Green Discipleship

Larry Rasmussen

Better than a year ago, The New York Times published a letter to the editor in response to an article entitled “Glaciers Flow to Sea at a Faster Pace, Study Says.” The letter’s author was James Gustave Speth, dean of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.

Speth wrote:

The world we have known is history. A mere 1 degree Fahrenheit global aver- age warming is already raising sea levels, strengthening hurricanes, disrupting ecosystems, threatening parks and protected areas, causing droughts and heat waves, melting the Arctic and glaciers everywhere and killing thousands of people a year.…Yet there are several more degrees coming in our grandchildren’s lifetimes….It is easy to feel like a character in a bad science fiction novel running down the street shouting, “Don’t you see it!” while life goes on, business as usual….Climate change is the biggest thing to happen here on earth in thousands of years, with incalculable environmental, social and economic costs. But there is no march on Washington; students are not in the streets; consumers are not rejecting their destructive lifestyles; Congress is not passing far-reaching legislation; the president is not on television explaining the threat to the country; Exxon is not quaking in its boots; and entire segments of evening news pass without mention of the climate emergency…Instead, 129 new coal-fired plants are being developed in the United States alone, and so on…. There are many of us caught in this story. We must find another soon.”1

What is “this story” we’re “caught in?” And how do we get to the other story we “must find… soon?”

The alarm of scientists whose context is the misery of the poor supplements Speth with environmental realities well in place before accelerated climate change symptoms got some traction. Ricardo Navarro is one such scientist. A Salvadoran scientist who founded a large grassroots conservation effort in Central America, his documentation concludes that the three most dangerous things you can do in El Salvador are breathe the air, drink the water, and eat the food, in that order. In nearby Mexico, a full 50 percent of the water — to pick one critical resource — is unsafe for daily use. Globally, and to stay with the example of water, half of humanity lacks proper sanitation facilities even though we presently use fresh water at double the rate of aquifer replenishment. Navarro spells out the details of this and other resource use and then lists the debts and the toll.

There is an ecological debt from the people who consume to the people who do not consume, or consume less. If we talk geographically we will say an ecological debt from the countries of the north to the countries of the south. If we talk historically, we will say an ecological debt from white people to people of colour or indigenous people. We can also say an ecological debt from men to women. We can also say an ecological debt from urban areas to rural areas. An ecological debt also from our generation to future generations, and the same ecological debt we ought to acknowledge from human beings to the rest of creation, because we are not only destroying our- selves, but we are also destroying other species on the planet. Besides that, socially speaking, half of the world lives with less than $2 a day. We talk about terrorism.  We think about September 11th, 3,000 people killed — that is terrorism of course. The same day there were in the world 15,000 people killed because of diseases related to pollution of air, pollution of water and pollution of food. It was not only September 11, it was September 12, September 13, September 14, every day — and that happens day after day. If we dare to say that killing 3,000 in New York is terrorism, what is killing 15,000 people every day because of this system? Who is the terrorist here? It is the economic system. We have to think about that.”2

So Speth urges “another story…soon” and Navarro says, “[It’s] the economic system. We have to think about that.

The story we’re captured by, now on a global scale, is the same as the economic system we have to think about — capitalism.

Is Capitalism Sustainable?

There are very good reasons why we’re happily captured by it. No other economic system has approximated its capacity to generate wealth and lift the masses from their misery. Capitalism in fact solved one of the three perennial problems every economy addresses but few solve; namely, the problem of production. Capitalism generates “stuff” on a mass scale. It solves the problem of “enough” goods and services to meet human needs. Nothing approaches capitalism as an engine of wealth-generation, now for billions of people.

