By Tom Rowley, A Rocha USA Executive Director
Two weeks ago, I spent the day with a dozen other men—nine black, three white—discussing racism, black men and the Church. Appreciative as I was for the invitation by Leroy Barber and Kilns College, I was a bit hesitant. Privileged by society because of race, gender and socio-economic class (none of my own doing), I was afraid I would feel guilty, ignorant and uncomfortable. I went anyway and am grateful I did. I was given not only new friends, but also new insights—albeit still quite limited. What I now claim to “understand” is mere head knowledge about things these men “understand” as life. Small beginnings, I suppose.
And while the conversation was not about the creation or environment, the field in which I work, I was struck by several similarities. Racism and environmental degradation share roots, results and, even response by the Church.
As others have pointed out, Christian slaveowners were able to soothe their consciences and rationalize their ownership of human beings by buying into a sort of insidious gnosticism. In short, they could tell themselves and their slaves that life on Earth doesn’t matter; all that counts is the eternal hereafter. That same heresy can be and is used to justify abuse of the non-human portion of God’s creation as well.
Another related and shared root is greed—plain and simple. As the apostle Paul said, “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” (1Timothy 6:10) That evil is evident, even when unintentional, when what I want comes at the expense of another human being or the planet (recognizing, of course, that it is impossible to live without some impact on the environment.)
As for similar results, we can see them in the devastation that racism and environmental degradation wreak on people of color. Racism inflicts physical, emotional, social and economic damage. So, too, does environmental degradation. Blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans, Asians, as well as poor Whites, often (disproportionately according to some studies) live downhill, downstream and downwind of the smokestacks, landfills, sludge ponds and incinerators that hold the toxic byproducts of modern life.
Finally, the response by the evangelical Church in the USA to both racism and environmental degradation has been less than one—and perhaps Jesus—might hope for. We in white middle-class America are largely insulated from the practices and effects of racism, just as we are largely insulated from the results of environmental degradation. Insulation, however, is no excuse. Ignorance is not a defense. And the fact that you and I may not be blatant racists, nor have lavish lifestyles does not give us a pass. The recent awakening of the Church on both fronts is encouraging, but it is “recent”.
Interestingly, addressing one can help with the other.
Getting people of different races to sit down with one another, grasp the nettle and bridge the divide is right and good and we should do it. It is, however, exceedingly difficult. Getting people of different races to roll up our sleeves to clean up the river that runs through town or plant trees in school yards may be a good small beginning. Common ground. Common cause. Relationship. Healing.
Two examples. In Lexington, Kentucky, two churches—one black, one white—have come together to plant a community garden on property owned by the white church, but set squarely in the predominately black neighborhood. What once was a source of contention dating back to Civil War days is now a place of tomatoes, conversations and community. In Southall—a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-cultural—suburb of London, A Rocha brought all parties together to restore a large tract of land that was a place of crime and illicit dumping. Eyesore and health hazard converted to community jewel.
The obstacles to racial justice and harmony are many and complex. And by themselves, efforts such as these are insufficient in overcoming them. And clearly this blog has only scratched the surface. But “Do not despise these small beginnings, for the Lord rejoices to see the work begin…” (Zechariah 4:10)