The earth is going through a monumental ecological crisis. For many Western Christians, it is a crisis that is easy to ignore and become indifferent toward. Assessing humanity’s effect on global warming, or the loss of biodiversity, or the increasing pollution/waste we’re responsible for, can be hard to fathom.
Because it can be difficult to know whether individuals or larger communities are making measurable positive impact, for some it has led to apathy toward the crisis, or dismissal of it entirely. For others it has led to an anger toward the generations that have come before, and a sense of disillusionment for the future.
Question: How might Jesus-followers respond to an ongoing ecological and climate crisis?
how did we get here
To provide a theological framework that informs and shapes a responsible ecological response, we must unpack why the church in the west has been indifferent to the crisis at hand. Unpacking why we have lost our way will help us unlearn, in order to relearn and be shaped by a renewed ecological sensitivity.
We must be more aware of how disconnected we are to the soil, air, and sea. Most of us have little sense of the natural order of things, with no theological impetus that encourages us to engage in that capacity. We live within the ‘walls’ of civilization, where we view the earth as a means for our domination and selfish uses. As civilization continues to expand its use of land, sea, and air, we are becoming increasingly isolated from the cyclical nature of seasons, where our food comes from, how best to relate to the creatures that we share the planet with, and the health of biological systems we depend on but take for granted.
We must also identify how our eschatological leanings affect our view of the planet. Christian discipleship has sometimes orbited around hyper-spiritualism coupled with a defensive posture to those ‘not of the faith,’ and a strong emphasis on escaping an ever-worsening earth that God will help Christians escape from. Furthermore, some Christians have believed we don’t have to steward the planet, because “God will one day create a new earth.”
We must also be honest about how we’ve assumed that this God who “blesses us” is synonymous with a God who “gives us more stuff.” This in turn creates a cycle of dissatisfaction with what we already have, and an infatuation with more and newer and better. This addiction to consumption leads to the net result of increasing wastefulness.
Finally, we (especially American-Christians) also tend to mix faith with our nationalism, which can evolve into xenophobia and protectionism. Because we see our place in the world through a national lens before a kingdom lens, it becomes much harder to care for a person or communities that don’t look like us, speak our language, or think differently from us. It can be tempting to ignore the interconnectedness of humanity, and how we must together think about ecological sustainability.
a look forward
To reclaim a renewed ecological sensitivity, we must find our bearings in scripture. This sensitivity must be rooted in scripture, revealing God’s heart for his creation, and man’s place in that creation. It must have moral and practical implications that affect what we consider to be the whole of orthodox Christian belief.
We must start with the biblical foundation of Genesis understanding. In Genesis 1-2, it is clear that Adam and Eve are placed in the garden (and the earth itself) to garden, tend, and steward. This sort of earthkeeping is also hinted at throughout the OT of Yahweh’s demands of Israel to garden, tend, and steward the land (example Deuteronomy 10.12-11.32). This sort of posture is contrasted with the ecological terrorism of the regional super-powers like Egypt and Mesopotamia, who were well known for their environmental terrorism in warfare.
We need to return to the ancient understanding of sabbath. The Jewish understanding of Yahweh resting on the seventh day (Genesis 1) is encouraged and codified into Israelite culture (seen in Deuteronomy). Yahweh also makes it clear that sabbath and rest is an expression of faithfulness and dependence on God , but also a reflection of their connection to the soil and generosity to neighbor (Isaiah 58.13-14). The principle of sabbath rest for the land not being followed, is referenced as a reason for Babylonian exile (2 Chronicles 36.21), where the land finally received its rest for seventy years.
We must allow the gratitude we foster for God and the human community, to translate to God’s grand creation and its provision for us. The land and animals that provide us food and sustenance, need our thoughtful care and concern. Recognizing our place and understanding the limits of what we can or cannot do, requires that we ignore the desire to view our earth’s ecosystem through a lens of self-focused fruitfulness or productivity. We must instead consider the health of the soil, air, sea, and the creatures that call those places home, and begin to see how we are connected to the larger ecosystem.
“…the care of the earth is our most ancient and most worthy and, after all, our most pleasing responsibility. To cherish what remains of it, and to foster its renewal, is our only legitimate hope.”Wendell Berry, The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays
The monumental ecological crisis we are witnessing across the planet today, requires us to imagine a more vibrant theological framework for ecological stewardship. This crisis asks the church to question society’s assumptions around consumption, waste, agriculture, biodiversity, and sustainability. It will require Christians to have a prophetic imagination that is deeply biblical and ecologically responsible.
The earth has a variety of systems that humans are called to tend to, garden, and steward. It is our responsibility to address the unsustainable methods that have got us here, and then do our part to right those wrongs, all with a deeply divine sense that God asks us to care for and love his beautiful creation.