The Spirit calls all members
to embrace God’s mission
in their neighborhoods
and in the world:
to feed the hungry,
bring water to the thirsty,
welcome the stranger,
clothe the naked,
care for the sick,
and free the prisoner.
We repent of leaving this work to a few,
for this mission is central to our being.
– Our World Belongs to God 41
For decades now, the people have known that the Industrial Revolution, for all the immense good it brought into the world, wrought horrific damage on our planet’s ecology. Global climate change is only the latest crisis to be brought to the forefront of our consciousness. Though we as a universal Church should be showing our culture how to treat the Earth, the sad fact is that for too long we have dragged our feet and refused to see the issue for what it is.
Many, many denominations, including my own Christian Reformed Church, have issued statements in recent years calling for more active engagement in environmental matters, but the issue is still a source of controversy and frustration. With this editorial, I would like to make an appeal for a deeper appreciation of how Christians can be a prophetic voice against the established powers of the world, commercial, political, and religious, that are contributing to this problem and widespread ignorance of its serious implications.
God brought us out of nature and gifted us with reason and consciousness. We are a beautiful and intrinsically valuable group of beings who, despite being flawed in all we do, can not only experience the world but reflect upon and criticize our experiences. That said, we can make two mistakes in relating to the gift of the world.
First, we see ourselves as God-sent colonists driven to reshape the whole universe to the detriment of other forms of life. Second, we can repudiate technology and sink into despair or regression. Calvinists are susceptible to believing that humankind has not and cannot bring anything good into the world. Perhaps we should stop reproducing until we all die out.
Neither view is either helpful or realistic. We are fallen but not the only ones working for the reconciliation of the world. God can do great things through us, and human history testifies as much to God’s active love as to our failures.
I will not say the planet is in danger. Better to say that humans are committing a long, slow suicide by indifference. Think of challenges like overpopulation, climate change, fisheries depletion, soil depletion, nutrient pollution in water, air pollution, invasive species, desertification, deforestation and the finitude of fossil fuel reserves. God has given us the ability to manage the gift of nature and we have failed. Progressives and conservatives alike are profoundly guilty of contributing, actively and passively, to the degradation of Earth and must repent of these sins.
I believe that (North) American society — and global culture — is trapped in an unworkable intellectual and economic system. Westerners tend to think of nature as a machine we can manipulate with impunity or as an other with no intrinsic value. Saving ourselves from catastrophe requires new ways of thinking. Consumer activism in the form of buying food from sustainable sources, installing solar panels, using more “natural” fertilizers, etc., can only be so effective if not accompanied by a fundamental rearrangement of human relations to the Earth.
As Christians, our mission is not to preserve capitalism or our favorite institutions (including denominations) but to call the world into righteousness in their relations to God and God’s creation. Are unbridled free trade and laissez-faire economics truly representative of our prayer that God’s will be done “on Earth as it is in heaven?” Do we do justice to the central event of our faith, the resurrection, by continuing to propagate broken systems? I emphatically believe that the answer is no, just as communism, feudalism and anarchism were and are not the final answer to the question of how to organize a divinely rooted society. Followers of Christ should take from our founder’s life this truth: when we use God and religion as excuses to oppress people or the Earth, when we think of God primarily as the High Sanctioner of the Status Quo, we have failed to adequately respond to God’s holy calling.
You do not even have to care about the value of the tigers and whales to appreciate the gravity of environmental concerns. Christians throughout history have recognized that God has what the (arch-conservative) United States Conference of Catholic Bishops terms a “preferential option for the poor and vulnerable.” Scripture tells us we will be judged by what we do for the “least of these” (Matthew 25: 31-46 NIV).
In America, the middle classes can take refuge in air conditioning, public and private pools, and ability to move. Global warming, pollution and most other ecological problems most affect the poorest and most vulnerable. This applies not only for those in the Global South and in other undeveloped countries but for anyone who cannot move to higher ground in a flood, who cannot insure their houses against more frequent hurricanes, and those who cannot flee from degraded areas because they lack income or mobility. To take our faith seriously, we must weigh the results of our actions. Liberated by God’s grace, how can we make this world a better place for all people, not just those sitting in our sanctuaries.
I especially urge fellow liberal Christians, those who are not ensnared by culture war issues, to be shaken from their laurels and recognize that simply including more people into a system of exclusion and exploitation is not enough. Affirming that all people regardless of location, sexuality, religion or gender should be given a place in our churches is necessary but not sufficient. Nor is blindly supporting the Democratic Party an option. That party is hardly representative of what Christians hope for the world, captive as it is to neoliberal economics, unquestioned individualism and the same amoral foreign policy that Republican neoconservatives have established.
I’ll conclude with a quotation from John Cobb, a Methodist theologian: “God offers us opportunities to break out of our ruts, to see all things differently, to imagine what has never been dreamed … Insofar as we allow God to do so, God makes all things new. Thus God is the ground of our hope. Trusting God is not assurance that whatever we do, all will work out well. It is the renewed willingness to give up the security we experience in accustomed ideas and customs and to enter into the adventure of the trusting life, even when we cannot see a favorable outcome.”
Liberals and conservatives alike should heed these words. Faith in God is not an excuse to live irresponsibly; it is a call to be open to the new and radical, to living in the world will a full presence, emptying ourselves of pride and walking humbly with the divine.