A New First: United Church of Christ Declares That Nature Has Rights
On July 18, 2021, the United Church of Christ (UCC) has become the first mainline Protestant Denomination to publicly affirm and proclaim that nature has rights. Through the deliberative body of the UCC’s General Synod which gathered virtually for the first time in the denomination’s 64-year history, delegates voted 518 to 18 in passing a resolution on the rights of nature.
Over the past fifteen years, the movement for the rights of nature has had a number of successes ranging from locally enacted laws in the United States to the inclusion of the rights of nature in Ecuador’s constitution. Both abroad and in the United States, Indigenous leadership has often been central to the advancements of the movement. Upon the passing of the resolution, the Rev. Dr. Robert Shore-Goss, who authored the resolution, declared, “Today, we join with the international justice movement for the rights of nature and many Indigenous leaders throughout the world in understanding that human rights and nature rights are intertwined.”
For many, including the proponents behind the UCC’s resolution, advancing the rights of nature is part of undoing the legacy of colonialism which imposed a legal framework that enabled the rampant exploitation and destruction of nature as property.
“In declaring the rights of nature, we are taking an important step in undoing a centuries old theology of empire and colonialism. This puts into the dustbin of history worldviews that regard the natural world around us as something to be exploited and consumed by humans with callous disregard,” said the Rev. Dr. Brooks Berndt, who serves the United Church of Christ as its Minister of Environmental Justice.
In declaring the rights of nature, the United Church of Christ finds itself in the company of environmental advocates ranging from Winona LaDuke to Pope Francis who declared in his 2015 address to the United Nations, “It must be stated that a true ‘right of the environment’ does exist.”
Before the resolutions passed, First Congregational Church of Redlands in California became a strong advocate for it. In a letter to delegates attending the General Synod gathering, it wrote, “What this resolution of the Rights of Nature does, among many things, is put us directly in touch with our moral responsibility and profound gratitude to the Earth and all living beings, and our deep commitment to healing our society and our world in all life-affirming ways. Learning to experience our interconnectedness with ‘all relations’ is crucial.”