“Christians need to have a better theology of ecology” -The Future of the Global Church, pg.10
“What we most need to do, is to hear within us the sounds of the Earth crying” -Thich Nhat Hanh, Active Hope, pg.75
“For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. -Romans 8:20-22
On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse -Revelation 22:2
I have a confession to make. For years, I have considered any talk of climate change to be a joke, liberal talking point, and not something I personally should care or worry about. However, I have recently had a change of mind due to several books and what Scripture says about creation and how my choices impact the world, especially the poor. In this article, I am not looking at this from some political angle. Rather, I want to share some insights on how this especially should apply to Christians and those with greater wealth than most others.
First, as a Christian, we recognize creation as the work of God and something we all generously benefit from. We live in Colorado now, and we enjoy so much being in the mountains as much as possible. Before Colorado, we lived along the Jersey Shore and enjoyed the beach. Additionally, we are from Southern Lancaster County, rich with rolling green hills and farmland. For many of us, being out in nature is healing, restorative, and connecting us with God and his power. Thus, as Patrick Johnstone writes in his book, The Future of the Global Church, “As Christians, we should be passionate about God’s creation as his appointed stewards. We should be in the forefront in protecting and improving our environment and managing the finite resources of our earth-home. Yet, the debate on climate change is charged with emotion, partisan politics and economic protectionism…” (pg.10)
But why is this such a problem? Consider a few more quotes from Patrick’s book:
- “The peaking of the world’s population at around 9 billion in 2050 will place huge demands on global resources and ecosystems” (pg.1).
- “Population pressure, climate change, global trade and travel all increase the risk of the spread of old and new diseases that could be disastrous for humans, livestock, wildlife, crops and plant life” (pg.8).
- “The greatest crisis that faces humankind is not a shortage of food, water or health care or an excess of greenhouse gases but finding abundant, affordable supplies of eco-friendly energy” (pg.14).
- “The next 50 years are critical. Failure to find solutions could decisively tip the balance towards ecological catastrophes that would affect agriculture, healthy, biodiversity, climate, and the productivity of the seas” (pg.19)
Here is how all this translates to me and probably most of those who read this. For one of my recent master’s classes, we had to visit the website givingwhatwecan.org and plug in our income level to see how we compare to the rest of the world in terms of wealth. Even though I work for an international non-profit organization and my wife is home with our kids, we still came in as wealthier than 93% of the world! That is a sobering reality. And as Johnstone writes, “Industrialization and population growth strain global resources” (pg.19). In the book Active Hope, the authors note, “When more people consume things, we not only deplete resources, but we also produce more waste. The rubbish generated each year in the United States could fill a convoy of garbage trucks long enough to go round the world six times” (pg.20).
Here is what got to me in this: my materialistic actions may have an effect on climate change dynamics that affect the poor the most. For example, the day I was thinking about this, I got word of the worst flooding in at least the last 30 years in a West African country the mission organization I lead (ServeNow) serves in. And over the years, we have noticed an increase in the number of “natural” (man-contributed?) disasters around the world. For example, Patrick Johnstone writes, “Drought and floods affect many countries in both western and eastern Africa. Natural resources are still being coveted and extracted by powers outside the region with little regard for the long-term health of the environment or poverty reduction; desertification and deforestation, through logging and slash and burn agriculture, are decimating species, water supplies, grazing grounds, and farmland, and contributing to recurring food emergencies…” (pg.9). Maathai further adds, “The poor have long experienced the fallout of such greed and selfishness…while this structure has enriched the West, practicing it without caution has only impoverished Africa.” (pg.6-7).
Say what you want about the merits of climate change (maybe we have a defensive and dismissive posture to not have to examine our lifestyles?). Still, there is no disputing from a biblical perspective that our sin has thrown the earth off in ways that play out in real consequence around the world. Specifically, I would say our greed, selfishness, consumerism, and materialism. For example consider this shocking fact from the book Active Hope, “In 2010 the global arms expenditure was $1.6 trillion…spending 10 percent of this annually could eliminate extreme poverty and starvation throughout the world” (pg.107). In the book, The Challenge for Africa, Wangari Maathai, a winner of the Noble Prize writes, “The recognition that underlying almost every conflict is either a struggle for control over resources or a scramble to access them after they have become scarce is clear in almost every conflict…” (pg.249).
Whether you want to believe that or not, there is no denying our greed, selfishness, consumerism, and materialistic tendencies also harm our own lives. In the book Active Hope, I love a term they coined as “affluenza” and describe as “the emotional distress that arises from a preoccupation with possessions and appearance” (pg.46). The problem with this is that the constant need for “more” makes it harder for us to be genuinely grateful for what we do have. As the authors of Active Hope note, “research has shown that people experiencing high levels of gratitude tend to be happier and more satisfied with their lives” (pg.43). Other authors have recently noted too that there is an interesting phenomenon happening in developed or developing countries. The better the world gets in terms of standard of living, the less hope we seem to have in life!
What does this tell us? In The Challenge for Africa, Maathai writes, “The tenants of modernity-with its belief that material goods, greater technology, and innovation at any cost will solve all our problems and meet all our needs are insufficient to provide an ethical direction for our lives” (pg.162). In other words, we need more than “stuff” to truly prosper. And, while “stuff” might improve some parts of our lives, it can destroy other parts of our lives (such as our soul, self, heart, even creation itself).
This is precisely what the prophets of old and Jesus himself and all of Scripture warns us about. This is not a popular Western teaching, where we promote “prosperity” and “plenty” above all else. But greed is deadly to the soul. Possessions are not what provides ultimate meaning, identity, significance, and purpose. We need to get back to compassion, generosity, and soul-care. No, wealth is not evil in and of itself. Still, we certainly have greater responsibility and accountability with what we do with it the more we have. The same is true of power. Wealth and power can easily corrupt if we are not careful to guard our hearts against greed and irresponsibility. And our ferocious appetites (we consume far more and disproportionately compared to most of the world) could have something to do with the disasters unfolding worldwide.
At the very least, I am writing this for my own sake and anyone else who happens to read it, to be more intentional, mindful, and responsible with our lives. In our individualistic culture, we typically fail to think about how our actions and lifestyles affect others. And the danger of being so comfortable is that we become complacent. But this begins to destroy both the world and our own souls; two things that God, our creator, cares about and loves deeply.
I will close with this quote from Johnstone’s book, The Future of the Global Church, that I think ought to spur us on to a love that manifests in action: “Global stability may depend on how we help the poorer nations to secure a viable, hopeful future, failure could lead to ecological disaster, social collapse and huge migrations of people” (pg.3). Could we already be experiencing the beginnings of this? And what can we do to be mindful of how our lives impact the poorest and most vulnerable among us?
Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” -Jesus, Luke 12:15
Woe to you who are complacent in Zion, and to you who feel secure on Mount Samaria…You lie on beds adorned with ivory and lounge on your couches. You dine on choice lambs and fattened calves. You strum away on your harps like David and improvise on musical instruments. You drink wine by the bowlful and use the finest lotions, but you do not grieve over the ruin of Joseph. -Amos 6:1