THE GREEN FACE OF GOD:
CHRISTIANITY IN AN AGE OF ECOCIDE
by Mark I. Wallace

God the Spirit enfleshed in creation, experiences the agony of an earth under siege. The Spirit as the green face of God has become in our time the wounded God.

MARK I. WALLACE is Associate Professor and Chair of Religion, Swarthmore College. He is the author of Fragments of the Spirit: Nature, Violence, and the Renewal of Creation and The Second Naivet: Barth, Ricoeur, and the New Yale Theology. He is also a member of the Constructive Theology Workgroup, active in the environmental justice movement in the Philadelphia area, and recently received an ACLS Contemplative Practice Fellowship to redesign his course offerings along eco-friendly lines.

At bedtime I sometimes read to my five-year-old daughter the Dr. Seuss classic, The Lorax. The story takes place in a bucolic setting of heavily fruited Truffula Trees, Swomee-Swans, and Brown Bear Bar-ba-loots; it is a place where "from the rippulous pond[s] / comes the comforting sounds / of the Humming-fish humming / while splashing around." This arcadian scene is invaded by the enterprising Once-ler who discovers that the soft tuft of the Truffula Trees can be harvested to make clothes -- or Thneeds. The Once-ler proceeds to chop down all of the Truffula Trees for Thneeds. But because the Truffula Trees provide food and shelter for the animals that live in this place the death of the trees marks the end of all of the Swomee-Swans, Brown Bar-ba-loots, and Humming-fish that depended on these trees for their survival. At this point the destruction of the once beautiful countryside is interrupted by the Lorax, a small walrus-like creature with a big yellow mustache, who prophesies correctly that the Once-ler's rapacious abuse of his immediate surroundings will result in total destruction of the environment. True to the Lorax's prophecy, this sylvan landscape becomes saturated in toxins: the air is filled with "smogulous smoke" and local waters degenerate into "Schloppity Schlopp. . . that is glumping the pond where the Humming-Fish hummed! / No more can they hum, for their gills are all gummed." The Once-ler bemoans, "No more trees. No more thneeds. No more work to be done. / So, in no time, my uncles and aunts, every one, / all waved me goodbye. They jumped into my cars / and drove away under the smoke-smuggered stars. / Now all that was left 'neath the bad-smelling sky / was my big empty factory / the Lorax / and I." In the wake of this ecocide, the Lorax himself departs from this now ugly world and leaves in his absence a pile of rocks with the word "unless" inscribed in the rubble. In the final pages of the story a young child happens onto this rock pile and is greeted by the Once-ler, who is depressed and alone and living in the boarded-up remains of his once proud capitalist empire. The Once-ler says to the child, "But now, now that you're here, / the word of the Lorax seems perfectly clear, / UNLESS someone like you / cares a whole awful lot, / nothing is going to get better. / It's not."

This story is charged with the simple but profound message that all forms of life need and depend upon one another for their health and survival and that the gradual destruction of one lifeform (in this case, the bountiful Truffula Trees) eventually results, in a ripple-like effect, in the degradation of the whole ecosystem that originally supported the lifeform now under siege. The Lorax is a whimsical but telling children's story about the biological interdependence that binds all members of the life-web to one another. Sadly, it is a story that ends on the plaintive note that unless someone decides to care for the integrity of the life-web, the destruction of the places that we dearly love is a forgone conclusion -- whether these places are the Truffula lands of Seuss's fertile imagination or the places we call home where we live and work and raise our families.

Why is the biosphere which we daily rely upon for sustenance and refreshment in such deep trouble? And how might a reinterpretation of the Christian tradition help to resolve this crisis? Let me first sound the depths of the origins of this crisis in the spiritual torpor of our age and then move to an ecological retrieval of the Holy Spirit as the linchpin for forging a green theology responsive to the environmental crisis in our time.

The Earth Crisis is a Spiritual Crisis

We face an environmental crisis today of staggering proportions.(1) We now know this. But we seem confused as to how to address the crisis in a manner that will engender long-term sustainable growth and development for human communities without sacrificing the vital needs of nonhuman communities to survive and flourish. All of us -- liberal and conservative, religious and nonreligious, third world and first world, rich and poor -- claim to want a balance between satisfying essential human needs and preserving the biodiversity that makes our planet a rich and invigorating place in which to live. Yet we apparently lack the heartfelt commitment to sustainability required for insuring the integrity of humankind and otherkind in unity with one another.

But why is this? Is the cause of our collective inability to address adequately the earth crisis a cognitive failure to understand what it will take to build sustainable communities? Is the problem, in other words, essentially technological, so that if we only had, for example, better pollution controls to protect against the greenhouse effect we might stem the deleterious impact of global warming on public health, for humankind and otherkind? Or is the real reason behind our failure to practice earth-healing a matter of the heart? That is, do we not know how to solve the problem or do we not care enough about interspecies integrity to feel motivated to address the predicament at hand? I believe that the fundamental cause of our collective inability to confront the global environmental crisis is our deep-seated unwillingness to change our habits and embrace greener lifestyles. The problem is a matter of the heart, not the head. The problem is not that we do not know how to avoid our current plight but rather that we no longer experience our co-belonging with nature in such a way that we are willing to alter our lifestyles in order to build a more sustainable future. Of course, both on the level of technological innovation and public policy, there is much we can do to stem the tide of environmental degradation. But unless at the core of our deepest selves we are fundamentally committed to sustainable living no amount of eco-efficiency in business and industry will make for long-lasting change.

Moreover, insofar as the environmental crisis is a matter of the heart the crisis at its core is a spiritual crisis. The environmental crisis is a spiritual crisis because the continued degradation of the earth threatens the fundamental goods and values that bind human beings to one another and all other forms of life. At a very deep level we no longer feel our common kinship with other beings as the basis for earth-friendly action and commitment. We have lost that primordial sense of belonging to a whole web of life that our kind and otherkind need for daily sustenance.

