Where Doctrine, Women, and Climate Justice Meet

Apr 24, 2023 9:30:00 AM / by Grace Ji-Sun Kim and Hilda P. Koster


Climate change is real and impacts the entire planet. The devastating effects of climate change are unfathomable, however, to many who live in the wealthy Western world, who are shielded from the most brutal aspects of its reality. Women and children, the poorest and the most vulnerable people in the world, are the ones who bear the brunt of and are most especially affected by the consequences of climate change. Climate change puts poor women and children at risk and deprives them of the lives they had known.

Stories like that of Jahanara Khatun are common among women in places where climate change is destroying the lives of the poor. A devastating storm in 2009 destroyed her home in Dakope, Bangladesh. She lost her husband to the storm and had to sell her son and daughter into bonded servitude. She spends her days gathering cow dung for fuel and trying to grow vegetables in soil that is now poisoned by saltwater due to the high tides driven by the storm. Climate change may make the sea levels rise further, and the next storm may wipe out her current attempt at rebuilding her life.1 Khatun’s story is but one of countless stories of women and children brutalized by climate change.

At such a consequential time, the choice is stark: the world’s wealthy people and nations may sit back and watch this tragic story unfold, or we can work toward climate justice. Climate justice is the understanding that global warming is not just an environmental matter but also a moral, political, sociological, and religious concern. Climate justice is often seen as a human rights issue. It stems from the observation that climate change will have the most adverse effects on the livelihood and health of people with the least political and economic power. In his encyclical Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home, Pope Francis observes that “a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.”2 By highlighting the need for justice, the pope calls our attention to the fact that the world’s poor—especially in the Global South—have done the least to cause the problem of anthropogenic climate disruption but are the first to suffer its catastrophic effects. Pope Francis’s call for climate justice is shared by the World Council of Churches, the National Council of Churches in the United States, the South African Council of Churches, and many other national and international church bodies.3 Like Laudato Si’ these ecumenical organizations remind us that from a Christian perspective, God’s justice is an expression of love and, hence, never a mere weighing of interest against interest. It involves passionate advocacy for those who do not have a voice.

Climate Justice and Women

This book brings together leading Latina, womanist, Asian, Asian American, South American, European, and African theologians on the issues of doctrine, women, and climate justice. We believe that a focus on women is warranted because theological and ecclesial documents too often do not spell out the ways climate change affects poor and indigenous women around the globe. Indeed, the voices of women are conspicuously absent from Laudato Si’. Nor does the encyclical draw on the insights and experiences of women environmental activists working to mitigate the negative effects of climate change and fossil fuel extraction on their communities, let alone include the rich theological writings by feminist/womanist/mujerista theologians in the field of ecotheology.

Climate change affects everyone. Yet, because women make up the majority of the world’s poor and tend to be more dependent on natural resources for their livelihoods and survival, they are at a higher risk. In the exploited world, poor women are often the primary caregivers of their families and hence play an important role in securing household water, food, and fuel. In times of drought, women must walk farther and spend more of their time collecting water. Girls may have to drop out of school to help their mothers with these tasks, continuing a cycle of poverty and gender inequity.4 Moreover, as the story of Jahanara Khatun so painfully illustrates, because poor women in the Global South often have very little access to education and hence trustworthy employment and income, they are vulnerable when rural families are forced to migrate due to rising seawaters or desertification. Dislocated young girls, moreover, often end up in domestic servitude or the sex trade.

Women are further at increased risk because of lack of independence and decision making power, which significantly constrains their ability to adapt to climate change. Not only do women often lack control over family finances and assets, they are underrepresented in community politics and thus have little influence over community strategies as to how to adapt to changing weather patterns in ways that supports their rights and priorities. It is not surprising, therefore, that many environmental grassroots movements—such as the Chipko movement in India, the Greenbelt Movement in Kenya, and the women’s collective Conspirando in Latin America—not just originated with women but organized primarily around the plight of (rural) women and the need for their empowerment. While these movements may not have arisen in response to the effects of climate change, per se, they understand that the degrading of the natural environment and the world’s climate is a women’s issue.

By focusing on the plight of women, we are not suggesting that women are innately more attuned to the natural world. While the oppression of women and the oppression of nature often intersect, assertions that women have a special relation to nature and/or are more virtuous when it comes to environmental responsibility have rightly been criticized as essentialist.5 This line of argument tends to lock women into fixed roles based on traditional divisions of labor and their childbearing capacities. We also do not intend to unduly victimize women and suggest that they are always necessarily more negatively affected by climate change. Studies from around the globe show that women are often tremendously resourceful and resilient in finding ways to adapt to a changing climate.6 Moreover, as Seema Arora-Johnson has pointed out, while poverty often is an indicator of increased vulnerability to the negative effects of climate change, there are other factors, most notably those of power, class, race, and religion, that play a significant and, in some cases, determining role when it comes to women’s ability to negotiate the challenges posed by climate change.7 Finally, by calling attention to the plight of poor and indigenous women, we do not want to reinscribe the binary dichotomy between the Global South and the Global North. The debates on climate change, gender, and development tend to cast the Global South as culturally backward when it comes to equality between women and men. This dynamic not only overlooks the various ways women do exercise agency in the exploited world, it also conveniently ignores the climaterelated suffering due to social and economic inequities in countries in the Global North.

