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Ecojustice and the Church

  • Timothy D. Terrell,
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One of the buzzwords of the modern environmental movement has been ecojustice, a term which has been adopted with enthusiasm by theological liberals. Presumably, their idiosyncratic use of the term justice has worked so well that tacking on the "eco-" prefix was irresistible when environmentalism became part of the social gospel. Using the term justice as a euphemism for the now suspect term equality allowed these churchmen to co-opt the frequent admonitions of Scripture to seek justice (e.g., Psalm 82:3, Ecclesiastes 5:8, Micah 6:8, Colossians 4:1).

Of course, these verses are then used to attack the market economy. A free market may produce wealth, they admit, but it creates injustice as a byproduct. The income goes to those who produced the wealth, who took the risks, who had the innovative ideas, rather than those who have relatively little. Because the market results in inequality, it is unjust, and needs correction by moral government. As a 1996 document by the Presbyterian Church (USA) put it, "[d]istributive justice is essential to our faith. It is the ethical process of apportioning benefits and burdens to ensure that all parties with stakes in an outcome receive their due or proper share."1 The statement goes on to indicate that "moral rights…specify the content of what is due." These rights include "a right to social assistance in a just society," or redistribution of wealth.

Sometimes "participation" in the resource allocation process is extolled, in what is really nothing other than an advocacy of ending private property. A 1990 PCUSA document provides a typical example:

In the context of the eco-justice crisis a distinctive meaning of justice that must be stressed is the requirement that economic arrangements provide for inclusive participation. In this context, participation means being included in the social process of obtaining and enjoying the good things of God's creation. Because the Creator's intention is that nature's gifts for sustenance be available to all members of the human family, all have a right and a responsibility to participate, as able, in these arrangements. If any are excluded, something is unacceptably wrong.
…Justice demands not only that all participate according to their talents and needs; it insists that all participants be able to obtain a sufficient sustenance.2

Man's Justice vs. God's Justice

This erroneous concept of justice amounts to a manmade appendage to God's commands. It calls unequal consumption or unequal wealth sinful, where God has made no such pronouncement. It uses the state to remove large chunks of the value of personal property, without calling it theft. Biblical justice is simply the consistent application of God's law (Ezekiel 18:5-9, John 5:30). If a sin such as murder or theft has been committed, then justice requires a response consistent with Scripture. For certain sins, those called crimes, the state has a divine warrant to become involved. If one person is simply consuming more than another, that does not satisfy the Biblical definition of any crime, and the state has no role to play.

It should not be surprising that mainline churches have so closely linked injustice with the free market. For decades mainline churches have followed the anti-market tendencies of the larger culture. Now, environmentalism has become a favored venue for socialism's entry into churches. In the environmental statements produced by most of the mainline denominations since about 1990, ecojustice is said to require numerous government interventions: industrial planning, fuel economy requirements, farm subsidies, pollution and greenhouse gas regulations, mandatory recycling, and many others. Most of these denominations argue that high consumption and waste-production levels of industrialized nations should be reduced in favor of "frugality." Higher pollution levels in poorer neighborhoods are evidence of exploitation, they say, and should be reduced with additional regulation.

The 1996 PCUSA document goes on to assert absolute rights: "the right to protection… from… pollution," "the right to preservation of biodiversity and ecosystems on which all life depends, and the right to ecologically responsible governments." "Rights," of course, always boil down to claims on other individuals. According to the PCUSA document, then, if I move next door to an electric power plant, I have a claim on the owners of the plant to eliminate pollution that now causes me harm. "We were here first" is apparently an inadequate defense. If the farmer next door, or across the country, is not using environmentally sound practices that protect biodiversity, I have a right that supersedes his right to farm his property as he sees fit. The regulatory state, of course, will be my inroad into his property.

Pollution can be a form of theft — theft of the clean air or water one had customarily enjoyed. Under the Mosaic law, which many Christians agree is applicable today in its "general equity," or principles, the primary means of resolving problems of unjust loss or damage was through the court system, not through regulation. If a nearby factory begins polluting a neighborhood and thus violates the property rights of the residents, the residents should have recourse in the court system. If the courts deny their requests for a cessation of the pollution, or fail to require the offending firm to pay compensation for damages, then we can say that there is injustice.

When the state substantially replaces the courts and their recognition of individual property rights with voluminous regulations, this results in injustice of a different sort. Harm to an actual person ceases to become the requirement for obtaining a civil remedy, and thus those who are not thieves can be punished. Firms that emit more than the law allows are presumed to be stealing, even no one can show that any loss occurred.

Reading the Bible With Green-Tinted Glasses

Many of the ecojustice advocates read into certain Biblical texts a message consistent with their own statist environmentalism. A good example is the American Baptist Church statement on the Old Testament law of Jubilee:

Jesus' ministry provides a model for choosing sides. He is clear about where his loyalty lies. In his earliest reported reading of scripture in public, he chooses, Luke tells us, to read from the prophet Isaiah. He proclaims that his mission is to serve the poor, the captives, and the down-trodden-the victims of social injury. He further states that he will "proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord." This is the Jubilee Year of Leviticus 25, a year of land reform. It is a recognition that all land basically and ultimately belongs to God, and that no person or group has the right to destroy it or to use it unendingly for unjust personal or institutional gain.3

The message of the Jubilee year had nothing to do with the destruction of land, or the use of it for "personal or institutional gain." It was not "land reform" in the modern sense, in which the state seizes land from rightful owners and transfers it to those of its choosing. It was a restriction on the market alienability of the land (so that there would be continuity of familial possession), not a restriction on the use of the land. Furthermore, the Jubilee law is a statute that applied only to the temporal and geographical context of the Old Covenant state of Israel.

It is interesting that those who want to use this land law to support their ideas of justice are unwilling to apply the rest of the law pertaining to the conquest of the Promised Land (such as holy war or slavery), much less the rest of the Mosaic civil law. The hermeneutic is inconsistent. It almost appears that the selection of Biblical texts is done because of their supposed suitability to a particular brand of environmental statism, rather than submitting social views to the Bible as the American Baptists and other churches would claim to do.

Rather than take the difficult course and oppose the culture where it is in error, mainline denominations have chosen to "go with the flow" and be swept along with the current of modern environmentalism. More conservative denominations are in danger of following the same course. Because Christians should pursue environmental stewardship, Biblical justice, and ethical behavior in all of life, we should not work against those social institutions that help us in those endeavors. Yet that is exactly what all too many Christians are doing. While a free market economy is not the ultimate goal of a Christian's life, it is undoubtedly a valuable tool of stewardship and is in no way incompatible with Biblical justice.


1. Hope for a Global Future: Toward Just and Sustainable Human Development, PCUSA General Assembly, 1996, p. 78.

2. Restoring Creation for Ecology and Justice, PCUSA General Assembly, 1990, pp. 25, 26.


  • Timothy D. Terrell

Timothy Terrell is associate professor of economics at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. He is assistant editor of the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics and is an Associated Scholar with the Mises Institute.

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