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Environmental concerns from a faith perspectiv (01/12/2014)
From: Dale Hadler,


Itís difficult to live in todayís Southeast Minnesota and not be aware of the many land use and environmental issues impacting our community. We have the recent controversies surrounding Winona Countyís land use ordinance, the Soil and Water Conservation Districtís relationship with organic, agriculture and GMO crops, and the ongoing concerns surrounding frac sand mining. Even though many of us recognize the political aspects of these issues we may not consider the relationship of faith to these issues.

This relationship can be traced back 3,000 years to the Levite priests of ancient Israel. These priests were part of the government in that society and instituted a number of land and environmental policies. These included the practice of Land Sabbath contained in Leviticus 25:2-7.

This rule required that the land be taken out of production every seven years so the land and the farmer could rest, with the produce of the land being made available to the people and the animals of the region. Land Sabbath was an important part of ancient Israelís environmental and social policy.

It was done for the benefit of the entire community, including plants and animals, as well as people. Most importantly, it was with the understanding that God is the true owner of the land and that Israelís tenancy on the land was conditional, based on respect for the land and God. In other words, the Levites of ancient Israel understood that respect for the creation and creator were key to Israelís security.

If respect for the creation and creator were vital for ancient Israel, how should it impact our thinking today? Unlike theocratic Israel, the United States is a secular democracy. However, faith is still an important factor for religious adherents. The importance of faith in environmental issues will only increase as voices such as Episcopal Bishop Sally Bingham call for a faith response to challenges like global climate change and fossil fuel use.

Scholars such as Sallie McFague and Roman Catholic Passionist Priest Thomas Berry are making controversial calls for a complete rethinking of Christianityís relationship with the creation. This is especially true as people of faith and religious thinkers from a number of traditions challenge believers to return to the thinking of the Levites. This thinking extends beyond humanity to embrace all of creation and challenges people of faith to create environmental policies that reflect this philosophy.

As the late University of Wisconsin Fish and Game Management Professor Aldo Leopold pointed out in this 1948 environmental classic, A Sand County Almanac, humanity is a part of, not apart from, creation. And what we do impacts the greater whole, including plant and animal life, as well as future generations of human beings. Leopold calls for land and environmental policies that reflect this reality.

This is a position taken by other modern environmental thinkers such as the sustainable farming advocates Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson. They call for agricultural practices that work with the land while respecting its importance for all life and future generations, preserving Godís creation for life now and into the future.

We would do well to listen to the voices of the ancient Levites and modern environmental thinkers as we examine the environmental land use issues facing Southeast Minnesota today. Winona County recently made controversial changes to its land use ordinance, and county officials and land owners continue to state that these ordinance changes will not endanger the land and will provide an appropriate balance between property rights and environmental concerns.

However, many county residents continue to be concerned and question if the bluff protections and feedlot regulations will adequately protect the land for all the community, including the nonhuman parts of Godís creation.

We can look at Chris Rogerís recent Winona Post article that addresses the relationship between Winona Countyís Soil and Water Conservation District and both organic agriculture and GMO crops. This again raises questions about the impact of modern farming practices, agricultural chemicals, and the impact of genetically modified crops on the environment.

Finally, the issue of frac sand mining and its possible impact on the air, farmland, timber, and recreational resources of the region calls us to ask whether the very real environmental damage of this practice is worth the limited short term economic benefits it will bring. These are questions that will be considered at the Land Stewardship Projectís January 18 Citizenís Frac Sand Summit at the Tau Center in Winona.

As we consider these issues we would do well to consider these prophetic words by Kentucky farmer and author Wendell Berry:

There is never any reason or justification for doing long-term damage to the ecosphere. We did not create the world, we do not own it, and we have no right to destroy any part of it.

These are words to ponder as we consider the many environmental issues facing Southeast Minnesota.

- Dale Hadler lives in Winona and holds a Master of Arts in Religion and Theology from United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities. He was assisted in the writing of this by the Reverend Timothy Forester, pastor of the First Congregational Church of Winona, United Church of Christ 


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