“SPEAKING THE TRUTH TO BLACK LEADERS: A PROPHETIC CALL FOR ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE”
Presented July 26, 2010
University of Southern California:
Passing the Mantle
Continuing Education for Pastors
by J. Alfred Smith, Sr.
“A Prophetic Call for Environmental Justice”
Job 12:7-8; Isaiah 45:1-6, 13; Romans 8:21-23
As a young seminary student, I was very unhappy with Professor Mark Rich. He made me read a book that I thought had nothing to do with making me an excellent minister. The book was not even written by a theologian. It was written by Liberty Hyde Bailey (1858-1954). Dr. Bailey was the professor of horticulture at Cornell University. The book I thought was too dated for my up-to-date mind. It was a foolish Mars Hill attitude on my part. The people of Mars Hill were always looking for the new. The book was written by Dr. Bailey and published by Charles Scribner’s son in 1915. The title of the book was The Holy Earth.
What my immature mind missed was the radical logic of Bailey: “If God created the earth, so is the earth hallowed; and if it is hallowed, so must we deal with it devotedly, and with care that we do not despoil it, and mindful of our relations with all beings that live on it…To live in sincere relations with the company of created things, and with conscious regard for the support of all men (all persons) now and yet to come (the unborn humans who come after us) must be the essence of righteousness.”
On a much simpler basis, I see people much more self-centered than being concerned about what kind of world we are leaving unborn generations. People do not care who will use a public restroom ten minutes after they use it. Have you seen unflushed toilets, and dirty paper towels thrown on the floor, or cartons of drink spilled in the seats of McDonalds or Burger Kings, or napkins left on the ground of parking lots, or cigarette butts left on the parking lots of churches, or church bulletins left in the pews of churches? Saintless people are a “litter bug people”. How do Christians leave the hotel rooms for under paid maids and housekeepers and do we forget to leave a tip after the lowly paid immigrants who put together coins to feed their children? What kind of unholy spirit causes people of color to forget how our parents cleaned toilets, scrubbed floors on their knees, made beds, washed and ironed the clothes of persons who looked down upon them, calling them girl or boy, or uncle or “auntee” if they were seniors. At the end of the day their take home pay was meager. From those modest wages they supported both their families and their churches.
Looking back over my life, I thank God for my elders and for Dr. Mark Rich and especially Doctor Howard Thurman. When Dr. Thurman retired, I took classes from him at the Urban Black Studies Center of The Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. In one class he shared how he communed with roses and with plants. Again, I thought how strange he was. How had I chosen him to teach me when he was too old fashioned to teach me how to live in the modern world of fact, not fiction and superstition?
Here is what I had forgotten. Dr. George Washington Carver, the famous African American scientist who taught at Tuskegee talked to plants, especially the peanut. From the peanut he blessed us with countless inventions. Didn’t William Cullen Bryant speak of communing with nature, “To him who in the love of nature holds communion with her visible forms. She speaks a various language…” Long before Thurman and Bryant spoke, Psalm 19 said: “The heavens are telling the firmament, proclaims his handiwork, day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth and their words to the end of the world.” Ps. 19:1-4
I have to remind myself that God has given us the three books of The Bible, Nature, and Conscience to communicate with us. The uninformed conscience is dead because we seldom take seriously the Bible and Nature. According to Genesis, chapter one, verse two, the earth was chaos, without form, structure, order, but the spirit of God (in Hebrew, ruach Elohim) created cosmos, order, beauty, goodness from the chaos. God calls this created work good. God is the originating creator, the sustaining creator and the continuing creator. However, human response to God’s creation is often less than good. The air is often foul. The water is polluted, the soil is harmed with dangerous chemicals, the forests are destroyed, the desert areas are expanding. To make sad matters worse, crude oil gushing from a ruptured well in the Gulf of Mexico for days poured into the water 2.52 million gallons of crude oil a day. Eleven lives have been lost. The fish and the wild life are in danger of death. Working families who depend upon the fishing business are jobless.
