The following is a guest essay written by Jonathan Merritt, a faith and culture writer who has published over 200 articles in respected outlets including USA Today, The Huffington Post, and CNN.com. He is author of Green Like God: Unlocking the Divine Plan for Our Planet (2010). He has been interviewed by ABC World News, NPR, Fox News, The New York Times and The Washington Post.
Jonathan lives outside of Atlanta, GA, where he serves as Teaching Pastor at Cross Pointe Church.
Four decades since Senator Gaylord Nelson led the establishment of Earth Day, April 22 continues to unite those who believe in caring for our world and the people who depend on it. Approximately 200 countries and around 1 billion students, activists, soccer moms and working folks will celebrate this year.
With some exceptions, the American Christian community will be mostly absent from celebrations. Many Christians are skeptical of any environmental problems—a trend best viewed through the lens of history.
In response to the Cultural Revolution of the ‘60s and ‘70s, religious Americans began choosing sides. The Right claimed God, the Left claimed green and many Christians found themselves estranged from the environmental movement. Many people of faith ceded the moral high ground in exclusive pursuit of other issues. Soon, environmental policy fell on the courts and was inherited by politicians, leaving its grassroots behind and conservative Christians on the margins. Just as theologically conservative Christians mostly sat out of the civil rights revolution, we also sat out the environmental revolution.
“Environmentalist” is still a dirty word among some Christians. Like “Trekkie,” the word may be used in private, but you don’t want it on a personalized license plate. For some, the label is synonymous with secularism, Gaia worship, New Ageism and politically liberal special interest groups. Although some Christ-followers find it increasingly difficult to ignore the environmental impact of their lifestyles and are beginning to feel a holy stirring as they wake up to crazy weather patterns, smoggy skylines and disappearing forests, others are uncomfortable with “environmentalists” and even less comfortable with their “agenda.”
The problem is that Christians can no longer afford to sit on the sidelines. Millions die annually from preventable, water-related diseases. Most are children. Extinction rates continue to exceed natural rates by more than 100 times. Our energy consumption funds mountaintop removal coal mining while our oil addiction fouls the air and laces the pockets of oppressive dictatorships.
Our faith provides an inspiring narrative to face these crises—we serve the One who created everything, called it “good” and asked humans to care for and protect it—but most Christians haven’t tapped into the story line.
What’s the solution?
I believe we must depolarize and depoliticize environmentalism. At the time of that first Earth Day, protecting nature was not a partisan issue. In the “Environmental Decade” that followed, Republicans and Democrats banded together to create the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and Congress passed the most sweeping laws since Roosevelt’s New Deal. Among new legislation were the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Endangered Species Act. Environmentalism was not as divisive as it is today, so these laws gained bipartisan support. Conservation was as conservative as it was liberal, which is to say, it was American. But, bipartisanship would not last.
As political tides changed, corporations became king and environmentalism lost its stylishness in the public consciousness. Popular support waned, and political parties began using the environment as a weapon to beat each other up.
Caring for creation should not be framed in a right-left dichotomy. Stewardship isn’t primarily a political, social or economic issue; it is a moral issue the people of God have been called to address. If we desire to remain true to God’s Word, Christians must redeem the cause and make it our own. We need to rediscover the scriptural basis for creation care, engage in our planet’s daunting problems and propose solutions most Christians are comfortable with.
When I realized that Earth Day falls on Easter weekend this year it brought to mind a passage in Colossians that says that in the resurrection God reconciled to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven. It’s time for Christians to reconcile ourselves with the environmental movement. To abandon these issues shirks our God-given responsibility to care for His planet.
Addressing an Earth Day crowd in 1990, Nelson said, “I don’t want to have to come limping back here 20 years from now on the 40th anniversary of Earth Day … and have the embarrassing responsibility of telling your sons and daughters that you didn’t do your duty—that you didn’t become the conservation generation that we hoped for.” Nelson passed away in 2005, but in 2011 the Christian movement can begin to do our duty—not to Nelson, not even to America, but to the Creator-God.
Jonathan Merritt is author of Green Like God: Unlocking the Divine Plan for Our Planet.
(Image: Jonathan Merritt. Image credit: ©Audrey Hannah Brooks, 2009)