by Sarah Thompson and Cherice Bock
In a recent post, Sarah Thompson shared about her understanding of the theology of waste that grips much of the church in the United States: a theology that sees this world, its people, and its resources as disposable, and that has a hard time dealing with physical and emotional crap (waste, trauma, colonialism, racism, etc.). Thompson connects the idea of learning to deal with our physical waste with learning to deal with our emotional and spiritual waste. In this week’s post, she discusses what challenges to this theology of waste look like in environmental activism. We particularly discussed her recent work as the director of Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT), and we also discussed the work required of white environmentalists in order to deal with the theology of waste spread by the combination of Christianity and Western imperialism.
CB: How do you think Christians can actively challenge the theology of waste you’re outlining? I know you recently worked for CPT, so I would love to hear more about how you see their work relating to helping people deal with their crap.
ST: One example is CPT’s work in Colombia. We as consumers want products with palm oil in them from the Body Shop, and so the Body Shop subcontracted in Colombia, and was forcing out farmers in Las Pavas. Farmers in Las Pavas went and faced down those tractors that were bulldozing their land and livelihoods. They contacted CPT to say, “Hey, come stand with us in this moment of danger.” So we accompanied them to their farmland each day as they faced down threats from the company’s security forces, right there in their backyard in Colombia. Their community lawyer was involved as well, and assured them that they had the legal right to the land. As we all strategized together, they asked of CPT, “Can you see where this palm oil product is going?” And we did that research. We found that the palm oil products were being shipped to the Global North, to Body Shop stores in Europe and the USA.
So, we took the message to consumers in London, Chicago, and other places at Body Shop locations, sharing with customers, “Here’s the documentation of what your purchase is doing. Here are photos of the banana and plantain plantations chopped up, and the cacao bushes scattered. Please do not buy this product that claims to be ‘green’ but is destroying the lives of farmers, their families, and communities.”
Some people responded, “Well, I have the freedom to buy this,” and we could say, “Is your freedom the only freedom that matters? What about the freedom for a farmer to be able to live on their land and be at peace?”
CB: I have always appreciated the peacemaking work that CPT does between people groups, and when I went on a delegation to Israel/Palestine, I realized that a lot of the conflict going on there has to do with natural resources: the settlers have these nice watered lawns and flush toilets, and the Palestinians just down the road get holes shot in their water barrels and have to pay exorbitant amounts for their rationed city water. Israel is building a wall that snakes around to intentionally separate people from their water and land sources. I see these as environmental justice issues, but we don’t usually think of them in that way on a global scale. Would you describe the work of CPT as watershed discipleship?
ST: Christian Peacemaker Teams is not necessarily a watershed-based organization, but they’re looking at what happens when the actions in one watershed affect people in other watersheds. In a lot of ways, the work they’re doing follows Wendell Berry’s quip, “Do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do to you.”
Even though CPT is a global organization, they’re careful to be responsive to very local campaigns. Each team is focused on local issues such as Indigenous Peoples Solidarity where they work on Treaty I and Treaty III Territory disputes with the folks at Grassy Narrows First Nation in Canada, and in Colombia, in Las Pavas and Garzal and other small villages along the Magdalena Medio region, working to resist land grabbing and hyper-development. In Kurdistan, the team stands with farmers who are facing down oil companies and cross-border bombings, and challenging government policies that don’t allow for their flourishing and belonging to the land. In Palestine, the environmental situation is exacerbated by military occupation, particularly around water. Having a chance to work with this intersection of climate change and social justice is key, and so I would invite environmentalists—and especially folks of faith—into the work of CPT. Whatever door they come through (faith, nonviolence, earth liberation, antiracism) is fine. Once we’re all there, we can really link up intersectionally.
CB: How do you hope, moving forward, that we can work on bridging the gap between the stereotypically white environmental movement in the United States, and movements focused on environmental justice and environmental racism? Or, what would you want white environmentalists to do to contribute positively to overcoming the intersectional problems around race and the environment?
ST: I am someone who is a bridge between white communities and communities of color because I talk like I do, because I have the education that I do, the biracial background, and because I have the papers I do (as in documents). I’ve been willing to answer the call to spaces that don’t necessarily have majority people of color. If white environmentalists want to, they can come and participate alongside any of the many struggles for personhood while resisting anthropocentrism—many indigenous communities recognize that humans are one species among many, and are not struggling for domination over their environment, rather recognition among the community of humans. Furthermore, many human rights defenders see the natural world also as part of what has personhood. Though I don’t think it’s the end-all-be-all, from one angle I deeply appreciate the Ecuadoran approach, to try to get Mother Earth rights, similar to human rights that are supposedly inviolable. In an individualist-driven society, it’s a necessary step. If there are white environmentalists that want to recover their deep humanity through their commitments to the struggle for survival alongside all species, then they are so, so welcome!
CB: As you’ve transitioned from CPT, what other justice movement spaces nurture you?