But in saying that the earth crisis is a spiritual crisis I also mean that the problem is explicitly a religious problem in the sense that the promulgation of particular theological teachings has lead to the ravaging of earth communities -- for example, the idea in the Genesis creation story that God, a heavenly being far removed from our planet, created human beings as God's viceregents to exercise "dominion" over the earth. If God has given the earth to us as our private possession, then why not do with it what we want to? Lynn White, in a now famous essay, writes that Western Christianity's attack on paganism effectively stripped the natural world of any spiritual meaning by replacing the belief that the Sacred is in rivers and trees with the doctrine that God is a disembodied Spirit whose true residence is in heaven, not on earth.(2) "By destroying pagan animism, Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects."(3) I believe White is partially accurate in his analysis. The impact of Christianity's antipagan teachings has tended to empty the biosphere of any sense of God's presence in natural things. God is now pictured as a sky-God with little if any connection to natural processes. In turn, human beings, as bearers of God's image, are regarded essentially as "souls" taking up temporary residence in their earthly bodies: we are all transient denizens of a material world from which we will be delivered in death in order to return to the disembodied Source from which we have originated. Along the way, these teachings imply or state outright that God is against nature, with the result that they inculcate in human beings an absence of family feeling for other biotic communities. In this sense, therefore, the ecological crisis is fundamentally a spiritual crisis because certain Christian teachings have blunted our ability to experience co-belonging with other lifeforms, rendering us unwilling to alter our self-destructive course and plot a new path toward sustainable living.

I have said that ecocide is a spiritual disease. Like alcoholism -- another disease, as Carl Jung said, that is essentially spiritual in nature(4) -- ecocide is rooted in addictive behaviors that already have and will continue to degrade health and well being. The "spiritual" origins of ecocide are apparent in our head-long rush to disaster; as in the case of the alcoholic, we know we are destroying our lives but we can no longer stop ourselves from doing so. Why else would the human community push itself further and further toward certain environmental catastrophe -- global warming, irreversible ozone depletion, massive deforestation, chronic loss of arable land, daily extinction of hundreds of species -- unless it is addicted to toxic habits from which it can no longer escape? But if the root of the environmental problem is deeply spiritual or religious at its core, it is also the case, ironically, that a partial answer to the problem lies in a rehabilitation of the earth-friendly teachings within the spiritual traditions that seem most hostile to nature, namely, the Christian tradition. If ecocide is a disease of the soul then it requires spiritual medicine -- the medicine of healthy, rather than toxic, Christian values and ideas. This paradox should not be surprising to us. It is often the case that the seeds for positive change lie deep within the very thing that is the source of the seemingly incorrigible impediments to change in the first place. Christianity, then, is the pharmakon of looming environmental disaster: in part, it is both the cause of the problem and its solution. It is both the origin of the ecocidal "disease" from which we suffer and its "cure," insofar as it provides resources for a new green mindset toward nature that is a prophylactic against antinature attitudes and habits.

If Christianity is both disease and cure vis--vis the ecocrisis, then what role can the ancient earth wisdom within Christianity play in making our respective bioregions vital places in which to live and work? I believe that hope for a renewed earth is best founded on belief in the Spirit as the divine force within the cosmos who continually indwells and works to sustain all forms of life. The Nicene Creed names the Spirit as "the Lord, the Giver of Life." In this essay, I will try to update this ancient appellation by reenvisioning the Holy Spirit as God's invigorating presence within the society of all living beings.(5)

Unfortunately, however, many contemporary Christians experience and understand the Spirit -- if they think about the Spirit at all -- as the forgotten member of the Trinity, the shy member of the Godhead, the left hand of God. In the lived practice of God's presence in many non-charismatic Christian communities today, the promise of the Spirit to fill and renew all God's creation is generally overlooked. This oversight renders present-day Christianity a binary religion, a religion of the Father and the Son, with little if any awareness of the Spirit's critically important work in the world. To counteract this tendency, I offer here an earth-centered model of the Spirit as the "green face" of God who sustains the natural order and unifies all God's creation into one common biotic family. Theologically speaking, this earth-centered doctrine of the Spirit is the best grounds for hope and renewal at a point in human history when our rapacious appetites seemed destined to destroy the planet. A new vision of the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of the earth has the potential both to renew the church and invigorate policy discussions about how best to protect the planet.

Finally, I believe that a recovery of the ancient idea of the Spirit as God's presence within all things is directly applicable to one of the most intractable ecological problems in our time: the siting of dangerous toxic waste facilities in underresourced urban areas. As a case study that applies the model of the Earth Spirit to a contemporary ecological problem, I will offer a theological response to the environmental degradation caused by the installation of a cluster of waste facilities in the area where I live. In this context, my basic point is that God agonizes over just such instances of degradation and that through this divine agony we are offered the resources for renewal and change. Insofar as the Earth Spirit lives with us in and through the created world, then God as Spirit suffers loss and pain whenever the biotic order is despoiled through human arrogance. Because God as Spirit is enfleshed within creation, God experiences within the core of her deepest self the agony and suffering of an earth under siege.(6) The Spirit, then, as the green face of God, has also become in our time the wounded God. The Earth Spirit is the wounded God who daily suffers the environmental violence wrought by humankind's unremitting ecocidal attitudes and habits.

God is Green

In Western religious thought, however, the Spirit is defined as a bodiless, nonmaterial reality, over and against the physical world, which is not of the same nature as the Spirit. As one theological dictionary puts it, the Spirit is "immaterial or nonmaterial substance. . . The term spiritus can therefore be applied to God generally, to the Third Person of the Trinity specifically. . ."(7) Western thought generally operates according to a series of binary oppositions that separate spirit from body, mind from matter, and God from nature. These dichotomies not only divide the spiritual from the physical. They also hierarchically order the two terms in the polarity and posit the first term (spirit, mind, God) as superior to the second term (body, matter, nature). In general, therefore, Western thought has not only pitted the spiritual world and the physical order against one another but also subordinated the one to the other. In this schema, the Spirit is regarded as an eternally invisible and incorporeal force superior to the earthly realm which is mired in contingency and change.

