An Anabaptist Perspective on the Environment

by Jo Rathbone

Is there an Anabaptist perspective on the environment? Well, I'm not sure that the sixteenth century Anabaptists had a policy on the environment as the environmental crisis was not evident when the Anabaptist movement began. However, I thought that a useful way in might be to look at the core convictions of the Anabaptist Network and see how these relate specifically to environmental issues.

1. Jesus is our example, teacher, friend, redeemer and Lord. He is the source of our life, the central reference point for our faith and lifestyle, for our understanding of church and our engagement with society. We are committed to following Jesus as well as worshipping him.

2. Jesus is the focal point of God’s revelation. We are committed to a Jesus-centred approach to the Bible, and to the community of faith as the primary context in which we read the Bible and discern and apply its implications for discipleship.

A focus on the life of Jesus has to take note of the situation in which Jesus lived, his proximity to the soil, his frequent reference to the natural environment, and his interaction with it. Richard Bauckham has shown1 how Jesus embodied the Jewish messianic peace with wild animals, and the hope of the restoration of relationship between humanity and the animal kingdom once ruined by the Fall (and he does all that from the few words: Jesus was 'with the wild animals'). Shalom's fulfilment means a vegetarian kingdom, for humans and animals, and, critically, a ' peaceable companionship'. Bauckham points out that this presence of Jesus 'with the wild animals' addressed a context where wild animals threatened the lives and livelihoods of Jesus' contemporaries, but that in our context, this becomes a significant challenge to the attitude which says that human domination means that animals (indeed the rest of the created order) are there entirely for our benefit.

Richard Baukhaum2 also helps us to see that Jesus:

a) demonstrates the bringing of shalom through creation in stilling the storm (the sea depicting the chaotic forces of nature which impacted so immediately upon an agrarian society) and anticipates the new creation through this divine act (this act is no warrant for human domination precisely because it is seen as such a divine act, and prefigures the coming of the Kingdom to all creation).

b) understands that non-human creation simply through being, worships God: Luke 19:40 'If they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.' It exists for God's glory. All creation has intrinsic value given to it by the Creator. This counters the post-Enlightenment thinking that human creation is set above non-human creation. Rather we have our place alongside the rest of creation, as fellow-worshippers of God.

If Jesus is our example and teacher, then we must take note of the ways he interacted with creation as Edward Echlin3 suggests: his daily life was lived close to the natural environment and how this was reflected from his birth to death. Obviously this takes place within his own particular agrarian context, but still there are important principles which can be drawn from his life and applied to our particular context.

a) Jesus' context was one where human experience was embedded in nature, rather than the modern tendency to set humans against nature (and therefore to set salvation against nature).4

b) He was born in (more than usual) close proximity to domestic animals.

c) He was raised in an agrarian society.

d) He stood against a system where power and social standing controlled access to means of sustenance (ownership of land through debt, secular and religious appropriation of agriculture through taxation and tithing).

e) He taught against consumption for its own sake or as indicator of social/economic status (Matt 6:19-24).

3. Western culture is slowly emerging from the Christendom era when church and state jointly presided over a society in which almost all were assumed to be Christian. Whatever its positive contributions on values and institutions, Christendom seriously distorted the gospel, marginalised Jesus, and has left the churches ill-equipped for mission in a post-Christendom culture. As we reflect on this, we are committed to learning from the experience and perspectives of movements such as Anabaptism that rejected standard Christendom assumptions and pursued alternative ways of thinking and behaving.

If a Christendom approach implies that the challenges which Jesus brought to empire were conveniently forgotten, and some of the abuses of empire were legitimated by the church, then this might account for the lack of challenge which the Christendom culture brings to matters environmental. Ecological destruction was part and parcel of empire, as Ched Myers has shown5. In ancient cultures, the mark of success appears to have been evidenced in the amount of cedar, for example, that the elites managed to use to build their palaces (Solomon needed 30,000 conscripted labourers to get the cedar from the King of Tyre: see 1 Kings 5). In the development of Christendom, it was in the interests of the state to have the church legitimise its economic, social and industrial goals. In the European colonisation of the globe, rape of land and people was legitimised, as explorers, empire builders and missionaries went hand in hand, the church providing the legitimation of 'conquest'. As the industrial development gathered pace, the church had already adopted the Enlightenment elevation of humanity over and above creation, and it was so embedded in the understanding of the church that no opposition was offered as the Industrial Revolution revved up, with capitalism providing the rationale, and the money system the means.

