February 2017

About twenty-five years ago - back when I thought that Christianity had something to do with the teachings of Jesus, and when Christians seemed to be interested in more than making abortion illegal, "protecting" marriage, and winning the "war on Christmas" - I wrote an essay on Christians and the environment. It stayed on my website for many years, and occasionally provoked some kind of comment from a reader. Fifteen years after originally posting it, I heard from a Christian who had read the essay.  He talked about how he had already taken some steps to make his own family "greener:" cuttting back on unnecessary buying, watching their energy consumption, and in general trying to live more responsibly. But he could see the limits of what individuals can do, and felt motivated to try to organize his particular community to do bigger, more significant things. He asked me for suggestions. 

 If I was writing the original essay today, it would undoubtedly be considerably different -- Actually, it probably wouldn't be written, at all, because "saving the world" no longer seems to be a Christian cause. On the other hand, the response I made is, today -- in the age when Christians seem to have found their Savior in Donald Trump -- more pertinent that ever.


 I went on a field trip with a group of "Christian" activists who wanted to see "ecology in action". I was driven to the meeting place by a young man I hadn't met previously. He was obviously eager to put his faith to work on environmental issues. We talked about logging, spotted owls, pollution, population pressures, ethics, frugality - almost three hours non-stop of issue on top of issue, crisis on top of crisis. We talked about some of the things that "Christians" could do about these problems. Just before we arrived at our destination, I asked my companion if he ever got discouraged by the magnitude of the problems, or if he ever had any doubts about the problems being solvable. He answered no to both questions.

It was a good trip. We saw people working together to preserve natural areas, to restore degraded habitats, and to manage commercial uses in ways that minimized their impacts on soil, water and wildlife. I think we all learned a lot. Still, for every positive happening we saw or discussed, it seemed that there was a much bigger, much tougher issue looming in the background. I asked my questions to several more people. No, they smiled, we aren't the least bit discouraged.

As the trip concluded and we started home, I found myself vaguely discouraged by their positiveness. In the weeks that followed, I asked myself a lot of questions meant to try and square my perceptions and outlook with theirs. I couldn't do it. We really seemed to be on different paths.

 I had been a natural resources professional for nearly thirty years. I'd had a "personal relationship with God" almost as long. My faith tells me that it is right for spiritually-motivated people to be taking a more active role in addressing environmental issues - that it is right to be more frugal in our use of resources, to be more caring in our approach to the land, and to devote our own time and money to conservation causes. My experience tells me that it will not be enough: no matter what we do as spiritually-motivated persons, we will not save the World.

To put it another way: I'm excited to see so many people of faith working to refute Lynn White's hypothesis that "the Judeo-Christian ethic" is behind all our environmental woes. [Dr. White's famous paper "The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis" has been re-printed many times, but was first published in Science, Volume 155, pp.1203-1207, 10 March 1967.] It's worthwhile - and I think spiritual people's responsibility - to recycle, to save an endangered species, to cut off a source of pollution, to re-establish a salmon spawning run, and to refrain from buying things we don't really need. We should do more. Still, we must not be naive: no matter how much we do, it will not be enough. The problems that the world is facing are not really addressed by using fewer styrofoam cups, by driving our cars less, or by saving a butterfly species from extinction. To use a biblical comparison, we aren't dealing with "flesh and blood" - individual excesses - but with "powers and principalities" - world systems that reward excess and waste, and that promote inequality.

I ask you :

  • Who, by eating 1000 calories less food per day, can get those 1000 calories to someone who really needs them?
  • What 10,000 people, by selling their cars and going everywhere on bicycles, can make enough difference to counteract the pollution from one large factory?
  • What 10,000 large factories, by completely cleaning up their acts, can stop the rapid melting of the Greenland icecap? [Yes, that's happening, too!]

No, it isn't a question of willingness or enthusiasm; it's a question of working against the already-established magnitude and momentum in the destructive forces we face.

