Pandemic, Race, and Environmental Justice

Photo by Jordan Beltran on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

In my column two months ago, “Nature’s Warning,” I reflected on messages creation itself seems to be conveying through the outbreak of COVID-19.

The Bible often speaks of nature forcing change upon people who will not listen any other way. Peoples both ancient and modern have spoken of nature’s indomitability, its laws that cannot be broken, and the reckoning that comes with human failure to take creation seriously.

One of the pandemic’s many effects has been to spotlight unjust fissures in our society, disparities between white and black communities in access to health care, privilege to retreat from contagion, and resources to weather economic storms. These resources include not only money and health insurance, but health itself. Toxic concentrations of air and water pollution, usually relegated to poor communities, lead to compromised health, diminished strength to withstand the virus, which in turn leads disproportionately to sickness and death. Yet a U.S. administration that has failed to deal effectively with the pandemic uses this crisis as cover for rolling back over a hundred environmental regulations, further deteriorating health conditions.1

Few foresaw the current outpouring of outrage among citizens, as Americans have showed up for the “most sweeping and sustained protests in the country’s history, with demonstrations in all 50 states and the District of Columbia over two weeks.”2 The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis under the knee of a police officer provided the spark, but grievances the demonstrations address span the gamut of racial injustice.

Defenders of the status quo often try to derail progress by playing one social concern against another. But the dots are all connected. Voter suppression, physical and financial vulnerability, subjection to violence, inability to find a decent school, or to make a living wage, or even to breathe clean air are not competing problems, but rather multiple facets of the same racialized evil. As Rev. William Barber II, leader of the Poor People’s Movement, put it, “Four diseases, all connected, now threaten the nation’s social and moral health: racism, poverty, environmental devastation, and the war economy—sanctified by the heresy of Christian nationalism.”3 Every one of these has implications for the way the pandemic has played out in our country.

Preachers worldwide have been forced to exercise great creativity to lead worship, let alone to conduct funerals, facilitate public grief, and guide theological and ethical ponderings over the past few months. At a time when we are most disrupted, when we need our brothers and sisters the most, doing church the traditional way has become deadly. Yet this time invites us to reflect on what we value most about our faith and how Scripture speaks to the present moment. May we all rise from the ashes of the status quo to speak and act with greater prophetic urgency to influence the shape of this new era.

Jesus’ parables, sayings, and stories from Matthew in July and August, filled with ethical and environmental reflection, provide wonderful starting points:

  • Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30 (July 5) highlights the foolishness of a hypercritical generation, never happy with their potential leaders, but also voices Jesus’ much-loved welcome to the weary and heavy-burdened.
  • Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23 (July 12) relates Jesus’ parable of the seed sown on the path, the rocky ground, the thorns, and the good soil, offering a gardening lesson as well as wisdom for preachers.
  • Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 (July 19) tells Jesus’ parable of the weeds sown among the wheat, reminding readers of the good quality of seed that God sows.
  • Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52 (July 26) relates the parable of the mustard seed, whose tree offers shelter for the birds, and the parables of the treasure hidden in the field and the pearl of great price, reminding readers that what is priceless can be found through single-minded commitment.
  • Matthew 14:13-21 (August 2) narrates Jesus’ withdrawal to a wild place, followed by his healing and feeding the crowds who followed him.
  • Matthew 14:22-33 (August 9) narrates Jesus praying alone in the mountains, and then walking to meet his nervous disciples on the Sea of Galilee.
  • Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28 (August 16) shows Jesus learning a lesson about faith from a Canaanite woman.
  • Matthew 16:13-20 (August 23) portrays Jesus saying “on this rock I will build my church.”
  • Matthew 16:21-28 (August 30) relates Jesus’ saying that those who seek to gain profit in this world risk losing their souls.

Much of the July and August lectionary’s poetry shimmers with refreshing imagery drawn from the natural world:

  • Psalm 145:8-14 (July 5) describes God’s mercy toward all creation.
  • Isaiah 55:10-13 (July 12) imagines the word of God as rain and snow that water the earth, giving it fruitfulness; the mountains, hills, and trees rejoicing; and the cypress and myrtle flourishing.
  • Psalm 65:(1-8), 9-13 (July 12) describes God’s founding of the mountains, silencing of the seas, enriching the earth with rain for field crops, so that pastures overflow and the earth’s farthest horizons shout for joy.
  • Psalm 128 (July 26) describes prosperity in terms of eating one’s own harvest, and compares family members to fruitful vines and olive shoots.
  • Isaiah 55:1-5 (August 2) reminds readers of abundance freely offered, pictured as waters, wine, and milk for the thirsty.
  • Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21 (August 2) describes God’s tender care to “satisfy the desire of every living thing.”
  • Psalm 85:8-13 (August 9) depicts faithfulness springing from the ground, and righteousness looking down from the sky.
  • Psalm 67 (August 16) portrays divine blessing as agricultural abundance.
  • Isaiah 51:1-6 (August 23) compares the Judeans’ ancestry to a quarry from which they were dug, and describes God as renewing Zion’s wilderness places.

There are other passages in these months that highlight our relationship to the natural world. For instance, 1 Kings 19:9-18 (August 9) portrays Elijah in the wilderness, finding God’s presence not in great wind, nor in earthquake, but in the sound of sheer silence. And the Romans passages for July 19 and 26 (Romans 8:12-25 and 8:26-39) underscore creation’s involvement in spiritual flourishing: “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God … the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay.” Nothing in creation, Paul says, stands between us and God’s love. In fact, it’s through creation that we know God.

Patricia Tull’s bimonthly Working Preacher column, “The Great Community,” focuses on ecological themes for preaching.


    1. Angely Mercado, “A Bill in Congress Could Get to the Bottom of How Coronavirus Links Air Pollution and Racism,” Grist, June 12, 2020.
    2. Jose L. Del Real, Robert Samuels, and Tim Craig, “How the Black Lives Matter Movement Went Mainstream,” Washington Post, June 9, 2020.
    3. William J. Barber II, “A New Poor People’s Campaign,”The Atlantic, February, 2018.