God has called human beings to care for God’s creation. Francis Schaeffer (1912-1984, author of Pollution and the Death of Man) has said: “If I am going to be in the right relationship with God, I should treat the things God has made in the same way that God treats them.”
Alice Walker has shaken me with very shocking words. She does it in her work: “Everything is a Human Being”. Here are her disturbing words: “Some of us have become use to thinking that woman is the nigger of the world, that a person of color is the nigger of the world. But in truth Earth itself has become the nigger of the world.”
Walker calls us to accountability for ecological sin in the same racial terms that Augustine and Calvin used to teach the doctrine of original sin. She reminds theologians that they have de-emphasized God as creator. God uses a black woman novelist to remind Christians of God’s presence in creation and God’s present concern for creation.
When preachers and theologians fail to speak prophetically for ecological justice, God raises up voices to speak from secular platforms. Professor Maulana Karenga, Professor of Africana Studies at California State University at Long Beach, says it is time to protect the earth of its enemies of plunder, pollution and depletion. He calls for a righteous struggle to ensure the health and well being of planet earth. Our Bible reminds us how God used strange voices to speak when God’s prophets and priests were untrue and unfaithful to their calling as women and men of God. God uses whom God chooses. God used Cyrus of Persia to bring the Hebrew people out of Babylonian bondage. God is using Professor Maulana (Ron) Karenga, a non-Christian thinker to warn us of our addiction to oil and our worship of technological toys.
Dr. Karenga emphasizes three of our national sins:
- Reverse pursuit of profit at any cost. Morals mean nothing.
The profits for the C.E.O. and the investors mean everything. This sin is the sin of greed.
- Profit for the elite under the disguise of progress and prosperity
If we cannot hear God’s truth from the lips of secular prophets, let us hear, old man Job in Chapter 12, verses 7-8. “But ask the animals and they will teach you, the birds of the air, and they will tell you, ask the plants of the earth and they will teach you, and the fish of the sea will declare unto you.” Our native American sisters and brothers remind us that the mountains speak.
“Humans, I, Mountain am speaking. You cannot ignore me. I have been with you since your beginnings and long before. For millennia your ancestors venerated my holy places, found wisdom in my heights. I gave you shelter and far vision. Now, in return, you ravage me. Stripping my forests. You take away my capacity to hold water and release it slowly. See the silted rivers. See the floods? Can’t you see? In destroying me you destroy yourselves. For Gaia’s sake, wake up.”
I tell you we need to hear the voice of nature speak to us. The oil smeared pelicans of the Gulf, and the mercury poisoned fish in our streams, and perishing species who lived here since the dawn of creation all tell us that we need to repair God’s creation. As good stewards we can clean up our brown fields. We can turn our diseased inner cities from places where we mourn the death of young lives who never discovered the abundance of life or the richness of God’s love. We can sing songs of hope that the dark past has taught us. We can say good bye to drive by shootings, and plant flowers of beauty to brighten our neighborhoods. We can make safe streets for the elderly to travel at night and we can create parks where our children can make happy music. We can enjoy the night time sounds of nature that serenade us with the assurance of our Heavenly Father’s watch care. We can awaken to the bugle call of the rooster announcing that God has blessed us with a brand new day. We can hear the squawking of the hawk above warning us that danger is near. We can calm ourselves when singing sparrows refresh our memory that The One who watches over The Sparrows watches over us. The beauty of the flowers of the field speaks to us of how much more love the God of the flowers has for us. This God, Jehovah–Jireh, is our provider. The thunder and the lightening introduces to us the coming of life storms, but the rainbow after the storms speaks to us of the mercies of God. The quiet and steady flow of the river tells us that we have a Shepherd God who will lead us by still waters. The still waters have a message for us. What is the message? When peace like a river attendeth my way, when sorrows like sea billows roll, it is well, it is well, it is well with my soul.
