Exploring the Intersection of Faith and Environmental Justice
By Rachel Kirk and Meredith Smith
Hussein Rashid is a theologian, Columbia University graduate, adjunct professor of religion at the New School, and founder of Islamicate, a consultancy based in NYC. Professor Rashid brings his background in religion and culture to affect positive change in the world. His work includes exploring theology, the interaction between culture and religion, and the role of the arts in conflict mediation. In this interview with Rachel Kirk and Meredith Smith, he talks about his own religious life and the challenges and possibilities he sees in environmental justice work today.
Two years ago, Rashid came together with two colleagues — Karenna Gore, who is the director for the Center for Earth Ethics at Union Theological Seminary, and Burt Visotzky, the Milstein Chair for Interreligious Dialogue at Jewish Theological Seminary — for an interfaith reading group around a Papal encyclical, Laudato Si’, which called for environmental stewardship from a Catholic perspective. They reflected on where the Catholic Church was putting stakes in the ground, and on what their own faith traditions teach about environmental care and stewardship, and shared their thoughts in a liturgy about the importance of water, which was published on several websites. Rashid has since gotten increasingly involved in environmental justice, speaking and working with Alliance for Fair Food, on World Water Day, and other initiatives.
How did Pope Francis’ framing lead into your work addressing the environment?
A lot of what Pope Francis was doing in his work was talking about the questions of capitalism: how capitalism is extractive, how when we look at what’s happening to the environment, the people who are extracting the most are also insulating themselves from the impacts of climate change. And the people being taken from are not only being hit from having their resources extracted from them but are also at the forefront of feeling the results of climate change. Pope Francis makes a very strong argument about the relationship between capitalism, environmental damage, and the environmental neglect, and who suffers as a result of that.
The encyclical allowed me to think about this more systematically, personally. A few weeks ago, I was on a panel with the Fair Food Alliance of Immokalee workers and thinking about questions like: What does it mean to get our food from farm workers who are abused and mistreated? Is that ethical food? Where does ethical food come from? A couple of years ago, I decided to give up meat for very similar reasons. Not only was it extractive environmentally, it was also very abusive. If we think about the fact that we can buy a pound of chicken for a dollar but realize that you can’t buy the food that was used to raise that chicken for a dollar, then you have to think about the workers who are involved with that. From an animal perspective, a workers’ perspective, and a consumer’s perspective, there’s something deadening about not being able to say people are able to live off the fact that I’m buying this meat.
At the end of our formal period together for our Laudato Si’ reading group, on World Water Day, we released a liturgy over several sites about care for water, to be picked up by water resource groups as a way to ground this. Part of the thinking was (mostly from the Abrahamic traditions, i.e., Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) that with a meal you offer a prayer of thanks and acknowledge God’s bounty, generosity, and grace. If you’re thinking about being thankful for water, it makes you think about who doesn’t get to be thankful for water. Thankfulness should generate a feeling of generosity and awareness, not self-satisfaction. That was some of the thinking that went behind that liturgy.
How do you think about local aspects of this versus global connections?
For me, it was important to do something that was really localized and where we could see a direct impact. It feels trite but think globally, act locally. We recognize that questions of water or water access, water shortage, and potable water are going to continue to be a global issue. That question of access is only going to be exacerbated as climate change continues. But you can’t affect change globally unless you get buy-in from the big players. As we saw, it’s not happening at Davos. The way to affect change is thinking about the very particular local ways to change and how that can be transferred to other locations. Having worked with the Fair Food Alliance, I knew that this started with tomato growers in Florida but understood the ways in which it’s impacting dairy farmers in Vermont, or citrus producers in the South. Once you make a change in one way, people recognize the ways in which it can be emulated or adapted to their needs.
With the Alliance for Fair Food, you were exploring the connection between faith and the advancement of human rights. Can you tell us about the different people involved in this work and who you’re trying to have an impact on?
The Fair Food Alliance panel was about workers coming together to say we can’t work in conditions where there’s physical abuse, sexual harassment, sexual abuse, and low wages. I realized that in that space, what they’re asking for is their dignity. This is not me speaking, I’m trying to reiterate what they were interested in and what they were fighting for. That space of human dignity is what I’m interested in — because what is the point of getting organic tomatoes if people were beaten in the process of getting those organic tomatoes? Where is the human element of this? When you start saying ‘People aren’t worth anything,’ how can anything else be worth anything? To listen to their stories and to reflect on what does that mean ethically from a Muslim tradition I think is where my interests are right now.
