Jesus Christ, Radical Environmentalist
In order to hear the green good news of Christ it helps to listen for his peasant dialect. Jesus was a carpenter, a lowly artisan, from the small agricultural village of Nazareth (which archaeologists estimate was composed of two hundred to four hundred people). Historians propose that as a carpenter he would have worked in the nearby city of Sepphoris. Moving between these worlds, Jesus saw the exploitative ways of the elite from the vantage point of the sustainable peasant community where he was raised.
In Sepphoris, the client ruler Herod Antipas was rebuilding a new shining capital of the region of Galilee in the Roman style. He was rebuilding the city because it had been burned by the Romans around the time of Jesus’ birth, after an insurrectionist named Judas led a revolt and raided the armory there. Judas was leading a resistance against a census the Empire was conducting. This imperial method of assessing the population and the land through a census would allow them to extract wealth in the form of taxes, and stood in tension with covenantal traditions whereby the land was God’s and a source of commonwealth and mutual care. Roman soldiers defeated Judas, crucified more than two thousand rebels, razed the city, and took many of its people off in slavery. Herod Antipas was remaking the ruins that Jesus grew up around in the image of the Empire.
On his walk from his village to the imperial development, Jesus might have passed farmland that had also undergone radical changes. Many smaller farms had been seized through cycles of debt and consolidated into larger plantations. The large landholders sought to extract wealth from the fertility of the land and the labor of the people to support their opulent lifestyles and the system of the Empire, a longstanding problem that the prophets often lamented (Isa 3:14–15, 5:8–10, 24:5–6). Consistent with the tendencies of farming practices that grow large fields of a single crop for profit (monoculture agriculture), Jesus might have noticed a lack of care for the long-term health of the land. […]
By contrast, village life organized around small land holders was animated by relationships of mutual support centered on the faithful covenant—relationships of love, care, and commitment between God, neighbor, and land. Wheat, in the hands of a villager, was bread to be shared or seed to be stored. In the hands of a wealthy official, it was a commodity to be traded or an excess to be displayed. The smaller farms were inclined to follow more sustainable and equitable patterns of life. […] The distant, extractive, profit-seeking ways of large landholders—who seized these former family farms—both fractured these communities and undermined their sustainable ways.
In Sepphoris, Jesus would see the spaces where the commonwealth of village life had been funneled to support the lavish buildings and excessive lifestyles of the elite. […] In the shadow of imperial opulence in the city, Christ would have seen the growing numbers of the desperate and dying poor in the streets. This physical architecture that loomed over the peasant village several miles away was the manifestation of the tentacles of empire that reached out to the land and consumed its bounty, and which bound up the people and extracted their labor. Can you imagine how Jesus’ heart ached or his spirit was angered as he saw the roots of imperial development and success in the degradation of the land, the deterioration of social structures, and the exploitation of more and more people?
If Jesus is to have anything to say about environmentalism, it will likely not stop with replacing lightbulbs and buying certified organic products. Jesus’ vision is more wide-reaching and touches on the entirety of life. It resonates with what is called the “environmentalism of the poor,” or in the United States, “environmental justice” and “agrarianism.” For those who live in neighborhoods (especially those populated by people of color) where toxic waste sites or heavy industry are located, or in regions that have been devastated by the legacy of mineral extraction, the links between nature and culture, the environment, and issues of justice are unavoidable. Here, the soil is not ruined by natural processes or acts of God. Rather, neighbors develop cancer and water supplies are polluted through acts of boards—zoning boards and corporate boards that make calculations that render these places and people expendable. […] Walking between Nazareth and Sepphoris, Jesus might have seen the fault lines that cause the tremors of ecological devastation—those between the rich and the poor, the conspicuous consumption of the elite and the exploitation of workers, the use of land for profit and the stewardship of land for subsistence. […] Christ’s good news does not look past the bodies broken by the Empire, or the communities and landscapes that have been decimated, but is addressed to them.
This book, however, is not addressed to peasants. Jesus’ ministry, though it brought good news to the poor, was not limited to those who were impoverished. He also brought healing to the privileged by showing them how to turn their lives around. His strategies and visions were not limited to the politics of resistance; they were also directed toward the incarnation of joyful and sustainable ways of life. This is good news for the overworked, alienated middle managers of empire today. Christ’s life provides us with a vision and ways of life that will help us to live and see otherwise.
Praise for The Green Good News
“Amid the explosion of literature concerning ‘going green,’ Wilson Dickinson has written an ‘adult’ book that requires adult attention from serious people. The book demands not only to be read but to be studied. Dickinson weaves together a shrewd, discerning understanding of Jesus, his gospel, and the realities of political-economic empire of a neo-liberal variety, both ancient and contemporary. Happily this book finishes with a winsome study guide of seven units that will serve well for sustained reflective study.”
—Walter Brueggemann, Columbia Theological Seminary
“Here is a fresh and powerful telling of the gospel good news: Jesus would indeed be a radical environmentalist because he is a radical believer in the possibilities of the human spirit.”
—Bill McKibben, Environmentalist, Author, and Journalist
About the Author
T. Wilson Dickinson is a writer, pastor, and organizer who lives in his hometown of Georgetown, Kentucky. He teaches theology and directs the Doctor of Ministry and Continuing Education Programs at Lexington Theological Seminary. He is the director of the Green Good News, an organization that works with churches and schools to integrate sustainability, justice, and discipleship. He is the author of Exercises in New Creation from Paul to Kierkegaard.