ST: I’ve learned a considerable amount from the community of facilitators of The Work that Reconnects by Joanna Macy. One thing that many of us are working on now is bringing a decolonial, anti-racist lens to the practices of that excellent workshop methodology to develop active hope. The despair and hope work Macy initiated is key—it has been a gospel for middle-aged white women coming out of the anti-nuclear movement: giving new voice, creating new space, hope, everything!
Now, many other people beyond that demographic have found wisdom in this work as well, but it requires an Acts 15 moment, where we’re able to question what needs to stay, what is essential, and what is not essential. For example, how do we cope with the fact that when you get into one of these despair rituals, you may have a white person mourning about the loss of a certain species in a certain land-space, but she does not know the history of that land itself, or that a lot of that loss began when the space was stolen from Indigenous caretakers in the first place? Or, how do we help people learn how to really deeply mourn the deterioration of white culture that was created during and through genocide on this continent, and through enslavement, and through ongoing practices that continue patterns of racism? So, learning how to grieve both environmental losses and human rights losses are essential. I wrote a piece on this called “Intersectionalization of the Work That Reconnects.”
Seeing the connection between land loss, loss of species, and loss of cultural diversity and life ways helps white environmentalists see that struggles for human sovereignty, self-determination, collective hope, and challenging anti-Blackness are part of the struggle to “save the planet.” There is no time for our movements to be in opposition to one another. We’re all in this together. Understanding the nuances of how we are in it together differently, however, is not divisive; rather it paints a more accurate picture of the types of power and influence different groups have. From there we can explore the myriad ways people wish to effect change, and how we’re accountable to one another in that process.
To go back to my earlier analogy, it means that no one is disposable, and a process like The Work that Reconnects can help people metabolize their emotions of grief, anger, fear, and numbness to aid them in their quest, which is at its root loving, justice-seeking, courageous and open-hearted. Rather than stifling them through pharmaceuticals (which, by the way, get in your feces and then go into the earth/water), we can process them collectively as we journey together.
Committing to the philosophy that no one is waste can help to invite people to take a deep breath when they feel challenged by rhetoric or the experiences of people who are in different communities that are negatively impacted by the status quo. It can also be powerful to invite white environmentalists to spend time in Appalachia with poor white folks, and to sit with some of the connections and disconnections around class as well as race.
We’re at 50 years since the beginning of the Poor People’s Campaign, which was very much a movement of religious and community leaders to build momentum to end poverty, led by the poor, across color lines. Everyone in that movement knew that their welfare is linked up with the welfare of the environment. Inviting people to learn from that history can help, because the Poor People’s Campaign had poor white folks, Latinos (at that time referring to Puerto Ricans and Mexicans especially), and Black folks getting into step. That movement was systematically cut down by the apparatus of the state, because that was a very powerful movement.
Additionally, if we have United States or Canadian citizenship, we can look at what citizenship privilege means vis á vis the rest of the world. We can go on international delegations, putting in solidarity time with movement-based organizations led by those outside the US and Canada, or communities native to these lands. This is a lot of what Christian Peacemaker Teams does. At every location, the conflict and the peace work is not only for a social justice reason, nor is it solely for an environmental reason, but it’s at the cross between the social justice movement for the people, the environmentalist movement for the trees, the air, the land, and the place where they’re at. So: people, trees, and places coming together.
The end of the story about the forcibly extracted palm oil, the Body Shop, and the farmers of Las Pavas goes like this. The farmers and CPTers kept up their pressure on the ground. CPTers kept going into Body Shop stores to talk to consumers, and putting pressure on the Body Shop by writing letters to decision-makers and publically calling for a boycott of the store until it lived up to its ethical and green policies. Our team and the community in Colombia were threatened multiple times, but kept up the pressure. In the Global North, we faced arrest for refusing to leave the stores. After a year and a half of pressure, the Body Shop adhered to our demands and cut the contract with the subcontractor that was displacing and assaulting the community and the land.
The Las Pavas farmers were able to return to their land, and now plant in peace. They are a stronger community due to their victory, and even the Colombian state recognized them for their nonviolent persistence in the face of adversity. Here they tell their own story. This is what working together across watersheds can look like!
Bio: Sarah Thompson is a 2018 Generations Fellow at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center in Atlanta, Georgia. 2018 is a key year as it is 50 years since 1968, the year of the assassination of King and the Poor People’s Campaign. She is working on the Beloved Community Talks this April. Formerly, Sarah was the Executive Director of Christian Peacemaker Teams, an organization committed to building partnerships that transform violence and oppression. At the request of local peacemakers, CPT sends international teams to support grassroots struggles for human rights and nonviolent social change worldwide. Sarah is a Mennonite from Elkhart, Indiana, and attended Spelman College, majoring in Comparative Women’s Studies and International Studies, with a minor in Spanish. She is a 2011 graduate of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, and through theological scholar-activism and ecological Black feminism she has visited 63 countries.