Based on either your liturgy work or the panel from the Fair Food Alliance, what solutions are being put forth?
A lot of what came forward was from the workers themselves. They’re the ones who started organizing. They had these question of abuse, harassment, unfair pay, and they organized, and they went to corporations because corporations tended to be the largest buyers. They said ‘Okay, if you pay a penny more for a pound of tomatoes, in terms of your overall cost, it’s negligible. But if we take that penny and we put it towards funding a worker’s rights initiative where we can take complaints, then we can’t be fired, and all your growers have to sign to these tenets of fair work.’ Taco Bell was one of the first companies to sign onto this and they’ve now gotten a whole lot of the other brands to sign off on this. Now they’re dealing with millions of dollars every year coming in to defend workers’ rights, which is now being replicated by other food workers’ industries. This is organizing in its most basically classic sense. It was recognizing that the people have the power. My role was simply to say this is human dignity, this is what it means to have human agency, and thinking about it through my lens as a Muslim thinker and believer.
What are the shorter- and longer-term impacts that you’re hoping to have?
There are personal things that we can do but what we’re looking at is deeper structural issues. The fact is that if 100 people went vegetarian today, it’s not going to do anything for our carbon emissions, for our abuse of animals, for the poor treatment of workers. At the same time, it’s an ethical and political act for me in that it allows me the space to talk about this because we need to think about systematic interventions. We’re not just consuming the meat. We’re consuming labor. If we were to pay for what all of this is actually worth, we wouldn’t be eating this. But we can’t have that conversation until we’re willing to say, “I’m not eating meat”. It’s very much a theological question if God is meant to be the giver and the sustainer. What does it mean when we take more than what we are given? In Muslim traditions, we talk about this idea of the nafs, which is translated as soul or ego, which is really about our base or animal instincts. We want to eat as much as we can because that’s what our animal selves want us to do. And part of it is saying no to ourselves. Our teachings systematically tell us that this system of consumption is not for us. And yet we constantly find that it’s so easy for us to fall back into that trap.
You are bringing interfaith communities together. Are there are any efforts to bring people with less faith-based backgrounds in?
I’m coming at this from a particular lens as a Shia Muslim. My Jewish colleagues, my Presbyterian colleagues, my Baptist colleagues will come at it from a different perspective. There’s a surprising amount of sympathetic thought, but there’s also gaps. And how do we fill those gaps? I would imagine the same thing is true were we to bring in Hindu thinkers and Jain thinkers and Sikh thinkers and non-faith thinkers. The workers’ rights initiative was not a faith-based initiative. It was a workers’ rights initiative. I go to these spaces as a person of faith but it’s not definitionally about faith. What we’re thinking about are bigger issues but the lens that I’m coming at it is through faith.
Do you have any practical tips or any lessons that you’ve learned from your experiences?
It’s only been about two years since I’ve been thinking about this systematically. In working within faith communities, a lot of it has been thinking about what do we say when we’re offered food or water, and what is the intentionality? How do we think beyond formula into thinking about what does it mean to thank God for what we have been given? Have we taken more than what we need and how do we engage with that? I think even just that helps to start shifting the thinking because it is so easy to fall into a consumptive model of living. And maybe I don’t want to give up my steak dinner, but I’m really called to renewable energy. That’s great. It’s not possible for everybody to do everything, so what is it that people are called to? We need to think about all of this together, but I think the first thing that is important for me is creating that perception shift.
If you were just passing someone on the street who might not know what environmental justice is but wants to do something to care for the planet, what advice would you give this person?
I hear people say “The system is broken. What can I do?” And I think the first thing is recognizing that the system is not broken, it’s functioning exactly as it’s supposed to be. It’s supposed to be breaking us and it’s doing a really good job at it. I think that the system has broken us so much that we don’t even recognize the value that we have as human beings in the first place. For me, understanding how to take care of the Earth begins with understanding how to take care of ourselves. We as human beings have value and as a result of that value, we have a responsibility to each other and the place in which we live.
Okay, one more question. What item would you suggest for a reading list on environmental justice?
I would recommend Green Deen: What Islam Teaches about Protecting the Planet, by Ibrahim Abdul-Matin. It’s a great approach to understanding environmentalism through an Islamic lens. It draws from scripture and research and interviews with Muslim Americans. Plus, it’s inspirational and a great read for anyone, of all faiths, with interest in the environment, especially today.