How do Christian beliefs about Scripture, Creation, Jesus, and the Church correspond with recent White House climate and environmental policies?
Donald Trump said he would drain the swamp. Whatever swamp he drained, he seems eager to refill it with oil. From appointing former big oil executives to key administrative roles to making executive orders favoring fossil fuel lobbyists, Trump has pushed forward an incredibly anti-environmental responsibility agenda.
Most recently, Trump rolled back Obama-era legislation that favored cleaner forms of energy. Trump and his staff have suggested this is a wise move because it frees up industries to create more jobs. Of course, job creation is important. What they fail to acknowledge is that new pipelines do not create long-term jobs but energy-related “job creation” poses a very real threat to local ecosystems and communities, especially when mountaintops are blown up for coal or when vast tracks of land are mined for tar sand oil (like Keystone XL will transport). When the administration champions its “anti-regulation” approach to environmental matters, we must remember that what they are actually championing is an “anti-responsibility” agenda. Responsibility, in this case, is taking care to steward our environment for the sake of our neighbors and our grandchildren.
I have written elsewhere about Christianity and caring for God’s creation. This time around I simply want to offer angles from which Christians might be able to recognize the connection between environmental policy and the Christian faith. In this article, I will present four angles for reflection. I do not suggest how Christians ought to respond in this article. Churches will need to have conversations in their own communities and respond according to the unique problems in their own cities. But I do hope we will find ways to respond.
“The earth lies polluted under its inhabitants; for they have transgressed laws, violated the statutes, broken the everlasting covenant” (Isaiah 24:5).
Scripture in general is one angle we might take. Does the Bible address environmental concerns? Yes. One might be surprised by how often Scripture warns of human sinfulness leading to the destruction of the earth. Isaiah puts the matter in vivid terms: “The earth dries up and withers,the world languishes and withers; the heavens languish together with the earth” (Isaiah 24:4). These events are the result of “violated statutes” and “transgressed laws.” Isaiah eventually envisions universal restoration, where all violence ceases and the land is restored. Paul makes a similar connection. In Romans 8, Paul tells us that “the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now” (Romans 8:22). Yet elsewhere Paul confesses that in Jesus (“through whom all things were created,” Colossians 1:15) is the reconciliation of all things (Colossians 1:20). John the Baptist proclaims, in the words of Isaiah, that in Jesus “all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (Luke 3:6). And John the Seer promises that God is “making all things new” (Revelation 21:5). I emphasize these Scriptures because “all things” and “all flesh” do not mean “all humans.” Those phrases include all of God’s creation, from the land we farm to the air we breathe.
This brief overview is not exhaustive. Instead, these selected Scriptures provide an angle to see that God’s creation — all of it — is tied up in sin and looking forward to salvation. The foolishness of modernity suggests that humanity is the pinnacle of existence. We are proud of all of our accomplishments and our pride has convinced us we are the only group of creatures about whom God cares. The Biblical witness rejects that belief. In the Biblical witness, God is the pinnacle of existence and all of creation. And all of creation — that which is seen and unseen — has its own relationship with its Creator. No story exhibits this better than God covenanting with Noah, Noah’s sons, and “all flesh,” that is, “every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth” (Genesis 9:16). After the flood, from which God saved people and animals, God covenants to never again destroy the world. God extends his promise to non-human creation over and over. Likewise we should not be surprised to hear the Psalmist say: “Let the rivers clap their hands, let the mountains sing together for joy” (Psalm 98:8) or “the heavens are telling the glory of God;and the firmament proclaims his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1). God is uniquely related to humanity yet God cherishes all creatures, from the leviathan to the daisy. God cherishes all creation enough to have a unique, lasting relationship even with inanimate creatures. As divine image bearers, we must also cherish our fellow creatures.
How does sacrificing the well-being of our land, water, air, animals, and humans for a few jobs line up with God’s love for all of creation?
Doctrine of Creation
Several Christian doctrines provide a helpful angle for reflecting on recent climate policies. The Doctrine of Creation seems like the easiest starting point. God created all things. The story of creation in Genesis 1 indicates that God created things in a specific order. The popular reading of the story focuses on the creation of humanity. Humans must not forget that God is the center of the story, the key to its meaning. When we temper our anthropocentrism, we recognize that God calls creation good several times before creating humanity. Humanity does not even get its own day! We share with “every living creature of every kind” (Genesis 1:24).
