Earth Day & Faith: Why Should Christians Care?

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Published on April 21st, 2011  |  Discuss This Article  

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)

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Comments: Earth Day & Faith: Why Should Christians Care?

  •  Comment from mememine69

    I thought God was in charge and that humans could only destroy what they created. Are WE Gods now too?
    Court Action Will Come Sooner Than Later:
    There is now a solid grass roots effort by the masses of former climate change believers to have the leading scientists and leading news editors subjected to criminal charges for knowingly sustaining the false CO2 death threats to billions of children for the last 25 years of the climate blame mistake.
    Scientists made environmental protection necessary in the first place when they supposedly polluted the planet with their evil chemicals and cancer causing pesticides and so how ironic is it that we bowed like fools to our Gods of science for 25 years of “unstoppable warming”?
    Scientists are not gods and don’t forget that scientists also produced cruise missiles, cancer causing chemicals, land mine technology, nuclear weapons, germ warfare, cluster bombs, strip mining technology, Y2K, Y2Kyoto, deep sea drilling technology and now climate control. Proof of consensus not being real is the fact that scientists did not march in the streets when IPCC funding was pulled, the EPA was castrated and Obama’s not even mentioning the “crisis” in his state of the union speech. Consensus was a myth because if it were true, the consensus scientists declaring a climate emergency would act like it was an emergency and demand their CO2 mitigation be taken seriously. We believed a handful of lab coat consultants who said we could CONTROL the planet’s temperature and prevent it from boiling. Pure insanity as history will call this modern day witch burning. The new denier is anyone still believing voters will vote YES to taxing the air to make the weather colder. Not going to happen.
    REAL planet lovers don’t hold scientists as Gods and bow to politicians promising to make lower the seas and scare kids with such doomsday glee.

    Stay tuned. We missed getting Bush for his false war and a wave of former believer rage will get this one right. Call the courthouse.

  •  Comment from Kerry

    Thought-provoking and inspiring, and I’m sharing with my friends of all religions. Thank you, Jonathan.

  •  Comment from Jack Frost

    The question is not why Christians should care about the environment, the question is why environmentalists should be worried about right wing Christians. These belligerent, uneducated and superstititous people – who incidentally are not in any way inspired by the teachings of Jesus Christ – are culturally toxic. Like rightwing fundamentalists in every part of the world, they are hostile to education, science, health, democracy, liberalism, human rights, and the environment. But unlike most rightwing fundamentalists, America’s religious conservatives are politically powerful enough to pose a threat to the planet. Wake up, you Greens.

  •  Comment from Ruth

    I am sorry to see the term “Christian” appropriated to refer to conservative Christians, as if there were no others. My Christian church, like countless otheres, cares deeply about the earth and humanity’s responsibility to care for it and leave it healthy for future generations. It has no difficulty understanding the scriptural basis for this, nor the concept that clean air, clean water, and a healthy world are not about “special interests”.

    The difficulty conservative Christians have with concepts is theirs alone. Please stop attributing it the world’s billions of people who call themselves Christians.

  •  Comment from sandy d

    First and foremost I am a Christian
    Being a Christian makes me care 100% about Mother Earth and the Environment.
    God created this planet and we are taught to care for it.
    What does a political choice have to do with it.
    Being left or right does not matter if you are a thinking, caring, individual.
    Everyone needs to pull togetheter and think the same—-
    Care for and save our planet from all the evil that has harmed it

  •  Comment from Alexander Zwissler

    Thank you so much for this timely and thoughtful piece. As one coming from a secular, liberal, environmentalist perspective, I must say that I absolutely agree with you when you say “I believe we must depolarize and depoliticize environmentalism”. We all need to get together to find common ground to work together on our common challenges. You’ve done a great job of recounting how’ve we’ve gotten her…now we need to move forward. I’ll join you in that effort.

  •  Comment from Jeff

    Environmentalism is not a dirty word but making Environmentalism your god, or putting it before people to whom God gave dominion is a sin. (Reference – Ten Commandments) falsifying scientific results or omitting facts to suit your agenda is deception and also a sin. We should attempt to live cleaner but not at the expense of human freedoms that are bestowed upon us by God.

  •  Comment from Simon

    I think the Colossians verse you are thinking of is this one;

    “…and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” Col 1:20

    See if you can spot the difference.

  •  Comment from Rob

    Ha ha ha! Hmm, the one thing that jumped out at me in the article was his mention of Christians “caring for creation..” Christian meat eaters don’t care. They are hypocrites. “Thou shalt not kill” .. Oh, but as long as someone else does the killing we will gladly stuff our fat faces with a sentient being who is on this planet to be protected and cared for. Defenseless. Animal farms are THE biggest negative factor when it comes to our environment. Educate yourselves and put your thoughts and actions where your mouth is.

  •  Comment from Gabriela Worrel

    What is up with the first comment? Anyway, I am really glad to see this post. I am a Christian and very passionate about creation stewardship. This has been a conversation being discussed among Christians for a long time now, I think it’s great that a secular organization is broaching the topic. It is interesting that not only have many Christians discounted the ‘secular’ left (which is an artificial construct, I think) as much as the environmental community excluding Christians from the conversation, assuming they are not interested in these issues. Thanks for a great post!

