this example, we know first that St. Amphilochios does not simply say, “we should love the trees;” instead, he says God commanded us to do so! All Christians are familiar with the greatest commandment, “Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, soul, and mind,’ and with the second greatest, ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself’ (Matt. 22:37-39), but St. Amphilochios expresses the deep spirit of Orthodox Christianity when he adds a third, ‘Love the trees.’ Love God; love thy neighbor; love the trees – theology, philanthropy, and ecology are integrated into one iconic vision for love-centered action. In addition, St. Amphilochios’s practice of asking people to ‘plant and care for a tree’ after confession carries profound significance: it connects reconciliation between the person and God, and between the person and their neighbor, to reconciliation between the person and the environment. Thus, if for example, I confess that I hurt my family member, or neglect the needs of a refugee, being instructed to plant a tree expands my vision – it teaches me that how I act toward my neighbor affects all – all of creation Similarly, the saint’s practice communicates that the way we treat non-human creation affects the way we treat our fellow human beings. Planting and caring for a new tree is good in itself, but it is also good because it teaches us to be more caring in our relationships with others – our neighbors. Again, we see an integrated world view wherein the spiritual healing of the human person, through God’s mercy and love, leads to the healing of nature. Ecology, theology, and human dignity are connected in a single, Orthodox Christian vision. This, sisters and brothers, is a worldview that goes beyond mere eco-theology, and beyond mere liberation theology. It is a worldview that speaks both to environmental racism and to modern slavery. It is a worldview that seeks justice here and now, without losing sight of the ‘age to come.’ May God continue to bless His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew as he bears witness to this integrated and iconic Orthodox vision, and may we all embrace triple love – love of God, of neighbor, and of all creation – as the guiding principle in our lives. Thank you.

Otis Rodgers