Yesterday I was walking with a good friend out of a meeting on Capitol Hill, and we were talking about a conversation he had had the previous day. My name came up, and the person—whom I know a bit –said, “He’s just a liberal!” My friend responded, “Steve Garber?” He knows me very well, and being for thirty years on the Hill himself, first as a congressman and then a lobbyist, knows the political landscape of the city very well too.
“Well, he’s an environmentalist” was the dismissive, put-someone-in-a-box response. I smiled.
Driving home, at a red-light near our house, I saw a man in a car next to me flick his used cigarette butt out of the window. I sort of scowled at him—and I smiled again. And a few minutes later, pulling into my driveway, I remembered that I drive a hybrid car. Maybe I am an environmentalist.
Then I remembered the time I was in a meeting on the Hill, and a good friend, Peter Harris of A Rocha was speaking about our responsibility to steward the earth, and a foolishly partisan person in the back of the room picked a fight with him, insisting that we cannot afford to make economic and political decisions that require a concern about the planet. He was nasty, and arrogant, and I just about slugged him. Maybe I am an environmentalist.
Or maybe the problem is that I have invested some of my life in helping companies understand a more complex bottom line. It is economic foolishness of the first-degree to imagine that we can only ask one question of a business, viz. “Have you maximized shareholder profit this quarter?” In reality there are other important questions too, and in reality if a business wants to be in business for the long-haul, it has to ask other questions. A few years ago I took some senior executives from a global corporation to spend a day with Wendell Berry on his Kentucky farm, talking about a serious project to rethink the very nature of business by insisting on a bottom line that honestly accounts for profit and people and the planet, at the very same time. At the end of the day, Berry put it like this, “If you want to make money for a year, you will ask certain questions. But if you want to make money for 100 years, you will have to ask other questions.” I am sure he is right. Maybe I am an environmentalist.
Or maybe it was the time I decided to see the film “Avatar” again, and wrote about it for my friend Denis Haack’s magazine, Critique. Aware of the ways the story drew us into a pantheism that is not mine, arguing for a divinity for anything and everything, I was surprised that people of my tribe were not equally troubled by the industrial economy that had already laid waste to one earth, and wanted another to ruin and destroy—which is the very context and drama of the film’s story. And so I wrote about why there were two equal dangers, and why we should not be taken in by either. Maybe I am an environmentalist.
But people who know me well know that I believe the truest truths of the universe cut deeper than the partisan divide, and so I am clearly not a liberal, just as I am not a conservative. I don’t see myself as an “ist” of anything. It is always seems to me that ideologies and idolatries sleep in the same bed.
What I am committed to is doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with God—and therefore to honest human flourishing, which rarely finds a home in the partisan debates of Washington, or any city. We are more complex, because life is more complex.
The Correspondent, the Conservationist and the Chinese Dolphins
May 06 2013
by A Rocha USA
By Peter Harris, co-founder of A Rocha
Michael McCarthy’s poignant valedictory piece as Environment Editor of The Independentmakes sad reading, in many ways, for Christians. But it is hard to argue with his central points. I read it here in Hong Kong, where I have just had the privilege of spending time with Samuel Hung, inspirational leader of the Hong Kong Dolphin Conservation Society.
He must have one of the toughest wildlife jobs on earth, as massive land reclamation schemes and infrastructure projects are devastating marine habitats that he has been documenting for nearly two decades. In particular, he knows that as McCarthy says, people are the only significant danger to the highly threatened relict population of Chinese White Dolphins still somehow hanging on in these waters. So he entirely agrees with McCarthy’s essential point (in a reprise of arguments well known from those who read Genesis) that,
‘People are doing this. Let’s be clear about it. It’s not some natural phenomenon, like an earthquake or a volcanic eruption. It’s the actions of Homo sapiens. What we are witnessing is a fundamental clash between the species, and the planet on which he lives, which is going to worsen steadily, and the more closely you observe it – or at least, the more closely I have observed it over the past 15 years – the more I have thought that there is something fundamentally wrong with Homo sapiens himself. Man seems to be Earth’s problem child.’