While some of the biblical writings appear partial to these binary oppositions (for example, Paul's rhetoric of spirit versus flesh), most of the biblical texts undermine this value system by structurally interlocking the terms in the polarity within one another. In particular, on the question of the Spirit, the system of polar oppositions is consistently undermined. Not only do the scriptural texts not prioritize the spiritual over the earthly. Moreover, they figure the Spirit as a creaturely lifeform always already interpenetrated by the material world. Indeed, the body of symbolism that is arguably most central to the scriptural portraiture of the Spirit is suffused with nature imagery. Consider the following tropes for the Spirit within the Bible: the vivifying breath that animates all living things (Gen. 1:2, Ps. 104:29-30), the healing wind that brings power and salvation to those it indwells (Judges 6:34, John 3:6, Acts 2:1-4), the living water that quickens and refreshes all who drink from its eternal springs (John 4:14, 7:37-38), the purgative fire that alternately judges evildoers and ignites the prophetic mission of the early church (Acts 2:1-4, Matt. 3:11-12), and the divine dove, with an olive branch in its mouth, that brings peace and renewal to a broken and divided world (Gen. 8:11, Matt. 3:16, John 1:32). In these texts, the Spirit is pictured as a wild and insurgent natural force who engenders life and healing throughout the biotic order.(8)

Far from being ghostly and bodiless, the Spirit reveals herself in the biblical literatures as an earthly lifeform who labors to create, sustain, and renew humankind and otherkind in solidarity with one another. As the divine wind in Genesis, the dove in the Gospels, or the tongues of flame in Acts, an earth-based understanding of the Spirit will not domesticate the Spirit by locating her activity simply alongside nature; rather, nature itself in all its variety will be construed as the primary mode of being for the Spirit's work in the world. Now the earth's waters and winds and birds and fires will not be regarded only as symbols of the Spirit but rather as sharing in her very being as the Spirit is enfleshed and embodied through natural organisms and processes.

There are inklings of nature-centered pneumatology within historic Christianity. In Western theology, the work of the Holy Spirit has always been understood in terms of communion, mutuality, and the overcoming of divisions. The early Latin Fathers conceived of the Spirit in the bosom of the Trinity as the divine power that unites the Father and the Son in a bond of mutual love. Basil of Caesarea wrote that the Holy Spirit is the agent of inseparable union within the Trinity. The Spirit labors alongside the Creator and the Redeemer as the Perfector who strengthens and completes the divine work of salvation in the world.(9) Similarly, Augustine analyzed the role of the Spirit in terms of the vinculum caritatis or the vinculum Trinitatis, the communion that binds the other two members of the Godhead together in dynamic unity.(10) The Spirit enables the mutual indwelling of each divine person in the other. Moreover, as the bond of peace and love universal, these early texts imply (without stating as such outrightly) that the Spirit is not only the power of relation between the other members of the Trinity but also between God and the whole creation as well.

Later medieval iconographers make a similar point but in a pictorial medium. The doctrine of the Spirit as the vinculum caritatis is graphically set forth in the trinitarian miniatures of the medieval Rothschild Canticles, in which the Spirit is pictured as a giant encircling "dove" whose wings enfold the Father and Son, and whose large talons and tail provide points of intersection for all three figures. But in the Canticles, the Spirit is represented less like the domesticated birds or pigeons of traditional church art and more like the wild raptors of the mountain wildernesses. The Spirit-Bird in the Canticles spins and twirls the other two members of the Godhead into amorous and novel combinations and permutations. As the Canticles progress, each lifeform within the Trinity loses its separate identity in a blur of erotic passion and movement and color. As the Trinity twists and turns into surprising recombinations, the human Father and Son smile and twirl and dance around the aviary Spirit, symbolizing the union of each figure in the sacred bird -- as well as the union of all lifeforms in a common biotic order.(11) The Spirit-Bird of the Canticles insures the interrelationship of each divine person in a ludic celebration of perichoretic harmony.(12) As the Spirit exists perichoretically within the Godhead to foster communion between the divine persons, my proposal is that the Spirit also performs the role of the vinculum caritatis within nature in order to promote the well-being and fecundity of creation.

From the perspective of biocentric trinitarian theology, nature is the enfleshment of God's sustaining love. As Trinity, God bodies forth divine compassion for all lifeforms in the rhythms of the natural order. The divine Trinity's boundless passion for the integrity of all living things is revealed in God's preservation of the life-web that is our common biological inheritance. God as Trinity is set forth in the Father/Mother God's creation of the biosphere, the Son's reconciliation of all beings to himself, and the Spirit's gift of life to every member of the created order who relies on her beneficence for daily sustenance. As creator, God is manifested in the ebb and flow of the seasons whose plantings and harvests are a constant reminder of earth's original blessings. As redeemer, God is revealed in the complex interactions of organisms and the earth in mutual sustenance -- an economy of interdependence best symbolized by Jesus' reconciling work of the cross. And as sustainer, God shows Godself through breathing the breath of life into all members of the life-web, a living testimony to the Divine's compassion for all things.

God's presence in the living Christ through the Spirit's maintenance of the ecosphere is the basis for the greening of trinitarian theology. The then and there incarnation of God in Jesus is recapitulated in the here and now embodiment of the Spirit in the world which hearkens back to the originary Mother God's birthing of order out of chaos. This trinitarian enfleshment of God in nature represents a tripartite movement. The first move to an embodied doctrine of God is signaled by the inaugural hymn of Genesis where the Creator Spirit (rah) breathes the world into existence and thereby enfleshes itself in the creation and maintenance of the natural order. The embodiment of the divine life in Jesus is the second move toward a nature-centered model of the Godhead. And the perichoretic union of Jesus in the Spirit -- like Jesus, an earth being as well but now figured in the biblical tropes of water, dove, fire, and wind -- represents the third move toward a biophilic notion of God. It is the move to embodiment -- the procession of Godself into the biotic realm that sustains all life -- that is the basis for unity within the Godhead. In perichoresis, God as Trinity subsists in interpersonal unity through incarnating itself in all things that swim, creep, crawl, run, fly, and grow upon the earth.

