The Church and the Environmental Crisis: A Call to Respond

I have been posting a Blog Series at called ’Countdown to Cape Town” in which I have been exploring the relationship of the environmental crisis, redemption and the church.  This is the final post in that series, and summarizes what I will be exploring in Tuesday’s dialogue session on How to Mobilize Your Church for Creation Care.

To recap the previous posts, I have been making the following case in this series:

  • the environmental crisis is a direct result of human sin;
  • God’s redemptive plan in Jesus Christ includes the restoration of all of our broken relationships, including our relationship to non-human creation;
  • The church – the people of God – can respond to the environmental crisis in ways that no one else can;

From this case, it is hard to escape the following conclusion:

  • Because we can respond, and because we have been commanded to respond, we must respond.

All that is left is to ask and answer the question, How? What should we then do?

There are three steps we need to take as individual christians and as churches to begin to move forward. Each one could be a full post or a full chapter in a book, but here are a few thoughts:

1. We begin by Repenting.

We have established that the problem is sin. Biblically, there is only one way to handle a sin problem: Repentance. Biblical repentance has a couple of important dimensions that go far beyond “I’m sorry!” –

Repentance means admitting we are wrong, acknowledging we are at fault. We have disobeyed. We have ignored God’s first command to us, to care for his creation. We have used the authority he gave us over his creation to satisfy our own selfish cravings rather than using it to govern his creation according to his purposes. We have sinned.

Repentance means, first, changing our minds. When we repent of sin, we are in effect changing our minds and agreeing with God that what we did, and how we thought about it, was sinful. In the present context, this mean changing how we think about God’s creation.

Repentance also means that we begin to stop sinning. In this setting, true repentance means that we start, to whatever extent is possible, to do no more harm to God’s creation. Changing lightbulbs, reducing our use of toxic chemicals in our homes, using public transportation all become acts of repentance.

None of these actions are by themselves sufficient – but they are necessary.

Repentance means making a start. Now.

2. We work to Restore God’s damaged creation.

It is not sufficient to stop harming creation. The world we now live in is a far cry from the bountiful and flourishing world God gave us. As stewards we are called to care for creation. Our mission should be to seek to do everything in our power to increase the value of the Master’s property in the little time we have on this earth before he asks for an accounting.

What might this look like? I know a half a dozen people in several countries who have taken the call to restore creation very literally. They either purchased – or in some cases inherited – small to medium size tracts of land, and have worked for many years to bring the land back to health. One example in particular is spectacular – a broken down plantation in Jamaica 25 years ago is now a flourishing rainforest and a major tourist attaction.

Not all of us will have the resources to work with a piece of land like that – but we can start where we are. If your church has land of its own, what a perfect place to start. But even public areas – parks or watersheds – can be arenas in which we can work to begin to bring health back to God’s creation.

To do it right will be a big job – we will need the help of scientists, we’ll need to recruit members of our larger communities. We need to learn to see things on a long time scale: In my experience, 25 years seems to be what will be needed to do the job right.

To paraphrase an old proverb, if a journey is going to be a thousand miles, it would be best to start today.

3. We Prepare for the inevitable disasters ahead of us.

In the fall of 2009 I was scheduled to travel to Manila, Philippines, to present my ‘Our Father’s World’ seminar. Just weeks before I was to come, Manila was hit by several typhoons. Much of the city was flooded, including the homes of several of my hosts. I offered to cancel the trip – it seemed like the wrong time to bring in a foreign speaker – but my host organization insisted that I come as planned. “We know from these disasters that we have been guilty of sins against God’s creation. We need your message more than ever.” [Several posts on this situation are here.]

It is evident both from current events and from a logical analysis of our situation that the abuse of creation globally has reached the point where environmentally related disasters are inevitable. The typhoons in Manila were not caused by humans – though there is some evidence that their unusual power might have been exacerbated by global warming. No, typhoons are a normal and natural part of creation. The damage and human suffering came from the fact that Manila has been built in a watershed area. The region’s orginal marshes and wetlands would have absorbed the power and the water of these typhoons and would have been better and stronger because of them. These natural buffers have been replaced by streets, houses and concrete culverts. The result was massive flooding, great damage and enormous human suffering.

The same lessons apply in this summer’s floods in Pakistan, China and most recently in Indonesia. And every time a hurricane strikes Haiti. And in the increasing numbers of wildfires in the US west every year, as well as in Russia this last summer.

No matter how quickly we repent, and no matter how energetically we work to heal and restore creation, there will be more of these disasters. Thus the final word to the church is to prepare:

First , we should prepare for disasters in our own communities: Every congregation has the potential to organize itself as a first-response agency for its own community, whether the danger is flood, fire, toxic chemical release or any of the myriad other ways that our abuse of creation might endanger us and those we love.

Second, we should prepare to assist sisters and brothers in other places as disasters strike. This is difficult – when tragedy is heaped on tragedy, those in unaffected areas asked to respond lose interest. The nonprofit community calls this ‘donor fatigue’. We dare not grow weary in well doing; at the same time, it is apparent that our resources will have to be managed carefully if we need to plan on several major disasters every year.

Much more could be said in this area – perhaps I will expand on these thoughts in the future.

The conclusion, though, is clear: We are called to be God’s people in this world at this time. Let’s get moving.