Theological reflections

Caring for creation is a key Christian task.

When you ask Christians where they encounter God most easily, often the answer is not a church building.  For many, it is in creation – at the beach, by the river, in the bush.  This fits with the biblical witness, where ‘wilderness’ is such a central habitat for those who go God-seeking – for the Israelites, for Elijah, for Jesus, to name a few.  There is something important about sharing in the simplicity of creatureliness that guides the soul Godwards.

Approaching environmental issues through a Christian ‘lens’ offers valuable ethical and spiritual dimensions which may contribute to environmental work both within and outside the church. It is also an approach filled with hope.

So often, environmental issues are dealt with against a background of fear and threat: we should stop doing activity ‘x’ because otherwise environmental problem ‘y’ will happen. Without minimising the gravity, scale or urgency of environmental issues, the starting point for caring for the Earth for Christians is as a response to a loving, creating God.Caring for creation is a key Christian task.[1]  Rather than setting ourselves a new set of ‘green laws’ which we feel guilty about when we fall short, we are inspired to act in love by the action of love shown us in Jesus.  Thus, we are concerned with the basic human rights of future generations and will urge the wise use of energy, the protection of the environment and the replenishment of the earth’s resources for their use and enjoyment.

The natural environment is, however, not merely a resource for the benefit of human beings but has intrinsic value as part of God’s good creation. In 1991 the Uniting Church declared that, “Nature has a right to the protection of its eco-systems, species, and populations in their interconnectedness”[2].  If even the rocks can cry out in praise of Jesus (Luke 19:40), let us join all of creation in worshipping our Creator by caring for the earth which is God’s creation![3]

But what place does creation care have in the biblical narrative?  Throughout history, people of faith have drawn on images from the Bible to develop models of the three-way relationship between God, God’s people and the created order.  We will briefly overview some of these key theological developments from the creation story, to the Hebrew relationship with the land, to Jesus’ place as the centre of creation.

Creation:

Genesis 1 has the story of God’s creation of the earth, which is the home for human kind who are themselves ‘created in God’s image’ (Gen 1:27) and who are given the good earth for their use and care (Gen 1: 28-30).

This story emphasises the place humanity has within the created order. Humanity, along with the other living and non-living components of creation, is co-created, a part of the created order in which God takes delight. Indeed humanity (adam) is made from the earth (adamah), signalling our inherent inter-connectedness with the land.  From this, one of the creation stories in Genesis 2:15 requires Adam to “care for the earth”, however, Genesis 1:28 calls the man and woman to, “fill the earth and subdue it” and to “rule” or “have dominion over it”.  This has led to some accusations from the ecological community that the Judeo-Christian worldview has fostered a dominating, anti-earthcare agenda.

But what kind of rule are we called to?  How does God rule over us?  What are the marks of Jesus reign?  Gentleness and meekness are not just imperatives of Christian politeness, but central principles of the in-breaking new-world order, brought by the one who chose to show-up the dominating powers of his day by laying aside his own power and suffering their ‘rule’. Our approach to the environment needs to embody the same spirit, where the Christian worldview is seen at the forefront of ecology, as a witness to the way of Jesus. Indeed, what credibility will the church have with this and future generations if it is seen to have been complicit with the environmental devastation that is currently being wrought?  A bold, clear voice from the church is required if we are to avoid Jesus being misappropriated as part of the forces of exploitation and destruction.

Sabbath Principle:

Instituting regular rest and recovery for all of creation is quite a counter-cultural proposal in our age of efficiency and maximum yields.  But this is precisely what was instituted in the Sabbath and jubilee practices in the Old Testament.  For an agricultural people the temptation would be to keep pushing the land to produce while subtly driving its degradation over generations and ultimately undermining its productivity and the viability of the community.  But God has a long term view of inter-generational justice, effectively endorsing the original sustainable land-use practices that are now part of best-practice regenerative agriculture.  Not only is the Sabbath principle an economic paradigm of justice and equality but an ecological principle of ‘enough’.  As theologian Ched Myers states, “our refusal to limit our appetites [in the spirit of the Sabbath] has drained natural abundance, and our artificial abundance belongs only to the few.  This is not ironic; it is idolatrous.”[4]

‘Landedness’:

The people of Israel belonged to families, to tribes and ultimately to God. Belonging is a model that encompasses the relationships of individuals and groups to each other, to God and to a profound sense of place. To ‘belong’ has notions of both privilege and responsibility, which have a dynamic quality. For the Hebrew people, blessing and curse are related directly to ‘landedness’ or ‘landlessness’ (‘promised land’ or ‘wandering’, ‘Zion or exile’)[5].