Capitalism has not, however, solved the other ancient problems of a viable economy: distribution and sustainability. You can join them and say that capitalism has not solved the problem of injustice, if the rubric of injustice includes both harm to peoples as well as the rest of nature. Left to themselves, un- fettered capitalist markets tend to generate wealth at one pole and poverty at another. Present inequalities and inequities between rich and poor are obscene: in the United States, the CEOs of major corporations took home on average $10 million each in

2004 alone while workers’ wages stagnated or actually fell, along with their health care and pension benefits. The federal minimum wage is not even a livable wage for most families; that is, working full-time at that wage does not put one safely above the poverty line. On a global scale — and ours is a global economy of corporate capitalism — we have “The Champagne Glass Economy.” If you are holding the kind of champagne glass that has the broad, shallow top and long stem, the image works. The top 20 percent of the world population (the broad, shallow, upper portion of the glass) hold 83 percent of the world’s wealth. The next 20 percent (the V-shaped portion connecting the broad bowl and the long stem) holds 11 percent of the world’s wealth. And the bottom 60 percent of the world’s population (the long stem) holds 6 percent of the world’s wealth. Capitalism, left to its own logic of “buy cheap, sell dear” in a profit-driven, growth- driven economy, has never solved the problem of distributive justice. This has pushed governments to address the plight of the poor and forgotten (Scandinavian and lowland countries have done this extensively, as did FDR’s New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs). Or capitalist injustice has led to economy-based reforms of the capitalist sys- tem itself (labor organizing, varieties of socialisms, efforts at sustainable local communities).

But solving the distribution problem does not automatically solve the problem of unsustainability. Addressing present human inequality and inequity doesn’t of itself ensure that future generations won’t sink under the ecological debt Navarro spoke of; future generations may find themselves scrambling in a degraded, depleted world where eating the food, drinking the water, and breathing the air are life- threatening activities.

Our Economy vs. Earth’s Economy

Here is the crunch: modern industrial and post- industrial economies have yet to find a way to grow and be ecologically sustainable at the same time. The crunch is that Earth’s regeneration and renewal on its own non-negotiable terms and timelines collides with global capitalism and its short-haul dynamism. If you assume what most do — namely, that capitalist economics grow about 3 percent per year — then the world economy will grow 16 times in one century, 250 times in two, and 4,000 times in three. In any such scenario, planetary metabolic processes are soon overwhelmed by cumulative economic processes that negatively affect both biosphere and atmosphere. Exactly that is what accelerated climate change portends, and what Speth warns of, though climate change is only one consequence of a “taking” economy, rather than a sustaining, reciprocating one. All this happens while history and science document that each and every human economy is always and only a dependent subset of Earth’s economy and that fragile ecosystems and biospheric and atmospheric limits are flouted by the high and rising levels of extraction, consumption, and waste of what now can only be called global “turbo-capital- ism.” The global economy’s orientation is short-haul wealth and profit, while Earth’s economy demands upon long-haul reciprocity.

Here are the questions we must address. How do we ecologize capitalism at the same time we address its social injustice? How do we make capitalist markets work to help heal creation (peoples and “environment” together)? In a word, how do we do “green discipleship?”

It’s not easy being green and, for discipleship, “green” has three meanings. It’s “green” disciple- ship because, at least in the United States, that’s the color of money. What kind of discipleship takes seriously our economic stewardship? How do we address the obscene inequities and inequalities of the present economy?

It’s “green,” secondly, because that’s a prime color of healthy nature. What is environmentally savvy discipleship, discipleship that yields sustain- able communities, communities that are economically and environmentally sustainable at one and the same time?

It’s also “green” because we’re not very good at it. Our discipleship hasn’t solved either the social injustice or the eco-injustice problems. Yet it must help do so now, since these threaten to overwhelm us and the generations that follow. The planet is in jeopardy at human hands. We must strive for discipleship that is not so amateurish, so “green,” so casual about the crises Speth and Navarro say are hardly stirring us at all.

More needs to be said about discipleship in our time. It’s an aside, but the kind of aside appropriate for committed people of faith doing advocacy work. Thereafter we can turn to Jewish and Christian guidelines for green discipleship.

