by Dave B
How does the environment effect Christianity and why do so many Christians seem hostile?
|One of the first pieces of my luggage that I want to re-examine in relation to Christianity is my view on the environment. When I picture an environmentalist, I picture a hairy-legged female (I know, sexist, deal with it) clad in wool socks, Birkenstocks, some type of hemp jewelry, greasy hair pulled back with a bandana, living in a tree stand in an old-growth forest. Christians should naturally shun such people, telling them to get back in their Toyota Prius and drive to their favorite Indie/granola/tofu serving restaurant. For some reason, I think this view might be flawed.
My only true studies of the environmental world came from one such lady. She was my 10th grade biology teacher: Barb Lamoreau. Her hair stood crazily on end (and much of her hair stood on her face. Seriously, she has more facial hair than I could ever dream of), always clad in jeans and a t-shirt adorned with double helixes combined with a bad DNA joke (Mary had a little lamb, its fleece was slightly grey, It didn't have a father, just some borrowed DNA). Rumor has it that, like Swamp Thing, she lived in the ponds and would come home each night to a foot rub provided by her husband Sasquatch.
She was slightly crazy, no question, but she was passionate. We would often tramp through the woods marking trees and identifying leaves as she wildly pointed to a new feature on a populus tremuloides (Quaking Aspen if you’re a moron) or the unique feature of an acer sacchrin (Sugar Maple. Seriously, did you even take biology?). I remember one time being with a few of my friends on one of these woods excursions and one thought it would be fun to knock down a dead tree. It answered the age-old question “If Mrs. Lamoreau is in the woods and she hears a tree fall down, will she get pissed?” The answer: affirmative. She gave us a ten-minute tirade on the evils of disturbing a delicate ecosystem.
Another time (and this is hearsay) the environmental science class was out building quinzies (igloos), and a small rodent (Shrew??) came running out. My friend Joel Majchrzak (I know, way to many consonants in a row…pronounced My-Shack) decided that he should throw a snowball at the shrew for fun. Well, his aim was true/and so fell the shrew (a regular Thoreau/I know). Lamourea burst onto the scene, screamed and Joel, and fled into the building with shrew in hand. While no one knows what truly happened next, I picture the shrew on her table, their lip hairs intertwined in the throws of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation with intermittent chest compressions as Mrs. Lamourea cried, “I’m not going to let you die! Hang in there!” It almost makes me teary-eyed to think of the grief Mrs. Lamourea must have gone through when she returned home and had to break the news to the extended shrew family.
However, I learned from Mrs. Lamoreau that the earth should not be treated as an annoying friend that happens to work at a movie theater that you only use to get free movies but never actually want to talk to them. The earth should not be seen simply for what it can provide humans with. This was a radical concept for me. I saw trees, water, oil, and other natural resources as a means by which I could go on with my day-to-day life. However, I really didn’t change the way I lived. I just thought about it from time to time when I littered. However, lets unearth (pun definitely intended) what the Bible has to say about caring for creation as I try to figure out which view of creation I should shove into my suitcase.
The obvious place to start on such a journey of Biblical proportions (pun intended) is the creation story of Genesis. I often overlook any aspects of this story because to discuss it brings to mind flannel-graphs of an ivy-spandexed Adam and leafed-bikini Eve sharing an evil apple. Another reason I often overlook the first chapter of Genesis is because the mere discussion of it leads to a heated debate between intelligent design vs. creation. I’m too tired and too apathetic to care about this argument anymore. If God used his creative talents over seven days or billions of years, I don’t see why there should be discord. Honestly, to stake our beliefs on disproving a widely held scientific theory seems dangerously short-sighted.
Because if a student decides not to enroll at Bob Jones University, Liberty University, or Moody Bible Institute, they are going to hear about evolutionary science. And, just by chance, if they believe that the scientific evidence for evolution outweighs what their pastors or Kirk Cameron’s board game on creationism tells them, they now reach a dangerous point. If their faith has been staked on a seven-day creation, they see a stark choice between intellectual honesty and unbelievable faith. When this choice is presented as such, many will leave the faith because they don’t see Christianity as big enough to hold evolution. The others, those who chose unbelievable faith, are seen by the outside (and rightly so) as intellectually dishonest. They continue to push Christianity further into a corner of scientific skepticism that not only questions evolution, but also global warming, and now sees much of science as a combative enemy to be overcome instead of another way in which to explore and glorify God and his creation.
