Colonialism

Reconsider the Lilies: Challenging Christian Environmentalism’s Colonial Legacy

The Center for Religion and Environment is pleased to announce Director Andy Thompson’s new book, Reconsider the Lilies: Challenging Christian Environmentalism’s Colonial Legacy, now available from Fortress Press. In it, Thompson shows how even well-intentioned Christian environmentalism incorporates racist and colonialist assumptions, and suggests a more pluralist, pragmatic approach. We’re posting a short excerpt here – to read more, check out the book!


Introduction: Tree of Life

In the chapel on the campus where I work stands an unusual representation of a tree. Its curving, almost fluid branches appear like any other tree, except that they reach out in the shape of a cross. Its leaves, however, are more unusual. They are multicolored, not like autumn leaves, but rather every color of the rainbow: purple, yellow, red, blue. Each leaf bears a large black circle surrounded by a field of white. Closer inspection reveals that the leaves are, in fact, eyes.

In the traditional Ethiopian style on which the artist drew, eyes typically symbolize holiness, though they can also represent angels, based on biblical texts that describe heavenly attendants as covered in eyes. This eye-covered tree is the work of Bronx-based artist Laura James. It develops the artistic motif of the tree of life, a motif that connects the cross with the tree of life named in the Genesis account of the Garden of Eden, and, beyond that, with the archetypal tree of many religious and mythical traditions. By incorporating the angelic eyes, this particular tree also invokes the rich, anti-imperial imaginations of apocalyptic literature.

The tree in question is actually the back of the crucifix that stands at the front of the chapel. Because of its position, the tree’s eyes look out through a wall of glass onto cypress, hemlock, and oak trees behind the chapel, while Christ on the cross gazes toward the congregation. The body of Jesus on the cross is just as striking as the angel-eyed tree. Christ has dark brown skin, with black hair and a beard. He is upright, with eyes wide open, and flanked by dark-skinned representations of Mary and John. Angels with dark faces and golden wings fly at his hands and above his head. All of this is rendered in bold colors with clear black outlines.

The seminary commissioned James to create this crucifix to replace a carved crucifix that portrayed a European-looking, lily-white Jesus hanging, head down, on the arms of the cross. This change was part of an ongoing effort by the seminary, and the university of which it is a part, to acknowledge its history of racism and attempt to move toward reconciliation. The institution, the University of the South, was founded just before the Civil War to educate the young men of the South and to preserve Southern culture. As the website devoted to this effort of reexamination and reconciliation confirms, “the University was the only institution of higher education designed from the start to represent, protect, and promote the South’s civilization of bondage; and launched expressly for the slaveholding society of the South.”[1]

In many ways, this vibrant, colorful crucifix embodies the questions that motivate this book. The representation of Christ as a person of color carries profound significance. Theologian Kelly Brown Douglas argues that representing Christ as black “indicates his deep and personal identification with people of color as they suffer the pain, heartache, and death exacted on them by the insidiousness of white supremacist culture.”[2] But this representation also issues a call to deconstruct and resist that culture in all its forms. What does it mean for a predominantly white institution – not only that, but an institution originally founded to preserve the structures of white supremacy – to hear and respond to that call? And what is the relationship of that call, reflected in the depiction of Christ on one side of the crucifix, to the tree of life represented on the back? How might this rich symbol, simultaneously ecological and apocalyptic, express opposition to white supremacy?

These are the questions I explore in this book. Our relationship with creation is intimately connected to our relationships with other humans, and our alienation from one another is also our alienation from the more-than-human world. The suffering taken up by the black Christ includes the suffering of the earth, and the communion that this Christ represents is a communion that encompasses the whole of creation. But we cannot understand the depth of this communion without first understanding how whiteness has shaped many Christians’ relationships with creation, and then working to establish new relationships. This is the task of this book. Before outlining more fully how I intend to undertake this task, I want to say something about my motivation for writing.