When the seasons of weeping have ended, when the night of disappointment has expired, the bright and morning star will appear at the dawn of day. We will rejoice. We will rejoice. because the morning of joy has come. We will rejoice because life has conquered death. Truth has defeated falsehood. Wickedness has expired. Righteousness is in full bloom. Justice is on the throne. The Kingdom has come. Let the redeemed of The Lord say so.
May the God of peace use us to become makers of peace. May the mothers of Johannes Mehserle and Oscar Grant experience healing for their grief. May Mehserle’s son and Grant’s daughter grow up to respect each other as children of God.
May the Christian church learn from Mohandas Ghandi. Professor Terrence J. Rynne has written a helpful book called Ghandi and Jesus: The Saving Power of Non Violence. Ghandi loved Jesus, but Ghandi believed that the Western World diluted the teachings of Jesus. Jesus has been misrepresented by Western culture. In a prophetic challenge to The Christian world, Ghandi said:
“Your whole life is more eloquent than your lips.” “A rose does not need to preach. It simply spreads its fragrance. The fragrance is its own sermon.” Mary Alice Walker, Maulanga Karenga and Mohandas Ghandi, God’s secular prophets and 8th century prophet Micah move us from moral mediocrity and ethical apathy to live mercifully with each other, to do justly in relating to nature, and to walk humbly with God.
Revealed theology has no place for secular prophets or even natural theology. Revealed theology argues that natural theology comes short of addressing the nature of God in terms of God’s ethical attributes and essential being. Revealed theology argues that unaided reason is not sufficient for understanding God and the ways and purposes of God.
In this sense revealed theology opens the door to naturalistic atheistic philosophers who argue for empirical evidence based on logical investigation. In response to the argumentative warfare between revealed theologians, natural theologians, and atheistic agnostic philosophers is process theology. Process theology developed through the work of A.N. Whitehead (1861-1947) and Charles Hartshorne (1897-2000). Process theology teaches that reality is not static, but is evolutionary or an ongoing, unending process and that God is an active participant in this process. Process theology argues that God has two natures, not one. God is an active participant in the process of our reality which is yet temporal, yet God has an eternal nature which is both within and beyond the world.
The late John Cobb of Claremont School of Theology awaken to process theology’s need to address the population growth and after reading Paul Ehrlich’s, The Population Bomb. Little has been done by these upper middle and upper class theologians to address the economic and ecological plight that pervades poor communities of color. The environmentalist movement has for the most part ignored the needs of the poor and the oppressed to express elitist, self-interest in of neo-narcists. The eco-systems essential to human survival know neither atheist or believer, Jew nor Gentile, Christian or Buddhist, Islamic or Confucianist, rationalist or nihilist.
The over-looked thinker in solving the contemporary ecological crisis is the prophetic mysticism of the energized and holistic thought of Howard Thurman. Thurman’s thought needs a resurrection in our world. Thurman wrote: “The significance of the religion of Jesus to people who stand with their backs against the wall has always seemed to me to be crucial.”
According to Luther E. Smith, author of Howard Thurman, The Mystic as Prophet, Dr. Thurman was prophetic because of his mysticism. He was not a social activist who became consumed with speaking truth to power. His close communion with God and nature over flowed into a harmony with God, nature, and the human community. Dr. Thurman is quoted as saying: “Therefore the mystics concern with the imperative social action is not merely to improve the condition of society. It is not merely to relieve human suffering and human misery. If this were all, in and of itself, it would be important surely. But this is not all. The basic consideration has to do with the removal of all that prevents God from coming to himself in the life of the individual whatever there is that blocks this calls for action.”