For instance, in the horrifying movie Jesus Camp, which looks at a very conservative evangelical wing of the U.S. church, there is a scene in which a mom is home-schooling her son. They are discussing evolution and creation with the nuance of a sledgehammer. When together they all agree that evolution has no validity and should not be taught in any form within the school system (I’m not sure why they care being home-schooled and all…I do guarantee that this boy will one day be valedictorian of his graduating class), the boy quietly laughs and says, “science” to himself with a smirk and a condescending shake of his head. It is the way science has been treated within much of the Christian community, as a useless study that leads otherwise good Christians away from the fold. It is because of these ideas many Christians view any environmentalist or scientist as suspect because of their ties with evolutionary thought-processes.
Sarah, my Harvard-biochemist friend, has always been one of these people fascinated by science. During chemistry while I was spilling hydrochloric acid on my asbestos pad and making the room smell like rotten eggs through some unknown chemical reaction (true story, I’m pretty sure the reaction also caused a carcinogen or two to be released into the air), she was working diligently to map out the human genome (well, that may be a stretch). When we were both in high school, she dated a friend of mine from the church I attended. She ended up coming, but was always skeptical. She did not want to make a commitment to anything she could not fully understand, so before she became a Christian, she brought over a list of dozens of questions that she had obtained from reading through the New Testament. Unfortunately, I was chosen as the answerer of these usually obscure questions: “What does this lady mean when she tells Jesus that even dogs can eat the scraps off her master’s table?” Usually, I stuttered and stammered through some inane answer full of clichés about God’s love. If Sarah was going to have a faith, it was to be one that relied heavily on intellect.
Once the questions had been answered, she began attending my church on a regular basis. However, she became increasingly disenchanted with the church, and therefore Christianity, because of the continuing gap between science and the church. When our pastor would harangue evolution being taught in schools, you could see Sarah squirming in her seat. She ended up leaving the church and her faith for a number of reasons, but one large cause was that the message she received from the church was that science and Christ were not congruent.
However, I do not believe that science or the environment vs. religion is the message of Scripture. At the very dawn of creation, the book of Genesis gives the reader ample evidence to prove that God is intimately concerned with both his natural creation and the way humanity interacts with his creation. After God had created the entire natural world-- every tree, rock, river, and animal--God created humanity in his image (created after the natural world? Hmm, should we occasionally consider that we were created last?). Yet, in what has become one of the single-most dangerously used verses of the Bible, God is quoted in Genesis 1:28 as declaring, “God blessed them (Adam and Eve) and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”
Subdue. This word has natural connotations. I think of the political map of Europe during World War II as seen in old 1950’s documentaries. These are the ones that portray the German and Japanese populations as either bolt-in-the-neck monsters or blind robots wading through the Pacific to drink the blood of U.S. children (unabashed propaganda just isn’t what it used to be. These movies are the highlight of being a history major). Anyways, in these films you see those areas ruled by the Third Reich displayed in dark colors with liberal uses of swastikas, and as the year progresses from the 1930s onward, the dark shadow of the Evil Empire slowly envelopes and subdues the rest of Europe. Subduing these countries involved conquering, destroying, usurping power illegitimately, and taking advantage of both the physical and economic resources of the subdued country to continue a ceaseless reign of terror.
In many ways, this definition of “subdue” fits in with many of the ways we see Christianity treat the earth. The earth and all its creation is to be used in a utilitarian manner with only an emphasis on what humanity can gain. Thus, if the earth needs to be squeezed like a sponge of every last bit of oil and coal to keep our houses warmed and cars running at a reasonable cost, than we have this unalienable right. Furthermore, if the calls to cut down carbon emissions to slow global warming might hinder the engines of economic progress, we must disregard it as a liberal humanist ploy because God cares first and foremost for humanity.
