US Catholic Faith in Real Life

The creation stories you probably haven’t heard

It’s time for the church to listen to indigenous people.

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Article Justice

For Shantha Ready Alonso, the fight for environmental justice goes back to the 15th century, to the doctrine of discovery, a series of papal bulls that started with Pope Nicholas V. These documents, for which the Vatican has yet to apologize or repudiate, gave European nations the pope’s blessing to colonize non-Christian lands and kill native peoples.

“These were the documents that Christopher Columbus and others used to justify their actions,” Alonso says. “It’s a really horrible part of church history.” Americans can still see the legacy of the doctrine of discovery in manifest destiny, Native American reservations that forced indigenous people off their land and took away their rights to ownership, and the Christian boarding schools that many Native Americans were forced to attend. 

Today Protestant denominations have started to examine the legacy of the doctrine of discovery in their own traditions. One organization that is trying to foster such dialogue is Creation Justice Ministries, where Alonso is executive director.

Creation Justice Ministries started in 1983 when the National Council of Churches USA came together and created an eco-justice program. Today Creation Justice Ministries is an independent organization, but its faith-based work, Alonso says, has not changed. “We are all connected through the global church to people all over the world. That makes us intimately connected to places that are fighting for their existential reality because of climate change.”

Why did Creation Justice Ministries start?

In 1983 the membership of the National Council of Churches realized that it was necessary for them to come together for the sake of doing justice for God’s creation.

There were a few reasons for this. The first was the acid rain crisis. People had never seen such a serious environmental issue before and realized that they needed a very organized church response.

The second was the rise of consumerism and the growing priority it places on acquiring goods and services above all else. Many faith leaders observed that consumerism was infecting the life of the church and harming spiritual lives. To counter consumerism they needed a strong theology that supports ecological well-being, is articulated and shared across churches, and talks about simple living and living in balance with creation.

The third reason was the rise of secular environmentalists who were pointing fingers at Christians and saying, “The whole reason we’re in this mess is because you misread the dominion mandate and the book of Genesis. Church leaders felt like they needed an organized response. They felt challenged to come together and better articulate a Christian theology of caring for creation.

Because of these three reasons, the National Council of Churches formed the Eco-Justice Working Group, which later became the independent organization Creation Justice Ministries in 2013, when the National Council of Churches restructured.

We still really run the gamut in terms of the denominations we bring together; it’s a broad array of Christian life in the United States. We’re ecumenical, so we see our ministry as geared toward all Christians and open to serving all people of faith.

What does creation justice mean?

One of our early working group members, Ben Chavis, was very concerned about how racism and environmental issues intersected. At the time this was a conversation that was not happening in any organized way. So he commissioned a research report that looked at areas around the United States and tried to determine the strongest social determinants for living near toxic sites.

The study found that what determines if you live near a toxic site is not whether you live in a rural or urban area. It’s not socioeconomic status. It’s race. The United Church of Christ repeated the study 20 years later and found the same thing.

This study, which happened early in our organization’s history, has affected the way we look at all issues. We try to keep a racial justice lens on everything we do.

In 2013, when our organization was rebranding, we coined a new term: creation justice.

The board felt that creation justice shows deference to the Creator and inspires us to think holistically about care for creation when doing our work. It’s a melding of our environmental justice with our racial justice and advocacy work.

How does Creation Justice Ministries advocate for both the environment and racial justice?

All of us live on indigenous land, and we need to recognize that. There is much work to do to heal after the theft and genocide in our country’s founding. 

These are hard words to hear. Over the years, many denominations have wrestled with their history. Many have repudiated the doctrine of discovery or have committed to studying Genesis and God’s commandment to “fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen. 1:28)—what we call the dominion mandate.

This year, we addressed these issues head on. We put together a Christian education resource called Environmental Justice with Indigenous Peoples that looks at the relationship between the doctrine of discovery and environmental justice.

I think many people’s awareness of these issues has been heightened because of what happened at Standing Rock. Perspectives have shifted in a way that has been real helpful. Perhaps, for the first time, people are ready for this type of ministry.

What is Bears Ears National Monument?

Bears Ears is the first-ever national monument that was created primarily through the leadership of a group of tribes.

Five tribes are behind the monument as it is today: the Navajo, Hopi, Pueblo of Zuni, Ute Indian, and Ute Mountain Ute. These tribes all consider the Bears Ears region to be their ancestral homeland. The initial proposal was to conserve 1.9 million acres in Southern Utah. They negotiated with the Obama administration and achieved 1.3 million acres.

Originally, the tribes asked for comanagement of the land, but that would require an act of Congress. The Obama administration gave them the strongest possible leadership role they could, creating a Bears Ears commission as the primary official advisory body for the management of the national monument.

This commission is made of officially appointed or elected tribal leaders who teach and advise on how to properly convey and share their own tribe’s natural, cultural, and spiritual heritage.

One of the most striking and heartbreaking places in the monument is a place the Navajo call “Hiding Place,” where they hid to avoid being killed and hunted by settlers who were trying to take over the land. They hid in these caves and couldn’t make a sound. Later people passed these oral traditions on; stories of escape and survival and resilience when they were basically being hunted and killed.

We see this as an important role of the church: to step up and tell these stories. These are painful stories to hear, but if we’re ever going to move toward healing, we have to do truth-telling first.

We don’t just do this for the tribes, or in solidarity with them; it’s important to our own healing as well. It’s necessary for us to have this monument as a place where we can examine, confess, and repent our own history.

