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The Renewal of Religious Environmentalism

by Michael Zimmerman, Ph.D., 
founder, The Clergy Letter Project

At least as far back as the publication in 1967 of the seminal but highly controversial essay, “The Historic Roots of Our Environmental Crisis,” by historian Lynn White, Jr., the relationship between religion and environmentalism has been a complicated issue. White argued that Christianity “not only established a dualism of man and nature but also insisted that it is God’s will that man exploit nature for his proper ends.”

Many religiously affiliated individuals have taken even more extreme and far less nuanced positions. Consider, for example, the position staked out by John Shimkus, a Republican member of Congress from the 19th district in Illinois. He’s made it clear that we need not be concerned about environmental problems because God promised Noah that the earth won’t be destroyed again. “The earth will end only when God declares its time to be over. Man will not destroy this earth.” It’s well worth noting that Shimkus is not just a random member of Congress. He holds a seat on the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee and, as frightening as it might seem, he chairs its Subcommittee on Environment and Economy.

But this is not the way it has to be. Many deeply religious individuals, from a host of religious traditions, are coming to the realization that a robust understanding of environmentalism is fully in keeping with their beliefs. Indeed, many are coming to the conclusion that their religious beliefs mandate care and concern for the environment and the species that reside in it.

This past fall I had the good fortune of being part of a small international workshop entitled “The Sanctity of Nature” sponsored by both The Fetzer Institute and The Kirbas Institute. The extremely bright men and women who participated engaged in wide-ranging discussions about this fascinating topic. One of the participants who impressed me most was the filmmaker Marty Ostrow.

Although Marty’s accomplishments include a large number of notable achievements, the one most pertinent for the workshop was the fabulous film he made with Terry Kay Rockefeller. Renewal: Stories from America’s Religious-Environmental Movement looks at how the imperative found in most religions for people to become responsible caretakers of the planet has actually and productively been operationalized.

In addition to focusing on the specifics of the case studies selected, Marty made it clear that the film had three larger goals. He and Terry want people to recognize that there is a vibrant religious-environmental movement, to realize that the media have largely missed the story about religious movements going green and to appreciate that this movement is being embraced by all religious traditions.

Inspired by the academic work of the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale University, Marty believes that the film demonstrates “the enormous potential the movement holds for environmentalism.” He is convinced that broader participation by members of traditional religious groups may well enliven a “secular environmental movement that has stalled.”
The film does a magnificent job of showing the ways in which religious communities have come to understand the nature of environmentalism and the steps they have taken to counteract many of the destructive practices our behaviors have engendered. Geographically, the documentary ranges from the Mississippi Delta to San Francisco and from the Chicago suburbs to rural Connecticut, while spiritually it presents Buddhist, Catholic, Evangelical, Jewish, Muslim and Native American perspectives.

The issues it covers are equally diverse. Included in the eight stories of environmental activism are steps taken to halt the devastation created by mountaintop removal in Appalachia, a search for environmental justice as a Mississippi town battles against the ravages of industrial contamination and a broad interdenominational approach to combat global warming.

The film’s visuals are absolutely stunning and are coupled with passionate testimony from people desperately wanting to make a difference. The choices made by the directors enhance the emotional impact enormously. The shock is palpable when a mother from a small Appalachian community tells participants in an interfaith tour of mountaintop removal, “We have well water that is contaminated. It has high levels of arsenic in it. My child bathes in this water and tries to drink the bubbles in the water. She doesn’t understand this is going to hurt her, she is just 3 years old.” But when those same participants are seen sharing that incident with Berea College students, the effect is magnified many-fold and the message that something has to be done to combat this evil is spread further.

As Marty Ostrow said to me, “We are one among many living species. Once the connection is made with the whole web of creation, it is long-lasting. My soul is deeply connected to something larger, something divine, something spiritual. I hope Renewal will act like a mirror that lets people see their own goodness and that many others are also standing there alongside them, in their efforts to go green.”

Marty believes that Renewal can help “build the movement for a more sustainable future. When work on Renewal began, there was little sense of community or shared effort. The film is helping people see they are part of something greater than the immediate eco-protection work they’re doing. The film helps them recognize they’re part of a moral and spiritual movement to save the earth and discover a new relationship with the planet.”

While religion is certainly not necessary for the development of a successful environmental ethic, as Renewal so strikingly shows, it can enhance and deepen the movement’s effects for some, with corresponding benefit for all.


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