As American preacher Tony Campolo points out, Christians have ‘allowed the new age movement to highjack the environmental movement and make it their own. The result is the minute we start talking about the environment evangelicals begin to say, “Wait a minute, you sound like a new ager”. The fact that new age people have committed themselves to something that really belongs to the Church does not mean that the Church should not be involved in this’.
This year, Campolo became just one voice among many evangelicals urging the worldwide Church – and society at large – towards a much more considered approach to our environment.
Pope Francis – named after a saint famous for his love of nature – made headlines in spring 2015 on the publication of his encyclical Laudato si’ (On Care for Our Common Home), with its clarion call for a radical rethink on how we treat our world. This summer we also saw the Lambeth Declaration on Climate Change, signed by faith leaders including the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, which pointed to the power of faith to change attitudes, called on politicians to act and urged the Church to ‘redouble our efforts to reduce emissions that result from our own institutional and individual activities’.
GODLESS HIPPIES VERSUS AN OUTDATED INSTITUTION
However, history does not tell the story of an easy relationship between Christians and environmentalists. Secular environmentalists have been viewed as a gang of godless hippies, while the Church has been seen as an outdated institution whose disregard for the environment has contributed to the current ecological crisis.
This divide between the Church and the environmental movement has its roots in popular 20th century endtimes theology. American pastor Tri Robinson explains: ‘The evangelical church in the 1970s was rife with a theology known as dispensationalism, which implied—and explicitly stated at times – that “Jesus is returning and the earth is going to burn up anyway, so go ahead and use it up”. During that time, Christians who had once cherished and protected the environment lost this ideal. It didn’t seem to have a place in the Kingdom of God.’
Despite the apparent division, the two groups share a remarkably similar worldview; one that offers hope for a reconciled relationship. Both Christians and environmentalists believe there was once a beautiful, untainted world, but that through human greed and selfishness (sin) this wonderful creation became spoiled. By putting profit before people and planet, creation now cries out. For Christians seeking to share the gospel, anyone angered by environmental destruction will be acutely aware of human fallibility and the need for restored relationships throughout creation. And what of the biblical mandate for taking care of God’s creation? Jesus himself taught us to pray, ‘Thy kingdom come on earth as in heaven.’ In his book Fingerprints of Fire,
Footprints of Peace (Circle Books), British theologian Noel Moules highlights the righteousness of God’s biodiversity champion Noah, Daniel unharmed in the lions’ den and Jesus himself who was ‘with the wild animals’ in the wilderness. He writes: ‘In the Gospels Jesus walks on water, commands the wind and waves and rides a donkey. He illustrates his teaching using seeds, flowers, trees, birds and the rain. His spirituality is constantly expressed using the elemental images of earth, wind, fire and water. He declares that if people are silenced in their celebrations even the stones cry out their praises to God.’
THE INJUSTICE OF CLIMATE CHANGE
Probably the greatest environmental challenge of our time is that of climate change. At its core, it is an issue of injustice. The global poor, those least responsible for creating the problem, are the ones who are suffering the most. In Jesus’ eschatological story in Matthew 25, he speaks about the people who haven’t fed the hungry and thirsty, clothed the naked or cared for the sick and imprisoned. Verse 45 says: ‘Whenever you failed to help any of my people, no matter how unimportant they seemed, you failed to do it for me’ (CEV).
But a biblical sticking point for some has been the interpretation of Genesis 1:28, where God gave humans ‘dominion’ (KJV) to rule over nature. Whereas some have misinterpreted this as meaning we can exploit the environment, Willow Creek pastor Bill Hybels says that this is a misreading. He says that Adam and Eve were told to ‘rule over’ creation in the same way the Bible tells parents to rule over their children. The New Testament warns parents that if they treat them abusively they will incite rebellion and hatred; Hybels says the same is coming true for creation.
And those dispensationalist ideas of Armageddon are addressed by Simon Ponsonby, pastor of Theology at St Aldate’s Church, Oxford. He has written: ‘Some traditions within the Church have suggested that if it’s all going to be destroyed and a new one created in its place, then we need not bother with what we have here and now. But the mandate given to Adam, contained within the very first command God uttered to us, was that we husband and steward the creation. I do not believe this mandate has been revoked.’
HISTORY’S CHRISTIAN ENVIRONMENTALISTS
Father of the Reformation, MARTIN LUTHER (pictured top left), said: ‘God writes the gospel not in the Bible alone, but also on trees, and in the flowers and the clouds and stars.’
Clergyman CANON HARDWICKE RAWNSLEY founded the National Trust in 1895.
Scottish Presbyterian JOHN MUIR (pictured top right) had memorised the entire New Testament by the age of 11 and went on to establish the world’s first National Park in Yosemite, California.
JRR TOLKIEN’s (pictured bottom left) Lord of the Rings, which introduces us to the simple-living Hobbits and tree-like Ents fighting the naturedestroying Orcs has proved an evangelistic text for many Christian environmentalists. Tolkien and his friend CS LEWIS discussed the merits of ‘eating local’ decades before it became a popular concept.
