Christians as Stewards of God’s Creation
With over 2.1 billion Christians worldwide and spiritual heads such as Pope Francis, Archbishop Tutu and Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, who are globally respected for their leadership on eco- justice and environmental awareness, Christians are well positioned to help tackle the environmental crisis. Many of the wealthy countries that consume the most resources and produce the most Greenhouse Gas per capita have a `Christian culture’ and are home to many practising Christians, the relationship between religion and Nature is an especially relevant one for Christian congregations. The mainstream Christian churches around the world do acknowledge the global environmental crisis and have been re-examining their teachings about the responsibility of Christians toward Creation.
As can be expected with such a large faith community, a variety of views exist among the different denominations regarding the correct relationship between Christianity and environmentalism. These differences have deep roots stemming from the teachings and interpretations of The Bible and specifically the texts in Genesis that state that mankind was created in the image of God and given the rule over the Earth. God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” (Genesis 1:28. New International Bible)
This verse has resulted in a kind of dual citizenship for mankind, both as a part of Creation, but on a higher plane than nature. As a result, some denominations keep the focus on humanity as served by nature and respond to environmental concerns within a framework of Creation Care. Others acknowledge a closer interrelationship between mankind and nature and emphasize the ecological responsibilities of Christians as stewards of God’s Creation. They see nature as having an independent value from the services it renders to mankind because nature essentially belongs to God as his Creation and the expression of his power and love.
SAFCEI’s Green Bishop, Bishop Geoff reminds us that only after the entire planet was perfected, were humans created. This proves that humans need the earth’s resources to survive and that while we have been created to rule over Creation, our responsibility is to protect the earth not to exploit it. “God declared everything to be good, indeed, very good. He created nothing unnecessarily and has omitted nothing that is necessary. Thus, even in the mutual opposition of the various elements of the universe, there exists a divinely willed harmony because creatures have received their mode of existence by the will of their Creator, whose purpose is that through their interdependence they should bring to perfection the beauty of the universe.“ The beauty of the universe, without regard to man’s convenience or inconvenience, gives glory to the Creator. (Source: The Christian Declaration on Nature – Assisi 1986)
Speaking for the Catholic Church Pope Francis said: “Creation is not a property, which we can rule over at will; or, even less, is the property of only a few. Creation is a wonderful gift that God has given us, so that we care for it and we use it for the benefit of all, always with great respect and gratitude.” I recall a popular saying: ‘God always forgives, we sometimes forgive, but when nature – creation – is mistreated, she never forgives!’ He also said that humanity’s destruction of the planet is a sinful act, likening it to self-idolatry. “When we exploit Creation we destroy the sign of God’s love for us, in destroying Creation we are saying to God: ‘I don’t like it! This is not good!’ ‘So what do you like?’ ‘I like myself!’ – Here, this is sin! Do you see?” (www.catholicclimatecovenant.org)
Speaking for the Orthodox Church, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I said: “Everything that lives and breathes is sacred and beautiful in the eyes of God. The whole world is a sacrament. The entire created cosmos is a burning bush of God’s uncreated energies. And humankind stands as a priest before the altar of creation, as microcosm and as mediator. Such is the true nature of things;” if only we have the eyes of faith to see it. (www.patriarchate.org ) Patriarch Bartholomew I’s promotion of care for creation as a spiritual responsibility has won him the title of `The Green Patriarch.’
The Protestant Churches, speaking through the World Council of Churches in 1990, committed themselves to conserve and work for the integrity of Creation both for its inherent value to God and in order that justice may be achieved and sustained. (www.arcworld.org)
In their public statement advocating a Christian lifestyle, the Seventh-day Adventist Church, articulates what many environmentally aware congregations are promoting, namely: “a simple, wholesome lifestyle, where people do not step on the treadmill of unbridled over-consumption, the accumulation of goods, and production of waste. A reformation of lifestyle is called for, based on respect for nature, restraint in the use of the world’s resources, a re-evaluation of one’s needs, and reaffirmation of the dignity of created life.” (www.arcworld.org)
The Fall and the start of the disconnect between Mankind and Nature.