  •  Comment from Diana

    I once asked a friend why every time I brought up the environment, he brought up abortion. I wanted to know why they weren’t two separate issues, and why he couldn’t have an opinion on both. He did agree with that, and has changed his logic of his arguments since.
    I do think that Christians can be environmentalists, but maybe sometimes being a businessman – for the good of the income gets in the way of for the good of the environment. We lived through so much prosperity, that convenience is more important than thinking through what we are sacrificing for it.
    Thoughtful essay.

  •  Comment from Dave

    I agree. It is not a left versus right issue. It is a reality versus wishful thinking issue. Where do you expect Christians to stand?

  •  Comment from Wendell

    On the other hand some Christians have been environmentalists since the first Earth Day, practicing and preahing care for God’s creation. It simply hasn’t been news”worthy.”

  •  Comment from Wendell

    prehing = Preaching

  •  Comment from Wendell

    Even if we can’t type

  •  Comment from Angelica Kulp

    I enjoyed the Lion Cub and father awesomely Beatiful!!!
    Kenya is precious people and living things.

  •  Comment from Angelica Kulp

    I had a vision of sulfer and fire destroying the earth and human beings.
    forgive eachothers shortcomings and we will make peace with our neighbor and our friend in God.

  •  Comment from Joyce

    As a lifelong Christian who was raised to love the beauty of nature, and to walk gently upon it as a steward of all that God has granted us here on Earth, I recall being shocked back in the 80′s to hear a young Christian woman say the word environmentalist with a distinct sneer. I knew something had gone awry, and it has continued for the past few decades. I have never lost (and never will) my belief that the Bible teaches us to care for the Earth, not to destroy it for whatever greedy needs we may have created for ourselves. We can be thoughtful, conscious, prayerful conservators of our precious God-given environment.

  •  Comment from Jan

    As a Christian and an environmentalist, I see no conflict. The Earth is God’s. We are part of God’s creation. We need to put what God created ( the ground, air water, plants, animals, etc) ahead of what we create (profit, energy, manufactured goods, etc).

  •  Comment from Jay

    ALL religions are for the weak minded “sheeple”.
    Nature is god. When we destroy nature, we destroy ourselves. Nature (god) will go on even after we are extinct. It will happen. God (nature) did not give us dominion over the planet. That’s the thinking that got us to where we are now. If we are to survive, we must find a way to exist without disrupting nature. It’s really that simple.

  •  Comment from mjh27

    As one who has a deep love for nature, I do believe we are called to care for the earth. It does not matter if one is Christian or non-Christian. I would say that caring for the earth isn’t everyones calling, yet I do feel we should all respect the earth. When it comes down to it we need to look beyond ourselves, look around, and respect the magnificent beauty of nature.
    As a Christian, I do feel Christians need to respect and care for the magnificent creation that God has created. I don’t believe that we should put the care of the earth before God, but I do think that in caring for the earth we are honoring God.
    Thanks for writing this wonderful article. I think it brings light to a subject that is sometimes overlooked.

  •  Comment from Ryan

    I remember a discussion with one Christian woman who couldn’t see the need for environmental concern because she believed God would bring about the end of the world as written in Revelations–implying that mankind had no need to even try to save the environment. But the Bible instructs man to care for the Earth. And, logically, even if you believe God will end things on his terms, the planet we affect is the one we live in, the one’s our children live in, and the same our children’s children will live in. Love the environment because you love other people, who must suffer from its decay. We have a choice to be narrow-minded and selfish, or live with integrity.

  •  Comment from Sherrell Greene

    I have to say some of these comments are a sad testimonial to the polarization that has infested this entire debate.

    Environmentalist bashing. Christian bashing. Minimization of our environmental stewardship responsibilities. Mocking of the Cross of Christ and His sacrifice for humanity. Egotism and bigotry from many quarters. What ever happen to civil dialog?

    In the beginning God created. Mankind was placed in creation to work and steward it. It was good. Man fell and brought creation down as well. Incapable of redeeming himself -much less the creation. Today, we are both still fallen, bearing God’s fingerprints and promise. Both we and creation are but a shadow of what we were and what we will be. Both in need of redemption. That’s why Christ came.

    The Nature Conservancy is about advocacy. About finding common ground and building bridges. About civil dialog. About caring for people and creation. I think Christ is happy about that.

  •  Comment from Alice Bluegown

    No mention of the elephant in the room – Creationism. For a particularly deluded subset of Christians (and other faiths) environmentalism = biology, and the foundation of biology is a scientific theory they flatly refuse to engage with. It doesn’t help that Christianity has generally had a poor record in terms of reverence for nature, particularly when compared to the Pagan and primitive beliefs that predate it.

  •  Comment from Gerald C. Puguon, Jr.

    Well, I was born as a Christian but I hated the idea of being a Christian alone, where you enslaved your-self from your own belief. It is so selfish that Christians are only thinking of their own salvation. They cry for their own heaven, their own paradise. But what about the rest of the world? We’ll you be happy to keep your own small piece of heaven while the rest of the world is crumbling? THIS IS SO SELFISH! We must realize that no matter who we are, we must be responsible for the whole world. In John 3:16 He said; For God so LOVE THE WORLD! He did not say; For God so love the CHRISTIANS. God is so depressed looking over the crumbling environment.

    Well, the environment will live forever without man, but man will never live without the heavenly environment. Therefore, let’s take care of it!

  •  Comment from Neil

    Good article. We should care for people and planet. Remember the Lord’s prayer, do you think Christ wants to return to a devastated world?

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