Environmental, Ethnic and Economic Justice, A 21st Century Prophetic Intersection - Podcast with Scott Bessenecker
Today we will be sharing a shorter talk from Scott Bessenecker, Director of Mission for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, looking at the intersection of environmental justice with economic and ethnic justice.
Scott originally joined InterVarsity staff a year after graduating college in 1985, and his love grew for the poor and for mobilizing university students. Following that passion, he is now Director of Mission for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and each year he helps to mobilize thousands of students to domestic and international mission. He is the author of a number of books, including The New Friars: The Emerging Movement Serving the World's Poor and Overturning Tables: Freeing Missions from the Christian Industrial Complex.
We think Scott brings a really helpful perspective as he makes it clear that environmental crises are often just one aspect of a complex and broken set of systems. But he also draws from a beautiful biblical picture of what it looks like for God's kingdom to be expressed, which gives us true hope for God's redemptive purposes that we get to participate in.
Paul Dzubinski and Steven Spicer host this edition of the Creation Care Missions Podcast. Below is the full text of talk that Scott Bessenecker gave at the Creation Care at the Frontiers of Mission conference.
The Intersection of Poverty, Ethnic Conflict, and Climate Disaster
I appreciate the ways in which we are exploring together the intersection of the social, and the political, and the environmental, and the spiritual. We cannot unravel them. They exist together. And so I would like to challenge us to think in terms of ethnic conflict, income disparity, and the environment—the intersection of those things. Because Revelation describes this place where the wealth of the nations is brought into the New Jerusalem. It is heaven that comes down to earth, not earth that goes up to heaven. People of every tribe, tongue, nation are together in harmony. There's this amazing river, and there is a tree that is producing this new kind of fruit every month, a different kind of fruit. So we see the existence in Revelation of a multi-ethnic community where wealth is brought in and shared, an incredible environmental flourishing. When we find racism, and classism, and environmental disaster, we find those things typically in places where the Kingdom is not.
And the National Academy of Sciences found a link between ethnic conflict and climate disasters, this disproportionate number of places where these things exist [together]. So most ethnic conflict—two-thirds of ethnic conflict—[is] happening in places where there is civil war. And we see the relationship between ethnic conflict and climate disaster. Think about the Rohingya people being forced out of Myanmar, exacerbating the climate situation in Bangladesh. Hundreds of thousands of refugees from ethnic genocide descending on places already precarious, and exacerbating the climate situation in Bangladesh as they strip the land looking for fuel. And we already know about the relationship between climate disaster and poverty. In Katrina, the people that were affected most by the climate disaster of Hurricane Katrina were the poor. And so the intersection of poverty, and ethnic conflict, and climate disaster, are all wrapped up together.
A Case Study: Mwanza, Tanzania
Proverbs 13:23 says, "The field of the poor may yield much food, but it is swept away through injustice." And nowhere do we see this sort of terrible trifecta of ethnic conflict, and poverty, and climate disaster as we do in a documentary called, "Darwin's Nightmare." In this documentary, happening on the edge of Lake Victoria Mwanza, Tanzania, we see an interesting situation. Nile Perch was introduced to this part of Lake Victoria somewhere in the '50s. Nobody knows exactly how. But this is a carnivorous perch. And this foreign fish basically decimated the marine population in this part of Lake Victoria, completely impoverishing this village in Mwanza. So a foreign Nile Perch destroys this part of the lake. There is an environmental disaster.
What's interesting is that the Nile Perch is a delicacy in Europe and so it is exported to Europe at great profit. And the people in Mwanza are left to eat the entrails; they cannot afford the flesh of this Nile Perch. Their native population of fish has been destroyed and so they live off the entrails of the Nile Perch. All the trade rules bend towards the factories, bend toward getting this Nile Perch to market in Europe. The political power, the spending power, cannot be competed against in the church. And in the documentary, we see Ukrainian pilots coming in to get the fish and bring them out to Europe. We discover in the documentary that the Ukrainian pilots are being serviced by the prostitutes who lived there because that was the only employment for the women.
This is a bunch of street kids. Follow the street kids. There is no narration. There's no editorial. Just watch the unfolding of life. Kids for whom a food fight ought to be flinging peas across the cafeteria, are literally beating the crap out of for a fistful of rice. That is the desperation that has been created in this part of the world. So the pilots are bringing arms in to fuel the ethnic wars in Africa, taking Nile Perch out and being serviced by the prostitutes in that area. You've got these interesting layers there. And the one Christian voice is a pastor preaching against prostitution. That's the one voice of faith in this incredibly complex situation. And the director, Hubert Sauper, of this documentary, says he could have told the very same story in Sierra Leone, with regard to diamonds, or in Honduras with bananas, or in Nigeria with oil. This dangerous trifecta of environmental disaster, economic disaster in the midst of ethnic conflict.
The Church is Called to the Intersection
As a church we need to understand these things exist together. We have got to address all of them together, not just give ourselves to one solution. The church needs to recognize the intersectionality of these elements. Of course we're based on a great set of laws in the Old Testament where there was economic policy that talked about how to care for the poor, that talked about how to forgive debts. Economic policy in the Old Testament prevented the concentration of wealth into a few hands and made sure it was dispersed. There are ethnic laws in the Old Testament talking about the foreigner, how to treat the foreigner. There's environmental policy of the sabbatical year. These things existed in the Old Testament.
And of course there's the original great commission from Genesis 1:28. Fill the earth. That word in Hebrew, "male’", is "satisfy". It is used as "satisfy" in other places. Fulfill the earth. It's like there's something on our character, on our personhood that exhibits the character of God. I want you to fill the entire earth because there's something about you that bears my image. It is going to satisfy an earth that is hungry for you. Subdue—that is an interesting word. "Kabash." I believe God is inviting the first humans to put into alignment those things that are out of alignment. There's an invitation to confront evil, to confront misalignment. And then of course, “radah”—have dominion, rule over. That's a word of governing. The original great commission was about satisfying the earth. About putting in order those things that were out of order. And about having dominion or governance over the planet.
There's an organization in Mexico that is called Urban Mosaic. Jean-Luc Krieg who runs Urban Mosaic is more like a general contractor than a missionary because he believes in the intersection of these things. And the poor and non-poor are working together to catalyze youth movements and youth organizations, and family counseling, and church planting, and environmental restoration. All of these things working at once, as Ruth described her community. Those are the ways that I think we as a Christian community need to be bringing to bear these things that affect all of them. You could solve the problem in Lake Victoria, Mwanza, Tanzania, but unless you address the income disparity, you're not going to create holistic health. You could address ethnic conflict, but unless you address the dying lake, you aren't going to fix the other things. We've got to take them all together.
Conclusion: Seek Kingdom Justice
I like Matthew 6:33 in the NRSV. It can be read this way: "Strive first for the kingdom and its righteousness." Its righteousness. The older manuscripts have it written that way. "Strive first for kingdom justice" is how Matthew 6:33 could be read. More than food, more than clothing, Jesus is saying, we need to strive first for the justice of the kingdom. So where are the scientists, and the social workers, and the business people, and the engineers, and the church planters, who collaborate together in order to create a better flourishing, in order to accomplish the first Great Commission.
Let me pray for us. Lord, thanks for inviting us into this great work of flourishing that you have commanded from the beginning. Help us to reclaim that mantle that you gave to us in the first hours of our existence, that we might be able to bring about a fulfillment of the earth. A confrontation with that which is out of alignment and a healthy governing over the people and systems. In Jesus Name, Amen.