In March of this year, the Senate failed to pass the Green New Deal. Surprised? I was. For a bill that was shot down three months ago, the Green New Deal remains one of the most popular talking points in America right now.
As a refresher, the GND is (was?) an economic proposal, sponsored by congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, that aims to address two pressing issues facing our country: economic inequality and climate change. The proposal was controversial from the get-go. Perhaps most fascinating, though, has been the Christian response. There have been some strong stances: Christian Post columnist Wallace Henry dismissed the GND for its “dehumanizing” socialist policies while the National Religious Coalition on Creation Care threw their full support behind “the bold direction of the Green New Deal.” Chuck Bentley, another writer for the Christian Post, lands somewhere in the middle: although stewardship of creation is mandated in Genesis, he writes, we must also consider whether climate change is actually “the greatest ‘direct threat to the national security of the United States…’” Bentley isn’t convinced.
Maybe you aren’t either, and you wouldn’t be alone. Recent research suggests that Christians in America are far less concerned with environmental protection than their nonreligious peers, which makes sense. On one hand, we know that caring for the planet is good. However, Genesis also tells us that we’re made in God’s image. So, then, isn’t our life more valuable than, say, some tree? And also, isn’t the world going to end soon anyway? If Jesus returns tomorrow, does it really matter if I recycle?
I think that Christians want to care about the environment. I really do. But I also think that we don’t have much of a framework for what Christian environmentalism would look like, or should look like, or has looked like. Because of this, I think it would be helpful to do a fly-by of the environmental history of the Church. Believe it or not, there have been quite a few tree-hugging Jesus-lovers over the past two millennia. Maybe, by examining this history and these figures, we can gain a better understanding of how someone can both follow Christ and care about the environment.
1450 BC-609 BC. For starters, let’s look at Scripture. As previously mentioned, Genesis 2 details God’s instruction to “work” and “take care” of the garden. Of course, in Genesis 3, Adam and Eve rebel, an event that Christians have long pointed to as the source of all human strife and misery. “But rarely,” as theologian Sandra Richter points out, “…does the Church reflect on the impact of humanity’s rebellion on the garden.” In other words, an essential part of understanding human sinfulness is recognizing its impact on all of creation. It’s an understanding we see consistently throughout the Old Testament.
In Deuteronomy, for instance, God commands the Israelites to “tithe all the produce of your seed”—meaning, a portion of their wine, oil, livestock, etc.— and to “eat in the presence of Yahweh your God.” Why? “…In order that you may learn to fear Yahweh” (Deut 14:22–23). Humans have a way of making things about them. But by asking for a portion of the harvest, God is reminding the Israelites, “You do not own this land. I do.”
God also requires that the land be well taken care of. Echoing the creation narrative, God instructs His people to work the land for six years but let it “lie fallow” for the seventh, so that land can rest and so “the needy” and “the wild animal may eat” (Exod 23:10–12). Did you catch that? God institutes a policy of creation care. Instead of taking everything they could from the land, Richter notes, “God’s people were commanded to operate with the long-term well-being of the land as their ultimate goal.” Again, the principle is clear: the land is God’s, not yours, so take care of it.
354-450 AD. If you know St. Augustine, the Roman African philosopher and writer, it’s probably for his considerations of grace, conversion and the soul in books like City of God and The Confessions. Less well-known—but equally as valuable—are his thoughts on the natural world. Now, Augustine wasn’t an environmentalist in the modern sense. But he did take a stand on something that was highly contested in his day: the inherent goodness and worth of creation. At the time, there was an idea floating around (perpetuated by the religious movement of Manichaeism) that our material world was evil and lesser and the spiritual world was good and higher. Augustine disputes that. The fact that things of heaven are of “higher value,” Augustine argues, “does not mean that these lower creatures should have been excluded from the whole scheme of things.” Nature matters. In fact, he asserts, nature matters whether humans benefit from it or not. “It is the nature of things considered in itself,” he asserts, “without regard to our convenience or inconvenience, that gives glory to the Creator.” Augustine, like the Old Testament authors before him, is reminding readers that the planet belongs to God, not us. By arguing for the inherent goodness of creation, he provides what scholar James Peters calls a “profound ethic of love for the beauty and goodness of nature.”
1182-1226 AD. St. Francis of Assisi is, quite literally, the Patron Saint of Ecology. Born in 1182, St. Francis took the words of Jesus seriously, living a life of simplicity and charity. His real claim to fame, though, is his passion for God’s creation. There are countless stories involving Francis and nature: Francis preaching to birds, Francis convincing a wolf to put aside its violent ways and live peaceably, Francis befriending rocks and trees, and so on. St. Francis’ view of the world was very much “enchanted”; every thing, living or not, communicated God’s love. In one of his most famous prayers, “The Canticle of Creation,” Francis praises God for “Brother Sun,” “Sister Moon,” “Sister Water,” “Sister Fire” and “Sister Earth” for sustaining and pointing back to Him. St. Francis didn’t just pay lip-service to environmentalism; he lived it, and for that, believers and non-believers alike have long considered him someone worth emulating.
1967. We’re jumping forward a few centuries to a Christian historian whose work impacted this conversation in a big way: Lynn White, Jr. In 1967, White published a controversial article entitled “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis.” The root, according to Lynn? “Judeo-Christian teleology.” As Lynn sees it, all of the damage wrought on the earth, all pollution, extinction and destruction, can be traced back to the belief that man is made in God’s image. This belief puts humans at the center of the universe and gives them the right to dominate the earth as they see fit. “Especially in its Western form,” Lynn propounds, “Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen.” In other words, Christianity has helped humanity make it all about us, and the planet has suffered the consequences.
That’s a tough pill to swallow. But it’s certainly worth pondering.
1970 to present. Obviously, the environmentalism conversation has transformed in the last fifty years, going from a grassroots movement to a topic of worldwide concern. There are many who believe the changes to our planet are cataclysmic, and the evidence is strong. But there are also many Christians who are uncertain about the validity of global warming or climate change. Maybe it conflicts with their theology or politics. Maybe it’s too overwhelming to consider. I get that.
However, no one should believe that Christianity and environmentalism are at odds with each other. Francis Schaeffer, a theologian and pastor, wrote in his book, “Pollution and the Death of Man,” “Christians who believe the Bible are not simply called to say that ‘one day’ there will be healing, but that by God’s grace, upon the basis of the work of Christ, substantial healing can be a reality here and now.” Schaeffer’s saying, Don’t wait around for Jesus to come back before we start caring for the planet! Start now. There are so many Christian figures who have found a way to live out a Christ-centered life while championing environmental aims. Wendall Berry. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I. Pope Francis. It’s not the longest list, or the most diverse, unfortunately. But it’s something.
In his article, Lynn argues that “human ecology is deeply conditioned by beliefs about our nature and destiny.” What we believe about our present and future affects how we care for the planet. So, let me ask you: who is at the center of your universe? Because, as the Biblical authors, St. Augustine, St. Francis, Lynn White, Jr. and a host of other Christian environmentalists would tell you, it matters.