Do unto others downstream what you would have those upstream do unto you.
—Wendell Berry, Citizenship Papers (2003)
A few years ago, some neighbors in the Big Elkin Creek watershed in North Carolina got into a dispute about agricultural runoff in a shared creek. The neighbors, a local farmer and another landowner, argued about who was responsible for correcting downstream problems resulting from sediment erosion. Because both these landowners were Christians, an employee at the soil and water conservation district asked a local Presbyterian church pastor, Reverend Stuart Taylor, if he would mediate the dispute. Taylor agreed, and the parties eventually settled on a resolution. As Taylor developed a relationship with the farmer and offered some gentle education on riparian health, couched in the context of caring for God’s creation, the tobacco farmer did even more remediation work on his creek than Taylor and the neighbor requested. Using watershed discipleship as his approach, Taylor made an ally in creek restoration, as well as the broader work of caring for one’s region as an expression of Christian faith. The farmer now encourages other neighbors to care for their portions of Big Elkin Creek. Taylor saw this reconciling work as an expression of his Christian faith, aimed at meeting the social and ecological needs of his community.
This story, situated in one local watershed, illustrates several aspects of the potential value that watershed discipleship can offer toward the construction of a future ecotopia, especially in these troubled times. First, Christian congregations form a built-in network of relationships, holding land and leadership positions in many communities, and so it is important to describe the work of environmental care within the framework of the Christian message. Second, pastors and church leaders are often respected members of a community, and many are trained in dispute resolution, which is useful when dealing with natural resource conflicts. Third, churches are already networked with other churches within their region and abroad and partner with one another to coordinate various projects and initiatives. In these ways, congregations, pastors, and faith-based networks provide a ready-made infrastructure equipped to negotiate disputes and engage in advocacy and activism. They can form partnerships to build climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies and enact watershed restoration projects at the local level. As niche-level change agents, they can help translate climate change warnings into action.
I came to care about the environmental crisis through my Christian faith and awareness of the justice issues that humanity faces today. Christian groups and other faith communities have played a major role in past struggles for civil rights and equality, and about a decade ago I began to realize that most of the social justice issues of our time relate to climate change, pollution, and natural resource conflicts. I am not the only person of faith recognizing the importance of environmental concerns; a major “greening of religion” has been occurring in faith communities in recent decades, with individuals, congregations, and denominations recognizing the problems of environmental degradation and climate change and recovering textual and historical resources for caring for the planet. This is by no means indicative of a wholesale shift in the American Christian church, however. While at least 70 percent of Americans label themselves as Christian, according to a study by the Pew Research Center, those Americans who are most “alarmed” about climate change tend to be the least religious. Increasingly higher percentages of religious people can be found in categories of those who are “disengaged,” “doubtful,” and “dismissive” of climate change. Because of the number of Americans who are Christian and their doubts about anthropogenic climate change, it is critically important to communicate about contemporary environmental issues in their language.
Though the Christian tradition supports care for the Earth, many Christians are not acting in ways that will sustain comfortable or even livable conditions for many of the planet’s existing species. Watershed discipleship provides a framework for environmental action based in Christian values. The kinds of actions that are already being inspired by watershed discipleship include adaptation and mitigation strategies to combat climate change; developing and supporting local food systems; and advocating for environmental justice. Individuals and congregations plant pollinator gardens filled with native species; partner with environmental groups; practice permaculture on church properties or unused urban spaces; coordinate community gardens or community-supported agriculture endeavors (CSAs); and engage in activism around farmworker justice, fossil fuel divestment, water rights, and other environmental justice issues. They model more sustainable lifestyles by retrofitting church buildings, installing solar panels, providing locations to reuse or recycle, hosting farmer’s markets, and organizing communal living spaces with a focus on sustainability. In addition, watershed discipleship practitioners often incorporate themes of care for God’s creation and watershed awareness into their worship services and offer educational opportunities such as workshops and green job training.
