RELIGION AND THE ENVIRONMENT
The recent declaration that environmental harm is sinful, made by the patriarch of Orthodox Christianity's mother church, has dramatically drawn public attention to the energy that people of faith are bringing to defense of creation. For many Christians and Jews, their faith calls on them to care for the Earth's bounty: its air and waters, land and forests, plants and animals.
The despoliation of that bounty by pollution and resource depletion is seen as a grave moral failing. His Holiness Bartholomew I is not alone among religious leaders in acting on environmental concerns. In 1989, Pope John Paul II warned that materialistic greed is contrary to the "mutual interdependence" that is the "order of creation."
Religious Partnerships in Action
In 1993, an ecumenical group, the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, was founded to educate Christians and Jews about humanity's duty to act responsibly as stewards of creation. The partnership includes the U.S. Catholic Conference, the Evangelical Environmental Network, the National Council of Churches of Christ, and the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life.
Among the activities the partnership organizations have undertaken is distribution of educational resource kits to congregations and synagogues across the nation. They also work with secular organizations on specific environmental issues. For example, the Evangelical Environmental Network collaborates in publication of a quarterly magazine, Creation Care, which raises awareness about caring for the environment from a Biblical perspective. Catholic Social Services has taken part in efforts to restore coastal wetlands in Louisiana. The "Redwood Rabbis" have worked in Northern California to stop the clear-cutting of old-growth forests.
The partnership is not the only religious group active on the environment. The Christian Environmental Association conducts research and education at a center in Belize, acquires endangered lands through its Eden Conservancy, and offers an academic study program. The Coalition for Christian Colleges and Universities sponsors a Global Stewardship Initiative to support Christian scholarly research on environmental degradation, resource depletion, and population growth.
All Creation Matters
For centuries, holy men and women such as St. Francis of Assisi have meditated upon God s presence as revealed through nature. Today, religious leaders say that protecting the environment goes to the heart of living the faith, and that environmental destruction is a sign that human civilization has lost its moral bearings. In its 1994 Declaration on the Care of Creation, the Evangelical Environmental Network put it this way:
"The earthly result of human sin has been a perverted stewardship, a patch-work of garden and wasteland in which the waste is increasing. There is no faithfulness, no love, no acknowledgement of God in the land... Because of this, the land mourns, and all who live in it waste away" (Hosea 4:1, 3). Thus, one consequence of our misuse of the earth is an unjust denial of God's created bounty to other human beings, both now and in the future."
Christian and Jewish scholars have delved deeply into their heritage to illuminate the Biblical concepts that support caring for the creation. The Genesis story of creation, and God's pronouncement that it is "very good," illustrates the central importance of biological diversity and interdependence in God's plan, according to Dr. Steven Bouma-Prediger, who teaches religion at Hope College. "Because of God's wise and orderly creative activity, the diverse kinds of creatures fit together into a harmonious whole. Creation is a place of shalom, of flourishing fitness." A close reading of Psalm 104, he continues, reveals that all creatures, even those which have little utility to humans, are a testament to God's unsurpassed power. In verse 24, the psalmist sang out joyfully: "O Lord, how manifold are Your works! In wisdom You have made them all. The earth is full of Your possessions."
Much attention has been given to God's command that in Genesis, people are given dominion over all life. That pronouncement, Dr. Bouma-Prediger wrote, is not a license for man to do as he pleases with God's creation, but to take responsible care of it. Genesis 2:15 calls on man to till and keep the Earth. Bouma-Prediger wrote that, when examined in the original Hebrew, this passage "speaks to our task to serve (abad) and protect (shamar) the garden that is the earth."
Perhaps the most telling illustration is the story of the great flood, when God ordered Noah to gather one male and one female of every type of living creature so as to begin life again after the deluge. Afterward, God made a covenant that never again would life be extinguished. Importantly, as is written in Genesis, that covenant was made with "every living creature."
Rights and Responsibilities
The covenants between God and people require responsibilities to community that greatly differ from the individualistic ideas that drive modern capitalistic societies.
