“The definition of neighbor includes more than human life.”

The General Synod of the United Church of Christ has become the first mainline Protestant body to publicly proclaim that nature has rights. On July 18, delegates adopted a resolution on the rights of nature by a vote of 518 to 18. The United Church of Christ, a mainline Protestant denomination, has more than 800,000 members in 4,852 congregations nationwide. The church was also the first mainline denomination to ordain a woman, an openly gay man and the first predominantly white denomination to ordain an African American.

The resolution states an intention to, “Support the Earth Charter, the Nature Rights movement, and the movement of Indigenous Peoples to grant legal standing to nature.”

The resolution builds on the church’s environmental justice work, affirming, “that co-living with Nature involves distributive justice.”

It also includes a commitment to seek reparations for ecosystems and to, “Support the upholding of all treaties with indigenous nations, respecting their lands and kinship natural relations. Ally with and support Indigenous Peoples in their decolonization of Nature, protecting their kinship rights and access to sacred lands.”

We at CELDF are excited to see our friends at UCC take this step.

“In declaring the rights of nature, we are taking an important step in undoing a centuries-old theology of empire and colonialism,” said the Rev. Brooks Berndt, based in Cleveland as the UCC’s minister of environmental justice. “This puts into the dustbin of history worldviews that regard the natural world around us as something to be exploited and consumed by humans with callous disregard.”

We asked the resolution’s author, Rev. Dr. Robert Shore-Goss of Orlando, Fla., a few questions about the developments. He is the author of The Insurgency of Spirit: Jesus’s Liberation Animist Spirituality, Empire, and Creating Christian Protects. Published in 2020 by Lexington Books. 

What sparked this resolution? How did you arrive at the place of recognizing that nature should have rights considering most monotheistic religions have promoted the idea that humanity is superior to nature and must “manage and tame” the earth? 

In my research, I argue that the Hebrew creation spirituality and then of Jesus was formed in the wilderness and stands against imperial colonization in both testaments. There was a more intimate relation to nature than is remembered. I trace Jesus’s radicalness to his wilderness experience and an understanding of the land as a divine gift. Throughout my book, I make a comparison with North American Indigenous peoples, their world views, and the land of Jewish peasants colonized by the Romans, as well as other Indigenous peoples whose land was colonized by other European settlers. Standing Rock taught us a lot about the connection between human and nature rights. Capitalism and colonial settlerism (the beginnings of capitalism) parallel Roman imperial colonization and settler colonialism in North America. The rights of Nature are necessary for a moral human revolution to break down human apartheid separate and above nature. I believe that Earth Bible ecojustice principles are inherent in the Hebrew scripture and the Christian scriptures, countering empires then and now. Today that means challenging imperial Christianity and the fossil fuel empire. Colonizers have always used property rights to usurp Indigenous human rights and over nature’s rights. 

Here are our ecojustice principles. https://www.webofcreation.org/Earthbible/ebprinciples.html 

Do you believe that Rights of Nature falls into a moral obligation? 

Yes. I do. This is the Earth covenant a Church in North Hollywood, CA passed to become the first UCC Creation Justice Church.

Earth Covenant (2012)

We, the MCC / UCC in the Valley, proclaim our love for God’s Creation and profess our belief that the Earth and all life are an interconnected part of the sacred Web of Life. We acknowledge we too are part of the Web of Life.

We covenant together to commit ourselves as a church and individuals in the great work of healing, preservation and justice as we strive to reduce our individual and collective negative impact on the environment and to repair the damage that has been done to God’s Earth. In worship and church life we will express our appreciation and give praise for the Earth and display a reverence for the Earth community of life. We commit ourselves to principles of taking only what we need, clean up our damage to Earth we do, and keep the Earth in repair for the future. 

We make this covenant in the hope and faith that through our Earth care we will be able to help improve and sustain the health of the land, air and water for the benefit of all current and future inhabitants of this Planet. Amen!

Our biblical traditions affirm clearly we are citizens and participants in the planetary community of interrelated life. The real moral principles inherent in the Judeo-Christian tradition argue that we are interconnected. A notion of a creation-centered spirituality asserts that there is a distributive justice in creation intended by the Creator Spirit, and life deserves a fair share of the land, resources, and right to thrive and well-being, not just human beings, but all created life. Other eco-theologians, like the late Sallie McFague and retired UCC clergy and Conference Minister James Antal speak of extending Jesus’s commandment to love your neighbor as yourself to the Earth and all life. The definition of neighbor includes more than human life. 

The resolution includes a commitment to “support the upholding of all treaties with indigenous nations.” Could this include pushing local settler municipal governments to recognize local treaties? 

The UCC Environmental Justice Council has aligned itself with Honor the Earth, which is opposing Line 3 in Minnesota. A number of UCC folks have joined the Ojibwa and Ashinaabe nations in their struggle. One of the delegates to the Synod and on the committee evaluating the Resolution on the Rights of Nature shared what several Indigenous peoples said to him. “The UCC needs to heal its wounds and relationship to Nature before aligning with their struggle.”  There is so much truth to that statement. The hope is that UCC Christians will begin to heal our relationship to Nature and Indigenous peoples.

Here is another example, the UCC Resolution on Occupied Hawaii passed this July:  https://www.ucc.org/synod-changes-decision-passes-resolution-on-occupied-hawaii/    

At its 2017 General Synod  the UCC passed a resolution declaring “The Earth belongs to Lord and Not Ours to Wreck: Imperatives for a New Moral Era”:http://synod.uccpages.org/res21.html 

We have a long educational road ahead of us in understanding “property,” which can be an emotional issue, and its role in the legacy of slavery, that women were once treated as property, and how property functioned in the displacement and genocide of Indigenous peoples. We are actively discussing these issues

Powerful corporations oppose reparations for damages to ecosystems. Why is confronting the power of corporations key to advancing the rights of nature?

The greatest challenge will be the economic role of corporations and the property bias of United States law that extends rights to corporations. There needs to be a spiritual revolution in our relation to Nature to generate resistance to fossil fuel industries and ancillary corporate exploiters.

We must hold corporations accountable. Several black women in Warren County, NC blocked a toxic cancerous waste dump site. Their activism led to the coining of the phrase “environmental racism.” This led to a UCC study of toxic waste sites in 1987 and later in 2007. It demonstrated how toxic chemicals, waste, including radioactive disposal, harmed people in a five mile radius. These were primarily poor, black, Asian, Latino, and Indigenous peoples. This was the birth of the UCC’s commitment to environmental justice. 

Many of our churches have also divested their investments in fossil fuel companies and reinvested in renewable energies. 

What comes next? What has been the response from your fellow clergy and also from the individual congregations? 

There is pride within UCC over the resolution. We also believe that other mainline Christian denominations and the Unitarian Universalist Church will follow our example. I have had UCC clergy want to learn more about the rights of nature to promote the paradigm shift. Several plan to subscribe to various centers on Earth rights to keep up on the various campaigns on Nature rights and to educate churches, and vote for Bills of Rights for Nature, and support municipal ordinances to protect water (aquifers, streams, rivers, ponds, lakes, and wetlands) from environmental damage.  

We are working to include more environmental justice issues and discussions about the natural world in our services, use our summer camps for children to help them fall in love with nature and become future advocates/activists for Nature in the fight against climate change.   

Photo by James Wheeler on Unsplash

Additional Resources