The church has been slow to recognise where such faulty theology has got us. The loss of a critical distance from the sources of power as industrialisation and globalisation have marched around the globe has meant that the church has been unable to act in its prophetic role. No philosophical or ethical challenge from the church was heard above the grinding of the engines of 'progress'. There were voices of discontent, but often not from the church, and if they were from the church, then from the margins of the church community.

The critique of prophetic witness is needed desperately now. The ultimate emptiness of modernism, the limits to capitalism and the end of the earth's resources have revealed a gaping hole into which there need to be the songs of the prophets of hope, the claims of shalom, and the reality of the love of God for all God's creation, and that vision of interdependence which others are already realising.

4. The frequent association of the church with status, wealth and force is inappropriate for followers of Jesus and damages our witness. We are committed to exploring ways of being good news to the poor, powerless and persecuted.

The creation of wealth by stealing and enclosing land belonging to indigenous peoples in the process of colonisation on behalf of European powers, and within Europe (particularly in Britain between 1500 and 1750), was undergirded by a Christendom view of power and backed up with Christendom assumptions about the necessity for force. This grasping of land and resources was in direct opposition to the Hebrew understanding of the inalienable right of the poor to access to their inheritance6 and certainly the challenge that Jesus held out to both Jewish and Roman systems of land acquisition through debt was utterly subordinated by Christendom theologians. Yet this attitude to land, and therefore resource acquisition, has given rise to environmental degradation and the assumption that the earth's resources as simply the raw material for the economy.

Vandana Shiva7 has clearly linked the use of wealth and power of the corporations (in this case biotech firms) with the poaching (she has coined the term 'biopiracy') of the natural resources of the poorer countries, and the 'enclosing' of such natural resources through patent laws. This, and other issues linked to the 'green revolution', indisputably links the issues of power and control over resources to environmental devastation through control of food production.

It is impossible to be good news to the world's poor without recognising that the wellbeing of both rich and poor is bound up with how we treat our planet. Our colluding with the activities of the powerful (which are now the corporations) has the direct effect of ruining the lives and livelihoods of the poorest in the world. Our lifestyles are being determined by the necessity of profit, and if we are to reassert a prophetic role from the margins, then this will inevitably linked to the development of alternative lifestyles which recognise the need to extricate ourselves from such collusion with power and its terrible global environmental consequences.

5. Churches are called to be committed communities of discipleship and mission, places of friendship, mutual accountability and multi-voiced worship that sustain hope as we seek God’s kingdom together. We are committed to nurturing and developing such churches, in which young and old are valued, leadership is consultative, roles are related to gifts rather than gender and baptism is for believers.

The Anabaptist understanding of community, and the community as the focal point of working out both theologically and practically what it means to follow Jesus, is especially important with regard to environmental matters. If we are to challenge the powers that be, and declare ourselves committed to another way of being, then we cannot do this on our own. The massive powers of the advertising and media circus bear down on us thousands of times a day, in our towns and cities, through advertising hoardings and broadcast media. To resist the onslaught requires community. We cannot do it alone.8 Together we have to expose the demands of the powers, through reading together what the alternative is, as demonstrated by Jesus in the gospels. We need to stand together and resist the powers! Our acceptance in the churches of the rampant consumerism which surrounds us in the UK has weakened our response to the gospel. To be a disciple of Jesus means actively to challenge the lifestyle assumptions of the economic system which assumes no limits to the earth's resources. Discovering this together, and living it out together, gives strength to our resolve and gives a context in which to work out how we should then live.

6. Spirituality and economics are inter-connected. In an individualist and consumerist culture and in a world where economic injustice is rife, we are committed to finding ways of living simply, sharing generously, caring for creation, and working for justice.

Jesus talked often about money, and the fact that economic power had become the overarching influence on the temple cult led to the action which ultimately caused Jesus' death. In challenging the economic domination, Jesus struck at the heart of the oppressive regime. If we are to be followers now of such a path, we have to take seriously the challenge to do the same. This means developing an economics with justice at its core, and an economics which acknowledges and is determined by the limits of the planet. In cosying up to power in the 4th century, the church neglected one of the main messages that Jesus proclaimed, and in legitimising the use of violence, laid the foundations for the theological justification of the military/industrial complex which has given rise to the necessity for a compliant consumerism. As Timothy Gorringe points out, ‘"If we ask what the cause of the ecological problems we have outlined is, then the answer is absolutely clear. It stems from the interrelationship of the market's need for growth and the consumer's need for more.’ 9

