Is God Green?
My first awareness of ecology and the 'environmental crisis' came not from Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth, but from reading an article in an evangelical magazine in which the author pointed to pollution, deforestation and the annihilation of species as 'signs of the times', a necessary part of the fulfilment of the book of Revelation. He went on to promise Jesus' imminent return and the 'new heavens and new earth'. It was also suggested that people who tried to save whales and forests were deluded and wasting their time as God had already decreed what was going to happen and that was that!
Now, I believe in Jesus' second coming. However, despite a whole industry which seems to have grown up around the prediction business, we still don't know just when that will be. "This world is not my home; I'm just a-passing through" was a popular quip amongst evangelicals in the '70s when I first became a believer. A lot of people then believed (and taught) that Jesus would be back before the millennium. So for many years I thought about the plight of creation only in terms of its apocalyptic significance.
Just occasionally though, I'd come across old friends from the counterculture who were getting into buying organically grown wholefoods and trying to live subsistence lifestyles. Or I'd meet some ardent Greenpeace campaigner on the street, and I'd feel vaguely embarrassed that my evangelical answers to their questions about the state of creation sounded rather negative and 'one day in the sweet by-and-by'ish. To them, this kind of faith was irrelevant and I was left dumb in the face of their passion and convictions. The gospel wasn't very good news as far as they were concerned.
It was when I met Brenda Liddiard (and subsequently married her) that my need to confront these issues crystallised. Brenda had become an environmental activist in Australia after experiencing a profound sense of awe while being in the rainforest as part of a protest event. Over a period of time she came to recognise that this was her awakening to the reality of the spiritual universe, and eventually she came to faith in Christ. (Read Brenda's story later in this issue.)
Not long after we got together, we were asked to provide some music for a major environmental conference, and I realised that I had absolutely nothing that I could sing or say from a Christian perspective which was going to be of any use to these people. I firmly believed St Paul's exhortation that we should become "all things to all men",1 so I decided it was time I did some serious thinking and talking to God about this! Was God 'green', or not?
The earth is the Lord's and everything in it".2 I became aware that there are two dominant threads in Christian thought about nature. One is that creation is basically there to provide the raw materials for human endeavour, and a pleasant (but expendable) backdrop for the drama of salvation. This idea has its origins in Greek philosophy, and was brought into the church by Augustine and others.
The other affirms that creation has value in and of itself, not because of its usefulness to us but simply because it was made by - and belongs to - God. Perhaps we can see this attitude most clearly in Francis of Assisi.
St Paul said, "God's invisible qualities - his eternal power and divine nature - have been clearly seen, being manifest through the things he has made".3 All of creation, not just humankind, reflects God's nature. When we fail to recognise creation as his, and worthy of all due respect, we fail (at least in part) to recognise him.
When God created the world he said (several times) that it was very good. He put a lot of time into it - humanity was only the last stage of the process. You may like to read again the first couple of chapters of Genesis to see what I mean. When Adam and Eve sinned, creation (specifically the earth) was cursed by that sin and the 'goodness' of God's handiwork was marred. All creation suffers because of our sin.
"The Lord God placed the man in the garden of Eden as its gardener, to tend and care for it".4 We don't have to look far to see that we haven't handled this commission too well. The lifestyle that many of us in the West take for granted (our reliance on cars, addiction to junk food, obsession with having more and more consumer goodies), and the things we do every day on autopilot (filling our rubbish bins with plastics and packaging, filling the atmosphere with tobacco smoke and fly spray, throwing soft drink cans and ice-cream wrappers out the car window) are collectively having a huge impact on both our own health and the well-being of spaceship earth.
But Jesus never mentioned the 'ecological crisis', so is it just a side issue? A distraction from the 'real' work of preaching the Gospel? This is a good and necessary question - one that, as an evangelist, I had to tackle head-on.
It's true that Jesus never used the words pollution, ozone depletion or genetic engineering, because those things weren't happening then, but he did talk about sin, and the 'environmental crisis' is just one of the more recent manifestations of sin - living self-centredly outside God's wisdom and love. It is a manifestation of sin on a massive, global scale. Jesus (and his followers) had plenty to say about sin.
"The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil".5 Money, and the power that it affords, is at the core of wars, exploitation of natural resources, wasteful consumerism, industrial overkill and plundering of third world countries. We've translated 'dominion' as "Let's make a quick profit now and to hell with the consequences!"
It's no coincidence that the poor usually live in the most environmentally degraded situations; deserts, slums, pollution zones, deforested wastelands. If we are to help the poor break the poverty cycle (and no-one would deny that this is a part of the Gospel challenge), we must help them to transform their environment, "cause flowers to bloom in the desert".6 Christ expects no less of us; "Whatever you did for one of the least of these, you did for me".7
There is a saying, "We don't inherit the world from our parents, we borrow it from our children". Our children are our future and our hope. The world they inherit is the one we leave them. If Jesus delays his coming another generation or two, what kind of world will our grandchildren face? Our Lord showed a special tenderness for children and issued dire warnings to anyone who should harm or offend them.8 To put their survival in jeopardy by our short-sighted greed is offensive to them and to him.
Jesus showed his appreciation of creation by continually drawing on nature for his parables, by his withdrawals into the wilderness to find spiritual refreshing, and by his assurances of God's continuing interest in the things he has made: "Not one sparrow falls to the ground without your Father noticing it. Even the hairs on your head are numbered."9
He also showed us what true 'dominion' over creation is when he healed the sick, fed the five thousand, spoke "Peace, be still" to the storm, and when he rose from the dead. None of his 'dominion' involved exploitation or waste.
Jesus lived a simple, unmaterialistic lifestyle. He could be said to have had a "low impact" on his environment. One side-effect of a truly Christian lifestyle is that, while the world may be "turned upside-down" by the radical love God expresses through us, the rest of the creation won't be stressed out by our presence.
Occupy till I come . . ."said the king in Jesus' parable of the talents.10
When you rent a property from a landlord you become the occupier. If the landlord comes around and finds that you've trashed his place, he'll be justifiably angry and quite possibly evict you on the spot. There is a sobering verse in Revelation: "The time has come for judging the dead . . . and for destroying those who destroy the earth".11 Let's not be bad tenants; let's not be destroyers.
God sent his son into the world to save us, but his salvation was meant not only for humans. When John 3:16 declares that "God so loved the world", the word 'world' is the Greek 'cosmos'. The salvation that Jesus talks about is for everything in the universe, not just for people. John 3:16 more accurately reads, "For God so loved all of creation that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life". And verse 17 continues, "For God did not send his son into the world to condemn creation, but that, through him, creation might be saved".
Until Jesus comes back, we are to be faithful and thankful stewards of all that he has given us, for his sake, our own, and each other's. This is a gospel my 'greenie' friends can relate to - it is not the whole gospel, but it is part of the whole, and a part which the church needs to embrace if we are to speak meaningfully to the needs of the world in the 21st century.
Is God green? What do you think?