 Discouraged? As spiritually-motivated persons, I don't think you should be. But you need to face reality, and develop a true reckoning of what you can do, what you should do, and why you are doing it. The "whys", as I see them (illustrated by thoughts from the Judeo-Christian Bible), are:

  • This is my Father's world. If you really believe that you're a part of God's creation, and that Creation's care has been entrusted to you for the time you're here, then it is un-Godly not to do whatever you can to leave the world at least as good as you found it - and if you take into account the parables about stewardship, ten talents, etc., then you should be aiming higher than just the status quo. You should be leaving things better than you found them.
  • Let your light so shine. Matthew 5:16 says that people will glorify God when they see the good things you do. The reverse is also true: people will be put off from all the things you preach if they don't like what they see. The Heaven-oriented people of the world, by ignoring or setting themselves above environmental concerns, have for centuries provided fuel for the Lynn White types of criticism, and have put a stumbling block in the way of those who might come to Christ if they found Christians worth associating with.
  • But the greatest of these is love. I came up with a definition of love that I think is pretty good and pretty accurate: active caring. In that definition are two thoughts. The first is that we really care about people. We're concerned about what happens to them. We're interested in who they are, what they want and need, and what they aspire to. They aren't just entities that we use to get what we need, but real people who count for something. The second thought involves action: real concern leads to tangible action. Love is sometimes proactive, when we anticipate the needs of those we love. Sometimes it is reactive, when we see a need and respond. Love is for today, but it is also long term, looking toward the future, and this is one point at which loving people must consider our natural environment. Some religions believe that we're eventually going to get out of this world, and I think that belief has often made religious people cavalier about pollution control, recycling, energy conservation, and such. You may feel that God will protect you from the ultimate effect of these earthly ills. But have you stopped to think about how deep the garbage might get, or how cold and hungry we all could be if Jesus' return is 200 years from now, rather than tomorrow? And are you lovingly aware that for a large share of the world's population the situation isn't going to be bad some day - it is bad right now! Think how it will be for those already in dire straits now, when it deteriorates to the point that you and I are discomforted.

I don't want to tell you what you should be doing to address the needs of our environment. As I hope I've made clear, I think the smallest act of environmental responsibility [recycling, shopping more thoughtfully] is loving and glorifying to God. But there are much, much bigger things to do, and they may be things that you find difficult to recognize and even more difficult to attack. "Religion" has become so much a part of culture, economics, politics, and national expectations that some have been blinded to what the real issues are. Luckily, Christians believe they have access to the Mind of Christ and the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, who can assure that time and energies are directed to those things that most worth doing. Remember WHY we want to be environmentally conscious, then go ahead.

We've all read a book or seen a movie in which the hero was a good person doing good things, but was unfulfilled until he or she discovered the ONE TRUE THING that should be done. So far, it seems to me that the Christian environmental movement - as welcome as it is - has not found its true calling.

"If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will HEAL THEIR LAND" - 2 Chronicles 7:14 - a specific thought for a specific time, but I wonder if it isn't also the true answer for us, now.


Thanks for your note on my essay on "Christian environmentalism." I'm glad you found it interesting, and I'm glad that you and your family are taking some of the basic steps of responsible citizenship. I believe that taking control of our personal actions --acting always in a loving and caring way -- has to be at the heart of whatever we do.

You asked "Is there a way in which the Christians can come together and make the necessary changes to help save the earth?" Since you asked, I'll give you my most candid answer, the one I save for those (using a biblical example) who seem ready to go off their milk (baby) diet and start eating meat. It's an answer that requires considerable chewing, namely: Christians can't become part of the solution to our global environmental problems until they quit being a significant part of the problems.