Hung’s deeply Christian heart and mind would also lead him to agree with McCarthy that human nature cannot be seen as benign – we are, to use The Independent’s language, fallen. For the self-confessed ex-Catholic McCarthy our fallen-ness is the inescapable conclusion of his years of reporting on human devastation of our environment. For the Christian Hung, it follows from believing that if Christ came to save us and all things created, we need saving, and we have a real, and not an imagined, problem. But he’s sad that McCarthy feels he must reject the whole Christian story that gives insight into that kind of narrative. It is only because of Hung’s Christian faith that he has been able to keep going on the difficult and painful road as one of the region’s most respected conservation leaders and campaigners. Another environmental campaigner from Beijing told us exactly the same thing the following day.Both McCarthy and Hung were gracious enough not to raise the real problem – if human fallen-ness is at the root of environmental devastation, why is human saved-ness so rarely a global source of hope for creation? Why is it not more normally the inspiration for creative gospel work for Earth’s healing and sustainability?For McCarthy, the evidence that human nature can be redeemable is only found in people, those he calls ‘the green campaigners’, who have at least momentarily held back the tide with such tenacity and self-sacrifice. He writes,
‘In the Christian world view, humankind is not basically benign. People are not good. But they can be redeemed. That’s the point, the unique selling point, if you like, of Christianity; and tomorrow, Easter Sunday, is its celebration. And what ceasing to be Environment Editor of this newspaper in Easter week has put into my mind is just how many people I have also observed, over the past 15 years, fighting hard to save the natural world – because, in some way, these are the redeemers of humankind.’
Samuel Hung knows very well that of all the major Christian communities around the world, the Chinese-speaking church has been one of the slowest to understand that the Lord they serve so faithfully, and often with such fervour, calls them to care for his creation. So there are pitifully few examples of Christian businessmen, educators, preachers or farmers who are creation friendly in their everyday work. The traditional focus of Chinese Christian thinking about the future skips life on God’s earth for some vaguely defined future world to which believers escape – presumably having devastated this one in an uncritical embrace of materialism and individualism. There are many current casualties: family life, business integrity, a credible witness to Christ in the work place, parenting with purpose. And sadly, unless we see a miracle very soon, we may have to add the Chinese White Dolphin to the sad litany of loss. Oh, and Michael McCarthy’s disappointed leaving of faith.But in a small way, that miracle may be about to happen, as thirty Christian environmental professionals have now met in Hong Kong to pray and brainstorm about future projects.
We know that God created the world and everything in it. We know that he appointed us stewards of his creation. We know that he determined the times and exact places for people to live. How do we communicate this to others so that they, too, will long to see “the transformation of people and places into healthy communities where all of God’s creation can flourish?”
At Santa Margarita Community Church we are partnering with A Rocha to design four weeklong day camps for elementary school children that will promote transformational engagement. The first year of Nature Care Camp, our campers and volunteers explore and discover their place. They learn that God put us here at this time and ask, “What else did He put here with us?” Year two, we discover how everything in our place is integrated. Everything, including us, was intentionally designed by God to both depend on and benefit the rest of creation. Year three we look at our choices asking, “What we can do to live in a manner that enhances our place?” Finally in year four, our campers consider some of our local ecological problems themselves.
Last summer about 30 children attended Nature Care Camp. Exploring our place gave shape to our week. Every day we hiked with local experts and made a myriad of discoveries. To name only a few: Our community is defined by our particular watershed; coast redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) grow quite nicely here, in spite of the fact that we are not located on the coast; and millipedes leave incredible zipper-like tracks in the dirt. We explored our place with our tongues; drinking a lot of water from our own watershed, tasting produce from a volunteer’s garden, enjoying honey made by a neighbor’s bees, and crunching trail mix made from seeds and berries that local birds like. We got our hands dirty making bark and track castings, painting with feathers, creating “Litter Bugs”, building and operating our own model well, and painting entries for an international watershed art contest. We played games. In short, we used all of our senses and as many of the multiple intelligences as possible to become aware of our place and all God put here.
