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Bible Studies on Ecological Justice

"Renewing the Earth: Climate Justice and Equity"

by Dr. Hope S. Antone, Joint Executive Secretary
for Faith, Mission and Unity, Christian Conference of Asia
Dr. Hope S. Antone

Your theme “Renewing the Earth: Climate Justice and Equity” reflects how WSCF AP is trying to address urgent issues of our day. However, I want to say that I prefer “ecological justice” to climate justice because climate change and global warming are mere symptoms of the deeper problem of ecological injustice which human beings have inflicted on creation. So for me it is not so much the climate [which general refers to weather conditions] that is in need of justice but the ecology [the totality of relations between organisms and their environment] itself.

I was asked to do two Bible studies with your Regional Women’s Committee on eco-feminism. I congratulate you for your interest in this movement. So, to begin with, what is Ecofeminism?

The word Ecofeminisn is a combination of two words: Ecology + Feminism. We know that ecology is the branch of biology dealing with the relations and interactions between organisms and their environment, including other organisms; while feminism is the thought or movement toward political, economic and social equality of women and men. What ecofeminism has strongly highlighted is the connection between women’s oppression and the exploitation of nature. Just as women are oppressed, raped and violated, nature, which is often associated with women [e.g. Mother Earth, Mother Nature] is also oppressed, exploited and abused. Thus, in ecofeminism, the two movements of environmentalism and feminism are connected.

Two Views in Ecofeminism

Like feminism, Ecofeminism is not monolithic. There are also different views within ecofeminism. One view sees the link between women and nature as empowering in the sense that with their positions as mothers and homemakers, women are more likely (or even naturally) to be more environmentally aware. The other view is that the link between women and nature is degrading in the sense that it is even imposed by patriarchy. If there is an inherent connection between women and their likelihood to be environmentally aware, then it follows that men will hopelessly continue to exploit women and nature, seeing both as eternally fertile and for providing life.

For me, I believe that women and men are created in the image of God. Both women and men are naturally part of nature, consist of nature, and are also close to nature. It follows therefore that both women and men are capable of being caring and just rather than exploitative and oppressive towards each other and to the rest of creation.

Origins of Ecofeminism

There are different views on the origins of Ecofeminism. One view says the word was coined by French writer Francoise d’Eaubonne in 1974 to represent women’s potential for bringing about an ecological revolution. Another view recalls Rachel Carson, a marine biologist and naturalist, who embodied the spirit of ecofeminism through her work and writings. For example, Rachel Carson said that while humans are a small part of nature, they have an enormous ability to alter it. Carson was deeply troubled by the use of synthetic pesticides (namely DDT) and their potential long-term negative effects. Her 1962 book, Silent Spring, asserted the detrimental physiological and environmental effects of the pesticides, challenged government practices, and called for change in the treatment of nature.

Lois Gibbs
Lois Gibbs

Vandana Shiva
Vandana Shiva

Wangari Maathai
Wangari Maathai

Another view point to Ellen Swallow, an industrial and environmental chemist, who became the first female student admitted to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Later she became its first female instructor. As a teacher and active ecologist, Swallow educated women about environment in relation to their homes or homemaking while focusing on monitoring the quality of their water, air and nutrition.

Still another view refers to Ynestra King and activist Grace Paley who were among those who organized the “Women and Life on Earth” conference at the University of Massachusetts in 1980. Another conference followed that at Sonoma State University in 1981, following which eight women formed the first national ecofeminist organization, WomanEarth.

Another view highlights three defining movements of ecofeminism. The first movement came out of the Chipko movement in India. Chipko is from a Hindi word for cling and the movement is commonly known as tree-hugging movement. In 1974, some 30 women from the Himalayas hugged trees in a forest watershed that were marked to be cut down by companies. Vandana Shiva is known to be among those women but the Chipko movement did begin with a whole community of people, including men like Chandi Prasad. The main goal of their movement is not saving trees, but the judicious use of trees and the right of a community to control and benefit from the resources of its own home. The movement is concerned not only about the erosion of land but also the erosion of human values. It believes that if human beings are not in a good relationship with the environment, the environment will be destroyed and humans will lose their ground; if human beings halt the erosion of humankind, then humankind will halt the erosion of the soil.