I'll elaborate on that blunt statement below, but let me repeat here what I said in my essay: no matter what Christians do -- or anyone else does -- I'm not sure the world can be "saved". We (humankind, collectively) have done some horrible things to it. Even if - from a technical standpoint -- some of the problems are still solvable and some of the bad trends still reversible, I see little indication that we have the worldwide collective will to do the tough, coordinated things that must be done. Obviously, that doesn't mean the world will end tomorrow, or even in the next several generations, but I think it does mean that life will progressively get more and more complicated, even in those countries "most blessed," and some people and entire nations will find the struggle to survive even more difficult than it is currently. Even in the United States, the basics of life we have come to expect and depend on will disappear, diminish, or become unpredictable and undependable. 
   I -- and the majority of scientists in the world -- could be wrong. The best way to find out is to continue on the way we are going: denying the seriousness of the problems, and continuing the kind of "environmentalism" that may make us feel better about ourselves, but is really just another example of "fiddling while Rome burns." From my understanding of what Jesus said, it seems that "Christian responsibility" demands that we act as if the bad news bearers are correct. Whatever is done, it is a now or never situation right now.

Not too many years ago, "environmentalism" meant using real coffee cups instead of paper ones, and advocating the creation of national parks and wildlife refuges. Personal and organizational efforts to treat the Earth more responsibly certainly did some good toward slowing environmental degradation. As I said above, I think those kinds of actions should still be integral in the life of any loving, moral, ethical person. But if we ever really thought that kind of approach was adequate, we were fooling ourselves. Now, it's clear that nothing meaningful can be done toward "saving the Earth" without carefully planned, fully committed government action, nationally and globally.
   Until the 1980s the United States was a leader in environmental protection, and the significant actions taken here at home served as compelling examples for other nations to emulate. Even then, we selfishly consumed far more of the Earth's resources than we were entitled to, but at least our collective heart seemed to be in the right place. Now, "the world's only super-power" is the principal stumbling block to global actions necessary to restore environmental health.
   Here's where Christian culpability is glaringly evident. I said in my original essay that I thought Lynn White was wrong to label western corporatism the "Judeo-Christian ethic," because the teachings of God and Jesus (in the Judeo-Christian bible) are clearly counter to almost everything for which White blamed their followers. Reconsidering, I think I was too hard on White. I was thinking about what God and Jesus said; White was looking at what Jews and Christians did. ("By their works will you know them"!) Regardless of how right or how wrong the White premise was in the past, I think an essay written today blaming "the Christian ethic" for our current environmental crisis would be right on the money. I say this for two reasons.
   First, many people who consider themselves Christians are not worried about pollution, climate change, or loss of animal and plant species. They seem to have a "God will take care of that" outlook. Some actually welcome these problems because they see them as signs of "the end times" and the long-awaited "Rapture." As long as this futuristic mind-set trumps Jesus' own admonitions to keep working until he returns, and the apostle Paul's urgings to treat one another with love, the Christian community cannot be a positive influence toward "saving the world."
   Second, even those Christians who have some earthly concerns consistently vote for lawmakers and administrators who have been aggressively rolling back environmental protections, and have been refusing to cooperate with other nations in addressing global problems. Christians don't necessarily want those results, but they consistently vote for the people who use the most religious rhetoric, regardless of what else those people stand for. These lawmakers almost never deliver on their pledges to do something about "family values," but they are almost always successful with their business agenda -- which is almost always about short-term profit, not about long-term environmental viability. Is it worth it to the Christians to keep voting for possible legislation banning abortion, stem cell research, or homosexuality, if this guarantees that the United States will continue to ignore the environmental health of the world? As long as the answer is yes, then Christians are a liability rather than an asset in any fight to "save the world."
   Baldly reading what I've written, it sounds like I'm asking Christians to choose between Christ and the world, between heaven and earth. That's not the case. Christians have let themselves get trapped in a morass of legalistic religion and opportunistic politics, and have forgotten Jesus' teachings on a variety of very important subjects. It's clear we can't serve two masters; we each need to decide which one we'll serve.
   This is probably not the response you expected, and for the sake of conciseness I've made some statements without much explanation. If you'd like to discuss any of it, let me know.

Thanks again for writing. Regards,

Sandy Wilbur




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