Coal Ash & Environmental Justice

Coal Ash & Environmental Justice

What follows is a statement given to the Environmental Protection Agency Coal Ash Hearings held in Louisville, Kentucky, September 28, 2010.

I come this morning, not to advocate for one side or the other on the regulation options before you (you are being hammered with plenty of information from both sides). Besides, I do not know the science well enough to make such a recommendation. But rather I come to bring to you a word encouragement and direction from the churches. I cannot speak to you for all churches or communities of faith, but I can speak to you from my experience of many of them, and I want you to know this morning that there is a “turning” happening in the churches. It is an awakening a truth that has always lied deep in her bones and close to her heart, but present day applications of which has perhaps been slow in dawning upon her.

Words of Jesus that have long resonated in causes of justice and peace are now being heard in the pews as relevant to how we are treating planet earth:

Matthew 25:37-40 – Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’

I want you to know that the faith community is waking to issues of environmental justice. I say this to you not as a sermon, but as a word of encouragement from faith communities. I want to tell you this so you can know that doing the right thing for all citizens, children, wildlife, the elderly and the voiceless is what we really want, and thus it will be recognized and affirmed by the churches. I say this so you may know that it is increasingly felt in communities of faith that our future is not to be trusted to big business or Wall Street and those who lobby for them. It is being increasingly recognized that the future lies with attention and care of those who have to date been shoved aside for the sake of development and sidelined for corporate profits, cheap oil, agribusiness and the short-term gain of a few.

Today you have before you one of those choices that has, as its subtext, a question of what kind of society we are going to be. This is a choice about values, priorities, wisdom and justice. It is a choice about whom and what is valued in our society. It is a choice about the value of our children, our unborn, our health and our wholeness. Pope John Paul II has written:

A society will be judged on the basis of how it treats its weakest members and among the most vulnerable are surely the unborn and the dying.

There are unborn at this hearing, and they are depending on others for their voice. They are those children who will be drinking the waters, playing in the spaces, breathing the air and eating the food on the planet we leave to them. There are also the dying – those who are telling you stories of toxins and sickness, cancers and death this day.

I am here to let you know that the churches are beginning to understand that the business of America is not just business but also the health and happiness of its citizens, and to the best it can, those of the world outside her borders. In taking care of the least, we take care of all of us – the rich and poor, strong and weak.

Let me share these words from Roger S. Gottlieb, professor of philosophy at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, from the introduction of his book, A Greener Faith:

More recently, institutionalized religions typically held favorable attitudes towards the rise of industrial civilization. . . Most religious leaders took it for granted that economic development and technological progress, as long as their fruits were distributed with a modicum of fairness, were good things.  . . .

. . . Religion is now a leading voice telling us to respect the earth, love our non-human as well as our human neighbors, and think deeply our social policies and economic priorities.

I know you have been hearing “facts” from all angles, lobbyists from all sides, and voices of all kinds.  I am not here to declare to you the answers from among all those voices.  I am here, though, to implore you to do the right thing for the health and happiness of all the people. By so doing, you are aligned with the rising voices of the present and future church.

I can confidently declare this before you as a man of faith – the right thing is not defined by short term service of the almighty dollar or selling out the future for the present or the weak ones for the powerful. Please do the wise thing, the right thing, the good thing, and I dare say, the holy thing.

The Rev. Jerry Cappel is Associate for Justice Ministries, St. Matthews Episcopal Church and President, of the Kentuckiana Interfaith Community in Louisville, Kentucky.

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