Preaching Environmental Justice in the Purple Zone

From the EcoPreacher blog of The Rev. Dr. Leah Schade, PhD

Originally presented at the Krost Symposium, Texas Lutheran University, Sept. 3, 2014

The Krost Symposium is TLU’s premier yearly academic event. This year’s theme, “Environmental Justice: Texas Responses to Global Crises,” explores exactly what environmental justice is and how we can work together to solve current issues that will impact future generations.  The following is my presentation at their opening worship for the kick-off of this series.  The video can be found here and the 10-minute presentation starts at minute 6:00: 

I want to thank Tim Barr and Texas Lutheran University for inviting me to be part of this important series of speakers in the Krost Symposium addressing the topic of environmental justice.  It is an honor to begin this series and to be counted among some of the most prominent figures undertaking the task of addressing the relationship between people, Earth and its other-than-human beings, and, for those of us with a religious persuasion, our relationship with the Divine Creator.

There is always a risk that when we focus on an area of justice, someone is going to get their gander up, so to speak.  You could have chosen a less controversial topic, but you have courageously decided to enter into what I believe is the most vital question of our time:  how will we live if we destroy the very planet and biotic community that enables our lives?  Stated in a positive way, how can we live in a way that ensures the just and right relationships between humans, Earth, and those most vulnerable?

Let’s take a moment to talk about why people get so contentious when talking about environmental justice issues?  There is much at stake: incredible amounts of wealth, questions of power and equality, personal and community identity, the ecological conditions that support life itself, and the very real persons (human and otherwise) affected by these issues all have a stake in our conversations, decisions, policies and actions.  Because of this intense and complex overlaying of competing interests, we find ourselves, in Jesus’ words, “a house divided against itself” (Matthew 12:25).  And, indeed, the oikos – meaning “house” in Greek – the oikos of earth is crumbling, flooding, and burning all around us.  Some of us may have enough temporary wealth, power and privilege to shore ourselves in little enclaves longer than our poorer sisters and brothers.  But the frantic grasps to protect this illusory wealth only hasten the speed at which the ensuing ecological domino effect will collapse the collective house of this planet.

Thus it is imperative that we find ways to talk effectively and respectfully with each other in order to address these issues.  A central question for me in my work as a pastor and scholar who is also an environmental activist is:  How do we listen to each other across increasingly hostile divides of red/blue politics, race, class, geography, culture, and religion?  For example – is Texas considered a Red or Blue state?  (Red).  And do you know what Pennsylvania is considered?  Blue.  But I can tell you where I am in Central PA it’s probably closer to Texas in many ways.

As a pastor I ask, how can we preach environmental justice in what I call “The Purple Zone”?  Because, as I have come to learn, when we enter the dialogue with a commitment to process and trust in God’s guidance, we find that the divides themselves are also illusions.  None of us really lives in a “red” or “blue” state.  In fact, those colors run together in our families, our houses of worship, our schools, and even within our own hearts and minds.  Our job, then, is to find a way to courageously step into the “Purple Zone” and speak a word that casts out demons and stands with Jesus and all those who gather, not scatter.

In these next few minutes I want to share some insights that I have gleaned from my work as a community organizer and from my work on a bipartisan synod task force on fracking.  These are also lessons I’ve learned from 14 years of preaching about justice issues in the pulpit in congregations that have a wide range of political, economic, cultural, and personal stances on issues.  My goal is to offer some insights for the conversations that will follow in my next session about fracking, and that can be helpful for all of you over the course of the symposium these next several weeks.

I’ll use the synod task force on fracking as a case study.  On the recommendation that group, the Upper Susquehanna Synod Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America voted in June to call for all environmental and public health exemptions on shale gas and oil drilling and its related processes to be repealed and all processes related to shale gas and oil extraction and processing to be subject to the Safe Drinking Water Act (1974), the Clean Air Act (1990) and Clean Water Act (1972).

The task force was created as a result of action taken at the Synod’s 2012 assembly directing the group to undertake a comprehensive assessment of the justice issues surrounding the natural gas industry.  The resolution came as a result of two years’ worth of research, field work, and discussion by a diverse group of individuals, appointed by The Rev. Bishop Robert L. Driesen, representing opposing viewpoints on the issue of hydro-fracking.

Our task force was made up of scientists, professors, pastors, teachers, and lay leaders in the church, including individuals who actually work in the shale gas industry or are supportive of it.  Some of us would like to see a total ban on fracking.  Others think it can be done safely with proper regulation.  The fact that we were able to come to the table and engage in civil, bipartisan moral deliberation about this issue and offer a recommendation for the larger church is very important. At the very least we could agree that the so-called “Halliburton Loopholes” created for the industry exempting it from the established laws protecting our water, air and public health are unjust and need to be repealed.

So how did we get to that point of being able to agree on these recommendations?  I will be honest – it was not easy.  In fact, it was probably one of the most difficult groups I’ve ever worked with.  The process was messy, tense and frustrating at certain points.  But there were some key principles and moments that kept us from giving up, and directed us toward the task at hand.

First, all of us made an effort to understand where each of us was coming from in our positions, and to share our story of why we had come to believe what we did.  This enabled us to respect each other as people with families, livelihoods, communities, and deeply held convictions.  This meant that we had to actually listen to each other.  This, in turn, enabled us to move beyond negative generalizations and stereotypes about the side we disagreed with.

Second, even though we might have initially mistrusted each other, we trusted the process of the church that brought us together, and were committed to that process.  Our bishop did a good job of choosing people from different stances on the issue so that no one could look at the result of our work and accuse us of being biased one way or another.  And because we were a church group, there was always prayer at our meetings.  I am convinced that sometimes the only thing that kept our group from breaking apart was the presence of the Holy Spirit somehow holding together whatever tenuous strands there were.

Third, we did our homework.  Each of us chose a particular area to research, went after it with diligence, and brought it to the group for discussion and debate.  In addition, each person had a key part to play in the overall task, so we were invested in the process.

Finally, after months of throwing around skeins of data, wrestling with various interpretations, and debating the veracity of different claims, what finally allowed us to settle in and do real work together was finding common ground.  Or in this case, common water.  In fact, the only thing we could all agree on was that water needed to be protected, whether you were in favor of fracking or not.  So we were all able to say that the Halliburton Loopholes are not good for anyone.  The only prudent thing to do is to close the loopholes and subject the industry to the same regulations everyone else must answer to.  It is a basic question of fairness.

So – if we could pull off something like this in Pennsylvania, you can certainly undertake this process in Texas.  By listening to each other’s stories, respecting each other, doing your homework, trusting and being committed to the process, and finding common values, it is possible, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to bring people together across ideological lines to engage in robust ethical debate about controversial issues and arrive at some consensus for the common good.

May God bless each of you as you enter this process so that you may maintain positive relationships with each other, speak a prophetic word of truth, and emphasize God’s creative, hope-filled and redeeming activity in our world.


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