One of our junior staff members said, “I didn’t think anything could beat the VBS we had last year, but this beats it hands down!” Why? I think that while we had a lot of fun, something deeper happened. Our volunteers and campers started to see their place with different eyes. They no longer saw trees. They saw redwoods and gray pines (Pinus sabiniana). They no longer saw a creek. They saw Trout Creek giving shape to their community and water for them to drink. They no longer saw birds. They saw Red-tailed Hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) and Great Horned Owls (Bubo virginianus). By naming things, we gave them value. In turn, we planted seeds in the hearts of our campers and volunteers to care for their place. Once something is no longer generic, but is named and valued, we begin to want to care for it. A desire to care feeds a desire to know more about the thing we have named, so we can care for it well. Next summer at Nature Care Camp, we’ll water that seed by teaching the campers how all the things they discovered last summer are integrated intentionally by God. When we learn to care for our place well, both it and we will flourish and give glory to God.
For some, reading books or watching documentaries challenge them to respond by living differently. For many, though, I think that going, listening, looking, touching, tasting, creating, learning, naming, and simply enjoying – active engagement – provides the fertile soil for transformation. That is the aim of our Nature Care Camp.
Let’s start at square one: Why is environmental stewardship something Christians ought to care about?
It’s a perfectly legitimate question to ask, but I want to turn it around and say instead: Give me one good reason why Christians shouldn’t care about God’s creation. The reality is that the biblical case for stewardship is absolutely solid. The connection between the poor and the environment is obvious. The ramifications for our Christian witness are huge.
So why do you think many American Christians are still hesitant to embrace environmental stewardship?
There’s a set of unholy obstacles that prevent us from caring about all that God created—obstacles like politics, fear of science, bad theology and plain old greed. We as a church, particularly in the United States, have fallen prey to these traps to justify staying on the sidelines—remaining quiet about environmental concerns or even being actively opposed to efforts to care for creation.
But I’d argue that politics, fear of science, and even bad theology, are often just an excuse for not caring about creation. The real reason, underlying it all, is that we realize environmental stewardship is going to impact how we live our lives. If we take it seriously, it’s going to demand that we become more thoughtful about what we buy and eat and own and live. It asks something of us, and not many of us are big on sacrifice—even when that sacrifice comes with great blessing.
You mentioned the connection between the environment and the poor. Would you say this is a good starting point for Christians who care about the sacredness of human life and are concerned about the “least of these” around the world?
Yes. Poverty, hunger, disease, human trafficking—all of these issues have a very direct connection to the health of the non-human creation. We’re created in God’s image, unique amongst the rest of creation. But all of the creation is sacred because it was all created by God, is cared for by God and glorifies God. All of creation sings God’s praise and all of it is authored by him. Its flourishing depends upon our management and our flourishing depends upon its provision. It’s a false delineation to think we can separate humans from the non-human creation. Yes, we are special because we alone bear God’s image, but we also shouldn’t forget our common creatureliness.
Anecdotally, it seems more and more Christians are beginning to embrace the biblical call to environmental stewardship. Do you agree?
Yes, the hopeful thing is that the evangelical church is really awakening to this issue. But the next question is: As the church awakens, what are we going to do about it? The danger is for this to just become another box to check, like “I recycle.” Check. “I drive a Prius.” Check.
But stewardship needs to be so much more than that. Colossians 1:15-20 tells us that all things are made by God, sustained through God, exist for God. Christ redeems and reconciles all things … and we get to play a part in that. Christ’s reconciliation is carried out, in part, by the way we live our lives right where we are. God has put each of us, as part of his church on earth, in a particular place. We are to minister not just to the people of that place, but to the place itself.