The understanding of the Spirit as a lifeform intrinsically related to nature emphasizes a generally neglected model of the Spirit in the history of Western theology. In theory, the Spirit has always been defined as both the Spirit of God and the Spirit of creation. As the Spirit of God, the Spirit is the power of reciprocity between the first two persons of the Trinity, on the one hand, and the interior power of redemption within human beings, on the other. And as the Spirit of creation, the Spirit has been defined as the breath of God who indwells and sustains the cosmos. In practice, however, the Spirit has been almost exclusively understood as the Spirit of God; the stress has fallen on its roles as the source of consubstantiality within the Godhead and the divine agent of human salvation. The result is that the biocentric role of the Spirit as the power of life-giving breath within creation, including nonhuman as well as human creation, has been consistently downplayed.(13)

Water, light, dove, mother, fire, breath, wind -- the Spirit reveals herself as a healing and subversive lifeform. These nature-based descriptions of the Spirit are the basis of my attempt to shift the theological focus back to the Spirit as the Spirit of creation. Such a focus neither denigrates nor ignores the regnant understanding of the Spirit's other roles as the power of relationship between the Father and Son or as the agent of human sanctification within the history of salvation. Rather, this emphasis on the Spirit's cosmic identity as the divine breath who interanimates all other lifeforms readdresses our attention to the Spirit's work in all realms of life -- which includes, but is not limited to, the inner life of God and salvation-history. Part of the burden of this essay, then, is to shift the weight of theological emphasis away from understanding the Spirit either theocentrically or anthropocentrically toward an explicitly biocentric model of the Spirit in nature.

The Wounded Spirit

To reconceive the Spirit as the enfleshment of God's sustaining power in the biosphere is to emphasize the coinherence of the Spirit and the natural world. Whether manifesting herself as a living, breathing organism like a dove, or an inanimate lifeform, such as wind or fire, the Spirit indwells nature as its interanimating force in order to lead all creation into a peaceable relationship with itself. Spirit and earth internally condition and permeate one another; both modes of being coinhere through and with one another without collapsing into undifferentiated sameness or equivalence. The reciprocal indwelling of Spirit and earth is neither an absorption of the one into the other nor a confusion of the two. By the same token, this mutual indwelling is not an outward and transitory connection between the two realities but rather an internal and abiding union of the two in a common life together. Insofar as the Spirit abides in and with all living things, Spirit and earth are inseparable and yet at the same time distinguishable. Spirit and earth are internally indivisible because both modes of being are living realities with the common goal of sustaining other lifeforms. But Spirit and earth also possess their own distinctive identities insofar as the Spirit is the unseen power who vivifies and sustains all living things while the earth is the visible agent of the life that pulsates throughout creation.

Under the control of this dialectic, the earth is the body of the Spirit. Metaphorically speaking, God as Spirit corporealizes Godself through her interanimation of the biosphere. In breathing life into humankind and otherkind, a fundamental transformation within Godself occurs: God is fully incarnated in the green fuse that drives all forms of life to their natural fruition in a carnival of praise to the Creator Spirit. As once God became human in the body of Jesus so continually God enfleshes Godself in the embodied reality of life on earth. Quintessentially, then, both Spirit and earth are life-givers: the Spirit ensouls the earth with the quickening breath of divine life and the earth enfleshes the Spirit as it offers spiritual and physical sustenance to all living things. The Spirit inhabits the earth as its invisible and life-giving breath (rah), and the earth (gaia) is the outward manifestation, the body, as it were, of the Spirit's presence within, and maintenance of, all lifeforms.(14)

This proposal for an ecological pneumatology of internal relatedness presents an extraordinary challenge to the traditional Aristotelian and early Christian doctrine of God as an unchangeable and self-subsistent being fundamentally unaffected by the creation God has spun into existence. One intriguing but troubling implication of ecological pneumatology, therefore, is that it places the divine life at risk in a manner that an extrinsic doctrine of the Spirit vis--vis the earth does not. The theological problem is that if Spirit and earth mutually indwell one another then it appears that God as Spirit is vulnerable to serious loss and trauma just insofar as the earth is abused and despoiled. In an earth-centered model of the Spirit, God is a thoroughgoing incarnational reality who decides in freedom, and not by any internal necessity, to indwell all things. But in making this decision, the Spirit places herself at risk by virtue of her coinherence with a continually degraded biosphere. God, then, is so internally related to the universe that the specter of ecocide raises the risk of deicide: to wreak environmental havoc on the earth is to run the risk that we will do irreparable harm to the Love and Mystery we call God. The wager of this model is that while God and world are not identical to one another, their basic unity and common destiny raises the possibility that ongoing assaults against the earth's biotic communities may eventually result in permanent injury to the divine life itself.

Moltmann's The Crucified God (and the wealth of similar books it spawned on the topic of divine suffering) argues that God in Jesus suffers the godforsaken death of the cross.(15) In antitheopaschite terms, the cross does not signify the "death of God" but rather the death of Jesus as a terrifying event of loss and suffering within the inner life of Godself. The cross is not an instance of God dying but an event in Godself where the divine life takes into itself the death of the godless son of God crucified for the sins of the world. In the cross, God now becomes radically discontinuous with Godself by taking up the crucified one.

[W]hat happened on the cross was an event between God and God. It was a deep division in God himself, insofar as God abandoned God and contradicted himself, and at the same time a unity in God, insofar as God was at one with God and corresponded to himself. In that case one would have to put the formula in a paradoxical way: God died the death of the godless on the cross and yet did not die. God is dead and yet is not dead.(16)

In the cross, God splits Godself by incorporating the godless death of Jesus into the inner life of the Godhead. In this rift caused by Jesus' death, God now undergoes a permanent and fundamental change by becoming a willing victim of death itself.