Coined by activist theologian Ched Myers around 2010, the concept of watershed discipleship integrates scientific knowledge about ecosystem services with stories and ideas already present in the Christian tradition. Practitioners’ acts of restoration and re-placement are tied to themes found in the Bible, giving weight and meaning to environmental actions for Christians. A watershed is the area where all the water falling in the region drains to a common outlet such as a stream, lake, or river; watersheds are divided by ridgelines, the other side of which flows to a different outlet. Watershed discipleship, therefore, envisions the watershed as a scalable unit of care: one’s smallest local watershed may form around a stream in one’s neighborhood, scaling up to a larger watershed based around a large river, and ultimately flowing out into the ocean, linking all watersheds. Thinking bioregionally encourages Christians to become environmentally conscious by starting from their own grounded location, while being aware of their impact on the entire biosphere. Although the Christian tradition contains many resources for environmental care, Christianity has been critiqued as a placeless religion of empire, encouraging the “watershed conquest” of colonialism, and has historically been complicit in Western civilization’s degradation of natural resources. Conquest of the land is a prevalent theme in parts of the Bible, such as the people of Israel taking over the Promised Land in the books of Joshua and Judges. Therefore, watershed discipleship attempts to acknowledge the ways Christianity has been used to legitimize conquest while emphasizing that this is not the only or the most prevalent story within the Judeo-Christian tradition. Care for the land is also a theme that weaves its way through the entire biblical narrative.
For the American church, and churches around the world that have bought into the colonialist version of Christianity, moving toward a sustainable future will require a great deal of work, starting with an acknowledgement of the reality of anthropogenic climate change and environmental degradation. It will be important for Christians to take responsibility for their complicity in creating these problems. To start, we can highlight portions in scripture that tell a different story.
Christian Complicity in the Watershed Moment of Ecological Crisis
In 1967, historian Lynn White Jr. famously critiqued Christianity’s role in propping up Western cultural and environmental imperialism, prompting theologians to respond by articulating what is now known as ecotheology: noting places in theology and Christian history that have contributed to an unhealthy anthropocentrism and recovering an ecological paradigm within the Christian scriptures. Moving from critique to action, however, continues to be a challenge. Watershed discipleship critiques interpretations of Christianity that prop up imperialism and conquest and translates theory to action through three foundational premises: (1) it considers the watershed moment of ecological crisis in which we find ourselves; (2) watershed discipleship encourages Christians to live as disciples in our watersheds, followers of Jesus Christ who live in and are connected to local humans and nonhumans; and (3) it encourages us to be disciples of our watersheds, listening to and learning from our bioregion to learn more about God through creation.
The concept of watershed discipleship contains an awareness of intersecting injustices around race, gender, and colonialism by drawing in the added dimension of the environment. Myers calls watershed discipleship a “critical ecotheology,” and grounds its arguments for just action in the Christian faith. In the tradition of the biblical prophets, watershed discipleship calls the faithful to a more complete expression of their faith, which includes right treatment of the land, animals, and marginalized people, rather than simply following church laws and rituals. In this watershed moment of ecological crisis, watershed discipleship practitioners communicate the reality of anthropogenic climate change in Christian language, remind Christians of our shared story, and invite people to begin living in a way that is consistent with the biblical vision of love through justice. This holistic understanding of how God invites people to live can be summed up by the Hebrew term shalom, a multidimensional peace that includes reconciled relationships with God and other people as well as the land and nonhuman creatures.
As a result of misinterpretations of Christian scripture, the creation story appears to give human beings dominion over the rest of creation. This contributes to the perspective of some Christians that resources are here solely for our use. Moreover, the severing of the Earth’s systems from Christian concerns is sometimes supported by Jesus’s emphasis on his kingdom being not of this world and the universality of the claim of one God, accessible to all people, with instructions to Jesus’s disciples to go into all the world to spread the good news. Because of these and other scriptural texts, the Christian cosmology has often been envisaged as a hierarchy, with people (especially men) closest to God. These passages have also sustained a dualistic conception of reality, where the spiritual world is closer to godliness and the material world is evil.
One of the most ecologically consequential policies espoused by the church was the Doctrine of Discovery, which was based on a series of papal bulls in the fifteenth century and used as substantiation for Native American land loss in legal cases as recently as 2005. This doctrine legitimized colonial claims to an entire watershed under the principle of contiguity of that waterway. When a European explorer discovered the mouth of a river, the explorer could claim ownership of that entire watershed for his country—and the Roman Catholic Church—if the current inhabitants were not Christians. This led to the conquest and exploitation of entire watersheds and the people who lived in them. This conflation of the spread of the Christian message with Western imperialism legitimized injustice toward indigenous people, whose land was confiscated as a result of a misguided Eurocentrism that claimed “manifest destiny” for colonists to lay claim to the New World’s land and resources, as well as injustice toward Africans, whom Europeans felt it was their duty to “civilize.”