JOHN STOTT (pictured bottom right) argued successfully for the inclusion of social and political concern in the 1974 Lausanne Covenant and wrote about the ‘often neglected’ discipline of creation care in his final book The Radical Disciple (IVP).
ENTER: THE CHURCH
When the UK Government’s Environment Agency asked 25 environmental leaders what might ‘save the planet’, second on the list, close behind energy efficiency, was a plea for faiths to get involved.
Despite its successes, secular environmentalism has so far failed to tackle climate change. Years of public campaigning, ever clearer scientific evidence and stronger economic arguments haven’t created the political will for necessary action. But it is the Church – not any New Age movement – that has the potential to be a powerful force for social change.
Theologian Walter Brueggemann says that three things the Old Testament prophets do are to honestly describe the state of reality, face the grief that comes from that reality and give hope for the future. On the issue of climate change, Christians can bring this much needed prophetic approach, says Susan Durber, Christian Aid’s theology advisor, who wrote the paper Song of the Prophets: a global theology of climate change. ‘Christians are used to being lonely prophetic voices speaking unpopular truths and trying to “change the wind” on important issues. What the environmental movement sometimes lacks is a sense of hope. Evangelical Christians have that to bring.’
Alex Evans, co-author of Tearfund’s recent report The Restorative Economy, says that the Christian concept of addressing guilt and offering forgiveness is also pertinent in this discussion. Evans says: ‘Climate campaigners can sometimes seem to believe that if they can just make everyone feel guilty enough about climate change, results will follow. But people already feel guilty about climate change, and it’s part of why they don’t want to think about it. Guilt is only helpful if we can do something with it; otherwise it turns toxic and ultimately debilitates us.’
THE CALL TO MODEL A NEW WAY
Surely Christians living in the light of a restored relationship with God can model a way of living that turns this guilt into fruitful action? Across the world we are beginning to see this happen. In June, Archbishop Welby co-authored a New York Times article with Bartholomew, the Ecumenical Patriarch and leader of the 300 million Christians who make up the Eastern Orthodox Church. Bartholomew may have a beard but he’s no trendy Western liberal and certainly not aligned with New Age thinking. Yet for years he has been testifying that orthodox Christian faith is about God redeeming creation. Western Christians are beginning to agree. In their article, the two archbishops wrote: ‘We have reached a critical turning point. We are – as never before – in a position to choose charity over greed and frugality over wastefulness in order to affirm our moral commitment to our neighbour and our respect for the Earth.’
A renewed urge towards caring for our world also becomes a witness to non-believers who care about creation. The Papal Encyclical moved Guardian columnist George Monbiot to write a piece titled ‘The Pope can see what many atheist greens will not’. In it he praised Pope Francis for recognising that creation care should come from a motivation of love for others and God’s world rather than just narrow self-interest. As the late evangelist Rob Frost has said, ‘When Christians take the earth seriously, people take the Gospel seriously.’
Guilt is only helpful if we can do something with it
In January 2016 the Christian conservation charity A Rocha will re-launch an initiative called Eco Churches, which aims to encourage and accredit congregations who want to demonstrate that the gospel is good news for God’s earth. The organisation’s director of churches and theology, Ruth Valerio, explains: ‘It’s hard to find a church that doesn’t engage in their community or evangelism at some level, whether it’s Street Pastors, food banks or toddler groups. Likewise I want to see Church culture change so that it becomes as natural to engage in caring for God’s earth as it is to engage in evangelism and social action. We will provide the resources churches need to bring about transformation across the corporate life of the Church.’
A GREENER ADVENT
In late November to early December, world leaders will meet at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris to hammer out the first truly global climate agreement. As environmental issues hit international headlines once more in the lead up to Christmas, A Rocha is also encouraging Christians to pray and take a more considered approach to the environment. Throughout Advent it will be hosting an online Advent calendar featuring daily ideas for how to celebrate Advent and Christmas in sustainable ways, as well as reflections on the topic of environmentalism from Christian leaders including botanist explorer Sir Ghillean Prance and vicar of HTB, Nicky Gumbel.
Gumbel told the charity how his own thinking had changed on the issue of the environment: ‘I’ve done a lot of thinking about the whole subject of the environment: about how this world is in serious trouble and how Christians should be at the forefront of the environmental cause and movement.
‘This Advent we reflect on a newborn baby who carries within him hope for the entire world, so what can we do ourselves to reflect that hope? Firstly, and certainly in my case, we need to repent. When I looked at this subject, I realised there are things that we have been doing that we should not have been doing in terms of the environment. And we are trying to put that right. For starters we’ve transferred to a green energy supplier.’
Creation care has the potential to unite a divided Church as well as a divided world. Rising temperatures affecting conservative Anglicans in Uganda also affect liberal Episcopalians in Florida and flooded evangelicals in the Somerset Levels. Maybe the common enemy of climate change will help heal the wounds of a fractured Church. Maybe it will even bring us into relationship with some tree huggers.
Joe Ware is church and campaigns journalist at Christian Aid