By Holly Cunningham
“Our thinking on environmental issues is like a tree. The individual disciplines, from economics to chemistry, are like the branches. The trunk integrates these disciplines in the synthesis of ecology. The roots of the tree, however, take their nourishment from the soil of paradigms and attitudes that while hidden, nevertheless provide for the very existence of the tree. Unless we seek to comprehend better the essence of that soil, perhaps even modifying its structure, there is a growing fear that the tree itself can no longer be sustained.”
These words by Ingrid Leman-Stefanovic in Safeguarding Our Common Future: Rethinking Sustainable Development, ring more true than ever as we realize the magnitude of this climate crisis which not only threatens future generations but is already impacting individuals and communities today. Nurturing the soil that sustains our ecological awareness, and the actions that follow as a result, is especially pertinent as we strive to shift communal mindsets around environmental injustice.
In what is potentially one of the most ethical frameworks we could lean into around such an expansive problem, author Sallie McFague offers profound insight in her book Blessed are the Consumers: Climate Change and the Practice of Restraint. She argues that in response to over-consumption and over-development we, as people of faith, must take on the practice of restraint. In so doing, we must consume less and begin to scrutinize capitalistic practices and tendencies that tend to exploit the natural world in exchange for cheap thrills and products.
Restraint beckons us to step out of the norms of growth and expansion and into practices that reduce our impact and footprint, and allow us to live more fully in connection with the world and communities around us.
For McFague, it is clear that “the most significant challenge the religions could undertake for the well-being of our planet and its inhabitants – but a challenge for which no other field is so well prepared – is ‘restraint.’”
It is far from easy to go against societal teachings that to be successful means to be able to consume more, and it is even more difficult to convince others of the potential of this practice when we are told that consumerism and growth are sustainable. But as it is, development is rarely practiced in a sustainable way that cares for the planet or promotes the health and well-being of future generations. The truth has become that “the ‘culture of consumerism’ is not just a form of life that we can accept or reject; it has now become the air we breathe.”
To clear this air, we must think more intentionally about what we consume and how much of it we use compared to what we actually need. We must find ways to buy and waste less, and encourage others to do the same. At the same time, a shift in our theological understanding of how or why to care for creation is a necessary accompaniment to the practice of restraint.
Theologies of dominion and domination, for example, are foundational in influencing how we view the earth and whether we do or do not choose to care for it, and as a “Christian nation,” the implications of how we interpret scripture matter greatly.
Genesis 1:26-28 calls humanity to have dominion over all living creatures on the earth, an idea that has been distorted to justify excessive dominance over anything that is not human. But in the context of the Hebrew Bible, dominion was related to monarchs who regularly appointed officials to act as their representative and look over their territory when they were away, calling upon them to have dominion over those regions. In this same way, God called humanity to have dominion over the earth, or to serve as God’s representatives. As such, we are called toward stewardship, which compels us to act as agents of the land and caretakers of the natural world.
In a theology of stewardship, we are morally obligated to care for the environment, to protect it and respect all aspects of life, living with Creation rather than apart from or over it. (See Elizabeth Johnson, Abounding in Kindness, for more on this idea).
People of faith across the globe have tremendous strength and meaningful wisdom to be drawn upon in response to injustice against the environment. Beginning to reframe our thinking around environmental exploitation and overuse, we must be more intentional about our practices and how they contribute to ecological devastation and harm to our vulnerable neighbors. This season, may we lean into restraint as a way of loving both people and planet, recognizing their deep interconnectedness, and valuing life of all forms.
Holly Cunningham is a CBF Leadership Scholar and former elementary school teacher from Louisville, Ky., now attending Wake Forest University School of Divinity. She is passionate about environmental justice and enthusiastic about serving others in various contexts to inspire, empower and grow in community.