That’s the vision of A Rocha: Christian people, living in community and doing hands-on conservation work and environmental education so people can see the gospel in action. We seek to help followers of Jesus live as agents of shalom to the place in which they live—all the way down to the dirt, so to speak.
You’ve drawn a strong connection between our outward environmental stewardship and our inner spiritual lives. How would you describe this relationship?
I feel really passionately about communicating that, yes, environmental stewardship is a “have to” in the sense that the Bible clearly commands us to care for God’s creation. But it’s also a “get to.” It’s a privilege. And there is such joy that comes from faithful obedience, whether it’s caring for the environment or ministering to a sick friend. There’s absolute joy, there’s blessing, in living as we’re designed to live.
A Rocha’s Five Core Commitments as Lived by John Stott – 2: Conservation
Apr 04 2013
by A Rocha USA
By Miranda Harris, co-founder of A Rocha
I have a favourite photo of John Stott. He is crouching over a clump of wild crocuses on a stony Turkish hillside, the heavy lens of his camera perfectly steady in his outstretched hands despite the awkward angle of his body. Photographing photographers is always fun.
John’s passion for birding and photography is legendary. A lifelong ambition to capture on film the breath-taking sight of Snowy Owls at their Arctic nests was fulfilled in his seventies – more of a pilgrimage than a package holiday. Other less ambitious expeditions were no less imbued with godly determination. Upon being semi-recognised at the end of a Sunday morning service on one such trip, he simply put his head down with an almost inaudible ‘we’re birders actually’, and headed for the hills. But his appreciation of all of creation was an integral part of his love for the Creator. Few living things escaped his penetrating gaze and insatiable curiosity. ‘Study the birds of the air is not a suggestion of Jesus’ he would say ‘It’s a command’, one which he was delighted to obey whenever his punishing schedule allowed. It must have done sometimes, since of the estimated 9,000 or so species in the world, he managed to see, and often photograph, almost a third!
A passion for birding is not necessarily the same thing as being a conservationist though. Yet John was both. As early as 1984, when environmental issues were far from the top of the church’s agenda, he was arguing strongly that all Christians have a responsibility to care for creation. ‘Trusteeship includes conservation’ he wrote, ‘the greatest threat to mankind may prove in the end not to be nuclear war, but a peace-time peril, namely the spoliation of the earth’s natural resources by human folly or greed.’ John was fully persuaded, both theologically and scientifically, that the growing ecological crisis threatens not only the health of humankind, but its very survival, and that of the planet itself.
Among the countless reasons for serious concern, he highlighted four inescapable realities: accelerating world population growth, depletion of the earth’s resources, the problem of waste disposal and the catastrophic implications of a changing climate, especially for the poor. In his tireless, lifelong mission to apply biblical truths to everyday life, John reached the conclusion that all thoughtful, committed Christians face difficult choices with regard to the environment. It is time-consuming, but right, he believed, to buy clothes, food, and other necessities from companies with ethically sound environmental policies. The recent horse-meat scandal in Europe has reminded us that awareness of the provenance of food is a good idea for other reasons too. ‘When is beef not beef?’ no longer sounds like a four-year old’s joke.
The scale of the problem is huge, and potentially paralyzing – but there are simple, practical things we can do. We can buy less, eat less, recycle more, turn off electrical things we don’t need. We can notice the natural world more, give thanks for it, study it, and do what we can to look after it. All these principles were reflected in John’s simple lifestyle. As far as I know, he didn’t make his own muesli, or grow organic tomatoes in his London window box. But he ate simply, and shopped rarely. His possessions were few and precious since they were mostly gifts from friends around the world. Books lined his walls, but they were in constant use and no doubt circulation too. Also he had written quite a lot of them himself! Buying clothes presented less of a temptation to him than it does to me, but this English gentleman was always impeccably dressed. We know he owned two suits, both of them light blue and miraculously crease-proof. He had startlingly colourful outfits – shirts and ties from Africa and Asia. He also had a remarkably jazzy blue and green sunhat which appeared, like the crocuses, on that stony Turkish hillside.
