Author: Barry Wade, Jamaica
Category: Creation Care
This is an INTEREST GROUP PRESENTATION ABSTRACT; the paper will be presented at the Jamaica Consultation on Creation Care and the Gospel in October, 2012. Comments are welcomed! View all abstracts.
Environmental Justice and the Church’s Preferential Option for the Poor
Barry A. Wade, Ph.D, OD, JP
Chairman, Environmental Solutions Ltd.
The problems of landlessness, squatting and environmental displacement of peoples leading to refugee status are global phenomena among third world or majority world nations and are the lot of the poor in these and even some first world countries. They arise as a result of environmental injustices perpetrated throughout history and in recent times by colonizers, industrial and economic giants, the rich and powerful, and sometimes even by the poor themselves. The consequences of these problems may be seen in the loss of traditional land holdings, the destruction of whole communities, employment of poor agricultural practices, deforestation, desertification, famine and death. These consequences are likely to increase with climate change and deteriorating global economic conditions.
In the Caribbean and throughout Latin America, the problems are growing rapidly with no clear cessation or resolution in sight. In Jamaica, for example, it is estimated that up to 40% of the population lives on squatted land, up from 33% just a decade ago, while in Latin America, the figures range from a low of 55% in Costa Rica to a high of 85% in Bolivia and Guatemala. In neighbouring Haiti, squatting in rural areas is well above 90%. Similarly, the environmental refugee problem is on the increase and in Haiti, following recent earthquake and hurricane events over a period of twelve months, more than one million persons were displaced from their homes to refugee camps within only a few months.
Government attempts worldwide to deal with some of these problems have mostly centred on legislative and enforcement measures, for example, by criminalizing squatting with a zero tolerance approach, and detaining, rejecting and returning refugees to their homelands, even within their own countries. While these approaches have often lead to dehumanizing and disastrous situations, the church has by and large maintained a deafening silence. However, in a few instances as in Haiti, the Christian community, if not the organized church, has been at the forefront of relief and development efforts on behalf of the suffering poor.
In Jamaica, following the emancipation of slaves in 1838, sections of the church established what became known as Free Villages to provide the newly emancipated slaves with land of their own, the means with which to provide food and other necessities for themselves and to generate an income, community amenities to foster identity, belonging and responsibility, and a church building and family in which to worship and serve. By so doing, the Church gave the slaves a sense of dignity, decency and hope, all of which had been largely destroyed by the institution of slavery over 300 years.
In present day Jamaica, a somewhat similar model is being pursued by the Agency for Inner City Renewal (AIR), a Christian Community-based initiative in Trench Town, a Kingston inner city ghetto from which Bob Marley emerged as a Jamaican and international music icon. The approach here is Social Entrepreneurship, a model well worth studying by the church at large as a means of restoring residential ownership, economic enterprise and environmental security to broken communities.
The Bible is not silent on the matter of environmental justice and Leviticus 25 speaks volumes about the people of Israel occupying and stewarding the land that God had provided for them, and which he often reminded them was his. In significant detail, this passage of scripture expounds fundamental principles for care of the land by resting and not over-exploiting it, releasing slaves from ownership and indebtedness, providing for the poor from the fruits of the land, and restoring families to their wholeness and responsibility. These are all issues of environmental justice and creation care and the link between the integrity of land (creation) and the wellness of people cannot be missed. Nor can that of the responsibility of God’s people for both. As Indira Ghandi, the revered former Prime Minister of India declared many years ago: “Poverty is the worst form of pollution”, and as the apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Roman Church: “The whole creation groans for its liberation from decay”, so must the church of today understand that the just God whom we serve requires of his followers both a preferential option for the environment and for those who suffer due to our abuse of it.
I contend that in practicing the jubilee principles of redemption, restoration and good stewardship of all creation, the church may really be said to be demonstrating a preferential option for the poor. If the church will not do it, who will?