Toward an Earth Charter

by Larry Rassmussen

Larry Rasmussen, Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary, was an adviser at the Canberra Assembly of the World Council of Churches.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, October 23, 1991, pp. 964967. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles ands subscription information can be found at This article was prepared for Religion Online by Bob Connolly, Jr.


Several theological models in response to the ecocrisis are worthy of our attention. This article was written in anticipation of an “Earth Summit” that took place in June of 1992.

An earth summit will take place next June in Rio de Janeiro. Organized as the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), the summit will gather world heads of state who are expected to propose strategies for stemming the riptide of environmental degradation and fostering sustainable development. One envisioned outcome is an Earth Charter. If successful, this document will be something of a Magna Carta for the Earth. It would expand the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to encompass the conditions of a threatened planet and provide the moral framework for nudging the community of nations to take collective action. Also anticipated is "Agenda 21," a tally of issues needing urgent attention as the world lurches toward the 21st century. With luck and some hard preparatory work, nations will face these issues at Rio and sign conventions on climate change, forests, biodiversity and biotechnology.

Given the public's growing awareness of environmental peril, the historical moment for the Earth Summit is right, as is linking development and environment. That linkage is the work of the Bruntland Commission and its report Our Common Future, which advanced the idea of "sustainable development." In the report, that notion remains too general: in its words, sustainable development "meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." The task, however, is immensely important: economic activity must somehow be reconciled with the dictates of environmental sustainability.

Perhaps as significant as the Earth Charter, Agenda 21 and work on sustainable development is the unprecedented step UNCED has taken to encourage global village participation by way of a parallel conference of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) including religious communities. NGOs have become material actors on the world scene of late, and have held conferences parallel to other UN events. This time, however, they will be invited as full participants in the UN working groups themselves.

What will the religious communities say at Rio, and the churches in particular? They can certainly urge national governments to sign the Earth Charter, thereby helping to create the political will for the world community need by Reinhold Niebuhr in 1944 as the reality to "which all historical forces seem to be driving us" humankind's 'final possibility and impossibility." But aside from generalizing about a new world community, what will the churches actually say about the ecocrisis?

The horrible novelty of the ecocrisis was articulated by Gerald Barney, one of the scientists at this year's Canberra Assembly of the World Council of Churches:

For the first time in the history of creation, the life support systems of the Planet Earth are being destroyed by human activities...Throughout history humans have caused locally significant damage to the environment, but never before have human numbers and actions combined to threaten the integrity of the entire planet.

In light of this shocking reality, it seems clear that the ecocrisis is about cosmology and ethics: Who are we in the scheme of things, anyway? How do we cultivate a way of life that does not violate the integrity of creation? The Rio meeting will not advertise itself as a UN meeting on cosmology and ethics, but it will be. The question posed to the churches, then, is this: Can they contribute anything of theological and moral substance to the lifeanddeath discussions in Rio?

Guidance for confronting this question might be discovered in sonic of the documents and discussions of the WCC's Canberra Assembly. Sometimes explicitly, at other times implicitly, the Assembly spoke often of the church's responsibility for creation. Out of the diverse voices represented there, several theological models may be discerned which can help orient religious groups in their responses to the cosmological and ethical dimensions of the ecocrisis.

The model of dominion is on the skids in the public debate generally, as it was in Canberra. So even mentioning it may seem out of season. Yet it continues to live in the only place that counts, in practice. Social arrangements, especially the busy structures of economic life, still reflect its assumptions: the earth is a resource to be exploited; reality is a collection of objects to which we give shape and purpose; we are the artisans of a world of our own making. Earth exists for us. Few press the theological case for this model with much conviction anymore, however, and only an occasional echo could be heard in Canberra.

Many who were raised on the model of domination have stepped across the threshold to the biblical steward model. In this view human beings are oikonomoi, trustees and keepers of the oikos (creation pictured as a single public household). But today's version of this model has changed in ways that reflect the modern world's altered relationship to nature. Humans are recognized as wielders of an extraordinary cumulative power that can affect all of life in fundamental and unprecedented ways. We now possess the knowledge to build and destroy on a mass scale. Our knowledge is outstripped only by our ignorance and its dangers: the steward's moral quest, then, is for a just and sustaining use of unprecedented knowledge and power.

This new sobriety was evident in discussions of earth stewardship at Canberra. With support from Asian, African, Latin American and Pacific Islander Protestants, Orthodox delegates emphatically affirmed the stewardship model. By contrast, many Europeans and North Americans were fearful that "steward" too easily backslides into the familiar domination model. While all parties were ready to reject interpretations that supported Western domination, the Orthodox and their supporters insisted at the same time on the distinctive prominence of humans in creation.

