This Sunday, April 22, is Earth Day. Earth Day has been observed in various ways for about 40 years, and some might say it has “hit its stride” with the prominence of the Green movement. A number of earth-conscious slogans have shaped how my generation thinks about the earth–from the political imperative “Go Green,” to the philosophical approach “Think globally, act locally,” to the practical “Reuse, Reduce, Recycle.” Proponents of earth care have been effective in getting their message out.
Sadly, I’m not sure how much “progress” has really been made in the 40-some years since that inaugural Earth Day. And also sadly, the Christian Church (especially in its association with the Republican Party) is often seen as an enemy of this movement to care for the earth. Most recently, then-candidate for the Republican presidential nomination Rick Santorum stirred the pot with this comment critiquing what he perceives as President Obama’s theology: “[the President's] idea that man is here to serve the Earth, as opposed to husband its resources and be good stewards of the Earth. And I think that is a phony ideal. I don’t believe that that’s what we’re here to do – that man is here to use the resources and use them wisely, to care for the Earth, to be a steward of the Earth, but we’re not here to serve the Earth. The Earth is not the objective. Man is the objective. I think a lot of radical environmentalists have it upside-down.” So what is an American Christian to do? Or more foundationally, how is an American Christian to think in regards to the environment and the Green movement?
Let me start by offering 3 theological principles:
1) We are talking about Creation, not just the Earth. Of anyone, Christians have more reason to take environment issues seriously. If this is just a planet that we happen to live in; if we are just dust moving around on a pile of dust, I don’t see a whole lot of reason to care about “going Green.” But if this is a beautiful piece of art created by the ultimate Artist, a protective home created by a Heavenly Father, a reality declared “good” by the Lord of Life, well that’s a horse of a different color. We cannot honestly praise God as Creator in one breath, and then abuse his creation in the next. Some people seem to think earth-care requires an alternative theology to Christianity that makes the earth into God (pantheism) or puts humans on the same level as (or beneath) the world Earth. Obviously, I disagree, and think that this claim misunderstands the biblical Story (mostly due to misunderstandings within the Church itself).
2) Human beings are the crown of creation, kings and queens over the rest of God’s creation. In this one thing, I agree with Santorum (and disagree with many environmentalists): humans have been appointed to “rule over” this world. Sounds oppressive, huh? What does that mean? Here is the key. If we learn anything from God’s kingship or Jesus’ expression of authority, we learn that to rule “in God’s image” is to serve, to cultivate, to care for, to sacrifice for. Yes, we are called first to serve God–not the earth. But God directs our service back to cultivate beauty and life in his creation just as God has done. One dimension of being made “in God’s image” is being a ruler over this earth as God is Ruler. Again, as opposed to undermining earth-care, Christian theology actually bolsters a calling to care about creation.
3) God is still interested in creation. N.T. Wright has done a wonderful job calling Christians’ attention to the fact that the Bible’s Story does not end with heaven, but with New Creation. Think with me for a moment: if God originally thought it would be “good” for us to cultivate and care for creation, might not creation-care be our fulfilling work in the New Creation? In fact, Revelation picks up this idea. In the New Heavens and New Earth, we are told that “[God's people] will reign forever and ever.” Far from making creation-care irrelevant in this fading creation, in caring for creation now, our disposition and abilities are being prepared for the wonderful work of eternity.
OK, I could go on. But let me briefly offer a couple implications I see for Christians who want to live out these truths:
1) We must look past the politics of environmentalism and into the heart of God. What the heck does it matter if global warming is fact or fiction? We have been called to care for the beautiful and good creation God has made. And I don’t think that the desire for our nation to compete economically with other nations is going to hold much weight in justifying our abuse of creation in God’s courtroom.
2) We must live and preach against consumerism. The math is simple. More consumption = More creation-abuse. Put another way: voting Democrat is not your duty to creation-care. Many of us want to get married to the Green movement without forsaking our mistress of consumerism. Here’s the deal: as long as we continue to demand the ability to travel whenever and wherever we want, greater environmental risks will be taken to get the oil; as long as we continue to demand more meat, animals will continue to be raised in unhealthy and unjust conditions; as long as we demand more…things, the more factories will pollute, trees will be chopped, and landfills will be filled. As in the whole Christian life, creation-care begins with our heart disposition to the creation. Do we prefer the way of personal pleasure at any expense or the way of love?
Thanks be to God for grace. It is nearly impossible to live in this world without getting tangled up in the destructive webs we have created (often to free ourselves from the old destructive webs we were in). God doesn’t tell us we must “save the earth.” Jesus is doing that. And that grace compels us to simply follow him into the Way of Love, the Way of Life. It compels us into creation-care not with the weight of the world on our shoulders, but with the encouraging call of God to love as we have been loved. Where is God calling us to curb our own appetites or alter our own careless practices as an act of servant-ruling over his creation? How is God calling us to speak lovingly and persuasively into the political realm–not just on environmental issues, but also in various economic and international issues that have implications for the creation? What is God calling us to do in our local communities to model and encourage others to have a healthy relationship to the material world? When might we speak the Gospel to people who need to see the bigger picture of “going green” and of what God is doing in this world through Jesus?
Surely there is more to say and better ways to say it. Here are some places you can go to read more about the Gospel and creation-care:
Wendell Berry–if you haven’t read him, do; if you have, read more. Especially this and this.