"Do Unto Those Downstream" | Nations


21st June 2024

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“Do Unto Those Downstream”

Talking ecological justice and caring for our global neighbors with Sarah Nahar

“Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Water; she is very useful, and humble, and precious, and pure,” sings Saint Francis of Assisi in “Canticle of the Sun.” It is a sentiment so indisputable in its essence, yet so widely taken for granted in the modern global north. How often do we go about our days mindlessly utilizing clean water? We cook with it, we wash with it, we bottle it, we drink it, we exalt it in our religious ceremonies. Water is so essential to human life and dignity that it has become an unremarkable part of our daily reality.

But what happens when we’re stripped of that fundamental human right to clean water? We need not look far to see that access to clean water has increasingly become a justice issue in the modern era. From Flint, Michigan to Standing Rock, entire communities have been forced to reorient their lives because of broken systems that affect their water supply. On a global level, diarrhea due to poor sanitation and contaminated drinking water is one of the top ten causes of death. Diarrhea kills over 2,000 children daily—more than AIDS, malaria, and measles combined.

For scholar, activist, and theologian Sarah Nahar, this is a larger issue of “defecatory justice” and a natural extension of her work in social movement building and embodied nonviolence. From 2014 to 2017, Nahar led Christian Peacemaker Teams as its Executive Director, and in 2018 she was the Generations Fellow at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta, Georgia. For years she has journeyed from margin to center and back again, studying how our most mundane actions in the global north affect the world’s most vulnerable populations. “The area of sanitation is where I believe that the violence of the interlocking systems of oppression is unseen and routine,” she says. 

While Nahar has long been interested in creative solutions to injustice, it wasn’t until a month spent with the Carnival de Resistance—a traveling theological circus and ecological justice performance group—that she had a “metanoia” experience (a transformative change of heart, literally a change of mind in the original Greek). Here she cites her first time using a compostable toilet as the place where she recognized the importance of addressing her waste and “not flushing everything away.” 

“That conversion experience was about coming back to the call of Jesus in my life to pay attention,” she says, alluding to Matthew 6:25-34 when Jesus invites his listeners to consider the lifestyle of the ravens. “There was no need to worry about tomorrow because the methods we were using to live at the Carnival were sustainable and regenerative…There’s no need to worry if you’re living in alignment.”

Living in alignment is an inherently spiritual issue—one that speaks to our interconnectedness with one another, with creation, and with our Creator. As Christians, we are instructed to tend to the earth and keep it, and ecological justice—sanitation included—cannot be separated from that mandate. In the conversation below, Sarah Nahar helps us to reframe our understanding of sanitation and advocacy, and gives us tangible ways to steward the earth and care for our global neighbors.

With so many issues demanding our attention these days, what is significant about sanitation and why should it stir our hearts?

Forty percent of the world’s population does not have access to dignified sanitation. Like lack of access to potable water, the inability to have a safe, clean place to eliminate has a huge impact on how people—especially women—must structure their day. Unprocessed poop carries deadly bacteria. The number of people who die annually from poor sanitation exceeds that of those killed in war, bombings, and natural disasters. 

Here in the flushed and plumbed world, you poop and it goes away…Where is “away?” There is no place called “away.” Somewhere receives our refuse. But you’d be fooled living here. Our city architecture is designed to facilitate separation from the extreme consequences of our mundane actions with the press of a button or a jiggle of a handle. But as there is no “away,” and as people committed to the diligent study of our interconnectedness, we must care about the place that is “away” and the people (and the fish!) who live there. Global sanitation politics adds to the intractability of this issue.

What does sanitation show us about our global interconnectedness? 

We are reminded in 1 Corinthians 12 that every part of the body is very important. Those considered weaker are actually doing strong and important functions, and without them (parts like our gut and bowels) receiving healthy resources, the whole system will shut down. The body is a metaphor about the church and society, recognizing that those in society who are considered weaker are actually quite strong and important. When people are oppressed and not able to function well because of lack of healthy resources, that will shut our whole system down. 

This metaphor continues as 1 Corinthians 12:21 says, “the eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you.’” Neither can I say to the trees, “I have no need of you.” When I exhale, they inhale. And trees exhale oxygen, and I can inhale. The trees are an obvious part of our body. Soil may be less obvious, sometimes considered as dirt or unimportant dust. But it is soil that contains decomposed matter, made from tree, animal, and human waste; from decay it is transformed into a nutrient-source for planets to grow. Plants that we can eat to strengthen our physical body. 

We must develop discipleship practices that make the connections between our individual body, our social body, and our ecological body. Otherwise I think we’re missing part of the message of Christ. Humans that live disproportionately large compared to their ecosystem are not acting as an accountable part of the body. My work in sanitation helps us think about translating the “golden rule” to our water system. Do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do to you. 

Part of the reason that so many people in the world live without access to dignified sanitation is because of the wealth disparities that continue to expand. Many in mission work are working on correcting and adjusting these disparities. It’s crucial that when they return home from mission that they mobilize their first hand learning in support of political action for the common good. Working for defecatory justice is one of these ways.

Sanitation justice has to do with finding ecological sanitation systems to address the injustices that are apparent within the sanitation system. Some people talk about needing toilets for all. Dignified sanitation is indeed essential for a healthy life, however holding up the European-style fresh water system as the only savior is not the solution. That system is already barely sustainable, and exporting it—with its reliance on physical infrastructure and abundant water—all around the world is not actually realistic. 

