Transforming Faith

by: Posted on: May 08, 2013

Editor’s Note: What is the role of faith within social and environmental movements? How do people with different beliefs work toward common goals? This piece by Nick Mele, a man of faith, explores these questions.

By Nick Mele, former U.S. Diplomat and member of Earth Ministry


If you ask ten people for the name of a leader of the civil rights movement, most if not all will respond with the name of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Whether those ten people have any awareness of the central role African-American churches played in the civil rights movement is a different question. Many activists motivated by faith have affected social change throughout history and across the globe. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, committed Christians devoted their lives to abolishing first the slave trade and then slavery; in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, people of faith continue to be at the forefront of movements to challenge war, racism and violations of human rights. Similarly, people and communities of faith have played and continue to play important roles in other social movements, including the nuclear abolition movement, the labor movement, the immigration reform movement and the sanctuary movement. Often, commitment to change in one of these areas leads people and religious congregations from all the major faith traditions to a deep commitment to caring for all of nature.

Religious commitment to environmental causes grows from several different streams of faith, such as reverence for the work of a Creator and a desire to ensure justice for all human beings as in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic traditions or compassion for all that exists as in Buddhism. Dorothy Day, now a candidate for sainthood in the Roman Catholic Church, is best known for her pacifism and commitment to the poor. The Catholic Worker Movement, which she founded, envisions a network of small, sustainable farms complementing the better-known urban “houses of hospitality”. Day herself spoke at the first Earth Day celebration in New York City. Other believers are also devoted to environmental issues. Consider Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature. In addition to publishing many books, and founding; he is a practicing Methodist and contributor to, and writes a monthly column on environmental issues for the progressive Christian monthly Sojourners.

People and communities of faith address environmental concerns by working within organizations not associated with any faith tradition and/or working in organizations that are faith-based. Some more institutionalized faith traditions are acting on environmental issues as church entities. In the first of his three encyclicals, Pope Benedict XVI declared: “The Church has a responsibility towards creation, and she considers it her duty to exercise that responsibility in public life, in order to protect earth, water and air as gifts of God the Creator meant for everyone, and above all to save mankind from the danger of self-destruction.”

To believers, all that exists is the gift of God to all living things, human or not. At the same time, the dignity of every human being and our responsibility for one another’s well-being require that we carefully manage the gifts of God so that all people (including future generations) may enjoy health and happiness throughout their lives. This represents the vision of the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), all of which share a belief in and commitment to renewal of the earth and establishment of a just society where all have equal rights, dignity, and access to the necessities of life.

In Washington State, faith-based environmentalists work through Earth Ministry, a long established organization that is very active in promoting care for creation and respect for the environment to congregations and individuals. Earth Ministry’s mission to “inspire and mobilize the Christian community to play a leadership role in building a just and sustainable future,” has guided them since their inception just over twenty years ago. Among other activities, it engages in advocacy work at the state legislature and fosters awareness of and respect for the environment through programs that delineate the connections between, to take one example, the long effort to dismantle the Elwha River dams and the spiritual traditions of Christians and of indigenous peoples. Judeo-Christian theology and spirituality about our environment find common ground with Native American spirituality through shared prayer and religious rituals as well as through collaboration on specific projects. Collaborative efforts with Native American nations to dismantle dams that block salmon from accessing their spawning grounds and to oppose nuclear testing and waste disposal on native lands, has led many Christian and Jewish activists to a greater appreciation of Native American beliefs. Judeo-Christian awareness of the gifts of nature has gained depth and attentiveness through this faith dialogue with Native Americans.

Most, if not all, faith traditions share common values: compassion, a desire for justice, and respect for the whole of creation, from dark matter in outer space to the dirt, rocks and microbes on which we step daily. Within each tradition, not all who share those values connect compassion with all living things or respect for creation with such issues as fossil fuel consumption. Believers may work within their own communities, in partnership with other faith communities, alongside or as members of non-faith based organizations.

Photo: Assumption Catholic Church, Bellingham, WA

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