In the Old Testament we find that connection to land is intricately bound in the connection to God.  In this lies the basis of human relationship to the land, including both the privilege of being able to live in a place overflowing with milk and honey and the responsibility to honour it as gift.   Indeed, it is the land itself that suffers and groans (Jer. 12:4; Hab. 3:17) or is bountiful with promises of abundance (Deut. 8:7-10; Hos. 2:20-24).  Ultimately, these are complex interconnections between a people, a place and God who holds them together since “The Earth is God’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it” (Ps. 24:1)[6].

What does it mean to belong in our context?  How do we honour the land as God’s? Reflecting God’s love for us and for creation, we in turn respond with a ministry of care, nurture and love for each other and for all creation.  We are called to serve and are constrained by the Gospel to love creation as God, in Christ, has loved us all.

In Christ All Things Were Created:

In Christ we are called beyond a simplistic dualism that sets the earth and the body against heaven and spirit, since God has reconciled these in Christ.  Indeed, Colossians 1:17 states that “in Christ all things hold together.”  Jesus became flesh, “in the likeness of humanity” (Rom. 8:3), not just to save us for some other-wordly glory but to embody God’s entirely transformative new reign in this world.  This new paradigm is not just for humanity but includes all of creation which has been groaning for freedom (Rom 8:20-23)!  As Catholic theologian James Alison states, “the apostolic group understood Jesus as in some way involved in bringing creation to its resplendence.”[7]  This is the work that Jesus calls us into – a way of being that lives in contrast to death and destruction, bringing heaven to earth in the new community of the Spirit.  As Jesus, taught us to pray, “May your Dominion come… on earth as it is in heaven” (Mt. 6:10).[8]  This is holistic – nothing can escape the scope of God’s transformative love! John 3:16 actually states “for God so loved the ‘Cosmos’….

May we be meek enough in our dealings with the earth so that there may abundance for future generations to inherit and bold enough to embody the alternative ‘new creation’ that has begun in Jesus.

Care for Creation is Care for the Poor:

It is the most vulnerable people around the world who will suffer the most from the impacts of climate change, even though they have contributed the least to its occurrence.  We are all familiar with the strong biblical injunctions to care for the poor and aside from any debates about the nature of climate change, the development agencies on the ground in climate vulnerable communities are telling us that the effects are being felt now.

The Uniting Church is particularly concerned with the fate of some of our most vulnerable Pacific neighbours. Our partner churches in the Pacific have called on their sisters and brothers in the Church throughout the world to act in solidarity to reduce the causes of human induced climate change by ratifying the Kyoto Protocol, reducing energy use and developing clean, renewable energy sources. Lives, livelihoods, societies, cultures and ecosystems of the Pacific Islands have already been affected by rising sea levels, diminishing agricultural space, diminishing reserves of fresh water and changing weather patterns including more frequent and unpredictable storms.[9]

Jesus challenges us with his response to the lawyer’s question of ‘who is my neighbour’ by telling the parable of the good Samaritan (Lk. 10:25-37). In our globalised industrial age the entire human population has become our economic neighbour and yet remains largely a relational stranger.  Since climate change is a thoroughly global problem of our shared atmosphere how do we enact Jesus call to compassion for the suffering in a just and generous manner?

For more reflections and Uniting Church statements on the environment go to:http://www.unitingjustice.org.au/environment

_____________________
[1] Material adapted from: www.ecocongregation.org/scotland
[2] From “FOR THE SAKE OF THE PLANET AND ALL ITS PEOPLE: A Uniting Church in Australia Statement on Climate Change”.
[3] See also, World Council of Churches Statement on Eco Justice and Ecological Debt, adopted 2/9/2009
http://www.oikoumene.org/en/resources/documents/central-committee/geneva-2009/reports-and-documents/report-on-public-issues/statement-on-eco-justice-and-ecological-debt.html and, Green by Grace Report to Anglican General Synod 2004http://www.environment.perth.anglican.org/documents/WG-Environment_Greenby%20Grace_.pdf
[4] Myers, C. 1998. “The Biblical Vision of Sabbath Economics”. Sojourners.
[5] See Brueggemann, W. 2002. “The Land: Place as Gift, Promise, and Challenge in Biblical Faith”. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
[6] See Habel, N.C. 1995. “The Land is Mine: Six Biblical Land Ideologies.” Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
[7] Alison, J. 2003. “On Being Liked.” New York: Crossroad Publishing.
[8] An Inclusive bible-OUP
[9] From FOR THE SAKE OF THE PLANET AND ALL ITS PEOPLE: A Uniting Church in Australia Statement on Climate Change”

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