We need an ecological sanitation system, and that will look different in every community. It’s about community power—the people most impacted by the outcome choose how they want to work with the nutrients that come out of their bodies and make sure there is no disease spread, and at the same time, not using an unsustainable colonial system.  People have been pooping for a long time, and have their own wisdom about how to build soil and stay safe. If supported in a decolonized, reparative way, they can and will design systems that work for them.

As someone who practices nonviolence in her daily life, what do you think the model of Christ has to teach us about nonviolence and peacemaking?

That we can be assertive, strategic, and inclusive. We can remember Jesus’ direct action in the face of the money-changers in the temple (Matthew 21:12), those who wished to exclude children (Mark 10:14), and those who assumed violence could be effective (John 18:10).

“Do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do to you.”

Jesus also spent a lot of time caring for himself in the context of the natural world. From this position of inner centeredness (rather than distractedness) he challenged the status quo, joyfully and with wit. He loved to celebrate! Celebration of successes—even the smallest ones—in the building of the beloved community is crucial to keep momentum for the movement. Jesus brought people from different backgrounds together, always paying attention to women’s voices, and taking care to instruct his disciples to work together better. This is crucial to emulate: our work for nonviolence also must follow the leadership of those who are not normally heard in society, and assist people in finding ways to collaborate effectively, able to bring their whole selves to the table.

In areas of nonviolence and environmental justice, what part of the Gospel do you think the modern American church has forgotten or overlooked? What has the church gotten right?

Money, wealth, and power have significantly distorted the message of the Gospel. This has led to much forgetting of its truths. Forgetting that we belong to each other as part of the body of Christ, forgetting that we belong to the body of the Earth. The practice of communion, far from being reduced to an individual transaction, was to help us remember. Communion seeks to remind us that we belong to a tradition of people who lived on the margins of society, were pushed away by those who were okay-enough with the status-quo. Communion reminds us that we follow a Jewish-Palestinian who was tormented by the elite and executed by the imperial state. “Each time you eat this bread and drink this cup…” we are to re-member, to put bodies broken by oppression and injustice back together.

“Jesus spent a lot of time caring for himself in the context of the natural world. From this position of inner centeredness (rather than distractedness) he challenged the status quo, joyfully and with wit.”

And communion binds us to the rest of the story too: resurrected in life, Jesus set fire to a movement that went nonviolently throughout a military-occupied region to spread the message and practice of liberation, connection, egalitarian community, and justice. Ours is a tradition of subversive, society-shaking liberatory norms. It was not a spiritual bypass to promote business as usual to continue.

When we frame heaven as just the “pie in the sky after you die,” we live into a lie. The lie is that Earth is a supply house and sewer; permitting us to take what we want and waste as much as we want. But God called creation good, we are made of the stuff of Earth itself. It is the heavenly womb that we are designed to roam. Rather than the faulty idea that that this Earth is going “away,” (rather than the toxic patriarchal social system which is disintegrating) what if the Church in America started to act as co-creators, transforming our systems to align with Revelation’s vision of a new earth which meets heaven, where stream water flows clear and the medicine of trees heals the nations (Revelation 21-22)?

“‘Each time you eat this bread and drink this cup…’ we are to re-member, to put bodies broken by oppression and injustice back together.”

The Church is well positioned to do this transformative work! The physical infrastructure of Church is unparalleled; tithing is a regular way of redistributing wealth and creating mutual aid opportunities and the church can inspire people to sacrifice comfort for the greater good and think beyond themselves! Building on the consistent weekly rhythm with which people come together, these are practices that many local churches have cultivated. 

A number of churches are beginning to go outside their buildings more often, not only to do service projects, but to worship. This practice of “Wild Church” reminds us that all creation is seeking liberation from bondage (Romans 8:19-21). It also assists us in getting connected with the rhythms of the planet.

How can we reorient our justice and mission work to honor and protect those on the margins?

One part of the re-frame is to look for solutions to the world’s most pressing issues—sanitation among them—that come from the margins, as those solutions that are accessible and workable for those on the margins tend to work for everyone, while solutions that work for the center tend to be inaccessible or unworkable for those on the margins.

Ecologically speaking, the most threatened and marginalized human beings will generally be found living in similarly threatened ecosystems. To close the gap between those doing most of the pollution, and those most affected by pollution, we must look to the unprotected and learn from their leadership on how they restore their environments. This is a liberation ecology framework that I learned about in Haiti, from an organization called SOIL (Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods).  They are a full-service composting toilet enterprise and global leader in ecological sanitation. SOIL is based on liberation theology framework (which also has roots in Latin America) which looks to those who are most marginalized to see and learn how they see God is at work there, and to work for more equitable societies as part of building discipleship communities.

Though the mission for dignified, ecological sanitation for all is precarious and faces many obstacles—mostly people being resistant to change and addicted to comfort—we can be assured in our efforts that we are not alone. The Spirit of God is flowing in and through all of creation, and will help us make the structural changes necessary, create the alternative systems necessary, so that we, and all of the planet, may be whole/holy. 

Header photo of the Ganges River in Varanasi, India by James Galt.

Portrait of Sarah Nahar by Tim Nafziger.

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Brianna Lantz

Brianna Lantz

Brianna is a Pacific Northwest-based writer and editor who seeks stories that breathe hope and inspire action. Her favorite kinds of people are peacemakers, bridge-builders, storytellers, and dreamers. She is the Senior Writer at Nations Media. Visit Brianna's Site