Though conquest-oriented interpretations of Christianity have been used to defend colonialism and justify the extraction and overuse of natural resources, the overarching themes present in scripture tell a different story. The books of the Jewish Law (Torah) focus on the covenant between God and Abraham regarding land. However, this promise of land is not an absolute right to the land and its resources without question. On the contrary, theologian Ellen F. Davis points out that the covenant is based on proper use (stewardship) because the land ultimately belongs to God. Proper use of the land includes just treatment of the people who live there, as well as nonhuman animals and plants, creating a rhythm of work and rest that is healthy for people and the ecosystem.
Watershed discipleship practitioners encourage “reinhabiting” the watershed by advocating that Christians become disciples in their watersheds as well as disciples of their watersheds. Practicing discipleship in our watersheds starts from the recognition that God chose to be incarnated into the body of Jesus in a specific place and time. This helps break down the idea that the material world is the opposite of or incompatible with the spiritual world: God became embodied, connected to an ecosystem, and was intimately involved with the justice issues of his day. While Christians are sometimes derided for being so focused on heaventhat they are no earthly good, Jesus’s life tells a story of good news for the poor and disenfranchised in this life. He invited his followers into a communal practice of faith in a God who cared about them as embodied beings, not simply their souls—a point that has been lost in some recent iterations of the Christian message.
Theologians sometimes refer to the “book of created nature” as another source of wisdom in addition to the Bible because it provides metaphors and learning opportunities through which people can learn about God. Watershed discipleship advocates become disciples of their watersheds through learning about the social, economic, and environmental issues facing their region. This occurs as we allow other species and Earth systems to teach us, to be our rabbis, and combine this wisdom about ecological systems with what we also know about social and economic justice.
Watershed Discipleship in Action
The theme of water flows throughout scripture, particularly in the practice of baptism. The many conflicts regarding clean drinking water in recent years provide fertile ground for partnerships related to water justice. Seeing access to clean water as a basic human right, watershed discipleship helps provide a moral framework for advocacy and activism aimed at changing unjust laws. For example, Reverend Bill Wylie-Kellermann of Detroit, Michigan, practiced watershed discipleship when he engaged in civil disobedience in 2014, blocking trucks sent to shut off water to Detroit’s residents. He and other members of the “Homrich 9” advocated for a water affordability plan based on income.
Todd Wynward practices watershed discipleship by leading wilderness treks and learning to grow food sustainably in the arid climate of New Mexico. Wynward founded an organization called Taos Initiative for Life Together, and he combines an intimate knowledge of the land with spiritual depth based on stretches of time spent in the wilderness. He has focused on building relationships with and learning traditional skills from the Taos Pueblo people, following their lead, and standing with them in disputes regarding access to land, water, and sacred places. Wynward has made his home into a sustainable projects incubator where Christians can learn about watershed discipleship, spend time in community, and have time and space with minimal financial burdens so as to launch sustainability projects.
Watershed discipleship is also enacted through practicing rituals and incorporating liturgical elements related to the community’s watershed. Many who care about the environment find themselves overcome with guilt about their complicity in exacerbating environmental ills, and the weight of this knowledge can become paralyzing. Christianity, with its rituals of lament, confession, and repentance, can offer space for individuals to grieve, confess their complicity, and make a commitment to changing their behavior. One way to begin connecting people with awareness of their watersheds is through Christian rituals. Congregations that use local waterways to perform baptisms, or local wine and bread for communion, naturally begin to attend to the cleanliness of the water and the way the ritual elements are produced.
People of faith participate in communities that form networks across a region, with denominational ties crossing the nation and globe. Actions taken within one specific watershed can be shared with those in other regions, sparking similar actions in other parts of the world. Shared faith combined with shared environmental concern can encourage partnerships for activism, the cultivation of more sustainable systems, and the implementation of restoration and mitigation projects. In my own region, near Portland, Oregon, Christian communities espousing watershed discipleship have partnered with 350PDX (a chapter of 350.org) to protest coal trains and terminals, advocate for the city of Portland to divest from fossil fuels, and provide gathering spaces where community groups can learn about and plan actions to address regional environmental concerns.
