The truth is simple but hard: we can draw tens of thousands of marchers to New York to register a warning about climate change, and yet how closely is Washington D.C. listening? While here in the Pacific Northwest, at least in the area we call Cascadia, there is general agreement, step outside of our blue bubble and we will find ourselves breathing very different (most likely warmer and dryer) air. So what, short of despair, can we do?

With three pages of endorsements from leading theologians, environmentalists and economists, Cynthia Moe-Lobeda’s Resisting Structural Evil: Love as Ecological-Economic Vocation has struck a deep chord – and for good reason. She does an excellent job making the connection between how we earn and spend our money, and the subsequent environmental consequences. She underscores the urgency she feels with graphic stories of real lives and she frames these stories within a rich theological context. And she remains deeply hopeful.

Her thesis? A core aspect of Christian faith, renouncing sin, requires a moral consciousness that accounts for the impact of people’s collective action. The structural nature of sin and evil calls forth also a structural understanding of neighbor-love. We will call it love as an ecological-economic vocation. 

This may sound abstract, but she grounds the theology in particulars, including from her own life – for example, as a fourteen year old watching a documentary that showed the exploitation of sugar cane workers in the Dominican Republic:

Lines were sharply portrayed between these workers’ nearly insufferable reality and the vast profits made by corporate owners of the sugar industry located in my country. Equally clear and even more troubling to me was the connection between those workers’ suffering and what we North Americans eat. I soon learned, to my horror, that this was but one instance of the complex webs of exploitation enabling our extravagant acquisition and consumption (2).

Of course not every fourteen year old grows up to become the Wismer Professor of Gender and Diversity Studies at Seattle University.

The book does a remarkable job of laying out these “complex webs,” again using particular examples to reveal how deeply embedded we are as North Americans in the world’s exploitive economy. Fortunately Cynthia’s goal moves beyond this necessary task of pulling back the layers of comfort that separate us from the realities around us. Rather, as her title suggests, her real task lies in resistance and overcoming, or what she beautifully calls developing a “critical mystical vision”: critical as in naming structural evil for what it is and countering it “with its opposite: justice-making love” (xviii). Not surprisingly, her exploration of the nature of love in this context takes up close to half of her book. Why? Because “love becomes not only an interpersonal vocation but also an economic-ecological vocation” (her italics, xviii).

Her emphasis here on “mystical” is no mistake. There is no question for her that we are sustained by God’s love, and that this love runs through all of creation and is manifested in the simplest of relationships. “We are, she writes, “the body of God on earth, bearers of Christic love. We are, that is, filled with moral agency for healing and liberating (145).

She quotes the late Jon Nelson, who, after years of pastoral work in prisons and numerous stints in Seattle jails for various protests remained a man of superabundant laughter. He could still say, “I have hope and joy because in all of my struggles for justice and peace, I know the end of the story” (153).

The heart of this hope is detailed in her final four chapters, the first of which explores the complexity of “loving one’s neighbor as oneself.” Cynthia lays out fourteen characteristics of ‘neighbor love’. She then uses ‘life stories’ to ground these qualities in the particularities of our love as global citizens – a reminder that ‘neighbor’ now means anyone with whom we (directly or indirectly) come into contact.

Love, she insists, “…cannot depend on emotions. A society cannot depend for justice upon voluntary feelings of good will that may come and go.” Instead, “love is a political as well as interpersonal vocation” (183; her italics).

Her following chapter begins with “an ethic of neighbor-love . . . for twenty-first century earthlings who live as beneficiaries of systemic economic and ecological violence.” In short:

  • What love means depends on who we are – in other words, love is contextual.
  • Neighbor love extends beyond the human.
  • Principles of love as an ecological-economic vocation: ecological sustainability, environmental equity, economic equity and economic democracy.

She asks “[d]o over-consuming countries of the Global North . . . owe an ‘ecological debt’ to those who are suffering most from ecological degradation but contribute least to it?” This in turn raises central questions about the relationship between capitalism and democracy. Which trumps:  property rights or political equality?

She cites four developments that render economic power in the United States exempt from democratic accountability:

  1. The 1886 supreme court decision: corporations granted the legal rights of persons.
  2. The gradual uprooting of corporations and banks from regions, nation, to international.
  3. The wearing down of state charter restrictions and federal regulations regarding corporate operations.
  4. The progressive deregulation of banking and other financial services.

In contrast, what’s needed is a vision where economic life will operate within Earth’s economy (ecologically sustainable); heed environmental space and ecological debt (environmentally equitable); prioritize meeting human needs and Earth’s needs over maximizing profit (economically equitable), and challenge concentrated economic power and seek distributed and accountable economic power (democratic).

Her final two chapters on love take on what she calls love’s “moral fabric” and, finally, “love in action,” which she subtitles “Resistance and Rebuilding.” Her suggestions here are specific and pointed; all rely on “citizen power” over corporate power. She intends for all of them to “generate faith that [these goals] . . . are far from impossible.”

So much of this book is about community. The book affirms repeatedly the possibility of collective change even as it faces the problems that we as a society have created for ourselves. But that change requires not just rote actions – something those of us in Cascadia sometimes pride ourselves on: recycling, composting, driving the Prius. A still deeper transformation is required, and this is something that few of us, I suspect, will find the will and energy to do alone. It will indeed take a region galvanized by the destructive reality that others are already facing from climate change and economic injustice. We have been protected from the worst of it here in our wet and wonderful world, but it’s coming – and we would do well to draw on the hard facts and loving inspiration found in this book.

I say “loving” quite intentionally. As detailed as the book is, and as specific as it is in its recommendations for local, national and global change, it is still at bottom a book about love. And a book written from love and for love. This “critical mystical vision” is what sustains the author – and, as she argues, it is the only thing that can sustain the rest of us in our ongoing work for economic, environmental and racial justice.


  • Doug Thorpe

    Doug Thorpe is Professor of Literature at Seattle Pacific University. He is the author of three books and has also written for a variety of journals, including The Christian Century, Sojourners, and Parabola. Doug is an active member at Saint Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral in Seattle.