Gospel Justice for the Beloved Planet
“For I, the Lord, love justice….” Isaiah 61:8
Many of us were raised on crime-scene fiction programs and courtroom drama serials. So we have an intuitive sense about the meaning of justice: the guilty are caught and punished; the innocent go free. Justice is done.
But, of course, in our complex world, justice can be much more elusive. Consider:
In 2010, a Pakistani cotton farmer loses his crop to devastating monsoon floods. Rapidly melting glaciers have swollen the Indus River, and the extraordinary monsoon pushes the waters far beyond the riverbanks, inundating countless farms. The following year, the same farmer borrows heavily to replant his fields. But before the crop can be harvested, the torrential flood returns a second time, sweeping away his crops, and with them, all his hopes. His desperate plight calls for mercy. But in a world of melting glaciers and increasingly chaotic weather, might this also be a matter of justice?
Fortunately for Christians, the Bible deals extensively with the meaning of justice. We’re not left to speculate: God is just, and his word provides abundant insight into the meaning of justice. Scripture gives us at least three consistent justice narratives:
- Use honest standards in all transactions – no crooked scales – often called commutative justice (see Lev. 19:35-36);
- Use fair and impartial processes in judgment – no bribery or partiality – called procedural justice (see Deut. 16:19); and
- Show special regard with respect to justice for the poor. Commentators use different terms for this narrative, but we will call it economic justice.
This last narrative calls for us a dig a little deeper. It’s remarkable how frequently the Bible pairs up justice and poverty. “Woe to those who … turn aside the needy from justice and rob the poor of my people of their right…” (Isaiah 10:1-2). Concerning the promised Messiah, the same writer prophesied: “With righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth…” (Isaiah 11:4).
Texts like these are found throughout the Bible: Justice and righteousness are repeatedly promised for the poor, the widowed or fatherless, and the sojourner – the three classes of people with the least access to wealth and power in ancient cultures.
Thoughtful Christians differ as to specifically how biblical justice governs the manner in which wealth is allocated in society. But on threshold matters of economic justice, we agree: Those who have been given the least wealth and power are most frequently in need of justice from God and people. “I know the Lord maintains the cause of the needy, and executes justice for the poor” (Psalm 140:12). God’s people are not permitted – as a matter of justice – to neglect the poor: “They do not defend the rights of the poor. Should I not punish them for this?” (Jeremiah 5:26).
Biblical justice and creation care. . .
The biblical framework for God’s justice, therefore, requires honest scales and fair processes, with special regard for the rights of the poor. It is striking, therefore, to note how environmental degradation so often undermines these pillars of biblical justice.
Commutative justice: Scripture commands us to use fair measures of exchange, but polluting activities leave many of the costs to be borne by third parties not involved in the transaction. For example, we buy or sell energy for prices that leave the externalities to be borne by others – the respiratory diseases, cancers, habitat destruction or atmospheric changes that are the byproducts of our waste or emissions. Most often, it is others – the poor, our downwind neighbors, or our children – who subsidize our consumerist lifestyles and related pollution. We may be content to buy our electricity for a few pennies per kilowatt hour; but some distant child living near a coal-fired power plant pays a heavy price in respiratory disease and toxins from the related smokestack emissions.
Fair measures in commercial transactions require that those who consume energy should also pay for the cost of mitigating the effects of the related pollution.
Procedural justice: There is no biblical justice without fair courts, fair elections and transparent processes. The Bible refers to bribery much more freely than we do today. But our most polluting industries have become among the most active lobbyists and campaign contributors to candidates for public office. Undoubtedly, the biblical proscription against the taking of bribes is compromised by the preferential treatment purchased by polluters from policymakers. The problem is not just an American one. All over the world, wherever wealthy interests pollute the common resources of air, water and habitat, they rely on friends in high places to protect them from the outcry of those most affected.
Justice for the poor: We might imagine that the effects of environmental degradation fall upon all people, more or less equally. In reality, all too often, clean and healthy communities are reserved for the wealthy. And the research shows that this is true all over the world. The toxic air, polluted water, and the impacts of climate disruption fall disproportionately on the poor. Here is a sampling of many authoritative reports confirming this dynamic:
- The United Church of Christ has conducted studies over more than 20 years showing that racial minorities comprise the majority of populations living near hazardous waste facilities in the U.S. And these communities have 50% more poor people than clean communities.