Power relationships and their history are no doubt as crucial as exegetical ones in this instance. But the exegesis probably was also on the side of the Orthodox and their supporters on this matter. Both the Jews and early Christians understood "image of God" and "dominion" as a message of cosmic dignity that affirmed human agency and responsibility. From the perspective of the less powerful at Canberra, to be named by God the custodians of creation is an empowering word. The steward model empowers such people to recognize themselves as created in the image of Godthe subjects, not the objects, of history.

But sensitivity to context and power will not settle one sticking point of the steward model's affinity for anthropocentrism. The Assembly, the majority of whose delegates represented the majority of the world, namely the poor, quite naturally affirmed the dignity of the human person and gave central place to the suffering of millions, even billions, of people. These delegates had nothing in common with those environmentalists (mostly romantic, mostly white, mostly rich) for whom the most pristine picture of the world is one in which homo sapiens are nowhere to be seen only sunny, harmonious nature.

That said, there is still an anthropocentrism about the steward model that troubled many. These delegates called for a reassessment of traditional Christian theology which would decenter human beings, recognizing them "as one species among others in a planetary world that is itself one." Such views were voted down, however, on the grounds that they offended the biblical dignity of human beings and their high stewardly calling. The anthropocentrism of the steward model was reaffirmed at Canberra.

A variation on the steward model which attracts those who reject anthropocentrism yet affirm human dignity is the partner model. This model suggests that since creation is an interdependent whole, humans must accordingly exercise their considerable power with care. Other creatures are cosiblings, even joint agents, of creation in the drama of a shared life, so we must make every effort to listen to what the earth is sayingeven learn to "think like a mountain." We are part of nature, never above or outside it.

While St. Francis may be the Western patron saint of this model, developments at Canberra suggested that Asian Christians and the Christianity of indigenous peoples may give it new life. Plenary speaker Chung Hyun Kyung advocated a shift "from anthropocentrism to lifecentrism," and expressed the sense that nature is inclusive of all things; we ourselves are but wondrous microcosms of the macrocosmos.

It remains to be seen whether the partner model will follow Franciscan and Asian religious traditions in the ways of asceticism. An asceticism that loves the earth fiercely in a simple way of life is required at least among the wealthy of the world and among others addicted to unnecessary consumption and a wasteful lifestyle. Perhaps Asians, whose deep religious and cultural traditions relate voluntary poverty to their comprehensive view of nature, may provide ecumenical leadership in this ancient discipline.

Sacramentalism as a model for Christian environmental responsibility has gained popularity both among lay people and scholars. This model is rooted in diverse and archaic cosmologies from pre-Augustinian Christianity along the Mediterranean to Celtic Christianity in more northerly climes. Orthodox Christianity from its earliest stages has consistently understood the sacraments as dramatizations of nature's transfiguration. Humans, as "priests of creation," refer the creation back to the Creator in acts of liturgical doxology. Sometimes called panentheism, this sacramentalism recognizes the divine in, with and under all nature, ourselves included. The creaturely is not identified as God, however (the error of pantheism). The infinite is manifest in the finite: the transcendent is immanent; the sacred is the ordinary in another, numinous light. Sacramentalism, not stewardship, constitutes Orthodoxy's most genuine contribution to Christian reflection upon the ecocrisis.

At Canberra, sacramentalism was endorsed not only by the Orthodox, but even more powerfully by indigenous peoples. They burst forth upon the Assembly's stage, often literally dancing, and demonstrated once again in their words and actions that the primal vision of peoples of the land is invariably sacramentalist. For them the cosmos is the sacred community, and life should be lived with the care and respect due the sacred. That is their simple but profound message for the Earth Charter.

As with the steward model, sacramentalism is not without its historical distortions. An ageold faulty assumption persists within sacramentalist ethics that a harmony of social interests exists somewhere below the surface, and that a soft, nurturing process will bring this precious flower to bloom. The metaphors of sacramentalism have commonly been "organic" ones for both society and church, or, in the Orthodox version, "symphonic" ones. But organisms and symphonies don't expose the corrupted power relations among humans, nor between humans and other creatures. They mask the fact that struggle and conflict are the status quo. "Healing," rather than fundamentally reordered relationships, becomes the cure for sin in much sacramentalist theology. It is as if the basic problem were illness or bad tuning, not injustice. Indigenous peoples, the poor and many women know that sacramentalism is empty as an ethic if there is no commitment to a political agenda, and that political commitment entails organized action along hard paths as well as soft ones. Healing is needed, and is itself a powerful metaphor, but so is coercion en route to reconciliation. To make marginalized peoples truly angry, one steals their spirituality without joining their political struggle.