However, the Hebrew word used for subdue, rdh, should carry a definitive meaning besides that of an iron-handed rule. It is almost always used in the political context of rule, yet we see that when it is used it carries a parallel meaning. In Psalm 72, the Psalmist prays that the King of Israel have “dominion (rdh) from sea to sea.” Yet, what does this dominion include? Righteousness, peace, care for the poor and needy. If we are to look at “subdue” as a Christian form of rule, than it is one where these attributes of peace and care abound. Ruling creation means treating it with care, not as a Pol Pot-esque harsh ruler, but as an FDR-like benevolent steward (sorry, I couldn’t think of any great benevolent stewards, FDR seemed to have compassion, right?) of creation. If we see this form of rule as our call for creation, does it not raise significant questions about how we use it? Does it not demand that we care for it in such a way as to allow for it’s thriving as opposed to pushing it closer to an ecological nightmare?
This view of utilitarian subjugation of creation is also even more dangerous when combined with the ever-growing popularity of the End Times burnt-earth theory. Those who take a literal view of the book of Revelation believe firmly that the earth will eventually be destroyed in God’s judgment on the earth. One has to look no further than the immensely popular Left Behind series and the continued sustained growth of apocalyptic literature to see this viewpoint played out. If an alien came down into a Christian bookstore to study our planet, after he dry heaved at the lack of creativity in most of the artwork (Wow! An Aryan looking shepherd carrying a sheep over it’s back. How did you ever come up with that idea?), it/he/she/gender-pronoun-yet-unknown would come to the conclusion that the world is preparing for its imminent end. The problem with this view in lieu of the environment is that if the earth is going to burn and be destroyed anyways, why worry about the natural creation of God?
However, could it be that this view is equally skewed? To begin with, the views portrayed in the Left Behind series and preached from the pulpits of so many churches today is one created in the 19th century. When I was young, watching such horrifying movies as Thief in the Night and listening to “I Wish We’d All Been Ready,” I assumed that this was the teachings that had prevailed in the Church since it’s inception. Many a sleepless night I spent convinced that I had been left behind in the rapture, only able to convince myself otherwise once I slipped out of bed and listened for the breathing of my parents or siblings (I’m not sure why I was convinced that they were all rapture-worthy). My rule as a terrified child was to always keep one eye on a known Christian at gatherings, thus I would always be on rapture alert.
I realize that this may seem more like a description of my neuroses and may not seem as relevant in a chapter related to the environment, but the idea that this view of Revelation was one that was not set in stone was ground-breaking for me. Truthfully, I heard absolutely nothing about this discrepancy until college, and it is an idea that is extremely relevant to an ecological discussion. If this reading of Revelation is called into question, it also calls into question treating the earth like a disposable diaper, one that we can crap in and throw into an incinerator once duly soiled. If the earth is a place that humanity is going to have to learn to co-exist with, to balance human necessity with ecological sustainability, it then becomes the responsibility of Christians to care for it. If we follow the commandment of treating our neighbors as we would like to be treated, shouldn’t we also be concerned about how we treat the habitat of our future children, grandchildren, and ancestors?
Also, Christians often forget the delicate link between environmental degradation and instability worldwide. Christians detest violence (in theory, some seem to opt for bloodlust), yet natural resources are often the source of conflicts around the world. Many Christians speak out for the Darfuri victims of genocide, as well we should, but much fewer are aware that many of the problems in Darfur are directly related to conflicts between farmers and ranchers as arable land becomes more and more scarce due to the increased desertification of the region. We pray for peace in the Middle East yet drive gas-guzzling Hummers that make oil worth killing and dying for. How we treat humanity is inextricably bound with how we treat the environment whether we accept this idea or not.
