A Mandate for Christian Environmentalism

Christians should be the first people to save the whales.  And hug the trees.  And be obsessive recyclers.  And power their houses with renewable energy.  And buy cleaner and more efficient cars (if they can afford them).  And intentionally reduce how much water and heating and energy they use in their homes.  And campaign against irresponsible business practices that pollute the earth. And support international efforts to reduce carbon emissions to fight the effects of climate change. Christians should be leading the charge in everything environmental because, simply put, the God of the Bible has given them a mandate.

Now the call to environmentalism is not one of the Ten Commandments - and there’s no specific place in the Bible where God says, “Thou shalt save the whales,” but the principles are all there.

In the beginning, God created everything on this earth - all animal and plant life and ecosystems - and he called everything, invariably, good.  Then he set up mankind to have unique dominion over the earth - to rule over it, develop it, and care for it as God’s stewards.  This is what Christians call the “cultural mandate.”

Now in the world of rulers, there are good rulers and bad rulers.  There are those who exploit their people and use them for their own pleasure - and those who invest themselves in the flourishing of those under their care.  Both are rulers, but one feels no responsibility for the well being of his people, while the other sees that as her primary responsibility.

Well if God has set people up to be rulers over creation - what sort of rulers did he call us to be?  Did he call us to be tyrants who exploit his cherished creation until it’s all burned out … or caretakers who use it responsibly in ways that enable it and human life to flourish together?

The answer is obvious.  Our call is to rule not as exploiters and destroyers, but as creators and life givers (which is, not surprisingly, in keeping with the nature of the one who gave us this job).  It is, therefore, a simple and clear mandate - and one that is ultimately one of our most basic identities as human beings - stewards over our created home.

But there’s even more to the Christian environmental mandate than this.

Because who, in the end, is always most negatively impacted by poor stewardship?  The poor.  The people who can’t afford to live anywhere but near the municipal dump.  The people who don’t have the money to hire a lawyer when their water wells are filled with natural gas due to fracking leaks.  The sea coast cities in impoverished nations who simply don’t have the money to build the infrastructure necessary to deal with the upcoming changes of global warming such as rising sea levels and bigger and more frequent storms.  The people who, when increasing droughts cause food prices to rise, simply will not be able to afford enough food to live on.

The consequences of poor environmental stewardship will always be borne, most heavily, on the backs of the poor.  And the great irony is that the poor, because they have so few resources, are always the ones who contribute the least to the worldwide problems of waste and carbon emissions.  It is the rich who are pouring the gases into the atmosphere that are fueling sea level rise, and increasing droughts and storms.  It’s powerful industries that are finding legal loopholes that enable them to pollute more (which is easier and cheaper in the short term).  And yet it is the poor that will be punished for all of this.

Well this should be a major concern for Christians, because you don’t have to read very long in the Bible to discover that the God who made the earth has a very unique concern the poor.  The Torah in the Old Testament is full of laws to enact justice for the poor, the widow, and the orphan.  Some of the most common criticisms against Israel by the Biblical prophets (Amos and Isaiah are some particularly good examples of this) are particularly for their failure to uphold justice for the poor.  And when Jesus comes on the scene, he not only spends most of his time walking with and caring for the poor - he actually chooses to embrace a life of poverty himself, even to the point of bearing an unjust trial, condemnation, and execution - the kind of thing that the poor have born at the hands of the powerful throughout the ages.

God’s identification with the poor, therefore, would be hard to overemphasize.  They are precious to him, and the Bible says that God’s ears are tuned in to their cries in a special way.

So if God has set human beings up to be stewards over a creation that he cherishes and calls good, and if that stewardship is inseparably bound up with maintaining justice for the poor (whom God has a special concern for), then environmental stewardship must be a major concern for Christians.

I recently saw a bumper sticker that said something like, “Global Warming?  How about Global Prayer!”  The point (I think) was to say, “Why are we blabbing about issues of climate change when people aren’t praying in this world?”  Well I agree, without a doubt, that this world needs more prayer - and Christians should be pursuing this change in their daily lives.  But how should this in any way cause us to neglect our responsibilities, as stewards over God’s creation, to actively combat the practices that are destroying our world and making it particularly inhospitable for the poor?  It shouldn’t.  It mustn’t.  Both must be our concern.

So if you call yourself a Christian - if you call yourself a follower of a God who loves his creation and who loves the poor - then you must be concerned with the issues of environmental stewardship and act accordingly in your daily life.  This isn’t all you are called to, certainly - but it’s an awfully enormous thing to overlook.

And if you are not a Christian, but you care about the natural world and the issues of the poor matter to you … wake your Christian friends up!  They have a very powerful mandate in the Bible they are trying to root their lives in.  But they may need your help to see what is already there.