A second defining movement was in Africa. In 1977, Dr. Wangari Muta Maathai became involved with the National Council of Women of Kenya (NCWK) as a member of its Executive Committee. Her determination to inexpensively provide rural women of the NCWK with sufficient wood for fuel, building, and soil conservation, inspired the Save the Land Harambee tree-planting initiative. Thus began a widespread tree planting strategy in which seedlings were planted in long rows to form green belts of trees. These green belts help to provide shade and windbreak, facilitate soil conservation, improve aesthetic beauty of the landscape and provide habitats for birds and small animals. To date, around 40 million+ trees have been planted.

A third defining movement is attributed to what happened in the USA in 1978—when Love Canal activism arose in New York. Twenty years after a neighborhood had grown at the Love Canal situated near the Niagara River, members complained of chronic illnesses, miscarriages, and birth defects. Then they came to know that their community was actually built on a large piece of land adjacent to a chemical landfill site and they were victims of a chemical waste leak. Lois Marie Gibbs, a homemaker in that neighborhood, led the protest which eventually led to the relocation of evacuated families, the continuation of health and environmental studies and the construction of a drainage system to prevent further migration of toxic chemicals.

While these three defining movements have been highlighted by writers of ecofeminism, we know that many other environmental disasters have happened. You may have heard about Bhopal in Madya Pradesh, India which involved the Union Carbide gas leak in 1984; or Chernobyl, the Russian nuclear power plant explosion in 1986; and of course various incidents of oil spill have happened recently.

Other Values of Ecofeminism

Ecofeminism highlights for us certain values that are often neglected. One value is Immanence

All these raise many questions for us:

Let us keep all these in mind as we go into our study of scriptures.

Bible Study 1: Affirming the Interconnectedness of all Creation

Let us borrow the lens of ecofeminism as we revisit some passages in our scriptures: Genesis 1:1 - 2:3; Genesis 2:4-25 and Psalm 8:3-6. Let us look at these passages with the following questions for discussion:

Genesis contains two creation stories. Bible scholars have found many similarities between the Genesis creation stories and the Mesopotamian creation stories, with the main difference being the monotheistic outlook of the Jewish creation stories. Old Testament scholars also believe that the creation story in Genesis 1 is actually a later story compared to that in Genesis 2. Genesis 1 comes from the later Priestly tradition, hence, it is more liturgical in style with a repetition of “Evening passed and morning came—that was the first day... second day..., etc.” Genesis 2 comes from the earlier Yahwist tradition, which is more anthropomorphic even in how God is depicted—one can visualize God planting a garden like a farmer, or forming a man from the soil like a potter, or operating on the man like a surgeon.

In the first chapter we see that creation had a certain order. Without being literal about the time that creation was done on a daily basis, we can find a sense in the order of creation. It started with matter (e.g. earth water, light); followed by living creatures such as plants, animals, birds; then followed by human beings, male and female. Matter is an essential stuff for the rest of creation and science tells us that matter needs space and God provided the space in God’s created universe. Then the living creatures in the water and on land also consist of matter but because they are alive, they need food to sustain life. Human beings are living creatures which also consist of material stuff—we need space, water, air, and food in order to live. What we see in the order of creation is not so much that God instituted the hierarchy of things but the interdependence and interconnectedness of all that God created. Interestingly in this creation story, human beings, male and female, were created together. Maybe the main difference that we can find between human beings and the rest of creation is this:

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:26-27)

Human beings, though created from matter, were created in the image of God. While we consist of matter and life, we also have a soul which hungers for the truth and seeks to be connected with our Creator. This image/likeness of God is also related to the original blessing that God gave to human beings:

So God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” God said, “See I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for good. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. (Genesis 1:29-30)

The image of God in human beings is the potential for human beings to be co-creators with God and stewards of God’s creation. In this connection there is a need to re-read the command to ‘multiply’, ‘fill the earth’ and ‘have dominion’ over all of creation—to go beyond stereotypical and traditional readings. Traditionally this has been understood in a very heterosexist way—that the purpose of life is to reproduce, and therefore only heterosexual relations and marriages are encouraged, family planning or birth control is discouraged. But we must remember that such was the case when the small community of Israel was struggling to increase at a time when life was so precarious. We also need to go beyond the literal translation of the words “multiply” and “have dominion” or “subdue”. Multiplying and filling the earth can also be taken to mean spreading awareness about issues and commitment to sustain the earth.

I like to understand dominion or mastery in the sense of doing a master’s degree. When you have a master’s degree in a particular field, it means you are an expert in that field—you know the scope and limits of your research study. So having dominion or mastery over the rest of creation includes knowing the potential and limits of the earth’s resources by understanding and respecting the laws of nature, keeping the balance in the web of life, sustaining what is still available, and replenishing what we use and consume.