"Ecofeminism" has not yet found its full voice in the WCC, and likely won't in Rio, either. But it may eventually make the greatest contribution and impact of all, not least because its potential constituency is huge and because earth consciousness and woman consciousness so often go together. Furthermore, ecofeminism discloses a profound understanding not only of the earth's suffering, but also of the social and sociopsychological causes of this suffering. In its Christian version ecofeminism represents twin streams of sacramentalism and liberationism flowing together. In Canberra this development was eloquently expressed when women from around the world -- South Africa, the U.S.S.R., Palestine, Sweden, Egypt, Nicaraguatold stories of their struggles and of God's presence in adversity. As each finished her story she placed a branch of green on the large wooden structure lying at the rear of the stage.

The structure's dead wood quietly greened as the stories of suffering and hope, death and life, punctuated the session. When all the tales were told, the women together hoisted the heavy beams upright. It was a cross, become the tree of life.

The greening of the cross, it turns out, is an ancient Armenian Orthodox tradition, recalling early Christian symbolism. Ironically, the general Orthodox intransigence concerning women and ministry has concealed the extraordinary parallels between Orthodox spirituality and feminist spirituality, just as it has made it so difficult to recognize common ground between the two in creation theology. But undoubtedly women in the ecumenical movement will continue to give voice to the sacramentalist possibilities in cosmology and ethics.

Finding a fitting label for the prophet teacher model is difficult. Its devotees are not much interested in the metaphysics that good cosmologies require, nor are they very patient with the careful work required by good ethics. Perhaps ecoprophetism is less a cosmology than an urgent moral call compelled by Christian consciousness in the face of threatening planetary conditions. Whatever the case, it is a stance prominent in WCC circles, and it can be seen in a strikingly wide range of documentation, which decries nuclear and environmental threats to life and massive public suffering caused by political and economic machinations. This prophetic voice seeks to grab people's attention before it is too late, and calls for conversion, a real turning to God and away from destructive ways of life. The prophet also becomes teacher when explanations for the root causes of planetary threats are proposed and alternative paths are mapped out. The prophet teacher model cuts across the entire ecumenical world; interestingly, evangelicals who have gotten the message that there is only one world and that earth is our home bring a special prophetic fervor to the ecumenical forum.

Canberra's role as a guide to religious reflection about environmental responsibility would be incomplete without recognition of the invaluable contribution made by scientists. Through their expertise, scientists can supply us with more exact information about what is happening to the planet. As a result of their own experience, many of them identify with the growing ranks of sacramentalists. In a passage that echoes the views of native peoples, 34 internationally renowned scientists led by Carl Sagan and Hans Beche stated in an extraordinary "Open Letter to the Religious Community":

As scientists, many of us have had profound experiences of awe and reverence before the universe. We understand that what is regarded as sacred is more likely to be treated with care and respect. Our planetary home should be so treated. Efforts to safeguard and cherish the environment need to be infused with a vision of the sacred.

Scientists have added their own voice to the ecumenical debate. With their detailed attention to environmental degradation they acknowledge a set of ethical issues to which few have attended. Their evolutionary model points out that human wellbeing Lions and habits will have to be radically adjusted in order to avoid even worse consequences. The evolutionary model best accounts for the technical nature of the ecocrisis. The ecocrisis is not a synonym for environmental degradation. The latter is but a consequence of the former. The cause of the ecocrisis is twofold: 1) We are living in ways that outstrip nature's capacity to regenerate itself on its own time cycles and terms. 2) We are forcing changes in natural systems themselves changes inhospitable even to species with considerable adaptability. This is why "sustainability" is the crucial minimum criterion for all forms of life.

From the perspective of scientists who study ecosystems closely, the ecocrisis poses very hard ethical choices within the human community, and between the human community and the larger network of life upon which we are utterly dependent. In the face of this challenge from science, Christian ethics must discern which religious model or models will contribute most in making these hard choices. Might not a sacramentalist model, one which subordinates human time to God's grand evolutionary scheme best generate the numinous vision and moral courage needed to surmount the conflicts between humankind's wellbeing and the wellbeing of the cosmos? Even though it may not be well represented in the pews of American churches, an evolutionary sacramentalist cosmology may offer the richest conceptual resources for meeting the demands of the environmental crisis. If infused with a profound earth oriented asceticism, the persuasiveness of such a model would be that much greater.

That said, the foregoing models should not be viewed as goods to choose among, like plucking one or another brand from the shelf. They are more like living streams than mere conceptual types, and they often flow together. Several models frequently find champions in the same circles. Further, this brief discussion does not begin to detail the full range of living cosmologies and moralities in the world church. 'The point, rather, is to pester all of us to give serious thought to what we will bring to the discussions of an Earth Charter. As one earth citizens, we have been invited to its drafting. What would we have it say?