The Biblical rationale for environmental care does not stop in Genesis. It is a theme that continuously re-surfaces. We see that “all of creation testifies” to God’s love. Like a witness on the jury stand, creation and nature points to God, cries out, “It’s him! He’s the one that did it!” I have heard countless stories from people that came to a better understanding of God as a direct result of creation. Some watched a bird fly through the sky and remembered Jesus’ teachings that if God cares about what happens to a sparrow, how much more does he care what happens to them. Others saw the beauty of a sunset behind a mountain peak and could no longer believe that the magnificence of creation happened by chance. Salvation has been won on the oceans’ shores, rivers’ edges, and wooded valleys of the world. Yes, nature plays a role in people even accepting of Christ. Obviously, God can work through other means, but he has chosen often times to show his true nature through the beauty of creation. By destroying creation, by showing distain for the environment, we are silencing one of the indicators of the love and grace of God.
Yet sadly this is not the message we receive from many portions of the Christian community. As the evidence for global warming continues to pile up, many Christians are still on the front lines declaring that global warming is a myth or a distraction from what good Christians should truly be focusing their energies on. A recent open letter written by five of the nation’s leading conservative evangelical leaders called on the National Association for Evangelicals to discontinue its discussion of the environment and global warming. In their words, Christians that speak out on global warming “are using the global warming controversy to shift the emphasis away from the great moral issues of our time, notably the sanctity of human life, the integrity of marriage and the teaching of sexual abstinence and morality to our children.”
I try to imagine young Christians in their environmental science classes at major universities hearing about this letter from their professors, professors who have far better scientific training (i.e. any training at all) than that of Gary Bauer and James Dobson. They can point to this letter and declare once again that Christians are ignorant of the major environmental issues of our time. Yet again, as with evolution, Christians are on the wrong side of science. It will be one more nail in the coffin of many students’ faith as they continue to read the inferred message of these Christian leaders that the environment is not a concern of Christianity.
This is to say nothing of the narrow view of “great moral issues of our time” being limited to abortion, homosexuality, and abstienence education. For many Christians, abortion and homosexuality are not the great moral issues of our time. The great moral issues of our time are poverty, HIV/AIDS, global warming, the ongoing genocide in Darfur, hunger, child soldiers, global slavery, the sex trade, the mistreatment of women, etc. We as Christians need to be clear that two or three issues do not make up morality. Three issues don't even scratch the surface of morality. However, this chapter is about the environment, so I won’t get on that soapbox quite yet.
So what can Christians that believe the environment is a moral issue do? I’m not going to go through a list of individual responsibilities, because everyone knows what they are by now. You learned it in elementary school: reduce, reuse, recycle, turn of the lights when you leave a room, shut the water off when you brush your teeth, “if it’s yellow, let it mellow/if it’s brown, flush it down,” etc. Individual responsibility is obviously at the heart of any discussion of the environment and will give us the moral authority (as opposed to the Moral Majority) to speak publicly on the environment.
Individual responsibility also requires educating ourselves and, if need be, shutting our mouths until we do. Do not talk about the myth of global warming if you’ve never even bothered to read a book about it. Please don’t debate evolution with a scientist using only the first chapter of Genesis as evidence. It makes you and, indirectly, me and the rest of the Christian community, look ignorant. Read a scientific book or two on the subject of global warming. I promise it won’t hurt too much. Watch an Inconvenient Truth even if Al Gore does spend half the movie talking about himself. Challenging yourself educationally won’t turn you into an apostate.
However, the second step of environmental care for the Christian community is to publicly declare that Christians are in fact concerned with the environment. When leaders of the Christian community make irresponsible comments about the environment, it is the responsibility of other Christians to call them out and up to a Biblical stance on the environment. The Church should take a hiatus from abortion and devote a sermon to the environment once in a while. Sunday school classes should discuss how their church could be a better steward of the environment. I believe that if the Christian community would begin to take a positive public stance on the environment, it would do more to open environmentalists up to the message of Christ than all the tracts and “if you were to die tonight,” questions in the world.
Recently, Sarah and I were discussing religion. She would not consider herself a Christian today, but she made a comment that I will never forget. She was discussing her recent work with cell proteins or something, I didn’t really understand what she was talking about, but she asserted, “When I look at how everything was created, how perfectly the natural world works, how everything is ordered, I have to believe in a god.”
If this is how Christians viewed the environment and science, as an indicator of God instead of an enemy combatant, what a change it would bring about. God is the God of science, the God of the environment, and the God of the natural world. That should be enough to make environmentalists out of all of us.