Why Ecology is a Christian Issue

A historical review of the ecological path not taken

by Fred Krueger, reprinted from Green Cross, with permission
"We stand now where two roads diverge. But unlike the roads in Robert Frost's familiar poem, they are not equally fair. The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road - the one "less traveled by" - offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of the earth."

Rachel Carson in Silent Spring, 1962
hen Rachel Carson penned these lines, the environmental movement was just dawning. The issues seemed simpler; the horizon more optimistic.
Those concerned about ecology issues rolled up their sleeves and began to clean up streams, plant trees, beautify highways and set aside parks. Legislation was passed. It seemed as though a mass movement would be born and we would solve the problem of pollution. But it didn't happen.
Instead, ecological problems have become more serious. In 1993, a collection of scientists from around the world, including a majority of the world's living Nobel Laureates, issues a warning to humanity:
Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course. Human activities inflict harsh and often irreversible damage on the environment and on critical resources. If not checked, many of our current practices put at serious risk the future that we wish for human society ... and may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life in the manner that we know. Fundamental changes are urgent if we are to avoid the collision our present course will bring about.
How could scientists make a stronger statement about the urgency of our predicament? This report followed a similarly strong statement by the most prestigious body of scientists in this country, the National Academy of Sciences. In a report on energy, the National Academy declared:
We are exhausting fossil fuels, ruining soil fertility, unbalancing ecosystems and distorting human values and institutions in the greatest energy-spending spree of all time.
To any reasonable person, the handwriting is on the wall. We need to change our way of life - or inherit a catastrophe of our own making.

he years since Rachel Carson have shown that environmental organizations never addressed fundamental questions involving the causes of ecological degradation and the moral choices which underlie human action.
One reason is that environmentalists in the 1960s wrongheadedly blamed Christian belief as the cause of ecological pollution. They said that Christians had a "huge burden of guilt" and were responsible for the crisis of the environment. A consequence is that a generation of young people were taught an erroneous view of history. As captives to this error, those concerned with ecology missed an opportunity which would have galvanized environmental concern into a movement. Instead of enlisting church support - as every successful movement in the history of this country has done - environmentalists emphasized legal, juridical and technological approaches to the environment. This banded approach worked with some problems, but it delayed confrontation with the spiritual core of pollution problems. These lie in human attitudes, values and the vision of human purpose in creation.
A basic lesson of history is that vision is an outgrowth of religion. It unites the spiritual and the physical and provides compelling and integrative direction into the future. The material perception of environmentalism never had sufficient clarity to see into the spiritual sore of the problem. Because the vision was not whole, environmental activism never became a widespread movement. It did not encompass blue collar workers; it did not embrace minorities; instead the environmental movement acquired an elitist reputation because its ecological vision never translated into goals which all society could understand.
If there is any clear lesson from over two decades of environmental activism it is that technological and legislative approaches by themselves are not adequate to the task of healing creation. There must be an ethical and moral dimension. In fact, there must be a religious approach.
In fairness, it should be pointed out that some environmentalists intuited this missing ethical link and sought a religious dimension, which was called "deep ecology." Incredible, while more than five out of six Americans identify with Christianity, these environmentalists launched a futile search into Eastern and Native American beliefs to find a solution to our ecological predicament. Some arrogantly sought to construct a new religion around pseudo-religious values as if a religion could be constructed through human insight.
This detour will go down in environmental history as an example of the myopia that emerges when there is no faith in God. The secular values of environmental leaders misdirected ecological focus and pointed people away from a Christian faith which would have supported a much more substantial approach to ecological problems. In the process they pointed thousands of well-intentioned people toward the smooth superhighway which Rachel Carson described.

et Christianity is supremely ecological. Christians would be the most ecological of all religious believers - if its basic premises were followed. From the first chapter of Genesis through the last book of Revelation, humans are called to care for creation. God accounts them responsible for the state of the earth and will judge them for the quality of their stewardship.
The Bible is so detailed in its description of attitudes which should inform care for the earth that it has been likened to a "manufacturer's handbook." With this "handbook" for operators, we have the instructions for smooth operation - but we have to follow them. No knowledgeable equipment operator has the audacity to make up a new set of operating rules, but this is precisely what many people try to do with God's operating guidelines for the planet. This ecological role in Scripture is so important that the Book of Revelation lists this as a criterion for how God will judge each person -by how he or she has treated the earth (Rev. 11:18).
The Catholic economist E. F. Schumacher provides a masterful insight about the biblical version when he tells us that the environment is a mirror for social attitudes. "Our outer world," he says, "is a reflection of inner attitudes." If our environment is showing us an outwardly degraded condition (pollution, exhaustion and breakdown in nature; violence, terrorism, drug addiction and lawlessness in human nature), this is only the visible face of the invisible qualities within people. The mobilization of more resources or different applications of technology can never eliminate these problems because they emerge out of the heart and soul. What has to change is the human heart. This is admittedly a tall order, at times a seemingly impossible task. Yet this is precisely what must be part of any comprehensive environmental reform.

