Missiology in Environmental Context: Tasks for an Ecology of Mission
Jenkins, Willis, International Bulletin of Missionary Research
For a field focused on the most geographic practice of Christian faith--crossing from one terrain to another for the sake of Christ--missiology seems to manifest a strange absence of the terrestrial. (1) Missiology rarely discusses the significance of earthly context or ecological dynamics for mission theology. For all its attention to culture, missiology seems to have little to say about the landscapes formed by ecology and culture in reciprocal relation. Insofar as missiology remains extraterrestrial, abstracted from geographic context, it struggles to make missional sense of environmental problems or to interpret emerging Christian responses to the challenges of sustainability.
In recent years, as churches have begun responding to environmental problems, missiologists have entertained occasional calls to link ecology and mission. (2) These proposals, issued from across a theological spectrum, encourage missiology to make environmental issues significant for the church's theology and practice. Meanwhile, without much notice from missiology, grassroots Christian initiatives in sustainable community have been emerging around the world. What we need now is an ecology of mission that can show how environmental issues matter within the practices of following God's love across terrains. In this article I consider initial proposals to link missiology and environmental issues, as well as contextual examples of environmental mission practice, in order to identify some specific tasks for contemporary mission theology. (3)
Recover the Geographic Context of Mission
Discussions of environment and mission often refer to Marthinus Daneel's African Earthkeepers: Wholistic Interfaith Mission (2001). (4) Sections of this work have appeared in the few journal volumes devoted to the topic, and excerpts often constitute the only missional perspective in anthologies of Christian or religious environmental thought. (5) Daneel's account of interfaith reforestation as an extension of the "war of liberation" to reclaim native lands presents a rich case for missiological evaluation. His portrayal of connections between social liberation and ecological restoration vividly demonstrates the missional significance of connections between social and ecological relations. It would be impossible to make sense of mission in Zimbabwe apart from the country's political history and the religious significance of its lands for its peoples.
Ecosystems, species, skies, and wetlands make up the context of mission, just as do cultures, languages, markets, and health clinics. (6) Consider the example offered by the director of a community development organization sponsored by the Church of Uganda, responsible for dealing with poverty and proposing public health initiatives. Missiological indifference to ecological issues, he explained to me, exacerbated the very problems he was assigned to address. He spoke of the importance protecting wetlands has for protecting public health. Thick wetlands filter rainwater from the cultivated hills above. When too many reeds are cut, opening channels for livestock and people to enter the water, communities require more resources for constructing concrete-protected springs and for antibiotics. Communities that carefully regulate wetland use have better access to cleaner water and fewer health problems. Moreover, communities where wetlands have been entirely drained face water shortages, and in some places the local climate has warmed enough for malarial mosquitoes to come. Both the diocesan office and international mission agencies, however, understand land management and social outreach as separate mandates, and only the latter as a legitimate concern of church mission--even when the church owns the land!
Sometimes stark social problems have the power to elicit new levels of missiological recognition and interpretation. Responsible contextual mission practices depend on a theological interpretation of social ecology--whether as simple as the relation of wetland biology to human epidemiology or as complex, as Daneel has shown, as the relation of land policies to colonial oppression and the experience of God's liberation. Furthermore, as J. J. Kritzinger points out, whatever else it may mean, good development must include recognition of the ecological context and impact of development. This axiom leads Kritzinger to propose a twofold agenda for missiology: "We need both an ecologically sensitive theory and practice of development, and a humane and holistic involvement with the environment." (7) Missiology must find ways to show how it matters for mission that the practice of following God's love across significant human boundaries happens on earth, across particular terrains, within a community of life and a set of ecological relations that bind us to one another.
Connect Human Dignity and Environmental Quality
Because it reflects on movement across social boundaries and geographic terrains, missiology is exceptionally well placed to address the distributional character of environmental problems. (8) Associated PressEnvironmental risks and resources distribute asymmetrically across social space; said differently, the effects of environmental problems fall disproportionately on the poor and powerless. Missiology can help the church resist the reductionist notion that a common humanity faces a common ecological predicament. There are, rather, multiple environmental problems, suffered unequally by diverse human communities.
In the United States, two United Church of Christ reports have documented a serial relation between hazardous waste locations and African-American populations. The reports depict a geography of American racism, showing how a pattern of human-caused environmental toxicity maps structural injustice. In the American context, missiology must ask what church mission means within landscapes of environmental racism. (9)
Once missiology begins to make visible the connections between environmental quality and human dignity, a number of new mission-related issues come into view, such as:
Public health risks. Regional and sometimes global spread of pollutants imposes public health risks. Those persons already at the margins of society are exposed to the greatest risks and bear in their bodies a larger burden of disease. Not infrequently, resources of poor lands are controlled by those in wealthy lands, while the pollution and waste from the powerful minority end up back among the poor. (10)
Issues related to land tenure. Disempowered and displaced populations often live on marginal lands that are most at risk of natural disasters. They may live in a shantytown built in a river's floodplain, or beneath a deforested mountainside, or, as in the United States, alongside weak levees. They may live at the edges of arable land and on poor or exhausted soils as large plantations take a massive share of good land. (11)
Restricted access to natural resources. Access to important resources such as water and wood becomes increasingly difficult when these resources are privatized and commercialized. The 2006 WCC Assembly devoted special focus to the importance of fair access to and protection of water sources. …
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Publication information: Article title: Missiology in Environmental Context: Tasks for an Ecology of Mission. Contributors: Jenkins, Willis - Author. Magazine title: International Bulletin of Missionary Research. Volume: 32. Issue: 4 Publication date: October 2008. Page number: 176+. © 1998 Overseas Ministries Study Center. COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale Group.
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