March 19 was an important date in our family. Our daughter-in-law, Ayumi Hasegawa Deming, became an American citizen. Over the phone, she told us that she not only swore to uphold the laws and Constitution of the United States, she even promised to bear arms if necessary! When we asked her how she felt about becoming a citizen, Ayumi answered that she felt like she needed to pay more attention to what was happening in our American political system. She said she felt more "responsible."
In my work in environmental justice, I constantly ask people to exercise responsibility. I tell them that I will not use guilt as a motivator because it usually results in anger and resentment. As a person of faith raised in traditional Southern religion, I have experienced my share of guilt-provoking sermons from the pulpit, and I know that guilt is a cheap and ineffective motivator - and I refuse to use it. But I also know that each of us is called from the very beginnings of our faith traditions to exercise responsibility. In my faith tradition, the story of the Garden of Eden in Genesis tells us that once we have bitten into the apple of knowledge, we now know what God knows, implying that God also knows what we know, too. So that there is no hiding from our Creator. Once we become aware of an injustice, we are responsible for our response to God that includes both our actions and our inactions. We are on the hook!
In our non-faith traditions, we are also called to responsibility as members of a nation, a community, even a family. We are compelled by our birth or by our oath to take actions that support the freedoms we enjoy and the freedoms we seek. In a truly functioning and healthy nation-state, community, or family, apathy and withdrawal are not healthy options. We are on the hook for both our actions and our inactions. We are responsible.
So when it comes to environmental justice, what are we responsible for?
- Examining our own lives as consumers of energy, goods, and services. What do we need, and is there a better way to meet our needs that is more sustainable?
- Holding those who represent us at every level of government accountable. They speak and act as if they were us, and they represent our values.
- Acting as a person of faith or as a citizen to right an injustice that affects anyone else, not just those in our age group, social circles, or congregations. We are the keepers of our communities.
Faithful people work to create a just and sustainable future for all of God’s creation, and patriots work to ensure continued opportunity for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all their fellow citizens. We are responsible for what we do, and we are responsible for what we do not do. You are on the hook, too.
The Rev. Jim Deming is the United Church of Christ's Minsiter for Environmental Justice with Justice and Witness Ministries.