Eco-Theology and Zoning Meetings: An Interview with Willie Jennings

Willie Jennings is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology and Africana Studies at YDS. His research includes liberation theologies, cultural identities, and anthropology. A Baptist minister, he is the author of The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race (Yale, 2010). He was raised in Michigan by parents who were sharecroppers in the South before moving north. In Michigan, his family kept a garden, which helped them survive and gave them a healing connection to the earth and to each other. In a recent online YDS Quadcast called “What Does Theology Say About Ecology?”, he said: “There is a priesthood of the human creature in relation to other creatures, but that priesthood means we lead the other creatures in the worship of God, not that we are kings over the other creatures.” In a recent interview with Reflections, he spoke of the need for a richer doctrine of creation in church life.

Regarding a lost sense of landscape …

The difficulty begins with our doctrine of creation – we don’t really have one. We Christians say God created the world, but after saying that we don’t have much to add. The result is we’ve contributed to the deepening split between our bodies and the world. By now we’re habituated to thinking our bodies are not only distinct from the earth but separate from the earth.

When early Europeans explored the rest of the world, they decided they had “come into possession” of the land. They adopted a particular idea about the land: The land was something that could be “owned” by individuals forever. The strangeness and absurdity of this notion – that the earth can be owned – got lost, and we got accustomed to looking at the earth as a thing. Then Christians rebaptized this view by saying God gave us dominion over the planet, the right to exploit it, extract from it. This has made us oblivious to a sense of place and landscape. We talk about the earth in the language of possession, property, real estate, price point, borders, the boundaries of my land versus yours.

How the logic of possession dominates debate …

This is a tragedy at many levels. It has impoverished our discussion about the environment. limiting the questions we ask. Because we’ve been shaped by the logic of possession, we primarily ask just three questions about the land, 1) “Who owns it?” 2) “How do I extract from it what I need?” And 3) “What piece of land should I possess – that is, where’s the best place I can live?” I think of the quote from Vine Deloria Jr.: “Americans wanted to feel a natural affinity with the continent, and it was Indians who could teach them such aboriginal closeness. Yet, in order to control the landscape, they had to destroy the original inhabitants.”

An attitude of separation is reflected in all Western education, which is built on the idea that the world is not animate or communicative but an object to be studied, an object that doesn’t interact with our psychological or spiritual lives.

Regarding the life of Jesus and the life of the earth …

The incarnation itself means God cares very much about the earth, not first in terms of possessing it but communing with it. When Jesus spoke, every anecdote and illustration he gave came out of a sense of place, an experience of responding to the land, animals, people. He showed deep communion with the world. Yes, he came out of an agrarian culture. But he chose to make himself present to Israel in this way, carrying something of the Creator’s grasp of the creation: The God of creation joined the creation, willingly, joyfully. How do we live into that? Could it be that we should use Jesus’ presence to let the land and animals speak through him?

A healthy doctrine of creation understands we are creatures with other creatures. We are made in the image of God, but this does not negate our connection with other creators. The image of God does not mean we are no longer creatures. It means we are the creatures who are called to respond to the word of God.

On time, space, and place: a physical world waiting to be heard …

A common argument says time is more important to God than space – that redemption happens on a timeline, and space isn’t a factor. In other traditions, the temporal and the spatial are not in competition. Jesus demonstrates this. When he spoke of the future, a favorite image he used was the seed. With a seed, the future arrives from the ground up, not as a force coming toward us.

Fortunately, an increasing number of people realize we need a better theological vision of our relations to the earth. An eco-theological vision starts with connectivity. The world is animate and communicative. It is not inert. It is a world that is speaking. It is semiotic. We forget that there was a time when people knew the world was connective, and it spoke through us. When we hear that message today, Christians very often don’t know what to do with that!***

Relating eco-theology, segregation, and city zoning policy …

An eco-theological vision has all kinds of moral, pragmatic consequences. It prompts us to think very carefully about local building environments, the issue of the struggle for habitation – and who gets to choose. We’ve allowed the logic of capitalism to tell us what’s possible – the way cities are configured, the condition of our streets, the specific layout of bus routes and sidewalks. But ideologies and politics drive those choices. All kinds of ethical decisions are made that are presented as market decisions. I tell churches to get to know the land, the landscape where they are, and how it works. We live woefully ignorant of the geography we inhabit. People should be drawn together to ask, How should we live on this land? How are decisions made about where schools go, where goods and services and green spaces go?

To learn about the use of the land is already to step into a deeply ethical space: You’re learning who’s making the decisions. You discover how segregation is built inside real estate policy, how violence is formed inside zoning policy. Policing practices always follow zoning practices. I want people of faith to crowd into those zoning meetings.

We come to understand that race and place are two sides of the same coin. Historically, there was a deep connection between place and personal identity. Bodies and land were one, and they were one with the animals on the land. To understand who they were, you had to understand where they were. Once they were stripped of their identity with the land, race became a way to identify people. That powerful connection with the land is difficult now for many of us to grasp. By now we can barely imagine it. But until we reckon with the fact that racial identity was substituted for place and place-centered identity, the power of race will remain an ever-renewing force with each generation of race-formed children.

*** For more, see the YDS Quadcast “What Does Theology Say About Ecology” at