Our creation of alternatives needs to include economic alternatives which enable people to make connections between our needs and how those needs might be met, in terms of raw materials, the processes of production, and the impact on the planet and the poor. Creative possibilities await the church which takes environmental care seriously enough to step aside from free market economics and discover alternatives which respect people and planet. Already through the World Social Forum many alternatives to the free market are being developed – Christians can work alongside others who have been challenging the dominance of market forces. There is solidarity at the margins, and being rid of the wealth and privilege of a voice at the centre means following Jesus to find the shalom which exists already amongst those resisting a life-denying economics.

7. Peace is at the heart of the gospel. As followers of Jesus in a divided and violent world, we are committed to finding non-violent alternatives and to learning how to make peace between individuals, within and among churches, in society, and between nations.

Protecting and conserving the environment means confronting the powers. The powers of the military industrial complex use violence as their means of communication. Chico Mendes and Dorothy Stang lost their lives in the struggle to protect the rainforest from logging, as have many people if they happen to stand in the way of 'development'. So working actively for the preservation of the environment will induce a reaction from the powers that depend upon continuing growth in the economy. Only a commitment to peaceful means of confrontation will end the cycle of violence. Environmentalists know that such a commitment makes them particularly vulnerable, as they expose the naked greed of the corporate agenda.

What must also be considered is the environmental impact of the use of violence, which can be seen in war zones around the world. As Chris Naylor describes, ’When the A Rocha Lebanon project first began, the shadow of war had only recently left, but the consequences were self evident. For example, 700,000 trees had been cut down in the area, hillside forests were opened up to the ravages of goats after the armies had opened roads into the mountains to connect their forces, and areas of land were strewn with landmines, making them dangerous to enter.’10 Unexploded weapons, depleted uranium from shells, polluted rivers, contaminated soil and damaged landscapes all cause untold damage to the ecosystem. These environmental disasters affect the people and their environment for generations after the conflict and incur huge costs in the repairing. Of course, most sides in any violent conflict do not accept the responsibility for the 'clean up', unless there is money to be made, and markets to be grasped.11

The shalom vision which Jesus embodies includes a reconciliation between people and planet. For Christians to be effective in caring for creation, and working such care out in the social, cultural and economic context, requires a recognition first that proximity to the powers negates the ability to critique them, and this has been the Christendom position. Second, effectiveness requires the creativity which comes from rejecting the major tenets of the theories underpinning the consequential destruction of the global commons: a new economics is urgently needed deriving from the needs of the poor and the planet, and new perspectives on what constitutes human 'success' and 'happiness' independent of economic measures need to be explored. What better place to discover such creativity than from the margins alongside the poor, and the marginalised, and those campaigning for environmental justice?

1 See RichardBaukhaum, 'Jesus and the wild animals (Mark 1:13): a Christological image foran ecological age' in J B Green and M Turner (eds.) Jesus of Nazareth: Lord and Christ. Essays on the Historical Jesus and New Testament Christology, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994, 3-21.

2 RichardBaukhaum, A Christian Approach to the Environment, Chapter 7, 2005 JRI(publication of a series of articles originally published in TransformationVol 16, No 3 July/Sept 1999).

3 Edward PEchlin, The Cosmic Circle: Jesus & Ecology (Dublin: Columba Press,2004)

4 See RichardBaukhaum op cit.

5 Ched Myers,talk at Greenbelt, 2004.

6 See WalterBrueggemann, The Land – Place and Gift, Promise, and Challenge in BiblicalFaith 2nd Ed (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press: 2002)Chapter 11.

7 Vandana Shiva, StolenHarvest – the hijacking of the global food supply (Cambridge: South EndPress, 2000).

8 See theinterview with the largest US advertising firm in 'The Corporation' dvd(, which spends out $13bn trying to persuade US citizensto purchase particular goods. How can we hope to resist such massive invasioninto our consciousness on our own?

9 TimothyGorringe, Capital and the Kingdom – Theological Ethics and Economic Order(Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1994).

10 Chris Nayor,‘Redeeming creation in the shadow of war’ in Sarah Tillett (Ed.), Caring forCreation – Biblical and Theological Perspectives (Oxford: Bible ReadingFellowship, 2005).

11 From 'Corporate Carve Up', a report on the benefits to UK/US companies as a result of the Iraq War.