Repent now

To heal the earth, the attitudes within humans which have spawned the present plague of socio-environmental abuses must be confronted. A right approach to ecological issues must go deep into the psychological and spiritual roots of our predicament to heal the very heart and soul of our culture.
The message from creation is that human society is in desperate need of repentance. This is not your ordinary garden variety of repentance. This is a repentance which requires a massive shift in attitudes about livelihood, about concepts of success and about the way we interact with one another and the biological system which supports human life.
Yet we should not be intimidated by the magnitude of the task. Society can change. History is replete with examples of drastic changes made without great difficulty, as in wartime when a nation's existence is threatened. Our best scientists tell us that such a threat exists now in our environmental predicament.
The churches have an opportunity to lead the way in this effort to heal the earth. But part of the problem is that too many churches are captive to political and economic assumptions about society and the good life. This cultural capacity has provided an unwitting foundation for complicity in destroying creation rather than for healing, which is the scriptural mandate.
Another part of the problem is that most Christians no longer have a clear vision of how they should relate to the natural world. The majority of church-goers have a woefully weak or even nonexistent theological understanding of creation. The clergy in particular have "catch-up" work to do. This means that the task on the one hand is to reacquaint ourselves with the biblical vision of how the human integrates into creation, and on the other to make those personal changes which will integrate our lives into that vision.
However the issue is examined, the Church has a clear responsibility - and a historic opportunity - to teach its reforming and transforming message of repentance and renewal. This is precisely what our predicament calls for.
Here is the road not traveled: To reform the world, we must be willing to reform ourselves. To have industry exercise self-restraint, we must begin by demonstrating self-restraint in our own actions. For government to pass the necessary laws, we must show an ability to govern ourselves. For Christ's action to heal the earth, we much let Christ's action heal us.
This is why ecology is a Christian issue: it is a call to faithfulness. It is a call to fulfill the ecological mandates of Scripture. In our day, when the earth groans in particularly discernible travail, we need a clear ethical foundation to inform our relationships to creation. We need biblical faith plus careful environmental analysis.
For Christians, the issues of ecology are not just an occasion to get to work; there is historic opportunity here. It is a call to discern what Christ is telling us now and to take those actions which will extend his healing to all about us. The Church can fulfill her rightful place in our post-Christian society by taking the lead in this crisis. No institution is as well equipped to deal with the ecological problem as the Christian Church.
This task begins with the individual. One person who will pray and deliberately set an example of Christ's commands about creation can change a church; a church can change a neighborhood. Together we can change the world.

Green Cross is published quarterly by the Christian Society of the Green Cross. Annual membership is $25 per year; $12 for students or low income. 10 E. Lancaster Ave., Wynnewood, PA 19096. Credit Card orders call (800) 650-6600x999.
A variety of Christian-oriented environmental organizing ideas and suggestions is available from the Earth Day Network either by sending an email request to: earthdayqualcomm.com or a SASE with .55 postage to P.O. Box 9827, San Diego CA 92109.
To connect locally, contact: KNOAH's ARC {Knowledge · Need · Opportunity · And Hope} Advocates for Responsible Conservation, P.O. Box 26008, San Diego CA 92196, (619)566-3958.

Caring for Creation is a joy and privilege.

The Creation is marvelous in its order, complexity and beauty. And,
Creation's care and keeping has been entrusted to us ordinary people!

While debates on how God made the world and whether things are better or worse may divert people here and there, most who are serious about Creation want to participate in the work - and the joy - of Creation stewardship.

After all is said, Creation still is here with us, we are a part of it, we are entrusted with its care and keeping by its Creator, and we remain grateful to God for Creation's blessings.
Calvin B. DeWitt