- The Christian Reformed Church, through its Creation Stewardship Task Force, has stated that climate change will impact the poor more negatively than the rich. Limited financial resources provide them little buffer in adapting; they cannot move to a more benign climate; they are more susceptible to social unrest and resource conflicts; and they have little access to technology for adaptation.
- The Lausanne Movement, founded by Billy Graham and others, stated in its 2010 Cape Town Commitment that “the most serious and urgent challenge faced by the physical world now is the threat of climate change. This will disproportionately affect those in poorer countries, for it is there that climate extremes will be most severe and where there is little capability to adapt to them.”
- The National Association of Evangelicals has concluded that the world’s poor are the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. In a report titled “Loving the Least of These,” the NAE states: “The poor, especially in poor nations, are the most vulnerable to abrupt changes in the environment…. The realities of climate change mean that the world’s suffering millions may become billions. All of us who follow Jesus will need to respond.”
- The Journal of Urban Affairs published a UCLA study which found that low-income and minority children in California are disproportionately exposed to hazardous vehicle exhausts, resulting in much higher rates of respiratory ailments and mortality.
- Researchers at Harvard and Duke universities have published findings that developing nations will be affected far more severely by climate change than developed nations, and that this unequal impact will persist throughout the twenty-first century.
- The Climate Risk Index, which annually ranks countries around the world based on their vulnerability to climate change, names impoverished Bangladesh, Burma and Honduras as the most vulnerable. In fact, the ten most vulnerable countries generate almost no greenhouse gases, and in their poverty, they earn average per capita incomes of only $2,500. But the ten highest carbon-emitting countries (including the U.S.) enjoy average incomes of more than $43,000, with average per capita carbon emissions 25 times higher. The rich generate the pollution; the poor suffer the consequences. The following chart highlights the extent of the resulting climate injustice:
The justice of stewardship. . .
We have seen how abuse of the creation violates the biblical standard of justice in each of its three core measures. But the Bible gives us one more justice narrative; and perhaps it eclipses the first three combined.
“The land belongs to me,” God tells the Hebrew people in Leviticus 25:23. “You are only foreigners and tenant farmers working for me.” In the Bible, we hear repeatedly that the creation belongs to God, and that we are sojourners, aliens, stewards and tenants.
But the Bible also teaches that we are sinners, wholly reliant on God’s grace. One manifestation of human sin is that we have often denied our role as tenants, and laid claim to outright ownership. In a world of acidified oceans, mountaintop-removal coal mining, runaway species extinctions, unprecedented greenhouse-gas concentrations, and enormous oceanic “garbage patches,” we know that we are poisoning the creation. But it’s ours, perhaps we say; the earth belongs to its people, to use, extract, and exploit as we see fit.
But in fact, the reality is very different. “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it,” we learn in Psalm 24. This is our Father’s world, not ours; we hold all things in trust for its true owner. And while injustice takes many forms, there can be few more dangerous than seizing the property of the world’s rightful owner, its ultimate judge and sovereign.
To live justly as sons and daughters of our Father, we must reflect his priorities of fairness in all our dealings: our measures must be fair, without leaving our costs to be borne by others; our procedures must be free from bribery or preferential treatment; and we must give priority to justice for the poor, who are the most vulnerable to the effects of environmental degradation. But above all, we must never forget who it is to whom this world belongs.
For further reading. . .
- Sider, Ronald, J., “The Scandal of Evangelical Politics: Why are Christians missing the chance to really change the world?” Baker Books, 2008 (Find it here.)
- Perkins, John M., “Let Justice Roll Down” Regal Books 1976 (Find it here.)
- Wolterstorff, Nicholas, “Justice in Love” Eerdmans 2011 (Find it here.)
- Wytsma, Ken, “Pursuing Justice: The Call to Live and Die for Bigger Things” Thos. Nelson 2013 (Find it here.)
- Keller, Timothy, “Generous Justice: How God’s grace makes us just” Dutton, 2010 (Find it here.)
- Numerous downloadable studies confirm that the poor and racial/ethnic minorities suffer disproportionate harm from pollution and climate change. Here is a sampling for further reading:
- National Association of Evangelicals: climate change and the poor.
- United Church of Christ: hazardous waste and minorities.
- Christian Reformed Church: climate change and the poor.
- University of Pennsylvania: racial impacts in toxic waste exposure.
- UCLA: minority children and vehicle exhaust pollution.
- Climate Risk Index: the countries most harmed by climate change do little to cause it.
- Harvard and Duke: developing countries affected most severely by climate change.