Thurman, the Disinherited, and Environmental Justice
Sermon delivered @ St. Paul AME Church on 3/19/16 by Demarius J. Walker. Demarius joins GIPL as a Road Fellow for the next year through the Episcopal Service Corps.
It is an honor to be with you today and I am so glad that your Pastor Eason was willing to share his pulpit with me on this night. I join you to talk about Environmental Justice. Specifically Environmental Justice in the context of the life and work of Howard Thurman and his work Jesus and the Disinherited.
Many of you probably know of Howard Thurman but for those who need a refresher. Howard Thurman was many things, he was a preacher, a scholar, a philosopher, a teacher, a writer, a mystic. He was probably best known for his most famous text Jesus and the Disinherited, which Martin Luther King was said to have carried around with him, this text contains many of the theological underpinnings of the civil rights movement.
I first came into contact with Howard Thurman’s thought and spirit, when I attended Boston University, where he served as the first African- American dean of a white university chapel. After my father died I found myself lost and confused and so at some point I stumbled into Marsh Chapel where I found his works and his recorded sermons. I don’t think it is hyperbolic to say that Howard Thurman saved my life. His voice, his words, his ideas were living water in the desert that my soul had become. I come here tonight in hopes that in the same way that he provided me with a renewed reverence for life Thurman might be able to ignite a reverence for all of life. And I hopes that this reverence may raise our conscious concern for creation.
During my years in college I counted myself an activist. I was and am concerned with so many issues of Justice. I was concerned with political corruption, structural racism, economic inequality, but never the environment. For me the environment was only an issue for well-off white people who didn’t have anything real to be concerned about. But for the last year I have been working with GIPL and I have to admit that my consciousness has shifted. This shift is not the result of some deep course of study. It is a result of the simple understanding that this environment we live in affects all our life. It is the result of contemplating the simple elegance of the connection with our environment. The understanding that I inhale the oxygen given off from the tree and then I exhale carbon dioxide that nourishes the tree. It is the result of a basic acknowledgement that God created the heavens and the earth long before we were created. I think that should tell us something. Biblically it is captured well in Job 12 verses 7-10 when God says:
But ask the animals, and they will teach you,
or the birds in the sky, and they will tell you;
or speak to the earth, and it will teach you,
or let the fish in the sea inform you
Which of all these does not know
that the hand of the Lord has done this?
In his hand is the life of every creature
and the breath of all mankind.
After working with GIPL I am convinced that we have a biblical and moral mandate to care for everything in God’s hand. After studying and understanding environmental issues I am convinced that we are not adhering to our responsibility.
I think Thurman puts it best when he writes :
Man is a child of nature; he is rooted and grounded in the earth. He belongs to it, and it belongs to him…Man cannot long separate himself from nature without withering as a cut rose in a vase. One of the deceptive aspects of mind in man is to give him the illusion of being distinct from and over against but not a part of nature. It is but a single leap thus to regard nature as being so completely other than himself the he may exploit it, plunder it, and rape it with impunity.
Thurman goes on to explain some of the results of our misunderstanding
This we see all around us in the modern world. Our atmosphere is polluted, or streams are poisoned, our hills are denuded, wildlife is increasingly exterminated, while more and more man becomes alien on the earth and fouler of his own nest.
But Thurman does not stop here, he argues that there is a deeper and more subtle impact to environmental degradation.
The price that is being exacted for this is a deep sense of isolation, of being rootless and a vagabond. Often I have surmised that this condition is more responsible for what seems to be the phenomenal increase in mental and emotional disturbances in modern life that the pressures- economic, social, and political- that abounds on every hand.The collective psyche shrieks with the agony that it feels as part of the death cry of a pillaged nature
What this forefather of the civil rights movement communicated in the late 60s is something that it is hard for us to grasp even in 2016- that this stuff matters- how we treat our environment matters; that we are deeply and intimately connected with this Earth.
My official title at GIPL is Environmental Justice coordinator. It has taken me quite a while to figure out what that means. The environmental justice movement was started in the late 80s as a recognition that those who suffer the most from environmental degradation tend to be the poorer and darker peoples of the earth and these negative impacts rise to the level of a justice issue.
When we talk about environmental injustice we are talking about how our mistreatment of the environment negatively affects “the least among us” or as Jesus would have called them, Our Neighbors.
When we talk about environmental justice we are talking about the people of the global south in developing nations who, as we speak, have to leave their homes because the sea level is rising – swallowing their islands and their coastlines or those whose homes will no longer yield the vegetation they need to survive, or those who are suffering from disease outbreaks all because of global climate change.
When we talk about environmental justice we are talking about both indigenous people of South America and our Appalachian brothers to the north who are losing their homes because the forest they inhabit are being mowed down without apology and the mountains underneath their feet are being blown up in an endless pursuit of energy.
When we talk about environmental justice we are talking about people who look like you and me who cannot breathe due to a polluted sky or who can’t drink and bathe because there water is poisoned.
I guess today, I am simply aiming to raise our consciousness just a bit higher to say that we must expand our notion of Justice and when we do that as Christians we are under the conviction of God to respond.
So towards a conclusion I want to leave you with a question, perhaps even a challenge. This question comes by way of Howard Thurman and his most famous text Jesus and the Disinherited. Thurman is provoked to ask this question as he is responding to students on a trip to India to visit Gandhi. The students ask Thurman how he could be a Christian when it was Christian that were and have historically oppressed his people. Thurman spends much of the rest of his career trying to answer this questions. He writes:
The masses of men live with their lives constantly against the wall. They are the poor, the disinherited, the disposed. What does our religion say to them?…What does our religion offer to meet their own needs?
What does our religion offer to the poor, the disinherited, the disposed. Those who suffer from environmental injustices? I believe the answer to this question has profound implications for not only God’s creations but for all of creation itself.
To close out I ask you to join me in one of Thurman’s prayers entitled.
Our Father, fresh from the world, with the smell of life upon us, we make an act of prayer in the silence of this place. Our minds are troubled because the anxieties of our hearts are deep and searching. We are stifled by the odor of death which envelopes our earth, where in so many places brother fights against brother. The panic of fear, the torture of insecurity, the ache of hunger, all have fed and rekindled ancient hatreds and long-forgotten memories of old struggles, when the world was young and Thy children were but dimly aware of Thy Presence in the midst. For all this, we seek forgiveness. There is no one of us without guilt and, before Thee, we confess our sins: we are proud and arrogant; we are selfish and greedy; we have harbored in our hearts and minds much that makes for bitterness, hatred and revenge.
While we wait in Thy Presence, search our spirits and grant to our minds the guidance and the wisdom that will teach us the way to take, without which there can be no peace and no confidence anywhere. Teach us how to put at the disposal of Thy Purposes of Peace the fruits of our industry, the products of our minds, the vast wealth of our land and the resources of our spirit. Grant unto us the courage to follow the illumination of this hour to the end that we shall not lead death to any man’s door; but rather may we strengthen the hands of all in high places, and in common tasks seek to build a friendly world, of friendly men & women, beneath a friendly sky. This is the simple desire of our hearts which we share with Thee in thanksgiving and confidence.
Amen and Ashe