I helped lead my very first nonviolent direct action in the spring of 1972 – at least that’s how I remember the experience. There were nine or ten of us from the fourth grade at Sterne Brunson School, Benton Harbor, Michigan. We were a multiracial, multiethnic crew, blissfully unaware of the uniqueness our diversity represented. It was soon after the landmark federal legislation around clean air and water, and we actually cared as kids. Some five or six blocks from school stood a notorious polluter, a foundry. We had little scientific acumen, but we could see the stuff spewing from the stacks and settling around the neighborhood. Somebody had to do something. So one Saturday morning we got up, made signs, mounted our assortment of bicycles, and headed to the plant. We marched with “Stop Pollution” signs for what seemed like three hours (probably more like one). Even though it was a Saturday, there was an executive in the office complex, and he came out to talk. He assured us that he and his company were concerned about pollution: they were doing all in their power to make things better. After all, a lot of people had jobs at the plant. It was my first experience with corporate spin doctors.
We made our point and packed up. Then a few years later, the facts came out. The company had engaged in serial foot-dragging when directed to improve emission practices. Eventually, they decided that it was better to close than spend money on making the neighborhood safe. I suppose we won, but even as a kid, I knew it was a hollow victory.
The very first section of our United Methodist Social Principles addresses the natural world – that is the creation and its sacred nature. This is God’s universe. Before placing the various critical issues related to human community in context, the Social Principles remind us that everything that is belongs to God. This section explores water, air, soil, minerals, plants, energy, animal life, climate stewardship, space, science and technology, food safety, and food justice. There is enough in these paragraphs to occupy our reflection and stimulate debate for a long, long time. Yet when I step back and think of the way our culture often conceptualizes the various dilemmas related to the environment, I can’t help thinking that something is absent.
Popular rhetoric and event trendy academic language often conceive of environmental issues as some kind of conflict or balance between humanity and other forms of nature. There is some truth in this, generally speaking. There are even terms devoted to pointing out the tension. Those who emphasize the value of people are sometimes called “anthropocentrists,” which simply means “people-centered.” Those who wish to view creation as an interconnected value structure are sometimes called “biocentrists,” a term that is intended to reverence all nature. Most folks combine aspects of each perspective in their thinking. Being people centered can certainly entail respect for the rest of creation. Emphasizing the value of all creation can still respect the special dignity and role of humanity within the environment.
However, I wonder if the twin concerns of anthropocentrism and biocentrism might find a more profound integration. Often missing in this conversation is the reality and authority of God. A “theocentric” or God-centered perspective honors the unique value of humanity and the importance of all creation. Take a look at this section of the Social Principles. Many paragraphs begin with language that underscores God’s primacy in the delicate relationship between people and nature.
How many times do we hear the debate placed within the false choice between jobs and the environment or growth versus preservation? You see, I knew as a fourth grader that jobs were involved in the equation. My own people – grandfathers and grandmothers – had come in off the small farms of rural Michigan to sweat out a living near the blast furnaces and forges of the 1930s. And they were, for the most part, treated like dirt by the owners of industry. Pitting people and the environment against one another is usually a slick tactic of those with power and privilege. There are people of good will on many sides of environmental questions, and we might pause to consider that the better angels of our natures can avoid false dichotomies. But we will have to acknowledge that beyond the apparent conflict is One who created all that exists. We will not find easy answers with this theological conviction, but we will certainly be better off if we begin with a theocentric ecology.