As Jesus' death on the cross brought death and loss into Godself so the Spirit's suffering from persistent environmental trauma engenders chronic agony in the Godhead. From the perspective of ecological pneumatology, Moltmann's "crucified God" has a double valence: death enters the inner life of God through the cross of Jesus even as the prospect of ecological mass death enters the life of God through the Spirit's communion with a despoiled planet. We see, then, that the Spirit is Christ-like or cruciform because she suffers the same violent fate as did Jesus -- but now a suffering not confined to the onetime event of the cross insofar as the Spirit experiences daily the continual degradation of the earth and its inhabitants. Because this trauma deeply grieves the Spirit, she pleads with God's people to nurture and protect the fragile bioregions we all share. Paul writes that human arrogance causes the whole creation to groan in agony as it waits for deliverance; he continues that as the creation sighs in pain the Spirit on our behalf likewise groans in sounds too deep for words -- interceding on our behalf that God's love for all creation will be consummated (Romans 8:18-39). In the midst of the current crisis, the created order groans under the weight of humankind's habitual ecoviolence; in turn, the Spirit intensely beseeches us to care for our planetary heritage. God as Spirit agonizes over the squalor we have caused and through her abiding earthly presence implores us to stop the violence before it is too late.

From this viewpoint, as the God who knows death through the cross of Jesus is the crucified God, so also is the Spirit who enfleshes divine presence in nature the wounded Spirit. Jesus' body was inscribed with the marks of human sin even as God's enfleshed presence -- the earth body of the Spirit -- is lacerated by continued assaults upon our planet home. Consider the sad parallels between the crucified Jesus and the cruciform Spirit: the lash marks of human sin cut into the body of the crucified God are now even more graphically displayed across the expanse of the whole planet as the body of the wounded Spirit bears the incisions of further abuse. God is the wounded Spirit even as God is the crucified Christ -- as God suffered on a tree by taking onto Godself humankind's sin, so God continually suffers the agony of death and loss by bringing into Godself the environmental squalor that humankind has wrought.

The Spirit in the Killing Fields of Urban America

In an ecocidal age, I have proposed that we reenvision the Spirit as the cruciform Spirit who bears in herself the deep wounds caused by our sins against the earth community. Could it be, then, that an adequate basis for hope in a restored earth lies in a recovery of the Holy Spirit as God's power of life-giving breath (rah) who indwells and sustains all lifeforms? Perhaps. But a Spirit-centered and earth-centered basis for such a theological hope is difficult to sustain on a planet scarred by savage violence. Such hope is difficult to sustain when one's bioregion is under daily assault by ravenous forces that labor to destroy hope through the politics of despair. Such is the case in the bioregion where I live, in close proximity to the city of Chester, Pennsylvania, nearby my home and the college where I teach.

I remember well my first visit to the west end of the city of Chester a couple of years ago. Chester, a postindustrial city just outside Philadelphia, was known by me at the time as notorious for its chronic environmental problems, and I had traveled there to see first hand the nature of its difficulties. The first thing I noticed upon arriving in Chester was the smell: waves of noxious fumes enveloped me like the stench of rotting meat. Next I felt the bone-jarring rumble of giant eighteen-wheel trash trucks, dozens of trucks from all over the mid-Atlantic and eastern seaboard, bearing down on the residential streets on which I was walking with tons of trash -- trash which I knew contained everything from toxic chemicals and contaminated soil to sewage sludge and body parts. Then I remember looking to the horizon and seeing the destination of these terrible truck convoys: a line of giant chemical and waste processing plants belching putrid smoke -- like Blake's dark Satanic Mills -- tightly interspersed among the homes and churches and businesses of Chester residents. I was then and remain now overwhelmed by the bald injustice of siting these plants in a residential area. Since the time of this visit I have asked myself what is the role of an earth-centered faith in the Spirit -- in short, what is the role of green spirituality -- in resisting and combatting the injustice done to the people, and the wider biosphere, of Chester.

Many local economies in urban and rural America today are dependent upon the production and management of toxic wastes. In economically distressed communities the promise of a stabilized tax base, improved infrastructure, and jobs for underemployed residents is almost impossible to resist. The waste management industry offers an immediate quick-fix to chronic poverty and instability in declining cities and neighborhoods that can no longer attract government and private investment. The price for allowing the storage and treatment of biohazardous materials in one's community may be long-term environmental problems. But people in the grip of poverty and joblessness have few options when their very survival, materially speaking, is contingent upon the construction of a trash incinerator or chemical dump in their neighborhood.

Corporate investors know a good thing when they see it. Waste management facilities cannot be sited where politically empowered middle- and upper-class residents will fight through the courts the establishment of such facilities. Close proximity to hazardous industries immediately depresses property values in residential areas where virtually no one wants to risk endangering his or her physical and economic well being by allowing such a liability to be built in their own backyard. And in those rare instances where such facilities have come on line in high-income areas the residents have the means and mobility to " 'vote with their feet' and move away from a high risk place of residence."(17)

Chester is an impoverished, predominantly African-American community in an almost all-white suburb, Delaware County. Its median family income is 45 percent lower than the rest of Delaware County; its poverty rate is 25 percent, more than three times the rate in the rest of Delaware County; and its unemployment rate is 30 percent. Chester has the highest infant mortality rate and the highest percentage of low-weight births in the state.(18) In the light of its alarmingly bad public health, Chester would appear to be the last place to build a constellation of hazardous facilities. Nevertheless, three waste and treatment plants recently have been built on a square-mile site surrounded by homes and parks in a low-income neighborhood in Chester. The facilities include the American Ref-Fuel trash-to-steam incinerator, the Delcora sewage-treatment plant, and the Thermal Pure Systems medical-waste autoclave. A fourth waste processing plant devoted to treating PCB contaminated soil has recently received a construction permit. The clustering of waste industries only a few yards from a large residential area has made worse the high rate of asthma and other respiratory and health problems in Chester; it has brought about an infestation of rodents, the impact of five hundred trucks a day at all hours into the neighborhood, soot and dust covering even the insides of people's homes, and waves of noxious odors that have made life unbearable.(19) In a landmark health study of the environmental degradation of Chester, the EPA found that lead poisoning is a significant health problem for the majority of Chester children; that toxic air emissions have raised the specter of cancer to two-and-a-half times greater than the average risk for area residents; and that the fish in Chester waters are hopelessly contaminated with PCBs from current and previous industrial abuses.(20)

