On a precarious slope, Etienne digs in the dusty soil with a small hoe, planting beans in hopeful anticipation of the rains, which in recent years have become unpredictable. Miles away, his wife is returning from the increasingly distant forest, a large bundle of firewood on her head. She was up before dawn carrying water from the spring, nearly an hour’s walk away. The young baby on her back is sick with intestinal parasites from drinking the water that she has worked so hard to provide.
Though the global context may be lost on Etienne and his family, they live the consequences of environmental degradation on a daily basis. By contrast, in the United States, frequent headlines warn of the tribulations of the earth and its ecosystems, but because the impact on our daily lives feels minimal, the steady parade of dire predictions is ignored or worse, fosters despair.
Until I began working with Plant With Purpose, I was among those who ignored the signs, occasionally lamenting the loss of a favourite hiking place or noticing that I no longer saw horned lizards in my backyard. Beyond that, the environment was a secondary concern. Those who went before me at Plant With Purpose, however, saw that there was a direct connection between forest health and the health of poor communities. If we wanted to get beyond treating the symptoms of poverty we would need to address the health of the eco-system that supported the poor. Standing on a windswept hillside in Haiti one afternoon, overlooking a panorama of eroded mountains and silt-choked rivers, it suddenly dawned on me that we could not give a cup of cold water without restoring the watershed. Over the last eighteen years I have slowly realized that this observation applies beyond Haiti. We all have that same dependency on a healthy world.
As 6.8 billion human beings seek to satisfy their needs and desires on an ever-shrinking planet, it should be no surprise that the issue of environmental stewardship or ‘creation care’ is part of our global conversation.
While climate change dominates the discussion, hundreds of lesser known and less controversial environmental issues are coming to a head. Marine species we used to think were unlimited are now vanishing at an alarming rate. Half of the primates in the world are in danger of extinction. Frogs and bees are disappearing. Fresh water is becoming increasingly scarce. Deforestation is reducing rainfall, soil fertility and water resources in many parts of the world. In light of these realities, what is our role as Christians?
To Serve and Protect
From the very beginning, caring for the earth that God created has been a fundamental part of our role as humans.
In Genesis 2:15, Adam is placed in the garden to serve (abad) and protect (shamar) it. Throughout the Old Testament we are reminded that ‘the earth is the Lord’s’ and that our role is merely one of stewardship – temporary caretakers who will one day be called to account for how well we have discharged our duties. This is reinforced in Revelation 11:18 which says Judgement Day will include destroying those who destroy the earth.
In Scripture we also see a direct correlation between the behaviour of humans and the health of the whole earth. The ground is cursed as a result of Adam’s sin. Later, in the Flood, human sin results in the destruction of most life on earth and what is spared is saved with the active participation of Noah. In Jeremiah 12:4, and many other places, we see the land and its creatures suffering as a direct result of human sin.
‘Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life.’ (Genesis 3:17) In much of the world we have gone to great lengths to mitigate the consequences of the Adamic curse. We have distanced ourselves from the physical labour of producing food (and brought about about a number of unintended consequences). However, for hundreds of millions of subsistence and near-subsistence farmers around the world, the curse’s ‘painful toil’ is a fundamental aspect of life. I remember clearly an afternoon I spent planting beans on a rocky mountainside in Haiti, my bloody hands and aching back a physical reminder of the daily reality lived by my brothers and sisters.
Yet, as the Psalms make clear, creation – even creation broken by sin – gives glory to God. When Job calls God to account, God shows Job his greatness by pointing to his creation, reminding Job of his need for humility in the face of things he doesn’t understand (Job 38-39). This passage also gives us a glimpse of the delight God takes in the earth. Psalm 104 further emphasizes this, as well as the special relationship God has with the rest of his creatures, independent of humanity. Like Job, we need to learn that we are not always the centre of the story.
Following in Adam’s footsteps, we are still called to be stewards of creation, which still belongs to God. But our role goes further. Paul tells us that creation is now groaning as if in childbirth, anticipating redemption and eagerly waiting for the children of God to be revealed (Romans 8:19,22). As God’s children, we are a part of this good news for creation – a creation that until now has been suffering as a result of our sin and greed. God’s plan of redemption is intended to be good news not just for us, but for the environment as well. While only God can finally redeem the creation, we are his agents in bringing a foretaste of that redemption. As Christians our environmental responsibility is awesome and humbling.
The Uninsulated Poor
It is more than an issue of obedience and humility. Environmental stewardship is also a justice issue. There is no need to prioritize between love of neighbour and care for God’s creation.
In the United States and Europe, it is easy to forget that the earth is our life support system. For too many of us, water comes in plastic bottles and food comes from a supermarket. We see the environment as a luxury.