Four questions, largely rhetorical, are appropriate for thinking about a discipleship viable for the challenges before us.

1.   Is there a non-imperial or an anti-imperial discipleship for us today? Christian discipleship was not only forged in the context of empire, it was forged as a way of life alternative to the empire’s. What does discipleship as an alternative to empire and as an expression of evangelical obedience mean for Christians, especially Christians carrying U.S. passports at a time when this nation is “noisy with believers” at home and feared and loathed abroad? What kind of theological malpractice made it even remotely possible for U.S. Christians to render Jesus pro-rich, pro-American, and pro-war?

2. Is there a discipleship of the Spirit? Discipleship is always associated, rightly, with following Jesus. But is this a proper reading if what Jesus himself does he does “in the power of the Spirit,” or, alternatively, “full of the Holy Spirit”; if his own testimony about his own mission in Luke 4 begins, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor”; and if he says he must depart so that the Spirit might dwell among his disciples, guide them, and produce in them the fruits of the Spirit as the fruits of discipleship itself? Or if Jesus dares to say his followers will, in the power of the Spirit, do even greater things than he? And please note: Paul speaks of the first Jewish- Christian discipleship communities as those who “were all made to drink of one Spirit” (I Corinth.12:13). Are we sufficiently Trinitarian in our discipleship? Have we inadvertently been reductionist about following Jesus? Jesus is utterly God-centered and Spirit-inspired and Spirit-led, and not, as Joseph Sittler once remarked, Christ-centered at all. So should our discipleship be more Christocentric than Jesus’ discipleship? And what about a vast number of our Christian neighbors? In no time at all, the modern Pentecostal movement has grown to nearly one-quarter of the global Christian flock. How will we be disciples together if Spirit discipleship is foreign to many of us? These are times of tumultuous change, times that call out for a shared sense of Holy Spirit dynamism as well as a shared sense of common Earth citizenship. That leads to the third question.

3.  Is there a “green” discipleship for a planet in jeopardy at human hands? Addressing Earth and its distress is the moral assignment of our time. What has discipleship to do with it? What kind of discipleship honors the covenant explicitly deemed “everlasting,” the covenant between God and Earth and every living creature of all flesh (Gen. 9)? And linking this to discipleship and the Spirit, have we forgotten the ecological perspective of patristic theology? There the Holy Spirit is the liberating power that sets all creation free, the peoples and the land, sea, and sky together.

4.  Is there a worldly discipleship savvy about the play of power and human responsibility when privilege continues to reign, as it does, instead of rightly ordered relationships of mutuality? What kind of power-savvy discipleship is wise as a snake while pure as lambs and doves? Discipleship lives from utterly free grace. But its moral wisdom in a corrupt and crabby world does not come easily. We desperately need moral substance and moral weight in our politics, and that means a gracious discipleship that is power-savvy at the same time it calls us to act in accord with our better angels.

Four Green Guidelines

With this discipleship in view — non-imperial, Spirit-led, “green,” and power-savvy — we turn to four guidelines with real tenure in biblical, Jewish, and Christian traditions. They provide a moral frame- work and guidance system.

All four are introduced by St. Ambrose, together with two verses from Proverbs.

Here is Ambrose: “The world has been created for all, while you rich are trying to keep it for your- selves. Not merely the possession of the Earth, but the very sky, air and the sea are claimed for the use of the rich few….Not from your own do you bestow on the poor man, but you make return from what is his. For what has been given as common for the use of all, you appropriate for yourself alone. The Earth belongs to all, not to the rich.”

And here is the voice of Sophia wisdom in Proverbs 30:8–9: “Give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full, and deny you, and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’ or be poor, and steal, and profane the name of my God.”