A lot of people still don’t know what Bears Ears National Monument is; it’s relatively new. But it’s still an important place. So we’ve been working with different stakeholder groups like Mormons and indigenous Christian communities, both of whom have a stake in the fate of the monument.

Is this similar to the work Creation Justice is doing in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge?

The situation in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is a little different than in Bears Ears. In the refuge, it’s not just a racial justice issue but also a religious freedom and food security issue.

To understand the refuge, you have to understand the relationship between the Gwich’in people and the porcupine caribou, which live and give birth on the coastal plain—this really ecologically rich and sensitive area within the refuge.

As far as the Gwich’in people remember, they have always been inter-reliant with this porcupine caribou herd. If you track the migration pattern of the herd, you can pretty much also map Gwich’in settlements. The Gwich’in depend on the caribou for more than 80 percent of their entire diet. They use the porcupine caribou for spiritual ceremonies and traditional clothing; it’s an integral part of their lives.

They also have a creation story that has to do with the porcupine caribou, a story that is now woven into their Episcopal belief system (90 percent of the indigenous people in the refuge are now Episcopalians). They believe that the Gwich’in and the porcupine caribou were at one time a single organism. The Creator wanted them to be together for a period of time to understand their unity. Then, one day, he decided that they would be better off as two separate organisms.

When the Creator separated them, according to this story, the porcupine caribou and the Gwich’in retained a piece of the other’s heart, passed on from generation to generation. The caribou herd would always be responsible for sustaining the Gwich’in people, and the Gwich’in would always be responsible for safeguarding the continued life of the caribou herd.

There’s this deep spiritual narrative about mutual respect. Part of that respect means that the Gwich’in will not go into the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge during calving season. They believe that is a sacred time and that, for the sustainability of the herd, they should not disrupt the birthing season. They call the coastal plain “The Sacred Place Where Life Begins.”

That coastal plain, however, is also a potentially rich oil field. Developers have set their sights on it for decades.

President Jimmy Carter, when he set aside the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, did so in a way that meant Congress can at any time open it to drilling. It is under temporary protection. Basically, an entire generation of Gwich’in have lived in constant anxiety that at any moment Congress might open The Sacred Place Where Life Begins to oil drilling, that their entire way of life could be disrupted and that some people in Washington, D.C., who know nothing about their traditional way of life, could just change everything.

This has also created an entire generation of Gwich’in advocates. We stand with the Gwich’in and follow the lead of the Episcopal Church in making sure that doesn’t happen.

What kinds of challenges do you face in your work to educate people about these justice issues?

It’s easy for people to become hurt or defensive. These are very hard issues to wrap your head around. Recognizing our own complicity in a system that has created horrible trauma is not something you can really uncover in one conversation.

One of the most challenging situations I’ve run across is that people think racial justice and the work we’re doing in places like Bears Ears or the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge doesn’t have anything to do with them. A lot of people say, “I don’t have any tribes near me. I don’t live in the Southwest. I don’t see how this relates to my everyday life.”

But these issues involve the very ground under our feet. We all live in areas that used to belong to someone else. It takes a lot of work to unpack how these issues actually touch every second of every day of our lives. Our entire theological and legal system has been touched by the doctrine of discovery that said it was OK to grab land and colonize and enslave and commit genocide.

That’s not something I think about when I’m making breakfast for myself in the morning, but it’s there.

How can people of faith stand up for racial justice in their own communities?

I think it’s the role of the church to exercise active hope, both in words and actions. I encourage everyone to do everything they can, rather than withdraw or go into denial or have a sense of doom. It’s part of the responsibility of our faith, and if everyone does their part, we’ll be much closer to living in right relationship.

If you are able to find it, recognize whose indigenous land your church space is on. Put a marker in a public place. Get into the practice of thinking and publicly recognizing the people who have come before us in these places. 

When a tribe is open to it, try to build an authentic relationship with that tribe. In some senses, the tribe that was native to your area no longer lives there because they were forced into another place. It’s still important to respect that’s where they came from.

When I bought my house, it certainly didn’t cross my mind that the land was probably at one point stolen from the Piscataway people, who are the native people where I live. A friend and colleague of mine suggested that in addition to paying my mortgage, I should consider paying something to the Piscataway every month.

That’s a huge mind-shift from our whole notion of property ownership and culture today. But we have to start thinking about how we manage and use property. It’s an awareness of, “Is this place sacred to someone?”

For Creation Justice Ministries, we’ve thought about this by trying to repair the breaches, respecting the understandings of collective ownership or ecosystem health that many indigenous people value.

We do this by creating wilderness or monument areas that are protected from development and allow for traditional uses such as gathering medicinal plants, doing sacred ceremonies, or traditional hunting or fishing.

But on a broader level, I also think there’s a much bigger conversation going on in the church at large about what it means to transform relationships at a deeper level economically.

I see all this as an incremental change toward living in right relationship with each other. Until we can recognize and tell the truth about our public land system and private property system—how it came to be and who it was taken from—I don’t see a path forward for real racial reconciliation.

The original trauma of colonialism has repeated itself with different racial groups over and over again. It’s continuing to tear us apart as a society. In the future, I would like to see people who recognize and tell the truth about our past and actively work to change the future.

If every church were doing that, we’d live in a very different world.

Want to get involved? Check out our suggestions for four ways your parish can work toward creation justice.

This article also appears in the November 2017 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 82, No. 11, pages 32–37).

Image: Bears Ears National Monument (Flickr.com/au_ears)

Published: 
Tuesday, October 24, 2017