"Our Christian faith, while it has a strong element of personal commitment, demands we soon move to the level of community, taking care of each other. This community, especially expressed in the image of the Body of Christ, is not a 'building' contracted by individuals acting out of self-interest, but takes on a life of its own," wrote Janel M. Curry-Roper, of the geography and environmental studies department at Calvin College. These stewardship responsibilities are described by Jesus in the parable of the servant, Luke 12: 35-48.
The Old Testament, the author continued, ties covenantal responsibilities directly to resource stewardship. The Israelites were given land by God in a covenant. "When they habitually treated the land or their fellow member of the community unjustly, they were finally banished from the land."
From a natural resources perspective, Curry-Roper observed that covenantal relationships underpinning communities can be a middle ground between those who claim rights to do as they please with property and others who look to the centralized state as the only guarantor of the environment's integrity. "The rediscovery of place, trust, embedded relationship and community reflects a more Biblical view of the created order to our relationship to nature and its assumptions offer the potential for a different, more Biblical approach to natural resources management."
Reverence for Creation
Creation itself is a revelation of the unsurpassed glory of God's works. In the thinking of John Haught, a Catholic theologian at Georgetown University, nature reveals the future perfection promised by God. Haught's ideas are explored in his book, The Power of Nature. Creation manifests the power of the "invisible God," in the Reformed tradition's Belgic Confession. "To be evangelical means to proclaim the good news. Part of our proclamation is that the environment is God's creation. If we do not make God the Creator part of the good news, we are crippling our faith and witness," Calvin DeWitt, an environmental scientist, wrote in Christianity Today in 1994. Dr. DeWitt is also director of the Au Sable Institute of Environmental Studies, a Christian center for integrating Biblical teaching and environmental science.Reverence for creation is powerfully expressed in Jewish thought. The rest commanded by the Sabbath requires people to acknowledge their limits and that they do not enjoy an absolute right to manipulate the earth that ultimately belongs to God. "To rest is to acknowledge our limitations.
One day out of seven we cease to exercise our power to tinker and to transform. Willful inactivity is a statement of subservience to a power greater than our own. On each Sabbath day, the world, so to speak, is restored to God," wrote Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary. The Jewish laws of rescue can be read as commandments to save the environment, for the sake of saving humanity, wrote Rabbi Saul Berman, associate professor of Jewish studies at Yeshiva University: "The Earth will undoubtedly survive our depredations and will continue to swarm with life, but humankind may be extinguished and end this stage of God's experiment on the Earth. If we love humanity, then we must act now to save it from ourselves." In the long term, people must re-learn humility and moderation, Berman wrote. "The challenge ahead is the common challenge of science and religion together, to discover and implement the means of assuring the physical survival of humanity on Earth, to discover and implement the means of assuring the spiritual survival of a more humble and more modest humanity on this, God's earth."
Jim DiPeso has served as secretary of REP AMERICA since 1996; in 1998, he was re-elected to his second term as a director. A prolific and creative writer, Jim has authored many of REP's press releases, letters to the editor and op-eds, including a full-page essay published in the October 1, 1996 issue of Christian Science Monitor ("Eco Gluttons? Not these Republicans!")
A long-time environmentalist and GOP voter, Jim is also a member of Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition, People for Puget Sound, National Parks and Conservation Association, League to Save Lake Tahoe, Washington Environmental Council, and Northwest Energy Coalition. He lives with his wife and children in a suburb of Seattle.
Here's something that Jim recently wrote to REP's other board members: "God wanted all the species saved. '...of clean beasts, and of beasts that are not clean, and of fowls, and of everything that creepeth upon the Earth.' Everything. Tell that to your friendly neighborhood congressman before the next ESA vote."
"To commit a crime against the natural world is a sin...
"For humans to cause species to become extinct and to destroy the biological diversity of God's creation, for humans to degrade the integrity of the Earth by stripping the Earth of its natural forests, or destroying its wetlands... for humans to contaminate the Earth's waters, its land, its air, and its life with poisonous substances... these are sins." His All Holiness Bartholomew I, spiritual leader of the world's 300 million Orthodox Christians, speaking in Santa Barbara, CA; November 8, 1997
"The earth is the Lord's, and all its fullness, the world and those who dwell therein." (Psalm 24:1)
"Your land must not be sold on a permanent basis because you do not own it; it belongs to God, and you are like foreigners who are allowed to make use of it." (Leviticus 25:23)
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