Critics of Thurman may call him an advocate of personal piety. I answer the critics by saying prophets of God are persons of holiness and sanctification who usher in the Holy Presence of God in their daily lives. Those of us who studied in the classes of Doctor Thurman were clearly aware that Doctor Thurman lived his life with a keen awareness of The Unseen Presence of the Holy. Doctor Thurman did not meet God at the end of a syllogism. Dr Thurman often spoke of his boyhood days of leaning against a sturdy Oak Tree at 614 Whitehall Street in Daytona Beach, Florida. At that old tree’s sturdy trunk, Thurman developed tenacity in the face of formidable challenges and as he communed with God at the Halifax River where he witnessed many baptismal services, God as unseen Presence became a living companion. While speaking at Bethune Cookman University, in Daytona Beach, The Reverend Mrs. Bernestine Smith and I visited the Old Oak Tree, the Halifax River, and the yellow sands of The Atlantic, Godgiven places and God visited places which provided Thurman inner security and strength for calling as the mystical prophet. Listen to Doctor Thurman compare life to a river.
“All of the waters of all the earth come from the sea. Paradox of paradoxes: that out of the river comes that into which the river goes. The goal and source of the river are ever the same.”
Remember that out of the river comes that into which the river goes. Remember what you put into the streams. Down the river bank of the future, new generations will be coming there to drink. Remember that the untutored tongues of slave preachers empowered Black Church pioneers to redeem the religion that the slave masters profaned in which our people live. Those of us who have inherited the rich legacy of our Black church pioneers are challenged to be true to the highest and the best that we know. We cannot afford to over look the quality of health, the quality of the mental, moral, physical and spiritual environment in which our people live. The eroding of moral values and the at risk Black children whose fathers help to over crowd the prisons, and the dire high unemployment rates that augment poverty rates are the issues which will require sophisticated, social science analysis that church leaders will need to wed to strategies of spiritual transformation. Black church leaders are called to lead the Black community into a critical evaluation of Black accountability. There are evil forces within the Black community that Black church leaders need to call out for redemption, reformation and reconciliation. Black church leaders need to confront injustice which promotes class and cast divisions that separate people of the same race. What if Black church leaders and Black hip hop artists could forge healthy working relationships to redeem black youth from hellish street cultures. Black pastors, seminary, educators, and womanist leaders can unite in not only public advocacy for the marginalized, but forge a unity that will water the barren places of souls who thirst for God. The prophets not only reminded people of their inhumanity to each other but they also reminded people of their need for God, Nature and one another. Allen Aubrey Boesak, South African theologian and cultural critic, says it far better than I can. Hear him as he writes in his book, The Tenderness of Conscience, he says:
“In our inner life as in our politics, we need to rediscover
God. And we cannot discover God in whatever images we
can find ourselves reflected in. God is not the mirror of
our deepest desires. Neither can we discover God as a
distant stranger, a neutral observer of human actions and
therefore of human suffering and misery aloof from and
untouched by human pain. God is not the Silent Other who
leave us to our own devices in order to preserve the
‘maturity of mind, to respect the ‘integrity’ of our human
reason – post modernism’s reward for our ‘independence’
from God. We need to discover in the consequences of
our decisions and choices. We must learn, in the words
of Moltmann to discover and ‘revere’ God in the ‘victims
of our violence’, as the victim of human greed for world
domination. It is not in withdrawing into itself that we
find God. It is in reaching out to ‘the wounded other’ that
God reveals himself (God’s self) to us. Therein lies the
tenderness of conscience I am pleading for. It is not
simply ‘an inner voice which leads us to deeds of charity.
It is the presence of love that demands justice, that cannot
rejoice in the lie and that creates havoc with ourselves
until justice is done. It is the piety that is subversive
toward complacency within and tolerance of wrongs
It is my prayer that we who are Church leaders will not develop a hardness of heart and a stubbornness of head as did Pharoah. We who see ourselves as chosen to speak truth to power need to allow God to speak to our own pretentiousness and our own arrogance as being the only ones legitimized by God to speak for God. How audacious we are.
Can we allow The Holy Spirit to use us in creative ways of decolonizing our theology. We are called to cease parroting the theologies of others, the second handed limiting theologies that others would pass on to us. We must take ownership of our minds, our lives, and our institutions, to build an oasis in the desert places where we have been bondage and to live as if this earth is the place where God’s Kingdom will reign.
