After President Trump announced he would pull the United States out of the Paris climate accord, I looked to the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective for guidance.
“As stewards of God’s earth,” the Confession states in Article 21, “we are called to care for the earth and to bring rest and renewal to the land and everything that lives on it.” Our vocation is to care for the Earth, to renew the soil, to allow for rhythms of restfulness for flora and fauna. We look after the well-being of God’s creation, the work of God’s hands. From the perspective of the rest of the earth, the plants and animals, we are to be a blessing — human beings as a blessing for creation.
To serve the livelihood of Earth is part of our commitment to peace. As the Confession puts it in Article 6: “Human beings have been made for relationship with God, to live in peace with each other, and to take care of the rest of creation.” To care for creation is bound up in our identity as a peace church. We dedicate our lives to nurturing Christ’s peace among us, and our relationship to the Earth is related to our peace work. The way we treat the environment affects our relationships as human beings, determining our ability to live at peace with our neighbors near and far.
At his press conference to announce the Paris climate accord decision, the president repeated the following phrase as his rationale: “America first.” This slogan proclaims an ideology anathema to our Mennonite convictions about what it means to be human as articulated in this Confession, which serves Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada. Our nature, as human beings, is directed toward God’s peace for all creation — not only ourselves, not only our communities, not only this country. We cannot be for ourselves without also being for others. And to care for creation is to care for all the people with whom we share this planet.
A sectarian nationalism permeates the president’s “America First” ideology — an ecological provincialism that is the legacy of the globalized racism of wealthy nation-states. In his book Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence (Nation Books, 2011), Christian Parenti identifies the “exclusionary tribalism” of “the Global North’s use and abuse of the Global South.”
Resource extraction from Africa and South America mimics the economic flow of the transatlantic slave trade. After centuries of ravaging the Southern Hemisphere, after decades of overwhelming the atmosphere with greenhouse gases, the United States has turned its back on the humanitarian crisis it has helped produce through environmental degradation on a global scale.
Instead of making commitments to care for creation and to live at peace with our global neighbors, the president has withdrawn from environmental commitments and has closed the door to refugees. Parenti identifies this “America first” ideology as “climate fascism”— a “politics of the armed lifeboat,” where a country responds “to climate change by arming, excluding, forgetting, repressing, policing and killing.”
A decade ago the International Migration Organization reported on the unequal distribution of the devastating effects of climate change: “[T]he burden of providing for climate migrants will be borne by the poorest countries —those least responsible for emissions of greenhouse gases.”
Those of us here in the United States, far north of the equator, do not face the same immediate threat as equatorial countries. The people inhabiting land between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Tropic of Cancer are already suffering from rising oceans and desertification of land, from climate wars due to water shortages and decimated agriculture. They bear the burden of our global environmental crisis.
As climate refugees flee the devastation caused by the polluting countries in the Global North, the U.S. president has responded with another slogan: “Build the wall,” which correlates with the ideology of “America first,” because both rely on a global politics of segregation. “In the face of rising migration,” Parenti writes, “the borders between wealthy core economies and the developing world harden and militarize.”
Our world is suffering from an environmental catastrophe rooted in the legacy of a racialized global economy, with European descendents taking possession of land and peoples, of mineral resources and energy sources, and dumping waste into the atmosphere.
As systemic racism partitions our planet so as to protect U.S. citizens from the effects of our ecological degradation, we have to turn our vision south of our borders, to our neighbors whose lives are bound up in our own, and call for an end to policies that segregate us from them —whether in terms of lack of environmental regulations to care for the Earth or in terms of immigration polices that preclude hospitality to climate refugees.
When it comes to the environment and immigrants, President Trump preaches his sectarian message: “America first.” As Mennonites, we proclaim a different gospel: “justice, peace and compassion for all people.”
Isaac S. Villegas is pastor of Chapel Hill (N.C.) Mennonite Fellowship.