It is very clear in Genesis 1 that God created both woman and man in God’s own image and it is to both that God gave the original blessing. So we need to go beyond the stereotype that only women can be as “mothers” (life-giving, caring and nurturing). Men also have the potential to be life-giving, caring and nurturing.

In Genesis 2 creation story, we see a different order of creation. God created the universe with water that would come up from beneath the surface of the earth. Then God formed the man out of the soil and breathed life-giving breath into his nostrils. After that God planted a garden in the East of Eden, with all kinds of beautiful trees, among which were the tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Man was placed in that Garden of Eden to cultivate and guard it—to enjoy the fruit of any tree except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. As the story goes, God finds that it is not good for the man to be alone. In an effort to make a suitable companion to help the man, God created the animals and birds—but not one of them was a suitable companion to help him. And so, as the story goes, God caused the man to sleep, took out one of his ribs and formed woman, which when God brought to him the man said: “At last, here is one of my own kind—bone taken from my bone, and flesh from my flesh.

‘Woman’ is her name because she was taken out of man.”

If the Genesis 1 creation story provides the larger framework for the whole of God’s creation, the Genesis 2 creation story is, to me, like zooming in for a closer look at the creation of humankind. Unfortunately, the order of creation in this Genesis 2 story—where man is created earlier than woman and woman is depicted to have been created to be man’s suitable companion and helper—is often used to justify the unequal position of the sexes and eventually the oppression of woman. But feminists are critically re-reading this story highlighting the fact that the word “helper” is something that is used to describe God in many places of the Bible and the word translated as rib is really the “side wall” implying the equality of the sexes so that they are meant to be side by side. So taking the order of creation as the gauge for importance and hierarchical order is not helpful.

The anthropocentric view that we have been socialized with has put the human being at the center of everything. Thus, we often hear how the human being is described as the crowning glory of creation. We can feel this in the following passage from the Psalms:

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?

Yet you have made them a little lower than God [divine beings or angels], and crowned them with glory and honor. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet... (Psalm 8:3-6).

Just answer these two hypothetical questions: If creation dies, will human beings be able to live? If human beings die, will creation be able to live? Your answers only show that human beings are but a part of creation.

What the two creation stories signify is that there is variety in God’s creation. While human beings are part of creation, they are blessed with the special task of tending, caring for, and nurturing creation. God created humankind in God’s image so that they will be co-creators with God and co-stewards of God’s creation.

The passage in Psalm 8 should not be understood as a license to do anything one likes with creation. Unfortunately, the desire to be creators, like God, is being taken even further these days—through the altering of the laws of nature, e.g. producing genetically modified food and goods, cloning, etc. But what is the purpose of all these human creations today? Profit, fame and power are never God’s purposes of creating.

Today, in view of the many problems we are now facing as a result of ecological injustice, we need to build more awareness on ecological issues. We need to learn from and work with other religious communities who may have a stronger tradition than we do that respects nature, creation or environment.

Bible Study 2: Sabbath and Jubilee – Campaign for Ecological Justice

For our second Bible study, let us look at some passages from the scriptures [Genesis 2:2-3; Exodus 20:8-11; Exodus 23:10-12; Leviticus 25:1-24] and discussing the following:

Our passages talk about two important words in the Bible: Sabbath and Jubilee. Sabbath, which God instituted right in the story of creation, means rest on the seventh day when the work of creation was finished. Sabbath is therefore a day set apart, a holy or sacred day of rest. Its observance is stipulated in the Ten Commandments: “On that day no one is to work—neither you, your children, your slaves, your animals, nor the foreigners who live in your country” (Ex. 20:10). It is strange that wives are not mentioned here at all when the 10th commandment clearly talks about not desiring another man’s house, or his wife, or his property—implying that these were addressed to the men. So do wives get a Sabbath?

Sabbath is also for the land. As workers (slaves and laborers), animals, aliens observe the Sabbath, land also gets to rest, not only on the 7th day of the week but also on the 7th year. Jubilee is the 50th year (after counting 7 x 7 years, the 50th year is jubilee)—a time of great rejoicing because it entails the returning to and of one’s property and family, no cheating of each other in the transactions involved, and eating only from what the land yields.

Sabbath and Jubilee are very revolutionary ideas—implying radical changes in personal, social, economic, and political arrangements of life. In fact, Jubilee is at the very core of a global campaign to free many countries from huge accumulative debts to international creditors (e.g. IMF-WB). So in fact, Jubilee can be at the very core of a global campaign for ecological justice. What does this mean for us today?