That’s in my favorite photo too…
 Stott, John R.W. Issues Facing Christians Today, p 115. Marshall, Morgan and Scott, Hants UK, 1984
A Rocha’s 5 Core Commitments as Lived by John Stott — 1: Christian
Feb 13 2013
by A Rocha USA
By Miranda Harris, co-founder of A Rocha
If you said to someone who had hung out in Christian circles anywhere in the world, “I once knew an English gentleman with a brilliant mind, a passion for The Bible and phenomenal energy, even in old age; someone who lived incredibly simply and gave away most of what he earned; never had a second helping, yet loved good food and wine, especially in the company of friends; someone with a disciplined devotional life and a lifelong love of the church (though he thought a lot of modern choruses were irredeemably sentimental); someone who could address thousands with powerful preaching, yet connect with individuals and still be praying for them years later; who would talk till two in the morning to the unbelieving husband of his hostess after a long-haul flight in that state of jetlag which most of us experience as non-negotiable, oh, and someone who was also crazy about birdwatching and photography”, that person might, just might, say, “Are you talking about John? John Stott?”
As DL Moody rightly pointed out, our lives are read more closely than our words, and usually tell a more accurate story. The apostle Paul had complete confidence in the Corinthian believers in this respect. “You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everyone,” he said. (2 Corinthians 3.2). We live in a wordy world, and most of the verbal messages which bombard us promise relief from our troubles or an image-overhaul. Most of us have learned that shampoo and new cars don’t deliver. On the other hand, a message promising forgiveness, peace and hope of real change is appealing. But can we trust the messenger? Someone whose lifestyle and relationships match their beliefs? We might be tempted to listen to the English gentleman.
John Stott wasn’t interested in being liked or admired, or in winning arguments for the sake of it. He was interested in knowing Christ and making him known, in his lordship over all creation, and in the truth of the biblical record. During the writing of his commentary on Romans, five of us travelled to Turkey for a week’s birdwatching. The project was not put on hold, rather he rose even earlier than usual, emerging from his room around 6:30 am after two hours of study, slightly shining − rather like Moses coming down from the mountain, I thought. What really impressed me though, was that his pursuit of truth was leading him into 23 other commentaries on the same book, written by theologians, few of whom would have shared his biblical convictions. These he studied intently, to try and understand where the writers were coming from, and to put his own opinions to the test. When he disagreed with other leaders over important theological matters, he would try to arrange a personal meeting to discuss the issues, listen carefully and defend his own position. Only then, and if he judged it absolutely necessary, would he be willing to disagree publicly.
In A Rocha, are we growing leaders with the deep faith, humility, integrity and total commitment of John Stott? He was suspicious of praise and scathing about flattery, likening it to smoking: “Alright if you don’t inhale”, so in a way, I’m glad he won’t be reading this blog! But the fact remains, John’s qualities are ones we long to see at the heart of A Rocha’s identity. For John, to be a leader was first and foremost to be a servant. In this, his enduring message to us all can be the same as Paul’s to the Christians in Corinth: “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.” (1 Corinthians 11.1).
From Advent to Epiphany: The Nature of Hope and Hope for Nature
Jan 02 2013
by A Rocha USA
By Dave Bookless, A Rocha Advisor for Theology and Churches
Happy New Year!? What will 2013 hold? If forecasts are correct, then we’ll see more hurricanes, droughts, floods, crop failures, wildlife extinctions, urban drift, and desperate people attempting to escape poverty. Not to mention global economic gloom. With resource depletion hitting home, perhaps the scarcest commodity of all is hope. What hope can Christians have for the future of the earth, or of our own species? Will God wave a magic wand and make everything good again, or will we be whisked away from a dying planet to an otherworldly paradise?