The fall of mankind with the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden for refusing to live according to God’s divine wisdom is interpreted by many as the start of sin as well as of disharmony between mankind and nature. Christians believe that this rebellion has perpetuated itself in history in various forms of social and personal injustice, domination and exploitation. The challenge to all Christians is to discover anew the truth that God’s love and liberation is for all of Creation, not just for humanity, and to seek new ways of living that restores balance, justice and hope to our endangered planet.
While the past decades have seen Christian congregations around the world taking on this challenge, at the beginning of the 1200s St Francis of Assisi provided Christians with an early role model for reconciliation with all creatures. He is still admired as the patron of ecologists. The environmental challenges facing us all today are far more complex and critical. There are now Christians and Christian based organisations around the world raising awareness, forming eco-congregations, challenging materialism and over consumption and lobbying governments, politicians and big business to stop environmental destruction. South Africa’s Archbishop Emeritus Tutu, supposedly retired, is a strong voice for eco-justice. In the face of the ineffective global talks on Climate Change he is calling for governments to divorce themselves from big business and to act in the interests of their citizens and sustainable use of the earth’s resources. He is calling on citizens to disinvest in the fossil fuel industry. “We live in a world dominated by greed. We have allowed the interests of capital to outweigh the interests of human beings and our Earth.” “It makes no sense to invest in companies that undermine our future.” “People of conscience need to break their ties with corporations financing the injustice of climate change.”
What would Jesus do?
Although The Bible and Jesus’s time on Earth predate today’s environmental crises both have strong messages and clear lessons for how to live a life of spiritual enrichment as opposed to a life beguiled and impoverished by material wants. The Bible tells us that a person’s “life is not in the abundance of the things which he possesses” (Luke 12:15). That, when we concern ourselves with the material world, we are easily drawn in by the “deceitfulness of wealth” (Mark 4:19), thinking that we will be happy, fulfilled or content if only we had more. Luke 16:13 tells us we “cannot serve both God and money.” We must seek to be content with what we have, and materialism is the exact opposite of that contentment. Accounts of Jesus’s life tell the story of a man with few material wants who walked to spread his sacred message. As he walked he took in the nature around him and used the plants and animals he saw as illustrations and metaphors of God’s love and lessons.
While there are a minority of Christian congregations that are Climate Change denialists, generally, understanding of the environmental consequences of materialism and over-consumption is growing. So is the realization that the `deceitfulness of wealth’ leads not just to spiritual poverty but also to the destruction of Creation, which distances us even further from God. Whether Stewardship or Creation Care, Christian based action for the environment is growing and has the potential to re-connect many Christian denominations and also to build bridges with other faiths committed to Earth Keeping. There are many initiatives striving to achieve this. Just a few are listed below.
We commit ourselves afresh not to flirt with the fallen world and its transient passions, but to love the whole world as God loves it. So we love the world in holy longing for the redemption and renewal of all creation and all cultures in Christ, the ingathering of God’s people from all nations to the ends of the earth, and the ending of all destruction, poverty, and enmity. (Cape Town Commitment 2010) www.lausanne.org/en/documents/ctcommitment.html
*From Conversations On World Religions and Ecology (The Forum of Religion and Ecology at Yale)
Here are some Christian statements and resources:
Pentecost Meditations 1-11 (English)
2015 Pinkster Oordenkings 1-11 (Afrikaans)
–> Browse through our online library for more Christian environmental resources
Useful Christian links in Africa:
Green Anglicans – www.greenanglicans.org
Johannesburg Anglican Environment Initiative (JAEI) – www.jaei.org.za
Catholic Youth Network for Environmental Sustainability in Africa (CYNESA) – www.cynesa.org
Climate Impact Faith Alliance (CIFA) in Zimbabwe – www.cifalliance.org
A Rocha – www.arocha.org
Diakonia Council of Churches, Durban – www.diakonia.org.za
A programme at the University of the Western Cape on Christian Ecotheology www.uwc.ac.za/Faculties/ART/RandT/Pages/Christian-Ecotheology.aspx#.U6reGqMn-EI