by Doug Priest
A recent survey of evangelical Christians in America reveals that care for the environment is a top priority. (Others listed were sanctity of life, evangelism, poverty, and HIV/AIDS).1 There is an explosion of books by Christians on creation care. The subject is hot (perhaps due to global warming?). In January 2007, Wheaton College hosted the Creation Care Summit. A 2008 volume entitled Mission in the 21st Century identified one of the five marks of global mission as “Striving to Safeguard the Integrity of Creation and Sustaining and Renewing the Life of the Earth.”2 InterVarsity Press just released the book Green Revolution: Coming Together to Care for Creation.3
Likewise, government and business have taken notice. Green is once again the color of money.
Christians are to care about the environment because God created the world, claiming it to be “very good” (Genesis 1:31). God loves the world, and we understand that to mean the earth as well as its people and all its inhabitants. God values his creation, and therefore, we who love God are obligated to treat his creation with respect and care.
One need not be a liberal, tree-hugging, whale-watching, ecoterrorist to be concerned with the earth; one simply needs to be a Christian. If God made it, it matters.
God’s Creation, Man’s Role
In the creation account, God gave us dominion over the earth with the directive for us to subdue the earth (Genesis 1:26, 28, Revised Standard Version). We mustn’t misunderstand these terms. In Hebrew kabas and rada imply exertion, effort, and imposing one’s will on another. Jewish and Christian understanding of this passage down through the ages has been benevolent care and custodianship.4 Dominion means responsible stewardship. Stewardship of the earth does not mean ownership of the earth, for the earth is the Lord’s (Psalm 24:1; 1 Corinthians 10:26). The earth, which provides for our needs and the needs of all creatures, has been entrusted to us to care for and protect. Dominion must never be understood as a license to exploit. We were not given the earth so we can destroy it by our selfishness. As Gandhi once said about the earth, “There is enough for each person’s need but not enough for each person’s greed.”5
We are told to till the garden and to keep it (Genesis 2:15). Concerning these terms, Dyrness writes, “The Hebrew words used here are most interesting. The first, abad, means to work in the sense of serving. The noun derivative, in fact, means ‘slave’ or ‘servant.’ The second, shamar, implies a watchful care and preserving of the earth.”6 We are to protect and heal the earth, saving it from human abuse. Ours is the role of tending and safeguarding.
Our Care, Others’ Need
Of all the common reasons to care for the earth—because God made it, quality of life, so that we can experience God’s creative grandeur, for the sake of our children and grandchildren—certainly a compelling one is the direct link between the lack of care and poverty. Stephen Rand says, “The care of creation matters because our love for our neighbor around the world will encompass those who are vulnerable to the impact of environmental degradation.”7
Between 1978 and 1988 my wife and I lived in East Africa. Because malaria is endemic to that part of the world, we took a pill each week to prevent the disease or to lessen its impact. During those years, my parents also lived in the East African city of Nairobi. Because my father had a reaction to the malaria medication, he did not take the pills. Since Nairobi is at an elevation of 5,500 feet, it was too cold for the malaria-bearing mosquitoes to live. If my father did not travel to lower elevations, he did not need to worry about getting malaria.
In the last 30 years, the temperature of Nairobi has risen. Malaria-bearing mosquitoes now live there. People disagree over the reasons for the rise in Nairobi’s temperature. Some say the temperature has risen because of the deforestation in that part of the world. The deforestation is primarily due to the need of fuel for cooking and heating since the poor cannot afford electricity or gas. Others say emission of hydrocarbons from the more developed countries into the atmosphere is the reason for the rise. While the wealthier residents of Nairobi may have access to malaria eradication programs, the poor do not. Nor can the poor easily afford the mosquito nets that protect them.
Those who live at subsistence levels worry about their immediate needs. Their situation is so dire they do not have the luxury of conserving resources or caring for the environment. In a vicious circle, poverty causes environmental degradation and environmental degradation causes poverty.
Rand writes, “If we take seriously the words of Deuteronomy 15:4 that ‘there should be no poor among you,’ . . . then we will inevitably be concerned for those who live on the edges of society and who bear the brunt of environmental destruction.”8
The link between poverty and environmental degradation is linked to justice. A few years ago newspapers carried the story of a barge from New York City loaded with trash. There was some dispute about where the trash was to be taken. Officials planned to haul the trash to another country and dump it. Did the poor into whose backyard the trash was dumped have any say in this matter?
Nash says, “Poor nations and low-income regions of the United States, particularly African-American and Hispanic communities, are often the preferred dumping groups for toxic wastes: ‘The rich get rich and the poor get poisoned.’ Thus poverty is a driving force behind ecological deterioration.”9 Gottlieb points out, “All communities, it turns out, are not created equal. Some get dumped on more than others.”10
Jesus inaugurated his ministry on earth by selecting a passage from Isaiah to read in the temple. His message contained these words, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18, RSV). Jesus then proceeded to spend an inordinate amount of time with the poor over the next three years, preaching the good news to them by word and deed.
As with Jesus, our mission should include bringing good news to the poor. John Stott, brilliant Bible scholar, communicator, and former chaplain to the Queen of England, penned the following words,
Can ecological involvement properly be included under the heading of “mission”? Yes, it can and it should. For mission embraces everything Christ sends his people into the world to do, service as well as evangelism. And we cannot truly love and serve our neighbors if at the same time we are destroying their environment, or acquiescing in its destruction, or even ignoring the environmentally depleted circumstances in which so many people are condemned to live. As by the incarnation Jesus Christ entered into our world, so true incarnational mission involves entering into other people’s worlds, including the world of their social and environmental reality.11
Is your definition of mission, ministry, and Christian responsibility wide enough to encompass taking care of creation? Let it be so, for the sake of the poor.
2 Andrew Walls and Cathy Ross, eds., Mission in the 21st Century: Exploring the Five Marks of Global Mission (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2008), 84.
3Ben Lowe, Green Revolution: Coming Together to Care for Creation (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009).
4Christopher Wright, The Mission of God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 425.
5Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, ed., Tending the Garden: Essays on the Gospel and the Earth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 95.
6 Ibid., 54.
7 R. J. Berry, ed., The Care of Creation (Leicester: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 146.
9James A. Nash, Loving Nature: Ecological Integrity and Christian Responsibility (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1991), 52.
10Roger S. Gottlieb, A Greener Faith: Religious Environmentalism and Our Planet’s Future (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006) 48.
11Peter Harris, Under Bright Wings (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 2000), x.
Doug Priest, a contributing editor to CHRISTIAN STANDARD, serves as executive director of Christian Missionary Fellowship.