A forum for analysis and debate on issues of religion, ethics and public policy in Australia and internationally
No. 61 : 30 August 2007
A biblical foundation for climate change action
by John McKinnon
Was it Al Gore’s film? Was it the drought? Whatever the catalyst, climate change is now headline news every day. Is it just a distraction from our true mission, or is it an integral part of our Kingdom mandate?
At least in living memory, Christianity and environmentalism have not been close partners. In 1967, Professor Lynn White wrote an influential article, “The historical roots of our ecological crisis,” which accused Christianity of providing the foundation for environmental exploitation and degradation by viewing creation’s purpose as simply to serve humankind.
Christianity has often viewed the material world as less valuable than the spiritual world. James Watt, US Secretary of the Interior in the Reagan government, expressed a popular belief when he wrote that the earth is “merely a temporary way station on the road to eternal life – The earth was put here by the Lord for His people to subdue and use for profitable purposes on their way to the hereafter.”
The Bible presents a different story. Creation is a demonstration of the glory of God, to be cared for and nurtured. It eagerly awaits its own renewal when Christ returns. Furthermore, to love our neighbours, as Jesus commanded, surely implies that we share the world’s resources with others, both present and future. Environmentalism, therefore, goes to the heart of God’s demand for justice.
In Genesis 1 we read that “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good”. Psalms 8, 19 and 104, among others, speak of God’s glory displayed by the heavens and the earth. God’s dramatic reply to Job, in Job 38-41, demonstrates emphatically how the creation reveals God’s existence, power and character. In Romans 1:20, Paul declares that this “natural revelation” so reflects God’s glory that no-one can remain ignorant of God.
Perhaps the most remarkable element of creation is the man Jesus Christ. In the incarnation, in which God assumes physical form and lives in this world, we have a remarkable validation of creation. Furthermore, the resurrection, first of Christ, and at his return, ours, in transformed physical bodies, is further validation of the physical world. According to Romans 8:20-22, when Jesus returns, all creation will be renewed.
Paul refers to this renewal in his other New Testament letters. Ephesians 1:10 and Colossians 1:20 speak of all things being brought together and reconciled under Christ. God has not abandoned creation to decay or destruction, but through Christ has planned for its renewal. Christ’s resurrection is our assurance of this promise of renewal, what Paul called the “firstfruits”. The entire physical creation is part of God’s plan.
Christians have been called to live out the values of God’s Kingdom in this world, even though its consummation awaits Jesus’ return. This includes our treatment of his creation. In our personal holiness, our relationships, our pursuit of justice, and in our care of creation, we anticipate God’s future rule.
What about Genesis 1:28, which speaks of “subduing” and “ruling” over the Earth? Creation still belongs to God. We are never more than stewards, charged with using God’s resources to His glory and to serve others. Selfish exploitation of the creation was not God’s intention.
So creation is good, reflecting God’s glory, revealing God’s character and power, and is destined for renewal as part of God’s all-encompassing Kingdom. We serve our King and anticipate his future rule by not only caring for his creation but working towards its healing.
God reveals himself throughout the Bible as a God who “defends the cause of the fatherless and widow.” On the verge of entering the Promised Land, the people were told: “There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be open-handed … towards the poor and needy in your land” (Deuteronomy 15:11). Sharing the world’s resources to alleviate poverty is no optional extra, but a fundamental outworking of God’s character.
Sadly, the impact of environmental degradation falls most heavily on the poor. Living in the most vulnerable places, farming the least fertile land, occupying the most polluted land, it is the poor who suffer, often forced through their poverty to further degrade the land on which they live.
Since environmental degradation is largely the product of industrial society, the Bible does not explicitly addressed it. However, there are several elements in the Levitical law that highlight God’s intention that his people demonstrate justice by sharing, caring for and preserving natural resources.
The Sabbatical year (Leviticus 25:1-7) allowed the land itself to be rested every 7th year, rather than ruthlessly exploited for short term gain. The Year of Jubilee (Leviticus 25:8-55) takes this principle much further. The 50th year redistribution of land demonstrates that property ownership is not absolute; merely a temporary stewardship of what belongs to God. Natural resources must therefore be managed in such a way that they remain available and useful to future “stewards”.
God’s justice demands that the poor and most vulnerable be cared for; that the world’s resources are shared among all people, of this and future generations, and that we act to prevent environmental damage from further oppressing those already suffering under heavy burdens of poverty and marginalization.
Climate change is the major environmental issue of our day. It threatens the lives of millions of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people. They will suffer lower economic growth, direct impacts on their livelihoods and assets, decreased food and water security, increased incidence of diseases such as malaria and tuberculosis, and increased risk of disasters.
Those of us in wealthy nations, through our continued consumption of electricity produced by fossil fuels, our polluting transportation, our continued land clearing and meat consumption, are causing this problem. As consumers, proprietors and employees, we are among the beneficiaries.
As God’s people, we are called to live the values of God’s Kingdom here and now. This involves loving our neighbours, demonstrating justice for the poor, and working for the renewal and healing of creation. Human-induced climate change represents degradation of creation and a gross injustice against the world’s poor. Climate change is therefore our responsibility, and tackling it is part of our God given mission.
What has climate change got to do with Christians? Everything! It is our problem and we are called to be part of the solution. We must examine our own lives as well as speaking up on behalf of those most affected, but with the least voice. As Isaiah urged his people, so his words challenge us to action:
Learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow (Isaiah 1:17).
Mr John McKinnon is the NSW State Co-ordinator for Tear Australia. This article first appeared in TEAR’s Target magazine, August 2007.
1. Lynn White, Jr., “The Historical Roots of our Ecologic Crisis,” Science 155, 1967, pp. 1203-1207.
2. James Watt, “Ours is the Earth,” Saturday Evening Post, January/February 1982, pp. 74-75.
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