Doctrinal Reimagining

The women theologians writing for this book are much attuned to the intricate ways questions of climate justice and gender intersect with those of class, race, and ethnicity, which are prevalent in both the Global South and North. While they come from a wide range of denominational and ecclesial backgrounds, they all write as feminist/ womanist/mujerista theologians. What this means is that they critically analyze the myriad ways constructions of gender, race, class, and ethnicity inform church doctrine and practice. As Serene Jones reminds us, feminist theology “explores how Christian faith grounds and shapes women’s experiences of hope, justice, and grace, as well as instigates and enforces women’s experiences of oppression, sin and evil.”8 Thus, the theologians writing for this book are critical of the ways Christian teaching has been both anthropocentric, as well as androcentric, heterosexist and Eurocentric. And as theologians committed to ecojustice, they criticize Christianity’s earth-fleeing, anti-body spirituality, which they believe energizes the interlocking of oppression of nature with suppression of women.

Our book further reflects a “subfield” of feminist theology, first coined by Jones, which takes Christian doctrine as an important interlocutor for feminist theology.9 Doctrines are teachings—for instance, teachings on God, creation, sin and grace, and Christ and redemption— which have been passed on throughout church history. While doctrines often have been used to stifle change, they also form the theological threads that weave communities of faith together. Doctrines provide the basic outline for what Christians do and do not believe, and, hence, they regulate the broadest parameters within which the Christian life can take shape. According to Jones, therefore, doctrines are much more than propositional statements or static rules; instead, they serve as “imaginative lenses through which to view the world.”10

The purpose of engaging doctrine, then, is to open up fresh possibilities for life together—with one another and with the Earth. Yet, in order for this to happen, it is imperative to rework interpretations of doctrines that have reinforced colonialism, patriarchy, climate change, racism, and other injustices. The theological work of creative reimaging with doctrine must therefore always include critical retrieval, reformation, and reconstruction.

Planetary Solidarity follows in the footsteps of two earlier volumes edited by Grace Ji-Sun Kim and Jenny Daggers: Reimagining with Christian Doctrines: Responding to Global Gender Injustices11 and Christian Doctrines for Global Gender Justice.12 Planetary Solidarity is the third volume in this series and answers the question of how Christian doctrine may be put to work toward both gender and climate justice.13 The book answers the call of Laudato Si’ to work toward climate justice and connects this to the struggle for gender justice by having women theologians from around the globe speak in their own voices. As with the previous volumes, it is the purpose of the book to take forward the struggle for gender justice in our society and churches in solidarity with justice struggles in our wider world.

Planetary Solidarity

The title of our book reflects our deeply held conviction that the daunting task of working toward climate justice must be done in solidarity with those who suffer most from injustice and who will benefit from change. As both an ideal and an objective of political engagement, solidarity draws from politics, economics, religion, and every other one of our vocations.14 Whereas solidarity generally includes notions of political activity, it is more than alliances of common interests or objectives. As Heather Eaton observes in her chapter in this book, solidarity, in the political sense, is about social justice and movements for transformation with a responsibility to the common good. Solidarity expresses a realization and analysis of inequities and patterns of injustice, and a commitment to social change to remedy these inequalities.

As a theological concept, solidarity refers to the (Catholic) notion of koinonia (the communion of saints).15 It is about building stronger communities where power is shared and relationships are formed.16 Solidarity advocates a re-centering of power and privilege around building community. It is a commitment to be with others in a most radical way. There should not be a vantage point from which we look at others as other in the sense of objects of charity. Instead, solidarity springs from the acknowledgement that all are equal participants in community and have a contribution to make.17

Solidarity does not mean, however, that we are the same or that our differences do not matter. Rather, it means just the opposite as it allows us to deal with our differences more constructively and put them to work for a common cause.18 Solidarity requires attention to differences in suffering while extending preferential treatment to those who suffer more. And like with its political interpretation, solidarity as a theological category asks that we be advocates for those who are disadvantaged, resist injustice, and work for change. In community, we are in solidarity with each other. We stand with the most vulnerable and do not stay silent. We speak out so the rest of the world can see the injustices caused by the wealthy nations against the Earth.

Solidarity, then, connotes double resistance: resistance to individualism and resistance to totalitarianism. It is otherness in togetherness, not in isolation or competition.19 In an age of anthropogenic climate change, it is pertinent, moreover, that we broaden and deepen our solidarity to include the nonhuman world and the planetary systems and processes on which all life depends. Theology and doctrine have focused on humanity and made the “rest of creation” external to the story of God with human beings. Climate change brings home that there is no such externality. Climate change affects atmospheric patterns, ocean currents, fresh water quality and quantity, soil fertility, food stability, and, of course, the living ecosystems that are at the basis of all living communities. Planetary solidarity requires that we give voice to these interconnected systems of life. It asks for nothing less than a bio-cracy, in which all life forms have a vote. It is from this Earth-centric stance that the authors in this book work toward gender and climate justice.

Planetary Solidarity

This is an excerpt from the introduction of Planetary Solidarity: Global Women's Voices on Christian Doctrine and Climate Justice edited by Grace Ji-Sun Kim and Hilda P. Koster.

Topics: Excerpt, Women's History Month, social justice, ecology, Environment, Asian Scholarship

Grace Ji-Sun Kim and Hilda P. Koster

Written by Grace Ji-Sun Kim and Hilda P. Koster

Grace Ji-Sun Kim is a professor of theology at Earlham School of Religion and author, coauthor, or editor of twenty-two books, most recently Spirit Life; Invisible; and Intersectional Theology. She has served on the American Academy of Religion's board of directors, is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA), and is the host of the Madang podcast from The Christian Century. Kim writes for Baptist News Global, Sojourners, and Faith and Leadership and has published in TIME, The Huffington Post, The Christian Century, US Catholic Magazine, and The Nation. She lives in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Hilda P. Koster is associate professor of religion and cochair of environmental studies at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. She publishes on ecological theology and ecofeminism and is the coeditor of The Gift of Theology: The Contribution of Kathryn Tanner to Contemporary Theology (Fortress Press, 2015).