Honoring God with environmental justice

Apr 26, 2017 by

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If you look at Mennonite Church USA’s “What We Believe” section on its website, you will see these two priorities: stewardship and undoing racism. I believe that these two principles translate across all Anabaptist congregations and conferences, but are dearly important for the Mennonite faith. Yet, at times I question — are they practiced?

I wish I could say yes definitively, but as of late I have realized that is not true. No one at Eastern Mennonite University was talking about the clashes between police and Native American-led protestors at Standing Rock until I chose to host prayer vigils. The crisis in Flint, Mich., has been going on for almost two years now, but the dialogue has stopped in the Mennonite church. Now Mennonites in Lancaster, Pa., are fighting another pipeline, again going through historically native land.

For three years, the group Lancaster Against Pipelines and now The Lancaster Stand have been standing up for the land and indigenous rights as they protest the Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline. With construction slated to begin this summer, we are staring down another Standing Rock, but in our backyard. If the pipeline is constructed, it will desecrate native artifacts and burial sites. If the pipeline breaks, it will contaminate Mennonite and Amish farmland and contaminate water for countless residents. We must put native and environmental rights first!

When I visited the camp in early March, I learned these things firsthand. I saw the proposed route and how close it ran to the last Conestoga Indian town and the last Conestoga Indian chief’s burial grave. I saw the beautiful farmland it would run under and next to. I saw the Conestoga river and how close it was to the beautiful and dearly important Susquehanna River. I saw firsthand what needed to be protected. That is why the Coalition for Climate Justice at Eastern Mennonite University focused our efforts to support them with a public statement.

But that is not enough. It is time for us as Mennonites to reject the Doctrine of Discovery and walk what we preach. It is time for us to stand up for indigenous people and the land they have protected for centuries. It is time for us to stand up for the Earth. It is time for us to live out what it means to be followers of Christ.

It is a shame that it took this long for us to care, but we cannot choose to look the other way now. It is a shame Martin Niemöller’s poem, “First they came…,” rings ever true today. It is a shame that we have left the planet in such bad shape. But there is hope, because we will begin to stand up for these people!

I see a rising in the youth of the church for social and environmental justice. While we are timid to begin the conversation, once it begins, it does not end. Environmental and social justice matters to us, maybe because we realize we will have to live on this planet for a long while still, but because it is what our faith calls us to. Jesus called us to care for the oppressed and to be good stewards of the Earth. This, in practice, is standing with groups like Standing Rock and The Lancaster Stand. And that is why I have hope, because I have begun to see a reawakening at EMU and at schools across the country for these social movements. But even more because we are pursuing environmental and social justice in a way that honors God.

Standing Rock was to this day the best example I have ever seen of what community is supposed to look like. It was a community of intentional relation with those of differing backgrounds, but in the end, human. It was a community centered on prayer and realizing that we need help to solve these issues. It was a community focused on making the world a better place through nonviolent, peaceful demonstration. It was a community trying its hardest to make the world a better place.

My hope is that we will not stay silent any more when environmental and social injustices are happening around us. I ask you as Mennonites and those who believe in undoing racism and stewardship to stand up for native and environmental rights. We as the Coalition for Climate Justice at EMU are asking everyone and anyone who stands up for native and environmental rights to stand with The Lancaster Stand by signing onto our public statement and raising awareness for this issue with your family and friends so that it is not swept under the rug. Together we will begin to put people, planet and peace before profit.

Austin Sachs is a student at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va., and is president of the Coalition for Climate Justice at EMU. Subscribe to read more in the annual college issue’s special section, “Teaching Peace, Making Peace” on pages 11-18 of the April 24, 2017 issue of Mennonite World Review.

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