The EPA study has made public what many Chester residents have long known: the unequal dumping of municipal wastes in Chester has permanently undermined the health and well being of its population. Chester is a stunning example of environmental racism. 100 percent of all municipal solid waste in Delaware County is burned at the incinerator; 90 percent of all sewage is treated at the Delcora plant; and close to a hundred tons of hospital waste per day from a half-dozen nearby states is sterilized at the Thermal Pure plant.(21) As Jerome Balter, a Philadelphia environmental lawyer puts it, "When Delaware County passes an act that says all of the waste has to come to the city of Chester, that is environmental racism."(22) Or as Peter Kostmayer, former congressman and head of the EPA's midatlantic region, says: high levels of pollution in Chester would "not have happened if this were Bryn Mawr, Haverford or Swarthmore [nearby well-to-do white suburbs]. I think we have to face the fact that the reason this happened is because this city is largely -- though not all -- African American, and a large number of its residents are people of low income."(23) Chester has become a "local sacrifice zone" where the disproportionate pollution from its waste-industrial complex is tolerated because of the promise of economic revitalization.(24) But the promise of dozens of jobs and major funds for the immediate areas around the existing toxics industries have never materialized. Indeed, of the $20 million the incinerator pays to local governments in taxes only $2 million goes to Chester while $18 million goes to Delaware County.(25)

Chester is Delaware County's sacrifice zone. The surrounding middle-class, white neighborhoods would never allow for the systematic over-exposure of their citizens to such a toxics complex. The health and economic impact of siting even one of the facilities now housed in Chester would likely be regarded as too high a risk. But to build a whole cluster of such complexes in nearby Chester is another matter. Nevertheless, many in Chester have tried to fight back against this exercise in environmental apartheid. The Chester Residents Concerned for Quality Living, led by community activist (or as she prefers, "reactivist") Zulene Mayfield, has used nonviolent resistance tactics -- mass protests, monitoring of emissions levels, protracted court actions, and so forth -- to block the expansion of the complex. In opposition to the granting of a permit for operation for the fourth waste facility to be built in the area, the Soil Remediation plant, the former mayor of Chester, Barbara Bohannan-Sheppard, concluded her remarks at a public hearing with the following:

Chester should not and will not serve as a dumping ground. A dumping ground for what no other borough, no other township, or no other city will accept. Yes, Chester needs the taxes, Chester needs the jobs. But, Chester also needs to improve its image and not be a killing field.(26)

Hope is not lost in Chester. There is a growing awareness of the injustice being done to low-income, often minority communities that have suffered from the unequal distribution of environmental hazards in their neighborhoods. Bill Clinton has signed an executive order mandating all federal agencies to ensure the equitable location of polluting industries across race and economic lines.(27) And recently the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia ruled that the Chester Residents organization has the legal right to file a class action lawsuit against the Department of Environmental Protection charging that the DEP violated their civil rights by clustering a series of waste-processing facilities in their neighborhood.(28)

What role if any can green spirituality play in the struggle against environmental racism in areas such as Chester, Pennsylvania? What is the place of the wounded Spirit, the green face of God, in the struggle for environmental equity in neighborhoods that bear a disproportionate and unfair burden for society's pollution? In response, it should first be noted that few people see it in their interests to express solidarity with disadvantaged communities that have suffered the brunt of unequal distribution of environmental risks. Many people have become inured to the gradual environmental degradation of their home and work environments and most likely consider the development of occasional toxic "sacrifice zones" and "killing fields" to be a tragic but necessary result of modern technological life and its attendant creature comforts. If everyone has the right to pursue his or her own material self-interests, and if some persons are better able to do this than others due in part to their family or national origin, socio-economic class, and so forth, then it follows that some disadvantaged groups will be marginalized in the human struggle for increased wealth, security, and power.

A spirituality centered on the wounded Spirit challenges this self-centered assumption by affirming instead that all persons are fundamentally equal and that everyone has the right to family stability and meaningful work in a healthy environment regardless of one's racial, cultural, economic, or sexual identity. Green spirituality affirms the common interdependence of all persons with each other -- indeed, of all species with each other -- as we all struggle to protect the integrity of the life-web that holds together our planet home. (29) Insofar as the Spirit breathes into and sustains life for all members of the web, green religion testifies to the bond of unity that unites all God's children together on a sacred earth. As the participants of the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit put it: "Environmental justice affirms the sacredness of Mother Earth, ecological unity and the interdependence of all species, and the right to be free from ecological destruction."(30) Thus earth-centered religion values the interconnections between all members of the biosphere in contradistinction to the egoistic ideal of maximizing self-interest.

Conclusion

I have suggested that we refer to the Spirit in our time as the "wounded Spirit" or "cruciform Spirit" who, like Christ, takes into herself the burden of human sin and the deep ecological damage this sin has wrought in the biosphere. But as Christ's wounds become the Eucharistic blood that nourishes the believer, so also does the Spirit's agony over damage to the earth become a source of hope for communities facing seemingly hopeless environmental destitution. The message of the cross is that senseless death is not foreign to God because it is through the cross that God lives in solidarity with all who suffer. The promise of new life that flows from the suffering God hanging from a tree is recapitulated in the ministry of the wounded Spirit whose solidarity with a broken world is a token of divine forbearance and love. Hope, then, for a restored earth in our time is theologically rooted in the belief in the Spirit's benevolent cohabitation with all of the damaged and forgotten members of the biosphere -- human and nonhuman alike. The Spirit's abiding presence in a world wracked by human greed is a constant reminder that God desires the welfare of all members of the life-web -- indeed, that no population of lifeforms is beyond the ken of divine love, no matter how serious, even permanent, the ecological damage is to these biotic communities.

