I was recently invited to be a panelist at an interfaith forum on climate change.. As I prepared for the discussion, the most interesting reaction I encountered was surprise that a Baptist pastor would be interested in the topic. After all, the Pew Research Center reports that of all the religious subgroups, evangelicals are the least likely to believe that humans contribute to climate change (“What Would Jesus Do? Talking With Evangelicals About Climate Change,” by Megan Mayhew Bergman, The Guardian, Dec. 21, 2018). Note: I prefer the positive phrase, “creation care,” which is rich with theological connotation, over the slightly negative and more technical phrase, “climate change.”
What has happened to us that conversations about our cosmic home have become so divisive? What would happen if we were all curious enough to learn from science, scripture, and one another?
Here are some suggestions:
1. Take a fresh look at scripture. The creation accounts in Genesis 1-2 are about our assigned task of tending the garden. It seems the Israelites took this charge seriously. In Deuteronomy 20:19-20, Moses teaches the people of God about sustainability. When building military fortifications, God’s people are to leave fruit-bearing trees standing and only cut down flowering trees which bear no fruit.
How startling for us to read in Hosea 2:18 that God’s covenant is not only with people but also with birds, wild animals, and “creeping things of the ground.” The Apostle Paul asserts that just as humans are awaiting liberation from the cruel bondage of sin and decay, so is creation itself (Romans 8:19-21). In Christ, “God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven…” (Colossians 1:20).
2. Reclaim a theology of the goodness of God and of humanity. Right-Left, redblue, conservative-progressive — could we all agree on some common ground? God is creator, creation is good, humans are stewards, life is sacred. But when fear and greed replace trust and gratitude, moral pollution is mirrored in planet pollution. The Hebrew prophets make this important connection. People who are careless in the treatment of the land are often careless in the way they treat God (Jeremiah 2:7).
Wendell Berry insists creation care is not first of all a scientific, technological, or political question. He writes that behind the economic issue is the spiritual question: “What is happening to our souls?” (“The Presence of Nature in the Natural World: A Long Conversation” an essay in A Small Porch, p. 79).
3. Re-examine pop culture eschatology. If the only reason Jesus came to earth was to orchestrate our emergency evacuation, then what happens to the earth does not matter. Taken to an unhealthy extreme, the “Left Behind” series of novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins perpetuate a very irresponsible view of creation care: In the end, God is going to blow all this up anyway, so don’t worry about poisoning our planet.
But a theology of the goodness of God and sacredness of creation operates with a different assumption. Chapters 1 and 2 of Genesis pulsate into a crescendo, over and over repeating, “and God saw that it was good.” Notice the biblical theme: “It is good,” not “It is disposable.”
4. Put the Golden Rule front and center (Matthew 7:12). Do unto others’ water and air what you want done to yours. Creation care is a justice issue. Studies show climate change disproportionately impacts the black population. Thirty-nine percent of Americans who live near coal plants are people of color. Black children are four times more likely to die of asthma than white children (“AME Church: Climate Change Disproportionately Hurts Blacks,” by Adelle M. Banks, Religious News Service, July 14, 2016).
5. De-politicize creation care. I grew up on a farm in Northwest Missouri where I learned about crop rotation, soil conservation, and much more. We didn’t have to check with our favorite political party or church clique to see if it was fashionable to carefully husband earth’s resources.
Political and theological divides can be bridged if we learn to speak each other’s language. For example, because air pollution harms the unborn, creation care is a pro-life issue. David Gushee and Glen Stassen wrote that the mindless depletion of our resources is the ecological equivalent of living beyond our means (Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context, p. 383). That’s a political principle on which both the Right and Left could stand. When it comes to climate issues, we must insist on better and more from our elected officials. They work for us. We must tell them we are not interested in tiresome rants; we are demanding wholesome, creative solutions.
6. Take some creation care baby steps. Read up on climate science. Begin a new practice in your personal recycling and use of water. Challenge your church to rethink some of its habits related to plastic and paper goods. Write your legislator about an environmental issue which concerns you. Choose a monthly creation care project involving the entire family.
Our faith story begins with a tree (Genesis 2:15) and ends with one (Revelation 22:2). Everything in between those two trees is about carefully tending what has been entrusted to us.