I was recently contacted by the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy for a thirty-minute interview on faith and climate change. It was an interesting conversation that prompted me, in anticipation of the interview, to pull together several thoughts on the burgeoning issue of the greening of Christendom.
One reality, for Christians, is without question: as followers of Christ, we are called to be stewards of God’s creation. It has been entrusted to us, and we are responsible for its care and use.
And one observation is, I believe, equally without question: There is a seismic shift in evangelical emphasis, from political/moral issues (such as divorce and abortion) to social/justice issues (such as global warming and the AIDS pandemic in Africa). Christians are awakening to a new set of issues and concerns that did not preoccupy the minds of the previous generation of evangelical leaders.
In light of these realities, I have five concerns – or perhaps better put, challenges – as we grapple with the varying dynamics of “creation care”:
First, we must never allow a political mindset, or economic model, to become the hermeneutical grid by which we interpret legitimate scientific findings – much less how we read our Bibles or form our theology. Regardless of where you stand on something like global warming, a predetermined political or economic stance should not be your starting point in assessing whether there are significant issues facing us in regard to climate change. Many Christians link environmental issues with, for example, the Democratic Party or classical liberalism, and cannot seem to extricate their biases accordingly. We must rise above this. Further, there are some who fear that any attention to environmental issues will cause us to lose our moral focus on other issues, such as abortion, as if there is a limited amount of energy to spend and this uses up our capital. This is, of course, a fallacy.
Second, we must work hard for ethical balance. A sweeping, but by and large true, generalization is that during the era of the ‘60’s we Christians got many of the moral issues right (e.g., sexuality) but many of the social justice issues wrong (e.g., racism). Today, I see the pendulum swinging in the opposite, and equally erroneous, direction. We are getting social justice issues right, but moral issues wrong. Younger evangelicals are rightfully working against racism and the spread of the AIDS pandemic, but increasingly throwing sexual restraint to the wind. Our moral compass must point true north on all issues, not simply a select few.
Third, we must be mindful of worldliness creeping into our environmental concerns. The recent interest in our responsibilities as stewards of creation is, I believe, a needed corrective. It presents a more holistic gospel that involves not only the Great Commission, but the dominion commission inherent within the Genesis (creation) narrative. However this emphasis must be authentic, as opposed to merely reflecting the trendy ethic of the day. A legitimate concern is that our current alignment with issues such as global warming is a way for culturally insecure Christians to synch up with the predominant values of the day in such a way as to achieve cultural legitimacy and acceptance. Further, if this becomes the only ethic we trumpet – muzzling our prophetic voice on issues less in synch with the ethical flavor of the moment - we have become worldly.
Our values are not birthed in the world’s values. Indeed, we are not value-driven, as much as we are virtue-driven. A value is that which is perceived to be of value, or held to be of worth, and thus highly subjective; a virtue is right action or thinking; that which is transcendent and above perception or estimation. It simply is. If we are going green because the world is going green, then we are doing little more than mirroring the values of the world, and have nothing to offer the world that it does not already have. It is one thing if the world has shamed us into an environmental conscience, or into caring for the poor (which, sadly, I believe it has); it is another if we are simply following the current stream of consciousness until the next current comes our way, continually surfing the stream that seems most acceptable. This is little more than being trendy.
Fourth, we must ensure that we proclaim why we are concerned with creation care – and the reason is in the word “creation.” To be a Christian environmentalist is to acknowledge a Creator. Stewardship, in any form, is an act of worship of the living God who gave us all that we have. We will stand before God and give an account of our lives, and all that we have been entrusted with. This is to be our motivation.
Finally, we must not have our concern for the environment lead into a Wicca-like worship of the earth, where stewardship becomes transformed into subservience. The earth was given for us, not us for the earth. Akin to the Sabbath – it was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. The key is to steward it in such a way that it continues to serve. Our care is more along the lines of the parable Jesus told of the three men who were each given a sum of money – our goal is to maximize what has been given to us for benefit; not make it sacrosanct.
But I return to where we started: we are charged to be environmentalists in the deepest and most rooted sense; and there is a shift in terms of emphasis in the Christian world. The question is how we will navigate the waters. But navigate them we must.
As Kermit the Frog of Sesame Street fame plaintively sings,
It’s not that easy being green;
Having to spend each day the color of the leaves.
When I think it could be nicer being red, or yellow or gold…
or something much more colorful like that.
But as Kermit continues:
But green’s the color of Spring.
And green can be cool and friendly-like.
And green can be big like an ocean, or important like a mountain,
or tall like a tree.
…And I think it’s what I want to be.
James Emery White
On the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy, see http://www.yale.edu/envirocenter/.
Lyrics to “It’s Not That Easy Being Green” from “The Sesame Street Book and Record.” “Green” is 9c0 1970 Jonico Music, Inc.. Full lyrics can be found at http://www.niehs.nih.gov/kids/lyrics/green.htm.
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About Dr. James Emery White
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina; President of Serious Times, a ministry which explores the intersection of faith and culture (www.serioustimes.org); and ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture on the Charlotte campus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Dr. White holds the B.S., M.Div. and Ph.D. degrees, along with additional work at Vanderbilt University and Oxford University. He is the author of over a dozen books.
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