MLK Holiday: A Deeper Shade of Green
David R. Weiss – January 20, 2019
The Gospel in Transition #8 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com
“… as purple is to lavender.” So Alice Walker described womanism in relationship to feminism: more vivid, more nuanced, more demanding, more inclusive, and more liberating. When Christopher Carter coined the phrase “a deeper shade of green” for seminar he led last July at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio (MTSO) he wanted to evoke Alice Walker’s metaphorical palette. What happens when (“green”) eco-theology and ethics intersect with Black theology and womanist theology? You get a decidedly “deeper shade of green.” An earth ethic that’s more vivid, more nuanced, more demanding, more inclusive, and more liberating.
One guiding principle of Transition is “Inclusion and Openness,” reaching across “the broad diversity of society” and transcending “them and us” thinking. Yes, but until we acknowledge the extent to which us-them thinking is not merely a distraction from our ecological work, but represents the primal cause of our current crisis, the central threat globally to communities of color, and the absolute core of the inner transition that must occur—until then, we have not yet known that deeper shade of green. And we must. Here’s a bit of what I wrestled with in that seminar—and what continue to wrestle with me. (This deserves much more than a 1000-word essay. I’ll be offering more reflections from it in the future!)
Twenty years ago James Cone (1936-2018), the father of black liberation theology, asserted that environmental activists who are not also engaged “in a disciplined and sustained fight against white supremacy are racists.” Period. (He also calls anti-racist activists who fail to champion the earth “anti-ecological,” but it hardly has the same sting as “ racist.”) But for Cone the jarring label is merited because he sees the same logic driving both white supremacy/racism and earth exploitation. Not parallel logics operating side-by-side. Cone sees the exact same “mechanistic and instrumental” logic responsible for reducing creatures, eco-systems, and whole categories of people to resources—then rendered morally available to be used, abused, sold, sacrificed, or worse at the whim of whiteness.
Several sociologists/race theorists we read affirmed Cone’s claim, showing how race and racism havebeen the (im)moral infrastructure of the modern world. As categories without any scientific basis created by human societies, race functions as a way of “making up people,” but inevitably serves—except in the case of whiteness—to make them up … in order to put them down. Bluntly put: race has no practical existence apart from racism. As the animating force of “white colonial logic” it drew lines between humanity and animality in order to justify the dehumanizing exploitation of colonized peoples across the globe.
But here’s where these readings in theory hit me hardest and left me feeling—with an anguished sense that my entire life to this moment has been complicit in a lie—as though modernity itself has always and only ever(!) rested upon wreaking havoc on other-ed lives and lands. Omi and Winant argue (113), “Modern capitalism could not have come into being without this grand infusion of stolen wealth [i.e., the “discovery” of the “New World].” They go on to say that this plundering (seizure of territories … slavery … native labor … genocide) “all presupposed a worldview which distinguished Europeans … from ‘others.’”
But did these economic-activities-moral-atrocities presuppose that worldview—or did they INVENT it? I suspect race/racism, as it unfolded with European expansion, is an instance of knowledge misshapen by greed. If modern capitalism was “birthed” by stolen wealth, capitalism required racism as its midwife. While the discovery of such “different” peoples (i.e., in terms of outward appearance, culture, etc.) required an accounting—both scientifically and religiously—the shape of that accounting was given by the need to justify how horrifically we treated them. (Did the Hebrews “hear” God tell them to exterminate the Canaanites beforeor afterthey did so? I suspect their hands were dripping with blood before they “heard” anything.)
There is a fundamental mutual entanglement between racism and the exploitation of nature. This un-thou-ing of the wondrous world (reducing it in all direction from its God-given “thou-ness” to mere “it-ness,” to use Martin Buber’s terms) is so much part of the all-encompassing worldview we’re born into that (like the earth’s spin, for instance) we’re entirely oblivious to it … as it perniciously shapes our perspectives, the bounds of our moral community, the choices we make, and even the limits of our imagination. Modern capitalism demands this relentless un-thou-ing for its ongoing expansion. Especially in its unbridled neoliberal globalized expression, capitalism will consume everything it can until entire economies, societies, species, or the livable ecosystem itself collapses. And capitalism runs on racism and ecocide.
Humanity has always been a precarious project. Vulnerable to outside threats and just as often undone by its own worst impulses, no era of human civilization has been without instances of barbarism. But under modernity something has qualitatively shifted. Economies, science-technology, globalized finance, and the way markets have colonized the human mind—these forces (I’d name them “principalities and powers” per Eph. 6:12; see Essay #6: “Home by Another Route”) now hold inertia over the very destiny of our species. To think we can “invent” or “legislate” our way to survival is foolhardy. Not that science, innovation, and public policy have no role to play—they do. But the elemental forces that conspire against us … lie within us and between us. In how we understand ourselves, others, and our place as humans in the larger world.
This is the work of Inner Transition, and it, too, needs to embrace a deeper shade of green. The fracture between racial justice and environmental concern runs right through communities poisoned by runaway capitalism’s toxic wake (most often those of color) and nations/communities most imperiled by and least responsible for global warming (again, most often those of color). To presume we can address systemic racism without taking up environmental violence is to pretend that we’ve simply (and unforgivably!) mis-measured the humanity of our kin without reckoning as well the extent to which we have weaponized the environment against their flourishing. Similarly, to imagine we can teach care for creation by taking the edge of capitalism’s appetite misses not only the reach of that appetite into our souls, but the way it has always been entangled with an impulse toward othering our fellow humans.
As King wrote from the Birmingham jail, “All life is inter-related. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” The route toward Inner Transition for the sake of Earth and humanity cannot sidestep race or relegate it to a second-order concern.These are not separate or even complimentary struggles—they are wholly interwoven. The only sustainable future in front of us will necessarily be a Beloved Community—one reflecting the liberatory wisdom of a decidedly deeper shade of green.
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The Gospel in Transition by David R. Weiss is a year of reflections on facing climate change, finding hope, and the alchemy of Christian community. My weekly blog posts will consider climate change, Transition, and faith—using biblical images, liturgical seasons, science, and theology, as conversation partners. Writing in a voice a bit too restless to call “devotional”; my aim is to be insightfully evocative and usefully provocative. I’d be delighted to have you join me on this journey. In fact, I hope you’ll subscribe (go to the top right sidebar!) Thanks for reading and see you next week!
Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Racial Formation in the United States(New York: Routledge, 2015, 3rded., orig. 1986), pp. 105-136; Joe R. Feagin, The White Racial Frame: Centuries of Racioal Framing and Counter-Framing(New York: Routledge, 2010, 2nded., orig. 2009), pp. 1-22.