First, we need to know the injustices done to ecology in our respective contexts and we need to repent of our complicity in the crime. For example, we are familiar with the problem of deforestation due to illegal and unplanned logging, the development of forested areas into cities or golf courses or for the cultivation of cash crops. Deforestation is not only happening to the virgin forests of Asia. It is also happening in the beach forests (the mangrove areas). I just learned from a Filipina scientist who recently confessed of her being part of the problem when aqua culture was encouraged in the Philippines to raise giant prawns for export to other countries. She shared that for the purpose of aqua culture, many mangroves were converted into brackish water ponds. Unfortunately, this has resulted to a massive imbalance. Instead of 1:4 hectares of brackish water pond to mangroves, the ratio is now 1:0.5 of brackish water pond to mangroves. This is very alarming because mangroves do not only serve as habitat for aquatic and terrestrial fauna and flora and protection of associated marine ecosystems; they also provide protection from strong winds and waves, including tsunami. Mangroves provide protective buffer zone which helps shield coastlines from storm damage and wave action, minimizing damage to property and losses of life from hurricanes and storms and preventing shoreline erosion. As mangroves absorb excess nitrates and phosphates and filter sediments and pollutants, they prevent contamination of nearshore waters. They also absorb carbon dioxide and store carbon in their sediments, thereby lessening the impacts of global warming.

Second, we need to be pro-active in doing something to address these injustices. Maybe what the SCM can begin to do is to promote mangrove preservation. This means getting to know what plants or trees can grow again in the beaches. Perhaps, at your SCM compounds or Student Centers, you can begin growing a nursery in your backyards of native species of trees to help revive forests and plant trees in parks and church yards, etc. There are many practical ways which we can do starting at a personal level and also at a communal level—e.g. doing composting to help enrich the soil; paying for the clean-up of our carbon footprints whenever we travel—but also campaigning for the clean-up of pollution by factories and MNCs and TNCs in our countries; minimizing the use of non-biodegradable materials like plastic or finding biodegradable material that can be used like plastic; etc. Finally, we need more young people to go into the area of environmental studies. It has already been foreseen by many people that the next wars will be on water. Hopefully such wars can be prevented and water can be ensured for all the people in the world.

Third, learn more about biodiversity and the danger of invasive species. We tend to want something exotic—something from other lands or places. But recently, there had been some news about how exotic species are causing more harm than good to the ecological diversity in a given place. In Thailand, for example, where I now reside, there was news about the harm being done in certain rivers by the water hyacinth, originally from the Amazon, and by Salvinia molesta, originally from South America. These plants which have been traded as aquatic ornamental plants have invasive behavior—they reduce oxygen diffusion into the water and reduce the quality of the habitat for flora and fauna by eliminating native aquatic plants and creatures. Meanwhile, we need to know more about our own native species of plants and trees, many of which we have lost through deforestation. I was shocked to know, for example, that the village I come from in the Philippines is named after a mangrove tree, Piapi. But I have never known that or seen what that tree looks like in my whole life. What this means, according to the Filipina scientist, is that my village was probably a mangrove area but which have been cleared to give way to the growing village community. And indeed, my village is very near Piapi beach.

When do we observe the Sabbath? Is it just on the seventh day or on the seventh year? What is it that God gave us so our bodies can rest every day? God gave us the night so our eyes will close and our bodies will get to rest and re-energize. But our problem today, especially among young people, is that the night does not seem to get dark anymore. And this is not good for our bodies. We have a hormone in our body, called melatonin, which only works in the dark. As it is released by our pineal gland in the brain when it starts to get dark, it prepares our body for sleep and while we are asleep, it goes around, like a trash collector, cleaning every cell in our body of free radicals and other toxins. Thus, it is a naturally powerful anti-oxidant within our body. So God has a reason for instituting the Sabbath and it has both personal and communal dimensions. It is part of our calling to obey the Sabbath.

I hope that our Bible study together will inspire you to be vigilant about ecological injustices in your respective contexts and to be proactive in promoting the good news of Sabbath and Jubilee not only for humanity but also for the rest of God’s creation. May you become evangelists, proclaiming the interconnectedness and interdependence of all that God created, and affirming God’s original blessing to all people to be co-creators and co-stewards of God’s creation.

While human beings are part of creation, they are blessed with the special task of tending, caring for, and nurturing creation. God created humankind in God’s image so that they will be co-creators with God and co-stewards of God’s creation.