Can Eco-Justice Go Mainstream?

By Burbank, James | National Catholic Reporter, June 6, 1997 | Go to article overview

Can Eco-Justice Go Mainstream?


Burbank, James, National Catholic Reporter


ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- The Rio Grande Valley spreads in Edenic splendor of early springtime beneath the great turtle form of the Sandia Mountains. The river is a brown streak of liquid glass lined by cottonwoods just greening along the bank.

Beyond, the city of Albuquerque hulks at the base of the mountains.

High on a bluff on Albuquerque's sprawling west mesa, the Santa Fe archdiocese's Madonna Retreat Center overlooks the Rio Grande.

Twenty-six influential New Mexico Catholic and Protestant leaders are meeting here to discuss what they believe is a revolution that will shake Christianity to its foundations.

They want to formulate practical ways to move current concerns about ecological crisis to the theological center of Christian ritual and practice.

So-called ecotheology has generated a flood of books and articles as theologists and ethicists have tried to close the gap between contemporary scientific knowledge and Christian belief.

Early in 1990. a group of 32 internationally eminent scientists headed by Carl Sagan delivered an open letter to the North American religious community saying there was no technological fix for unparalleled worldwide environmental devastation. They called upon religious leaders and churches to react to the crisis as the only social agents with the ethical power to respond to "crimes against creation."

In New York on June 3, 1991, religious leaders at the Summit on Environment promised to take on this challenge from the secular scientific community. there listening?

Crimes against creation

Near dusk a few New Mexico conferees lounge in the center's meeting room looking out through a large picture window to the broad swath of river turning gold in the late afternoon light. Charles E. Little sweeps into the room like an affable but prophetic St. Nicholas.

Author of 11 environmental books, Little served as president and editor for American Land Forum, head of the Natural Resources Policy Group, senior associate with the Conservation Foundation and executive director of the Open Space Institute.

Ten years ago he left Washington, D.C., to live in New Mexico. A member of the New Mexico Conference of Churches Eco-Justice Task Force, Little is an articulate and persuasive spokesman for his new cause -- ecotheology. He was active in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s when churches played a key role in creating social change.

He believes the only way to effect environmental salvation is by convincing millions of churchgoers that environmental sacrilege must stop. This conference, sponsored by the Eco-Justice Task Force, is the kickoff for a series of such gatherings that Little hopes will eventually be held on a national basis.

Keynote speaker is John Haught, a Catholic theologian from Georgetown University in Washington and author of The Promise of Nature, which attempts to re-ground Christian belief in the sanctity of the natural world. Haught believes the recovery of religious vision is the only way the earth's ecosystem will survive.

For Charles Little, hope is a big theme these days. One of the attendees compliments him on his recent book, The Dying of the Trees. "Your book is great but it's really depressing." Little smiles broadly. He has struck home. The book, a finalist for the 1997 Los Angeles Times Book Award, examines the wholesale destruction of America's forests through clear-cutting, acid rain, ozone layer depletion and resulting ultraviolet radiation -- all human-caused destruction. After writing the book, Little says he sank into a period of despair from which he is now emerging.

Little waves a copy of Tom Hayden's new book, The Lost Gospel of the Earth. "Have you seen this?" he asks. California State Sen. Tom Hayden condemns mainstream religions for maintaining silence in the face of corporate and government polluters who are committing what Hayden terms "mortal sin against God's creation. …

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