To you, O Lord, I call. For fire has devoured the pastures of the wilderness, and flame has burned all the trees of the field. – Joel 1:19
The 2019 dry-season Amazon fires drew attention from political leaders and church organizations worldwide, not only because of their number and intensity, but also due to their worldwide environmental impact and the reaction of Brazilian and other government officials.
These still-burning Amazon fires are only a part of an extremely complex web of events related to an increasing planetary crisis.
Yet, these still-burning Amazon fires are only a part of an extremely complex web of events related to an increasing planetary crisis. As such they raise important questions about an appropriate Christian response. This article addresses each of these issues: the fires themselves, their worldwide impact and significance, and worldwide and national government responses, as well as guidelines for a Christian response.
Figure 1: Outline map of the Amazon Biome (white outline) and Amazon Basin (light blue outline)
As the son, brother, and uncle of local firefighters, I was brought up with the dangers of fires. During my studies in southern California I witnessed firsthand the widespread effect fires can have in large areas, requiring the first response of firefighters from several neighboring States.
The Amazon basin is shared by
of the world’s known biodiversity
miles of river account for
15-16% of the world’s total river discharge into the oceans
The toll of the Amazon fires is in an entirely different category because of the region’s sheer size and role in the world’s eco-stability:
Yet, since 1985, this immense and biologically diverse area has lost 17 percent of its forest canopy due primarily to annual fires set to clear forests for cattle grazing and farming (about three-quarters of the deforestation) and also to prepare previously cultivated lands for their next crops. When this loss reaches 20-25 percent, changes to the Amazon’s ecosystem will become irreversible, transforming the land into more savanna than forest, according to Carlos Nobre of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences.
The fires in areas previously not cultivated are only the final steps in deforestation, as, first, trees are leveled and left to dry early in the year and then set ablaze months later to clear the land. By the first week of September, 2019, Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) registered 100,000 fires throughout Brazil that year, the highest number since the organization began to keep records in 2013 and an increase of 43 percent over the same period of the previous year—and more than half were within the Amazon.
The Amazon stores
billion metric tons of carbon
The Amazon accounts for
of the carbon dioxide absorbed by the world’s forests
The environmental role that the Amazon plays is not only critical for regional climate patterns but also in the regulation of the earth’s climate. This is due to a number of complex and interrelated factors, two of which are well documented and recognized by the vast majority of the scientific community both in Brazil and worldwide:
So, burning and the consequential deforestation of the Amazon both substantially increase its capacity to warm the planet and decrease its capacity to cool it down.
The world reacted strongly to the fires. There were protests in many cities around the world as well as horror and dismay over Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro’s environmental policies and his nationalistic UN speech in September. In August, following international pressure at the G7 summit and over the pending EU-Mercosur free trade agreement, he sent 44,000 troops to help fight the fires and ordered a 60-day ban on setting new fires to clear land.
The number of fires then dropped to a third of the level of the previous two months. Nevertheless, the larger challenge is deforestation; according to data from Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) in November, 3,769 square miles of Brazilian Amazonian rainforest were lost in the twelve months ending July 2019, the highest rate of deforestation since 2008 and nearly 30 percent more than the preceding twelve months.
Christian organizations also last year publicly expressed deep concern for the preservation and reintegration of the Amazon rainforest:
However, there are two contrary reactions to the fires, representing an ideological war that undergirds this whole conversation:
The clash is no less prevalent within the Christian community, deeply complicating the possibility of a united Christian response. Still, some biblical guidelines must be sought.
The Amazon fires raise critical issues concerning the fundamental well-being and future of our planet. Obviously, a Christian response would have to include eschatology—and for that reason alone is probably more often avoided. However, regardless of one’s eschatological views, there are perspectives that need consideration. I suggest the following as a brief outline:
Creation and new creation are both the beginning and the conclusion of the biblical drama and as such require greater attention in Christian teaching than is common. Our very humanity is defined precisely by the mission of caring for God’s creation (Gen. 1:26-28; 2:15), a mission that remained even after the Fall (Gen. 9). That is even more so for God’s people to whom an anguished creation looks for its very redemption (Rom. 8:18-25). As followers of Jesus we emulate his earthly mission of proclamation, teaching and healing, demonstrating concretely our love of God through love of our neighbor (Luke 10:25-37); we thereby fulfill the evangelistic commission to make disciples all over the world and teach them to obey all that Jesus commanded.
Just as we follow Jesus as his disciples in his earthly example, we continue to follow him in his current and cosmic mission to ‘unite all things in him…’ (Eph. 1:10), including through the ministry of the church (Eph. 1:22-23; 3:10). Also, as new creations we are given the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:17-18), just as Christ is reconciling all things in heaven and earth to himself through his sacrifice on the cross (Col. 1:19-23).
As followers of Jesus who are ‘transformed by the renewal of your mind’ (Rom. 12:2), we can hardly maintain an antagonistic stance towards good science. This is especially true when the consensus is so widespread among the nearly 200 top scientists who comprise the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change of the United Nations, many of whom are committed Christians. At least four independent polls have concluded that 97 percent of the scientific community is in accord concerning the basic planetary crisis due to climate warming.
We care for creation because it is God’s creation and delight; and in Scripture we learn that God’s sense of righting wrong is as all-encompassing as his creation. As victims of climate change increase greatly (the United Nations estimates there will be anything from 25 million to one billion environmental migrants by 2050), Christians must be ready for Good Samaritan responses.
The single most strategic action is the mobilization of local churches and Christian organizations to plant trees.
The single most strategic action to resolve the long-term effects of the Amazonian fires and deforestation is the mobilization of local churches and Christian organizations to plant trees. Nearly half of the world’s trees have been destroyed since the start of human civilization. Reforestation is the top climate change solution advocated by most scientists and the United Nations, along with programs to reduce emission of carbon and the preservation of current forests. Worldwide, approximately one trillion trees need to be planted, representing an area about the size of the US. While that number seems astounding, there is enough available uncultivated land in the world to meet that demand. Churches and Christian organizations can play their part in pilot programs and promote commercial and government initiatives at local and international levels to do the same.
Brown, Edward R. Our Father’s World, Mobilizing the Church to Care for Creation. Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2008.
Moo, Douglas J. and Jonathan A. Moo. Creation Care: A Biblical Theology of the Natural World. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2018.
Stam, Juan. The good news of creation. Oxford: Regnum Books, forthcoming.
Snyder, Howard with Joel Scandrett. Salvation Means Creation Healed: The Ecology of Sin and Grace. Overcoming the Divorce Between Earth and Heaven. Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2011.
Tim was a missionary for 39 years in Brazil prior to his retirement in Brazil 3 years ago. He is a pastor, professor, and writer. His interests focus especially on the biblical foundations of the church's mission, the contributions of the social sciences to the development of local and contextualized theologies and intercultural communication and the theology of creation care. He is the author of 10 books (in Portuguese, Spanish and English), 130 articles in magazines and periodicals, 11-volume organizer and coordinator of the translation of two books and the Mission Study Bible (in Portuguese, Spanish, and soon in English). He was the founding president of the Association of Mission Teachers in Brazil, a consultant to the Association of Brazilian Transcultural Missions, and several other missionary organizations and chairman of the board of the Caiuá (Indian) Evangelical Mission.