I want to suggest that the biblical roots of Advent, Christmas and Epiphany offer us clues to the nature of our hope, and of our hope for nature. Advent offers us three dimensions of hope in the past, present and future coming of Christ. Christmas is about hope incarnate, fleshed out in the real world in Jesus. Epiphany remembers the gifts offered to the infant Christ and what they symbolize, but it means more: an Epiphany is God’s self-revelation, a vision of who God really is – hope from another dimension breaking in. Let’s explore these further:
- Hope rooted in the past: the first Advent is God’s ‘Yes!’ to material creation in sending Jesus to be born, to live, die and rise again. When the angels spoke ‘Peace on earth’ to shepherds outside Bethlehem those words didn’t convey the nostalgia of sleigh bells and yuletide logs. When first-century shepherds protecting flocks from predators heard ‘Peace on earth’, they would have thought of Isaiah’s promises of God’s peaceful kingdom: lions lying down with lambs; ‘shalom’ throughout the created order. The baby of Bethlehem spoke hope for the reconciliation and renewal of all creation.
- Hope for the future: ‘O come, O come, Immanuel’ is a cry of hopeful longing for Christ’s promised return as judge and savior. God’s promises offer a future and a hope for this material earth and its creatures. Not only every human, but every creature in heaven and on earth will acknowledge Christ as Lord. However there is an important rider to this promise. Future hope doesn’t preclude disaster now. Biblical hope is often about restoration for a remnant following the devastation of war, famine or exile. The certainty of Jesus’ victorious return does not give us immunity from the self-inflicted ecological apocalypse that scientists are predicting.
- So, what of hope for today? Our hope today is also of Advent, Christmas and Epiphany. Christ comes, by his Spirit, into the earth’s abandoned and polluted places. Christ is born anew amidst the chaos, not miraculously rescuing us out of it, but enabling us to remain faithful and persevere. And as we respond to God’s gift by offering our gifts and ourselves to God, we may experience an Epiphany – a vision of God’s future breaking into the present, a glimpse of the healing of the land, a sign of God’s coming Kingdom, with broken places restored, creatures reconciled, and people rediscovering God’s image.
The Emerging Role of Place in Ecology and Education
Dec 18 2012
by A Rocha USA
By Jonathon Schramm , Assistant Professor of Sustainability and Environmental Education at the Merry Lea Center of Goshen College
We all live in it, move in it, feel it solidly under our feet daily, and yet we don’t often think of ourselves as creatures of it. What is it? Place.
How is it that we have been so able to overlook the basic point of connection that we have as material creatures to the material world around us? Many authors have described some of the causes of the universalization of our collective thinking: globalizing society, culture and markets, advances in technology and communication and the mobility of most citizens. Deeper and subtler influences such as the schism between physical and mental work and abstraction in the sciences and arts have also driven us to minimize the value we place on a good understanding of our physical place in the world. The clearest symptom of this lack of place in our lives might simply be the increasing homogeneity of our buildings and developments across the country: recently-built housing looks much the same in Phoenix, Seattle, Minneapolis, and Birmingham, despite the wide range of biomes those cities are located in.
In the last several centuries, we’ve learned an immense amount about the world by lumping places together and minimizing their differences. Abstraction and generalization have led to breakthroughs in many different fields. But this begs the question: what effect does moving our culture from a place-specific to a place-general approach have? Emerging conclusions from two fields close to my heart – ecology and education — are pointing towards the need to return to thinking in depth about our specific places in the world if we hope to have functioning places to pass on to those who will follow us.
In ecology, we have learned a great deal about the complexities of community interactions that seem to apply across most, if not all, ecological communities. Yet the existence of such things as land use legacies and priority effects, as well as stochasticity, mean that the specific composition and interactions of an ecological place always vary in both small and large ways from similar places somewhere else. So, for instance, to effectively manage plant invasions in a given habitat requires knowledge of that place, with a solution tailored to its idiosyncrasies. Or in another example, deciding which perennial bioenergy crop is the best fit for a particular place requires specific knowledge of that place, its climate, soils, existing plant community, etc. (see http://www.glbrc.org/sustainability for more info on what is prompting this example). In other words, general ecological knowledge is of crucial importance in tackling any number of applied problems in the world today, but it is incomplete without close consideration of place as well. A simple way to sum this up is to say, “All ecology is local.”