Yet the poorest people in the world are not so insulated. When the rain doesn’t come, people starve. When soil erodes, families go hungry. When water gets polluted, children get intestinal disease. When all the trees are cut, women walk hours for firewood. When the land is deforested, watersheds no longer function, causing rivers and streams to dry up. When the rain does come, deadly landslides ensue. For most of the people with whom I have worked over the last fifteen years, their soil and their water are virtually their only assets. Preserving and sustainably using those assets, so as not to further degrade those ecosystems – serving creation as a steward – becomes central to serving those people.
One elitist stream within the secular environmental movement has seen creation solely in terms of its recreational possibilities. From this perspective, humans, and especially the poor, can only be a burden on the land. In the United States, it has been easy to imagine wilderness as something that is at its best when kept untouched by human influence.
In truth, there is hardly such a thing as untouched wilderness. The rainforests of the Amazon and the South Pacific and the prairies of the North America were all shaped by human influence. Furthermore, to see creation as something humans should leave untouched ignores our role as stewards. God calls us to participate with nature, contributing to and ensuring its fruitfulness. We have little choice as to whether we will interact with creation, but we can choose whether our interactions will be life-giving or death dealing. Our role as citizens of God’s kingdom should inform this choice.
With the coming of God’s kingdom, our fundamental reality has changed. We love our enemies and serve our neighbours. Similarly, though we still experience the effects of the curse, we can strive to work with God’s natural systems instead of against them. Over and over in our work with sustainable agriculture we have discovered that we have that choice. Weeds still grow and crops still fail, of course, but we can work in such a way that we give back to creation, mimicking its fertility cycles. The more closely agriculture mimics natural ecosystems the more sustainable it is. Agroforestry, permaculture, composting latrines and even recycling are examples where these principles are put to work.
From Environment to Evangelism
When one studies creation, God’s ability to work things together for good is obvious in the intricate ways that ecosystems fit together. Nothing is wasted and everything has its niche. Everywhere, life springs forth from death, and resurrection is foreshadowed. Beyond merely seeking to reduce our footprint, we can seek to be restorative in our relationship with the earth.
On a global scale, restoration is a monumental task. We are unlikely to achieve it this side of Christ’s return, any more than we are likely to bring about world peace by turning the other cheek. However, kingdom thinking can serve as a guide for our planning and in our individual choices. At Plant With Purpose, we have seen restoration happen. Rivers and streams that had withered have begun to flow again as a result of upstream solutions. They have become powerful illustrations of God’s ability to redeem and restore, both for us and for the farmers with whom we are striving to share Christ’s love.
In industrialized countries, where we are shielded from the direct feedback of the land, we have much to learn from our brothers and sisters in the rest of the world. For example, I have found much deeper understanding of the connection between environmental degradation and misery among farmers in Haiti than in biology classes in the US. I have been very impressed with the seriousness with which African, Latin American and Asian church leaders have embraced creation care. When Care of Creation, an environmental missions agency, hosted a conference on ‘God and Creation’ in Kenya, it was filled to capacity with pastors and leaders from all over East Africa. When similar conferences have been held in the United States, it has been a struggle to get more than a handful to attend.
Furthermore, African conference attendance resulted in action. One Tanzanian pastor encouraged all the churches in his region to establish tree nurseries. They required those going through confirmation classes to plant trees as a prerequisite to graduation. As a result, over 500,000 trees have been planted and an important water source that had become intermittent now flows steadily.
Paul reminds us in Romans 1:20 that creation reveals much about God. As such it provides a perfect starting point for a conversation about what we can learn of God’s character from his Word. Environmental stewardship can be an integral part of God’s story of redemption.
Furthermore, it opens many doors. Several supporters have told me that their involvement with Plant With Purpose provided the opportunity to share Christ with environmentalist friends or colleagues. My colleagues in the creation care community have had countless opportunities to engage with communities that would otherwise be closed to us. At the same time, a conversation with poor farmers about the land and soil has given us the perfect opportunity to begin to integrate the gospel story into our work. After all, the Bible begins the story in the same place, with creation, earth and soil.
Much of the world is either directly suffering as a result of environmental degradation or reacting in numb despair to gloomy predictions. Both groups desperately need the hope that comes from Jesus Christ. We have the hope they long for, a hope that speaks directly to the redemption of all of creation and reminds them that God loves the cosmos.
The gospel is for everyone – from poor dirt farmers to environmental activists. It is good news that God cares about all that he has created.
Scott Sabin is executive director of Plant with Purpose, a Christian nonprofit organization that reverses deforestation and poverty (www.plantwithpurpose.org)