Many churches own land, and individuals and congregations practicing watershed discipleship are finding ways to creatively partner with others to utilize church land to contribute to developing food sovereignty and healthy, local food systems. Reverend Nurya Love Parish felt inspired to create a hub for the Christian Food Movement as an expression of watershed discipleship. In 2015, she developed a website that now lists hundreds of organizations and congregations working to provide access to healthy food in their communities. Parish started Plainsong Farm, an organic farm that provides education on sustainable farming and gardening, offers hospitality, sells CSA shares, and allows CSA members to purchase extra shares to give to those who can’t afford them. The farm and the local Episcopal diocese are doing this work as a nonprofit ministry, caring for their community and land in tangible ways.
Because Christians form a sizable percentage of the global population, and because Christianity in combination with Western empires has had a major impact on the way the land and its inhabitants have been treated in the last two millennia, expressing environmental care as an integral part of the Christian faith could help move our global practice toward a more sustainable future. Watershed discipleship helps articulate current environmental concerns and encourages action based on the Christian tradition and within the context of a unit of care (the watershed) that is within the scope of the human imagination and connects one’s local actions to the entire world. Practicing watershed discipleship means spending time getting to know and love the watershed, connecting this knowledge to liturgical rituals, and partnering with others to address shared concerns. It also means communicating about one’s work with those in other watersheds, in the knowledge that watershed discipleship will look different in each particular context, with the faith that Christian communities will be inspired by and learn from what is occurring in other regions.
Another Path: Qi
1. See Heila Lotz-Sisitka, Arjen E. J. Wals, David Kronlid, and Dylan McGarry, “Transformative, Transgressive Social Learning: Rethinking Higher Education Pedagogy in Times of Systemic Global Dysfunction,” Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 16 (2015): 73–80; and Elise Amel, Christie Manning, Britain Scott, and Susan Koger, “Beyond the Roots of Human Inaction: Fostering Collective Effort toward Ecosystem Conservation,” Science 356 (2017): 275–79.
2. Bron Raymond Taylor, “The Greening of Religion Hypothesis (Part One) from Lynn White, Jr. and Claims that Religions Can Promote Environmentally Destructive Attitudes and Behaviors to Assertions They Are Becoming Environmentally Friendly,” Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture 10, no. 3 (2016): 268–305.
4. Connie Roser-Renouf, Edward Maibach, Anthony Leiserowitz, Geoff Feinberg, and Seth Rosenthal, “Faith, Morality and the Environment: Portraits of Global Warming’s Six Americas,” Yale Program on Climate Change and Communication, January 19, 2016, http://climatecommunication.yale.edu/.
5. Ched Myers, ed., Watershed Discipleship: Reinhabiting Bioregional Faith and Practice (Eugene, Ore.: Cascade Books, 2016).
6. Katerina Friesen, “Watershed Discipleship as Home Mission: Toward a Constructive Paradigm of Repentance,” Missio Dei 5, no. 2 (2014), http://missiodeijournal.com/; and Lynn White Jr., “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” Science 155 (1967): 1203–7.
7. Ellen F. Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).
8. Myers, Watershed Discipleship, 6.
9. For example, Hosea 4:1–3.
10. Randy Woodley, Shalom and the Community of Creation: An Indigenous Vision (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2012).
11. Genesis 1:26–29.
12. John 18:36 and Matthew 28:18–20.
13. Whitney Bauman, Theology, Creation, and Environmental Ethics: From Creatio Ex Nihilo to Terra Nullius (New York: Routledge, 2014); and Heather Eaton, Introducing Ecofeminist Theologies (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2005).
14. City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation of N.Y., 544 U.S. 197 (U.S. Supreme Court 2005).
15. Friesen, “Watershed Discipleship.”
16. Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture.
17. Exodus 23:10–12; see also Walter Brueggemann, Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014).
18. Saint Augustine, Sermon 68, in The Works of St. Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century, ed. John E. Rotelle, trans. Edmund Hill, 40 vols. (Brooklyn, N.Y.: New City Press, 1991); Part 3—Sermons, vol. 3: Sermons 51–94.
19. Holly Fournier, “Water Activists Speak Out Ahead of Court Case,” Detroit News, November 18, 2015; and Candice Williams, “Trial Dismissed against ‘Homrich 9’ Water Protesters,” Detroit News, June 21, 2017, https://www.detroitnews.com/.
20. Todd Wynward, Rewilding the Way: Break Free to Follow an Untamed God (Harrisonburg, Va.: Herald Press, 2015).
21. Chris Johnstone and Joanna Macy, Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy (Novato, Calif.: New World Library, 2012).