One of the many ironies of Christian faith is the belief that out of death comes life, from loss and suffering comes the possibility of hope and renewal. This irony is symbolized in the Creator's emptying of herself in creation so that all beings may enjoy fullness of life; in Jesus' crucifixion where the spilling of his life blood becomes the opportunity for all persons to experience the fullness of new life in him; and in the Spirit's kenotic coinherence with the earth and concomitant willingness to endure our ecological violence so that we can be offered again and again the chance to change our habits and reenter the sorority of the earth and her Creator. Our rapacious habits daily wound afresh the Earth Spirit who breathes life into all things; and daily the Earth Spirit intercedes for us and protects us by allowing us to remain richly alive in spite of our behavior to the contrary. The Spirit in and through the body of the earth groans in travail over our addictions to ecoviolence. But in her wounds we have life because it is in the wounded Spirit that we see God's love overabundant and outpouring on our behalf. In her wounds we see God's refusal to remain aloof from creation -- apathetic, unmoved, uncaring -- just insofar as God decided to enflesh herself in all of the processes and lifeforms that constitute life as we know it. We continue unabated in our ravaging of the earth body of the one who has given herself for us so that we might live. But to this point the cruciform Spirit has not withdrawn her sustaining presence from the planet -- a reminder to us that God is a lover of all things bodily and earthly -- and a call to a renewed passion on our part for nurturing and protecting the biosphere that is our common inheritance and common home.

Can a recovery of the ancient, biblical idea of the Spirit as the Green Face of God provide the necessary focus for the practice of earth-healing in our time? The answer to this question has been the focus of this paper. In this essay, I have proposed that one of the most compelling Christian responses to the threat of ecocide lies in a recovery of the Holy Spirit as God's power of life-giving breath (rah) who indwells and sustains all lifeforms. I have said that the answer to the increasing environmental degradation in our time is not better technology -- a matter of more know-how -- but a Spirit-motivated conversion of our whole ways of life to sustainable living -- a matter of the heart. Such a change of heart can occur through an encounter with Christian earth wisdom. This wisdom for our troubled times can be found in the rich biblical imagery of God as Spirit who sustains and renews all forms of life on the planet; the corresponding belief, since the Spirit vivifies all things, in the interdependence that binds together all members of the biosphere in a global web of life; and the concomitant ethical ideal of working toward the healing of various biotic communities whenever they suffer ecological degradation.

Today we need a conversion of the heart to an integrated planetary vision of a green earth where all persons live in harmony with their natural environments. May the Holy Spirit, as divine force for sustenance and renewal in all things, come into our hearts and minds and persuade us to work toward a seamless social-environmental ethic of justice toward all God's creatures.

Notes

1. [Back to text]  For an overview of the crisis see Leslie Roberts et al., World Resources 1998-99: A Guide to the Global Environment (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998) and Jeremy Rifkin, Biosphere Politics: A Cultural Odyssey from the Middle Ages to the New Age (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991).

2. [Back to text]  Lynn White, Jr., "The Historic Roots of Our Ecological Crisis," Science 155 (1967): 1203-7.

3. [Back to text]  Ibid., 1205.

4. [Back to text]  On Jung's position regarding the spiritual origin of alcoholism, see Ernest Kurtz, "Twelve Step Programs," in Spirituality and the Secular Quest, ed. Peter A. Van Ness (New York: Crossroad, 1996), 277-302.

5. [Back to text]  A number of recent texts have initiated recoveries of discourse about "spirit," "the Spirit" or "the spiritual" in a variety of genres. In theology, see Jos Comblin, The Holy Spirit and Liberation, trans. Paul Burns (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1989), Peter C. Hodgson, Winds of the Spirit: A Constructive Christian Theology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), Chung Hyun-Kyung, "Welcome the Spirit; Hear Her Cries: The Holy Spirit, Creation, and the Culture of Life," Christianity and Crisis 51 (July 15, 1991): 220-23, Elizabeth A. Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse (New York: Crossroad, 1992), Jrgen Moltmann, God in Creation: A New Theology of Creation and the Spirit of God, trans. Margaret Kohl (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985), idem, The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation, trans. Margaret Kohl (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), idem, The Source of Life: The Holy Spirit and the Theology of Life, trans. Margaret Kohl (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), and Michael Welker, God the Spirit, trans. John F. Hoffmeyer (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994); in philosophy, see Jacques Derrida, Of Spirit: Heidegger and the Question, trans. Geoffrey Bennington and Rachel Bowlby (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), idem, Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International, trans. Peggy Kampf (New York: Routledge, 1994), and Steven G. Smith, The Concept of the Spiritual: An Essay in First Philosophy (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988); and in cultural studies, see Joel Kovel, History and Spirit: An Inquiry into the Philosophy of Liberation (Boston: Beacon Press, 1991).

6. [Back to text]  In this vein let me make some stylistic comments about writing the Spirit. Throughout this essay I will capitalize "Spirit" in order to distinguish the divine personality (Holy Spirit or Spirit of the Lord) from other similar spirit-term significations (spirit of the times, public spirit, and so forth). Nevertheless, I suggest that the realities of Spirit and spirit should often be viewed as active on the same continuum, as when, for example, the Spirit of God empowers the embattled spirit of an urban community to resist the forces of ecocidal oppression (as I will suggest here in my discussion of Chester, Pennsylvania). I also use the female pronoun for the Spirit in order rhetorically to realize aspects of the transgressive freedom the Spirit promises, including the freedom to complicate and confuse her/his/its gender. This complication is not original to me: grammatically speaking, the term for Spirit in Hebrew is feminine (rah), neuter in Greek (pneuma), and masculine in Latin (spiritus) and its derivative Romance languages. For the history of woman-identified language for the Spirit, see Gary Steven Kinkel, Our Dear Mother the Spirit: An Investigation of Count Zinzendorf's Theology and Praxis (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1990), and Johnson, She Who Is, 128-31.