What we also notice is that God created an ecosystem without which humanity could not exist. Destroying the balance of this ecosystem is risky for human survival. Yet the story is about God, the creator, and so we must remind ourselves that to destroy creation — at least without sincere reverence — is to work contrary to God the creator’s activity. In order to get fossil fuels — especially tar sand oil and coal from exposed mountaintops — we must put entire ecosystems at risk. We have also seen the damage done when pipelines burst. How does continually risking the well-being of God’s created ecosystems fit into a faithful practice of the doctrine of creation?
(For extended reflection on the command to “subdue and conquer,” which is consistently tossed around by people who want to justify careless destruction of land and animals, see Ellen Davis’s chapter “Seeing With God: Israel’s Poem of Creation” in Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture.)
Doctrine of Jesus Christ
In the section on Scripture, we noticed that Christ is in the business of reconciling all things, not just humans. We also noticed that Christ is at work making all things new, not just humans. So in reflecting on environmental policies specifically through the doctrine of Christ, we can take a slightly different angle. Gustavo Gutierrez, a Catholic Latino theologian, writes “The whole climate of the gospel is a continual demand for the right of the poor to make themselves heard, to be considered preferentially by society, a demand to subordinate economic needs to those of the deprived. Was not Christ’s first preaching to ‘proclaim the liberation of the oppressed’” (69). Gutierrez is quoting Luke 4 where Jesus preaches in Nazareth. You may disagree that “the whole climate of the gospel is a continual demand for the right of the poor to make themselves heard.” You cannot disagree, however, that Jesus did indeed expose God’s preferential option for the poor, the marginalized, the underrepresented. How does this relate to environmental policy? Impoverished people suffer disproportionately from irresponsible environmental policy and legislation. Most recently, the impoverished folks of Flint, Michigan suffered a lead-poison epidemic because their government put economics before ethics. This is not unusual. The poor in Louisiana know this. The poor in the aftermath of Katrina know this. The poor rural neighbors whose land is poisoned know this.
How does defunding programs that keep an eye out for unjust environmental practices square with Jesus’ concern for the poor to receive good news instead of bad?
Doctrine of the Church
The church provides yet another angle for challenging the environmental policies of the White House. Evangelical Christianity often focuses squarely on the individual. Yet God created a community, the church. And the early creeds suggest that the church is more than just a present reality. The church is, according to those creeds, “a holy, catholic church.” In many Protestant churches, as evangelical theologian Jonathan Wilson observes, “the term universal substitutes for catholic.” Wilson suggests this is an unfortunate substitution because universal has a “limited sense of breadth in space and time.” When we say the church is “catholic” we are not primarily describing its “global” or “worldwide” nature. Instead, we are describing how the church’s existence reaches beyond the perceived limits of space and time. When we call the church holy and catholic, we are insisting that the church exists as a miracle of God. A “holy” church is a church set apart. Who sets it apart? God. A catholic church is united from the beginning of history to the end of history. Who unites it? God. We all confess the church originated at Pentecost by the pouring out of the Holy Spirit. Yet that event is the culmination of the whole story of Israel. And the Pentecost event is the precursor to the fulfillment of God’s promise to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to earth in its fulness.
What I am getting at here is that the church (and so anyone baptized into the church) belongs to a story that predates and surpasses this age and any specific location. As the holy, catholic church we have an ethical obligation to live responsibly in light of our history and for the sake of our future. Christians in the earliest days worked diligently to keep Scripture and canonized it in order to remember their history and for the sake of Christians in the future. We must love our future church and our future neighbors because we are bound to them in God’s love, the love that created the holy, catholic church.
How does rejecting the overwhelming scientific consensus that climate change will adversely effect our future sisters and brothers square with this vision of the church? Does being pro-life necessitate that we also be adamant about protecting the world into which those sweet babies will be born?
We are the Creator’s people and we are ordained with the Divine Image. Creation is not a machine to be controlled, as many in modernity suggest, but a gift to be cherished. Moreover, God’s people are themselves dependent on the flourishing of all creation. This is a truth told again and again by the prophets. Humans would do well to remember that no matter how privileged our relationship with God may be, we are not given dominion to destroy, but to tend faithfully to God’s creation.