If God’s Kingdom is not “pie in the sky” but on earth, there must be a Black theology of public policy that will address ecological injustice in the communities where people of color live, work, worship, study and play. With 16.5 percent black unemployment compared to 9.7 percent for white Americans, an educational system that is under serving Black children, higher than average rates of death from diseases like breast cancer, prostate cancer, and lung cancer that can be traced to brown fields and chemical pollution of the physical, environment, the hand me down theology from insulated theological systems must be discarded so that a theology of ecological justice will replace the theological paternalism of traditional seminary education.
Internationally, the highly powerful industrialized nations have sought space in African poverty stricken nations to bury their nuclear waste. In the early 1980’s there were multi-racial prophetic protests against North Carolina officials’ plans to dump more than 600 chlorinated biphenyl (PCB) contaminated top soil into a land fill in Warren County. At that time, Warren County was the poorest county in North Carolina with an annual income hovering around $5,000. Its population was more than 65% Black. Although the protests were unsuccessful, they became a gad fly in educating and empowering citizens to strive for ecological justice.
As far back as 1967, a courageous group of African American students expressed moral outrage because an eight year old girl had drowned in a residentially located garbage dump in Houston. Not the preachers, but the students were ones whom God used to emphasize the careless way government bureaucrats allowed solid waste facilities to be constructed and poorly maintained in poor and racial minority communities. Time will not allow us to investigate how the solid waste industry and local governments have disrespected, demeaned and degraded poor and racial minority communities with toxic waste fields, landfills and incinerators. In far East Oakland, California, about a mile from The Allen Temple Baptist Church, is the Verdese Carter Park that was built on top of toxic waste. How sad it is that Kettleman City, California, a small farming community in Southern California where 95% of the residents are Latino, is also home to the largest toxic waste dump owned by Chemical Waste Management, Inc. west of the Mississippi. It was built without the consent or knowledge of the Latino community. Time will not permit me to detail other places of ecological disaster like Love Canal, New York; Chester, Pennsylvania; Buttonwillow, California; Dilkon, Arizona; Hyde Park, Georgia; Point Hope, Alaska and Convent Louisiana. These places are far from being The Kingdom of God in America.
We who preach, teach, research and write the Christian message, must reappropriate and reinvent our message and ministry to address the ethics of Jesus and the justice of God as it relates to economical equity, ecological health and ethical power. If we fail to do so, our preaching, teaching, research, and writing are empty of meaning.
Because of our ecological sins, the entire creation groans; which includes urban, suburban, rural, wild, domestic habitats. How fragmented we are from God, others and nature. The Kingdom tarries. We labor, pray, and wait for its coming. Let us pray with Saint Francis of Assisi:
All creatures of our God and King. Lift up your voice and
with us sing, Alleluia! Alleluia! Oh praise Him! O praise
Him! Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia
Thou rushing wind that art so strong
Ye clouds that said in Heaven along
O praise Him! Alleluia
Thou rising moon, in praise rejoice
Ye lights of evening, find a voice
Thou flowing water, pure and clear, make music for thy
Lord to hear, O praise Him! Alleluia
Thou fire so masterful and bright that givest man (us)
Both warmth and light.
Dear mother earth, who day by day, unfoldest blessings
On our way, O praise Him! Alleluia! The flowers and
Fruits that in Thee grow
Let them His glory also show
All ye men of tender herd, forgiving others, take your
past, O sing ye, Alleluia! Ye who long pain and sorrow
bear, Praise God and on Him cast your care.
And thou most kind and gentle death waiting to hush
our latest breath, O praise Him! Alleluia.
Thou leadest home the child of God, and Christ our Lord
the way hath trod
Let all things their Creator bless
And worship Him in humbleness
O praise Him, Alleluia!
Praise, praise the Father, praise the Son and praise
the Spirit, three in one
J. Alfred Smith, Sr.
Distinguished Professor of Preaching and Church Ministries
American Baptist Seminary of the West
The Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, CA
Pastor Emeritus, Allen Temple Baptist Church, Oakland, CA.