7. [Back to text]  This definition is from the entry on "spiritus" by Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1985), 286.

8. [Back to text]  For more discussion of ecological pneumatology, see my Fragments of the Spirit: Nature, Violence, and the Renewal of Creation (New York: Continuum, 1996). Some of the material in this section of this essay is borrowed from this book.

9. [Back to text]  Basil of Caesarea De Spiritu Sancto bk. 16.

10. [Back to text]  Augustine De Trinitate bk. 15.

11. [Back to text]  For reproductions and commentary, see Jeffrey F. Hamburger, The Rothschild Canticles: Art and Mysticism in Flanders and the Rhineland Circa 1300 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990), 118-42. I am grateful to Ellen Ross for directing my attention to this volume.

12. [Back to text]  Perichoresis is the doctrine that teaches the coinherence of each member of the Trinity in the other. For a fuller discussion of this term and its relevance to contemporary theology, see Catherine Mowry LaCugna, God For Us: The Trinity and Christian Life (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991), 270-78.

13. [Back to text]  There are notable exceptions to this general orientation (for example, Chung Hyun-Kyung, Johnson, Moltmann, Welker), but most other contemporary theologies of the Holy Spirit generally deemphasize, or ignore altogether, the model of the Spirit as God's power of ecological renewal and healing within the cosmos. This shortcoming applies to a number of otherwise invaluable books in pneumatology, including Yves M. J. Congar, I Believe in the Holy Spirit, trans. Geoffrey Chapman, 3 vols. (New York: Seabury Press, 1983), Alasdair I. C. Heron, The Holy Spirit: The Holy Spirit in the Bible, the History of Christian Thought, and Recent Theology (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1983), G. W. H. Lampe, God as Spirit (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977), and John V. Taylor, The Go-Between God: The Holy Spirit and the Christian Mission (London: SCM Press, 1972). As well, the writings on the Spirit in the important systematic theologies of authors such as Barth, Rahner, and Tillich reflect a similar lacuna, though this oversight is understandable given the general lack of cultural awareness of the ecocrisis at the time these authors were writing. (This anachronistic qualification applies to some of the other writers listed above as well.)

14. [Back to text]  See Jrgen Moltmann's The Spirit of Life, 274-89, and his model of the Spirit as the vita vivificans who sustains all creation, and James E. Lovelock's Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979) in defense of the model of the earth as a single living organism which supports all lifeforms within a common ecosystem. Regarding the problems with Moltmann's nature theology, see my "The Wild Bird Who Heals: Recovering the Spirit in Nature," Theology Today 50 (1993): 13-28.

15. [Back to text]  See inter alia Edward Farley, Divine Empathy: A Theology of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), Joseph Halloran, The Descent of God: Divine Suffering in History and Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), and Grace Jantzen, God's World and God's Body (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1984).

16. [Back to text]  Jrgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, trans. R. A. Wilson and John Bowden (New York: Harper & Row, 1974), 244.

17. [Back to text]  Bob Edwards, "With Liberty and Environmental Justice For All: The Emergence and Challenge of Grassroots Environmentalism in the United States," in Ecological Resistance Movements: The Global Emergence of Radical and Popular Environmentalism, ed. Bron Raymond Taylor (Albany: SUNY Press, 1995), 37. On the challenge of urban environmentalism also see Robert Gottlieb, Forcing the Spring: The Transformation of the American Environmental Movement (Washington: Island Press, 1993), and Carolyn Merchant, Radical Ecology: The Search for a Livable World (New York: Routledge, 1992).

18. [Back to text]  I have drawn this information from "Chester Decides It's Tired of Being a Wasteland," Philadelphia Inquirer, July 26, 1994; and Chester Residents Concerned for Quality Living, "Environmental Justice Fact Sheet" and "Pollution and Industry in Chester's 'West End,' " pamphlets. I am grateful to former Swarthmore College students Laird Hedlund and Ryan Peterson for making available to me their expertise and research concerning the Chester waste facilities.

19. [Back to text]  Maryanne Voller, "Everyone Has Got to Breathe," Audubon, March-April 1995.

20. [Back to text]  Editorial, "Chester a Proving Ground," Delaware County Daily Times, December 8, 1994, and "EPA Cites Lead in City Kids, Bad Fish," Delaware County Daily Times, 2 December 1994.

21. [Back to text]  Maryanne Voller, "Everyone Has Got to Breathe," Audubon, March-April 1995, and Chester Residents Concerned for Quality Living, "Environmental Justice Fact Sheet," pamphlet.

22. [Back to text]  "Chester's Environmental Crisis," Delaware County Times, August 1, 995.

23. [Back to text]  Howard Goodman, "Politically Incorrect," The Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine, February 11, 1996.

24. [Back to text]  The phrase belongs to Carolyn Merchant, Radical Ecology, 163.

25. [Back to text]  Chester Residents Concerned for Quality Living, "Pollution and Industry in Chester's 'West End," pamphlet.

26. [Back to text]  Barbara Bohannan-Sheppard, "Remarks" (Department of Environmental Resources Public Hearing, February 17, 1994, transcript).

27. [Back to text]  Bill Clinton, Executive Order Number 12898, February 1995; cf. Gretchen Leslie and Colleen Casper, "Environmental Equity: An Issue for the 90s?" Environmental Insight, 1995.

28. [Back to text]  "Minority Areas Gain in Suit on Waste Sites," Philadelphia Inquirer, January 1, 998.

29. [Back to text]  For further development on this point see my "Environmental Justice, Neopreservationism, and Sustainable Spirituality," in The Ecological Community: Environmental Challenges for Philosophy, Politics, and Morality, ed. Roger S. Gottlieb (New York: Routledge, 1997), 292-310.

30. [Back to text]  The First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit, "Principles of Environmental Justice," in This Sacred Earth: Religion, Nature, Environment, ed. Roger S. Gottlieb (New York: Routledge, 1996), 634.

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Source: Cross Currents, Fall 200, Vol. 50  Issue 3.