The field of education is also coming around (or back!) to the understanding that place matters. It matters both individually, with a learner’s particular reasoning as its own place (with components and interactions much akin to an ecological system), and communally, with the geographic and social location of a group of learners being important for what and how they learn. For example, children from rural areas often have a different set of background experiences than their counterparts from urban and suburban areas that should inform teaching approaches with each group. Issues in their home communities important to one group may be less important for another, but any issues important in their home setting can make for powerful teaching experiences. At the same time, even learners from a very similar background can vary widely in terms of the learning approaches and techniques that are most effective for them.
Much of the emphasis in educational systems over the last few decades has been on teaching students generalizable skills, which has clear value in a global marketplace. But shouldn’t it concern us that most students graduate with little knowledge of, or understanding of, the particular biome of which they are a part? Likewise, aren’t we doing students a disservice when we assume they all bring a similar background to the table, rather than finding out what the differences are in their understandings and experiences so that they can use those more explicitly in constructing new knowledge? In other words, education is ultimately best geared towards individuals, in all of their particularities, rather than disseminated in only a generalized way.
For Christians in particular, I think a place-specific approach to our life and work has special merit. This way of thinking helps us to stay grounded in the scale at which God created us. Not that we can’t think broadly, but God means for us, I think, to primarily be caretakers of the patch of earth around us. It is tough to devote our best work to that end if we are always focused on the abstract and place-general. Closely related to this is that such an approach helps to keep us humble, aware of both our potential to make a difference in the world immediately around us, but also of our ultimate limitation to effect the entire world. And in that, by increasing our awe for both the complex creation around us and our Creator God, I believe we can find lasting hope, that at the end of all things, we will find ourselves in a beautiful place once again.
Whether your candidate won or lost, I think we can all say “Hallelujah” that the election is over. Amen?
Yet just as the red and blue electoral map was answering who would be president, the next—inevitable—question was being asked: Is this a mandate and, if so, what is it?
As this is not a political piece, I’ll merely repeat a couple of the mandates I heard and offer thoughts on another I read.
First, if the final months of this election cycle were indicative of our national focus, then what we care most about is…wait for it…money.
From deficits to taxes to jobs, it was all dollars all the time. Even when issues such as education, healthcare and immigration came up, they were given a decidedly economic spin.
Which is not to say that the economy is unimportant. We want and a great many of us desperately need economic improvement. People need jobs to afford food and shelter, education and health care. And sadly, many are without. These are scary times. The shadow of the great recession darkens the present and the future doesn’t look all that bright either with its fiscal cliffs, global debt crises and more. So, fix the economy, please! (Hey, no one said political mandates had to be realistic.)
Second, despite our name we have become The Divided States of America. With a mere two percentage points separating the popular vote, with partisan gridlock the order of the day in Washington and with family, friends and neighbors arguing red-faced with one another, it is difficult to even remember what the “U” in USA stands for. Please make government work again for the good of the country and not just for political gain.
Other important goals were also mentioned in the mandate conversation–healthcare, education and immigration among them. Once again, yes, we need work on all these.
Sadly, another essential issue went missing in the mandate discussion and throughout the campaigns. We just didn’t hear it. But we can read it: “God took the Man and set him down in the Garden of Eden to work the ground and keep it in order.” (Genesis 2:15)
This is the first mandate, or Mandate if you will, that God gave us. And as with those given subsequently, we’ve fallen short. We haven’t kept “it in order.”
Not that I expect to hear such a “religious” mandate coming from candidates, voters or political pundits. But I did expect or at least hope we might hear more—anything—about the protecting the environment. Not least since all the other issues discussed ultimately depend upon it. Don’t believe that? Where will we be without food and the soil that grows it, without the bees that pollinate it? What will we do without fresh water to drink and clean air to breath?