            I initially came to environmental ethics from an interest in social ethics. My first book, which originated in my doctoral dissertation, examined the social discourses and ideologies at play in the debate around mountaintop removal coal mining in my home region of Appalachia. I was drawn to the issue because of the ways the practice devastated the health and economies of communities at the same time that it destroyed ecosystems. In my research, I considered the ways that the debate drew on social constructions of wilderness and nature and deployed ideas about which experiences of the environment were legitimate. I examined the long history of constructing Appalachians as both an inferior class of people and as a romanticized ideal, “our contemporary ancestors,” and the ways these stereotypes were exploited in various ways in that debate.[3]

            Without equating constructions of Appalachian identity and the environment with ideologies of racism and colonialism, it is clear that some similar dynamics are at work. Mainstream Christian environmentalism, I will argue, privileges particular, characteristically white conceptions of the natural world, based on similar narratives about who does or does not belong in it, about whose experiences count. Often the same paradoxical combination of romanticism and exclusion occurs, particularly with regard to Native Americans.

            Theologians and ethicists of color have been drawing attention to these oppressive dynamics in environmental theology and other areas of theology for many decades. These voices have become more prominent and more urgent in recent years, as episodes of violence against communities of color have drawn more attention – including environmental violence, like the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline in North and South Dakota and proposed construction of gigantic plastics plants in the industrial corridor known as “cancer alley” in Louisiana. My motivation in this book is to learn from decolonial, black, womanist, mujerista, Latinx, and other scholars who speak from the perspectives of oppressed communities what predominantly white Christian institutions can do to eradicate – or at least minimize – the whiteness at the roots of our environmental efforts.

            As I serve on committees, teach classes, and speak at churches about creation care and environmental justice, it is evident that many communities are becoming more aware of the need for critical examination of the prejudices and exclusion that continue to characterize our institutions and our efforts. At the same time, we all (I include myself) still have blind spots. Churches may not notice that a panel of environmental speakers is all white, or they may include a person of color only to speak about narrow issues of environmental racism. Committees may similarly be made up of all white members, or they may alternatively treat members of color as if they are invited guests. Groups may view antiracism work as important, but a distraction from the more urgent work of environmental conservation. In chapter two, we will see, from ethicist Traci West, further examples of how predominantly white communities may unwittingly exclude people of color. It is clear that candid, difficult conversations are necessary, characterized more by listening than by speaking. This book is an attempt to initiate some of those conversations.

            My central claim in this book is that Christian environmentalism is characterized by whiteness – that is, by a pervasive privileging of typically white concerns and white experiences of nature. One way that this gets expressed is in the mistaken idea that environmental advocacy and activism can avoid questions of race or class, or questions of political and economic inequality. As I noted above, and as I will discuss further, political, economic, and social power are mediated through the environment. Environmental harms reflect and exacerbate existing societal inequalities and oppressions. Any Christian environmentalism that does not explicitly concern itself with the political and social implications of environmental issues perpetuates white privilege.

            Yet the whiteness of Christian environmentalism extends beyond just its areas of concern. To confront this whiteness effectively and move toward a new perspective (what I identify as antioppressive Christian environmentalism), we must address the biases deep in our theology and our ways of knowing. For this reason, I will propose an approach that focuses on new ways of imagining and enacting human and more-than-human relationships in a community that extends across the boundaries forged by whiteness. I describe this community as the eco-political body of Christ.


[1] “Research Summary,” The University of the South, accessed May 14, 2022, https://new.sewanee.edu/roberson-project/learn-more/research-summary/.

[2] Kelly Brown Douglas, The Black Christ: 25th Anniversary Edition, Anniversary edition (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2021), xxi.

[3] Allen Batteau, The Invention of Appalachia, The Anthropology of Form and Meaning (Tucson, Ariz: University of Arizona Press, 1990), 186.

Published by Andrew Thompson

2 comments on “Reconsider the Lilies: Challenging Christian Environmentalism’s Colonial Legacy”

  1. Joyce Wilding says:

    Andrew Thomason’s new book evokes we need peace with the Earth for peace on Earth
    on a myriad of modes! This calls individuals and groups from wold religions and indigenous communities to seek more ways to protect finite resources on the
    Earth!
    Blessings,
    Joyce Wilding – TSSF, TEC Science and Religion leader
    United Religions Initiatives leader

  2. Andrew Thompson says:

    Thank you, Joyce!

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