Environmental issues are rarely out of the public eye. One that has caught the press attention recently is the Newbury bypass. The anti-bypass campaign has become a focus for civil rights as well as for environmental issues. There have been 720 arrests and it has cost the Highways Agency around £1.5 million in security.
However, compared with the States the campaign seems rather tame. There environmental groups are prepared to die and even kill in "defence of mother earth". Their motto is "Earth First!" They engage in ecoterrorism such as spiking trees, sabotaging roads, dismantling helicopters and destroying bulldozers. For them the real terrorists are the polluters and desecrators of nature.
All this raises important questions for Christians. Should we be involved in environmental action? If so, how far should we go? Should we be involved in civil disobedience?
Some Christians would say that we should not be involved in environmental care. Many reasons are given, but as we peel them back they seem to be no more than excuses:
Excuses for non-involvement
The problems are far too complex and too enormous for me to make a difference.
The size of the problems are irrelevant. We are not necessarily called to make a difference; God calls us to be faithful to him. He will look after the results.
"Going green" means being part of the New Age movement.
This is no more true than going door-knocking means being a Jehovah's Witness. New Agers do not have to have the monopoly on environmental care - after all the earth is the Lord's.
Jesus didn't get involved in environmental issues, so neither should we.
Jesus never wore trousers, does that mean we don't have to? Jesus was a person of his time; the environmental problems that we face today were not a major problem 2000 years ago in rural Palestine. Were he born in our time he would certainly have had things to say. He did get involved in his Father's world - his incarnation and resurrection are testimonies to that.
The Earth will get worse and worse there is nothing we can do about it, until Jesus returns and creates a new earth.
Such end-time fatalism is not supported by a careful reading of the Scriptures. The fate of the earth is not destruction but rather transformation. There will be a continuity between this earth and the new earth, in the same way as there is a continuity between our present bodies and our resurrected ones.
A Biblical Framework for Environmental Care
For Christians the guiding principles must be those of the Scriptures. The problem is that there are no obvious chapters or verses to quote. We need to discern the whole direction and tenor of the Scriptures. One way of doing this is to use the framework of creation, fall and redemption.
The Bible declares unambiguously: "The Earth is the Lord's" (Ps 24:1). It is this concept that is basic to a Christian environmental ethic. It is God's world: he created it, he loves and cares for it.
God commissioned humans, as his image bearers, to rule and subdue the earth. The language of subduing and ruling is very strong, in one place subdue is translated as rape (Esther 7:8). The meaning of these words must, however, be understood from their context. Subduing and ruling are to be done as image bearers of God, he is our role model: it is thus less exploitation and more specifically leadership as servanthood. It is God's earth, it is not ours to do with it as we see fit: we are stewards, as such we are accountable to God for our treatment of it. We are to serve the creation so that it can develop as God intends it. This involves caring and defending the earth as well as developing and cultivating it.
But then came sin. The first sin in some way affected the whole of creation. All environmental disasters can be traced back to the fall and to sin. Thus our stewardship becomes all the more difficult, it becomes a painful toil (Gen 3:16).
Human struggle with the earth is taken up in subsequent chapters in Genesis. Cain's murder of his brother means that the ground will no longer yield its crop (Gen 4:10-14). The prophet Hosea takes up the same theme: sin results in the land mourning (Hosea 4: 1-3).
However, the fall is not the end. God, the author, enters his own story. Throughout the Old Testament we have in the flood story and in the Jubilee legislation glimpses of God working to redeem his creation. But it is ultimately in Jesus that redemption is accomplished.
Jesus' work on the cross redeemed the whole of creation. Nothing is exempt from the reconciling power of the cross. There is the potential of reconciliation for all of creation (Col 1:20). The work that Jesus began on the cross he will finish when he returns. The fate of the earth will not be one of destruction but of renewal, of transformation.
How far should we go?
Thus there seems to be a strong biblical basis for environmental care, it is part of our calling as stewards. God cares for it and so should we. But how far should we go in defence of God's earth?
1. Put our own house in order.
How can we live more benignly upon the earth? Recycle, reuse and repair where possible; and consume less. When tempted to consume ask yourself:
- Do I really need it?
- Why do I want it?
- Is it produced with just principles?
- How does it affect the environment:
- in the way it will be used and in the way it was produced?
- Will it promote responsible stewardship?
2. Get your local Church involved.
Consider joining with others to study what the scriptures say on environmental issues, pray, compile lists of resources, start a recycling scheme or encourage people to use it if one is already available.
3. Look broader
Educate yourself: but don't believe all that you see or read, every organisation has some axe to grind.
Use your democratic rights: vote in local and general elections, take up specific issues and lobby local government and MPs. The postage stamp is a powerful weapon.
The Newbury anti-bypass campaign, involved many people in civil disobedience. Is this an option for Christians? Many point to Romans chapter 13 as demanding unconditional obedience to government. Government is established by God to be God's servant, to do justice (Rom 13: 1-5). And yet we are not called to blind obedience. Government is to be a servant, when it tries to become an oppressive master (e.g. Rev 13) we cannot obey. Without civil disobedience by Hebrew midwives Moses would have died at birth, and in many countries the gospel would not be preached. Civil disobedience for the Christian consists in obeying God rather than human authority (Acts 5: 29).
A Christian then can engage in civil disobedience, but there are also God-given constraints. It should be: a last resort; non-violent (harming neither people or animals, and property only minimally); an opposition of policies, not people; and done fully realising and accepting the consequences; arising from it.
Hence, involvement in campaigns such as the Newbury bypass are not off limits for Christians, but we cannot always accept our cobelligerents' worldview (see table) and sometimes our policies would drastically diverge. Involvement must arise out of a commitment to the lordship of Christ over his earth and not from selfish reasons.
Getting to the roots
For the Christian the root of all environmental problems is the fall, most can be traced back to greed and idolatry. Without tackling that problem we will, to an extent, be fighting a rear-guard action. Nevertheless, the defence of God's earth is part of our responsibility as stewards; but it is God first rather than earth first.