Enough is best. Christianity, together with most every religious tradition, teaches that the truly abundant life is one of self-discipline and a restraint upon the multiplication of material desires. Indeed, a joyful existence is frustrated by unrestricted material indulgence and consumerism as a way of life. “Enough is best,” rather than “more is better,” is wise on all counts, material, moral, and spiritual. But what is enough? Real poverty is not enough. It debilitates body and kills spirit. It beats people down before they can stand tall. It brutalizes cell and soul alike. An economy that has the resources to meet basic human needs and the needs of Earth’s economy, and does not do so, fails the test of discipleship.

The neighbor’s claim. In the mid-1950s, H. Richard Niebuhr and a couple friends wrote a little treatise on The Purpose of the Church and Its Ministry. It includes this passage: “Who, finally, is my neighbor, the companion whom I have been commanded to love as myself?…He is the near one and the far one; the one removed from me by distances in time and space, in conviction and loyalties….The neighbor is in past and present and future, yet he is not simply mankind in its totality but rather in its articulation, the community of individuals in community. He is Augustine in the Roman Catholic Church and Socrates in Athens, and the Russian people, and the unborn generations who will bear the consequences of our failures, future persons for whom we are adminstering the entrusted wealth of nature and other greater common gifts. [The neighbor] is man and…angel and…animal and inorganic being, all that participates in being.”

In the economy of “the world house” (Martin Luther King’s image of our interdependent world), human householders are trustees of creation in a com- munity that we have inherited and that is entrusted to us for present and future generations. For green discipleship, the neighbor is “all that participates in being.” Our responsibilities extend that far.

universality and equality. “In that which is most basic…the value of each life, we are all equal.” That root moral conviction follows from the faith conviction that God’s love is unbounded. For economy, equity, and environment, it means the following. No human group should be excluded from a reasonable share of the benefits of any human economy and nature’s, nor should any be exempted from shouldering a reasonable share of the burdens. One begins think- ing about restructuring with the idea of an equal sharing of benefits and burdens, and then goes on to say that economic inequalities may be justified if and only if they can be shown to serve the common good (instead of private interests only). The common good now is inclusive of both biosphere and atmosphere.

Checks and balances. As a species, humans are quite “bratty.” We have probably been so since Cain, and certainly since Homer. Green disciple- ship argues that a wise economic order guards against any unchecked concentrations of power and minimizes opportunities for the selfish uses of power. Evil and injustice always flow from maldistributions of power. So, while we cannot ipso facto rule out high concentrations of economic power — to build a public transportation network, to provide a needed dam and irrigation system, to keep postal and communications systems working, to address large-scale emergency needs, to provide public education for masses of people, and so on — such concentrations, whether in public or private hands, require built-in checks upon even the necessary amassing of economic and other power.6 Green discipleship’s nod to democracy is precisely because genuine democracy democratizes political, social, and economic power.

Economy, equity, ecology — rightly relating these is the substance of “green” discipleship for the years ahead. A daunting task, Christian faith bears some wisdom for it.

Larry Rasmussen, emeritus professor of social ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York, is author of Earth Community, Earth Ethics and Moral Fragments & Moral Community.


1     James Gustave Speth, “Letter to the Editor,” New York Times, 24 February 2006, p. A22.

2    Excerpted from “Environment and Humanity: Friends or Foes?,” a symposium at St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, 21 September 2004, with the transcript made available on the following web page: I am grateful to Nelson Rivera, The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, for pointing me to this symposium.

3    St. Ambrose of Milan, De Nabuthe Jezraelita 3, 11, as cited by Rosemary Radford Reuther in “Sisters of Earth: Religious Women and Ecological Spirituality,” The Witness (May 2000): 14.

4   H. Richard Niebuhr et al., The Purpose of the Church and Its Ministry: Reflections on the Aims of Theological Education (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1956),


5    J. Philip Wogaman, The Great Economic Debate: An Ethical Analysis (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1977), 53.

6   This text about priniciples is taken from Larry Rasmussen, “Gaining a Christian Perspective,” ch. 8 of Economic Anxiety & Christian Faith (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1981).