Who is my neighbor?
Cynthia Moe-Lobeda tells a number of life stories in her book, Resisting Structural Evil: Love as Ecological-Economic Vocation, and I have drawn from a few of them – and heavily from her book as a whole – for this sermon. One of the stories she tells is of Ravi Chandekar, a cotton farmer in India who has faced years of declining harvests. He took out loans to buy hybrid seeds, and then more loans when he discovered that additional fertilizers and pesticides were needed to support the genetically modified seed. Before long he was crushed by debt, unable to buy food, let alone provide for the medical expenses of his chronically ill daughter.
Ravi is far away in India. He and I will never meet. Our lives have little in common. Is Ravi my neighbor?
Ravi’s ancestors farmed this land for thousands of years, producing and spinning a local variety of cotton that gave them enough income to support the farmers and their families. But droughts spurred the Indian government to provide a “safety net” in the form of modified seeds – which were marketed and supplied by U.S. agribusiness corporations like Monsanto, Cargill, and others. Formerly isolated, subsistence farmers found themselves competing in a global market with large-scale operations that could afford the necessary quantities of petroleum-based fertilizers to grow these new crops.
Ravi took his own life out of desperation. Nearly 200,000 farmers in India had died by suicide between 1997 and the writing of Lobeda’s book. Who is my neighbor? Is Ravi my neighbor?
Who is my neighbor?
The Chantico family were also farmers, growing maize on their plot in Oaxaca, Mexico for generations following the practices of their Zapotec ancestors who had lived there centuries before Columbus landed. They had developed this particular corn to suit the area’s climate and soil, and to provide essential proteins and vitamins. The maize made up 70% of the family’s calorie intake, and what was left over was sold so they could provide for themselves and their community.
Are the Chanticos my neighbors?
When NAFTA was signed into law, Mexico signed away its right to protect its own corn industry. Inexpensive US corn, intended mostly for animal feed, flooded the Mexican corn market. The Chantico family and many of their neighbors were bankrupted and forced off their land. Farms which grew indigenous corn for centuries were replanted with monoculture crops for export, to meet the American demand for off-season produce and cheap beef.
The Chanticos migrated north to Nogales, where factories at the border were rumored to pay $0.85 per hour. Maria Chantico took a factory shift making clothing for fifteen hours a day. The youngest children scavenged food and clothing from the nearby trash dump. They moved into a cramped shack made of cast-off materials from the factory, next to a dry riverbed that had become a dump for industrial waste. The people of Nogales experience high rates of cancer, neurological disease, miscarriages, and birth defects. Maria and her children store water in a 55-gallon drum the children scavenged from the factory, that once held toxic chemicals.
Meanwhile, Colleen, a young woman in New Hampshire, goes shopping at her local Old Navy, where tank tops are on sale for $5.99. As she digs through the clearance section – buy two, get one free – she misses the tiny label that tells a bit of the history of these tank tops: “Made in Mexico.”
Who is my neighbor? Are the Chanticos my neighbors?
Who is my neighbor?
Nigeria exported 962,000 barrels of oil per day to the US in 2010. The Ogoni tribe has lived in the Niger River Delta for centuries. Today they live with oil spills, gas flares, seepage, soot spewing from methane gas flares, constant noise, and flickering lights from the relentless oil trade. The aquatic life in the river delta is decimated. The waterways are full of oil. The mangrove forests are destroyed. The people suffer from high rates of asthma, bronchitis, pneumonia, skin diseases, and emphysema. $30 billion of oil has been extracted from their homeland, but the Ogoni have seen none of it. Instead they suffer food shortages and lack of health and education services.
When they resisted the oil production that has taken over their land, four Ogoni chiefs were brutally murdered. Nine environmental activists were framed and sentenced to death by hanging. Witnesses in the trial later confessed to accepting bribes and job offers at the Shell Oil corporation.
Who is my neighbor? Are the Ogoni my neighbor?
I suspect that when Jesus was talking about the greatest commandments, they all had a fairly simple concept of “neighbor” in mind. Neighbors are the people next door, the people in your neighbor-hood, the lives that intersect with yours on a daily basis. But who are our neighbors? Just the people next door? Or the lives that are interwoven with ours? In a global economy, when our lives touch millions of other lives at every moment in ways we rarely see, the question of neighbor love becomes a bit more complicated.
Before I arrived at church this morning, I slept on sheets that are a cotton-poly blend. That cotton was grown in fields like Ravi’s, or like the industrial fields that replaced them, dependent on petroleum-based fertilizers. Oil fueled the irrigation systems and the machinery to harvest the crop; perhaps oil from the Niger River Basin. The cotton was picked and separated mechanically, blended with polyester fibers derived from petroleum, and treated with polystyrene, which is derived from crude oil. It was dyed with petroleum-based chemicals, wrapped in plastic, and transported in a vehicle to a distribution center and then to a store.
On my way from bed to church, I walked on multiple carpets that were polypropylene-based with synthetic latex backing. I put contact lenses in my eyes that are made mostly from silicone but also from petroleum-bases hydrocarbons. My shoes have soles made of styrene-butadiene, synthesized from petroleum and benzene. I’m wearing a dazzling array of blended fabrics today, the origins of which are impossible to guess. For breakfast I had Cheerios, the grains of which were grown, irrigated, and transported with petroleum, with strawberries that are not in season here. Maybe they were grown in Oaxaca? The bag inside the Cheerios box and the container for the strawberries were plastic.
I drove here on 12 inches of asphalt poured over a graded roadbed. Petroleum fuels my car and about 87% of the other cars on the road. The rubber tires came from oil. The engine lubricant and antifreeze leave a trail behind me that will end up in the water supply when it rains. I arrive at church drinking coffee from a cup with a plastic lid and wondering today – mostly because it is Earth Day and I am especially conscious of these things – who used to live where my coffee was grown? Where are they now?
Who is my neighbor?
How do I love the people I will never meet, but who are drastically affected every day by my lifestyle?
We often think of earth care as its own separate category of things that are not connected to the rest of the justice work that we do. Recycling, solar panels, and wilderness reclamation projects are all admirable pursuits, but for a lot of us, I’m not sure we put them in the same justice category as our LGBTQ advocacy, or work toward racial justice, or efforts to alleviate poverty. Earth care feels more distant. And it feels like it’s about doing the right thing with stuff, so for many of us, creation care doesn’t pull at our heartstrings like justice causes that deal directly with people’s lives. We are loving our neighbors, the people next door. Being attentive to what we eat, what we wear, how we build, how we get around – those seem to be secondary concerns.
But what about Ravi? The Chanticos? The Ogoni? Are they our neighbors? Given how much their lives intersect with ours, shouldn’t we at least love them enough that our existence doesn’t threaten theirs?
What about the animals whose habitats are destroyed by industrial farming and oil production? The mangrove trees and other plants that die from the pollution of water and soil? The delicate ecosystems in which every created thing relies on every other created thing, from the tiniest microorganism to the largest predator? Are these our neighbors? Given what we know now about how closely all the plants, animals, and minerals of this earth are woven together, shouldn’t we at least love them enough that our existence doesn’t threaten theirs?
On Earth day we are invited to remember that our neighbors are not just the people who live next door, the people we know, the people who look like us and have similar lives to ours. Our neighbors are in India, and Nigeria, and Mexico, and everywhere else around this globe where our lives intersect in a million ways that we never fully see. And our neighbors are not just the people. Our neighbors are all of God’s beloved creation, the amoeba to the blue whale, the darkest depths of the oceans to the snowy peaks of the mountains. The love of the God who created all things calls us to a neighbor-love that brings justice for all of creation.