Love of Neighbor and Eco-Justice
It is good to be called back to the center on occasion, to remember our grounding and our core principles.
When every day brings a jumble of conflicts, issues, threats and crises, it is all too easy to get distracted and fragmented. In such a moment—which seems to be the new normal—it is valuable to take a step back, to set aside the cacophony, and to regain some footing.
For more than a decade, I have rooted my life and my vocation in a five word summary of the teachings of Jesus: “Love God; love your neighbor.” These words serve as a short-hand summary of what Jesus declared to be the two greatest commandments. While love of neighbor is not typically understood through an environmental lens, I see three important ways in which an expansive definition of neighbor is relevant and much needed in the work of eco-justice today:
- We are neighbor to people all around the world. That globalized definition is essential in the presence of a globalized economy and world-wide environmental impacts. Most of the products that are on store shelves are made in some far-off land with cheaper labor and less stringent laws. The carbon pollution that drives the climate crisis and ocean acidification spreads around the planet, impacting us all. Every day, our choices and our actions have direct impacts on people in every country. It is not an abstraction to see a neighbor in a Bangladeshi garment worker, a Mexican worker assembling electronics, an Indonesian whose native forests are being replaced with palm oil plantations, or a resident of Tuvalu whose island nation is disappearing under rising seas.
- We are neighbor to future generations. Our choices today also ripple through time. What happens this year will effect—and probably constrain—the lives of our children, grandchildren, and many generations beyond. The climate change that we are creating is damaging the world of the future. Depleted resources—fossil fuels, topsoil, rare minerals, freshwater aquifers—provide fewer opportunities for those who are to come.
- We are neighbor to all species, to the entire web of life. As humanity’s numbers and impacts have increased in recent years—and as our knowledge of ecological relationships has grown—there’s a new importance in seeing the rest of creation as part of the moral universe of “neighbor.” Trees and grasses and ocean algae provide us with the oxygen that makes life possible, and they soak up carbon in ways that stabilize the planet. They are good neighbors to us. As I have discussed elsewhere, modern fishing practices are devastating and destabilizing the oceans. Experts tell us that we are in the midst of a great extinction event, with a diminishing of species and biological diversity similar to the end of the age of dinosaurs — driven in large part by direct and indirect human impacts. Within the complex web of life, we are related as neighbor to all things.
Stretching the definition of neighbor to include all people, future generations, and all species makes a simple Bible verse into a comprehensive eco-justice principle.
The expansive definition of neighbor has been an important guide for me through a decade of political and cultural twists and turns. Within the last year, though, I’ve been deeply troubled by the very explicit narrowing of moral responsibility that is shaping US politics and policy. An “America First” agenda is an explicit statement that other countries, other peoples, will not be a priority, and may be written off as subjects of our concern. Plans for border walls clearly announce very clear limits to neighborly relationships. An energy policy which places a high “discount rate” on the social cost of carbon denies that our use of fossil fuels will have a meaningful impact on future generations—as does the blunt denial that climate change is even taking place. Efforts to undo protections for endangered species, or to exploit essential habitats (marine monuments, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and more), deny the neighborly relationship that we have with other species.
“Love God; love your neighbor” seems like a friendly little lesson to teach the kids in Sunday school. When we really understand the need to stretch the idea of neighbor, though, those five words shape a challenging and comprehensive eco-justice perspective. And when we take those words seriously, we’re called to active resistance against all policies and practices—and our own personal behaviors—which do not try to embody love within that vast moral universe.
In the turmoil of daily (and hourly) headlines and a flood of always-urgent action alerts, I find it necessary to remember the foundational principles that define my eco-justice theology and ethics. Five simple words keep me grounded. I invite you to claim “Love God; love your neighbor” as a centering message.
Peter Sawtell is the Executive Director of Eco-Justice Ministries in Denver, Colorado. An extended version of this commentary originally appeared in Eco-Justice Notes. It is reprinted here with Sawtell’s permission.