By Tom Rowley, A Rocha USA Executive Director
Debunking the notion that God doesn’t care about the environment is easy enough to do. Jesus made it (John 1:1-3). Jesus owns it (Ps 24:1). Jesus redeems it. (Col 1:20). And if that isn’t enough for you, check out Revelation 11:18. (Spoiler: I fear we all face a reckoning, my Prius and Birkenstocks notwithstanding!)
Equally straightforward is correcting the idea that nature is simply a resource bank for human use. Psalm 19 is but one scriptural reference to the fact that creation sings God’s praise and brings Him glory. Of course, for those who’ve fallen into the Gnostic heresy that Earth doesn’t matter, even these arguments don’t carry much weight. To them, matter is nothing, or worse, evil, and all that counts is “heaven, our true home.”
It’s a bit tougher, however, to deal with whether we should prioritize human needs over the needs of the non-human creation. The first blush answer is, of course, “people first”—whether addressing their eternal needs or their temporal. But a closer examination of both scripture and the world around us reveals that the answer is actually people and planet…together.
Presenting to a group of summer interns at our church recently, I was asked how, with limited time and money, one chooses between serving people and protecting nature. Isn’t it more important, the earnest young woman questioned, to serve at the food bank or hand out Gospel tracts than to clean a stream? Shouldn’t her charitable dollars and donated time support an evangelism ministry rather than, say, A Rocha?
Not wanting to cede the ground (or the possible donation), and not wanting to admit that I struggle with that one myself, I mumbled something about working it out with God and hurried on to the next question. Neither she nor I was satisfied. I went home and stewed. She probably went home and crossed A Rocha off her list.
With time and, I hope, the Spirit’s leading I came up with a more robust answer. The question is not people OR planet…the question is how do we walk faithfully with Jesus, caring for people AND planet as He called us to do?
At one level—let’s call it the “life level”—there simply is no either/or in God’s scheme of things. As God’s people, we are to care about everything God cares about. Everything. People and planet. And that care will be reflected in our lives. As a pastor friend of mine puts it, “Our theology comes out of our fingertips.” Our beliefs impact our choices about food and transportation and housing. (Noting that the average house in the USA was 2169 square feet in 2010, up 43 percent from 1973. While over roughly the same period, the number of people in that average house declined by nearly a third). Clearly, we must eat, get about and have shelter. But how we meet each of those needs reflects what we care about.
Furthermore, even a cursory analysis of the world today shows just how interrelated are the needs of the planet and those of the people who inhabit it. Pollution not only kills birds and fish, it kills people. One study found that pollution causes 40 percent of deaths worldwide—primarily by increasing vulnerability to disease and malnourishment. That’s not surprising given a United Nations’ report that 60 percent of so-called ecosystem services (our sources of clean water, fresh air and food-producing soil) are being degraded and/or unsustainably used. Even if allowable, it simply isn’t logical to care just about people while disregarding care of the planet. Indeed, it’s self-defeating.
At another level—let’s call it the “ministry level”—there are choices to be made. Again, the choice is not whether we ought to care for people AND planet, but in how that care shapes our use of time, talents and dollars. God’s resources are infinite; ours are not. We have limited hours, limited abilities and limited bank accounts; and we each must allocate those resources.
And here, I think, is where many evangelical Christians (at least in the USA) have gotten off track. Not wanting to follow the trail that many evangelicals think leaves Jesus behind, they have eschewed the care of the environment. (And flirted with the Gnostics.) Leaving that arena to liberals, pagans and, depending who you ask, Democrats! In fact, some evangelicals seem to have abandoned care of anything and everything other than evangelism. Thankfully, a social justice movement in the evangelical church is gaining momentum. A closer look at God’s heart for justice has released followers of Jesus to care about people’s physical needs—and not just their salvation. It’s time now to extend the reach of that care to the non-human creation.
All of which is to say that it can be a perfectly godly choice to allocate some of one’s time, talent and dollars to the care of the non-human creation. It’s okay to serve next Saturday cleaning the stream or feeding the homeless or evangelizing your neighborhood. For many Christians, the freedom to choose “environmental work” has been missing. Taken away by unscriptural if well meaning sermons and Sunday school flannelgraphs, political turf wars, demonization of environmentalists and more. But the freedom is there—in Christ. And so is the responsibility.
Thankfully, I got the chance to revisit the intern question and share all of the above, when A Rocha hosted the students at our Oregon ranch project for a weekend of Bible study, nature walks, shared meals and invasive weed pulling. And at the closing prayer on the last day, another young woman had this to say, “Thank you God. I used to think this was all just hippie stuff. Now I know it’s biblical.”
All I can say is “Amen”.
 Cornell University. “Pollution Causes 40 Percent of Deaths Worldwide, Study Finds.” ScienceDaily, 14 August 2007.
 United Nations. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005.
Carol O'Casey says
Well said, Tom. Thanks for voicing this needed perspective.