Tragically, we have forgotten those connections and fallen into an either/or mindset. Save jobs or save owls. Grow the economy or protect the earth. Short sighted at best. Crazy at worst. As Pulitzer-winning cartoonist Jay “Ding” Darling once put it, ““How rich will we be when we have converted all our forests, our soil, our water resources and our minerals into cash?”
And it is all so unnecessary. God didn’t give us charge over an either/or creation: “You can either have the things you need to live or you can have a healthy planet. Pick one.”
Rather, God put us in a bountiful garden and told us to enjoy and take care of it. And even after we messed up and lost that gig, God said that
“if you faithfully obey the commands I am giving you today—to love the Lord your God and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul— then I will send rain on your land in its season, both autumn and spring rains, so that you may gather in your grain, new wine and olive oil. I will provide grass in the fields for your cattle, and you will eat and be satisfied.” (Deuteronomy 11:13-15)
In both passages, the key seems to be “order”—in Genesis to keep the Garden in order and in Deuteronomy the order of obedience followed by land fertility and our own satisfaction. In neither case, have we kept order. Returning to it seems a good mandate for all of us.
At a recent conference in the United States, keynote speaker, author and Professor of philosophy Kathleen Dean Moore, invited the audience to “give up hope” for the environment. At one end of the hope extreme, she said, is “hopelessness”: The problems are simply too big and too complex; nothing we do will matter. At the other end of the spectrum is “uninformed hope”: Everything will turn out all right; we don’t need to do anything.
Rather than hope, she argued, we need “moral integrity.” We must recognize that the roots of the ecological crises we face lie in our choices.
I agree with Moore that we do, in fact, need moral integrity. Indeed, we need the highest form of moral integrity; we need biblical integrity. I also agree that neither hopelessness nor uninformed hope is of any value. I stop short, however, of discarding hope. No need to toss the baby out with the bathwater.
As a pastor of mine once taught, we must define our terms. And so I clarify that by “hope”, I mean the confidence which Christians place in Jesus Christ, in whom, the Bible says, all things were created, in whom all things hold together, and through whom all things are reconciled to God. Christ’s already-but-not-yet Kingdom brings ‘shalom’ to the created order: human and non-human alike. Though the battle rages on—species die off, the climate changes and people suffer—the war is over. Victory is assured.
Therefore, Christians can have hope.
That hope, however, is far different from the all-is-well-sit-back-and-relax hope that Moore rightly cautions against. This hope leads to action. The exact nature of the action, of course, varies according to context.
Within the international family of A Rocha projects, the action ranges from restoring marshes and bird habitats to teaching children about creation and Creator, from growing vegetables for those in need to helping others in need create jobs, and more.
Individual and family action will likely involve what pastor and author Tri Robinson calls “decreasing the footprint and increasing the handprint.” Examples of a smaller footprint include reduced use of fossil fuels, reduced consumption of foods from far away and reduced consumption in general. (These examples are, admittedly, from an American lifestyle that consumes far more than our fair share of the earth’s resources.) On the handprint side of the equation are such things as replacing invasive species with native plants to improve habitat, using earth-friendly farming techniques, and working to clean and protect water bodies.
For churches, the action might start with preaching and teaching about God’s very good creation—both human and nonhuman alike—and the command to care for it. From there, the action might spread to include greening the facilities by using less water and recycling. And for churches who are looking for still more action, hope might lead to partnering with other organizations in the community to clean a local stream, remove invasive plant species or even adopt the local watershed.
These, of course, are just a few of the myriad possibilities for hope-inspired action Christians can take to care for God’s wondrous yet beleaguered creation. Whatever the exact actions, however, it is vital to remember from whence our hope and therefore our strength come. The work can be hard. The results may be small or even invisible. We are called only to be faithful. God is in charge of the results. And that is reason to hope and to act.