Climate Change: Theology for Easter

by Mitch Hescox

Climate Change makes bad things worse. It intensifies natural processes, making natural events unnatural or extreme. Climate Change hits the most vulnerable the hardest.

Climate Change Vulnerability Index 2012

The darker the color on the map indicates greater difficulty in scrapping out life. The Democratic Republic of the Congo, Haiti, Malawi, Sierra Leone, and Bangladesh are already some of the most difficult places to survive in the world, and with climate change things get that much harder. These impacts are not some future event, they are happening now!

Around the world, evangelical Christians are crying out for our help and praying that there would be an awakening from us, their American brothers and sisters. The Cape Town Commitment issued by the Lausanne Movement (founded by Billy Graham and John Stott) recognizes the need for climate change action; as does Micah Challenge. Despite clear calls to understand the impacts of climate change on the body of Christ, do we have ears to hear? Will we simply stay deaf and continue to listen to our favorite political pundits or resist action based on our own selfish desires? It’s time for us to stop playing the historical Nero while Rome burns and wash our hearts from sin as Scripture says:

Isaiah 1:16-17 (NIV)

Wash and make yourselves clean.
Take your evil deeds out of my sight;
stop doing wrong.
Learn to do right; seek justice.
Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
plead the case of the widow.

Hundreds of thousands die, millions forced to flee their homelands as food and water scarcity force them to leave. In much of today’s world these threats are multiplied by a changing climate. It’s time to listen to those being threatened and to the scientists who confirm the threats. The vast majority of climate scientists, over 97%, agree that climate change is real and results from our poor creation care.

Consider your reaction if during a visit to your family physician, your doctor recommended an appointment with a cardiologist. After completing a stress test and other assorted procedures, the cardiologist strongly recommended by-pass surgery. Unsure of what to believe you ask for a second, third, and even a tenth opinion. If after all the examinations, nine of the ten cardiologists recommended surgery and even the tenth said there was a problem but unsure of the next step, the vast majority would immediately schedule the surgery. The earth’s specialists, climate scientists are recommending actions, and our response must be to follow the Biblical imperative and get back to our role as stewards.

The Biblical Mandate For Creation Care

Genesis 1:28-30 (NIV)

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air and all the creatures that move on the ground”everything that has the breath of life in it”I give every green plant for food.” And it was so. God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning”the sixth day.

God’s creation, as originally created, was indeed very good. One look at the Bible reveals the design cast by the ruach roaming above the primeval earth. Sustainable life for all creation in relationship with the Creator flows from the Genesis’ beginnings. The spoken word provided holistic life for each member of creation. Order existed. Life thrived, and all was good. Competition for food and other resources never occurred as God provided all means for abundant life and clearly, the patristic Church leaders understood the message of a good creation:

Yet is was not because of its utility to him that he produced anything that exists, since being self-sufficient he is in need of nothing. It was rather out
of his loving kindness and goodness the he created everything; accordingly he
created things in sequence and provided us with a clear instruction about created
things through the tongue of the blessed author, so that we might learn about
them precisely and not fall into the error of those led by purely human reasoning. [1]

God created the perfect place. Sometimes one catches brief glimpses of Eden in the world today. Perhaps in a beautiful sunset or a mountain stream, a baby’s cry, or even the meter of a wonderful poem. Gerard Manley Hopkins, a 19th century English Catholic priest captures both the goodness and after humanity’s fall, the ugly:

God’s Grandeur

by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1877)

THE WORLD is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs”
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Unfortunately, many in the Church read the Bible from our fallen condition instead of the new creation offered in and through Christ. For by reading in our sinful state, we misread the text and examine it through our eyes instead of God’s. One of the most widely misunderstood verses in the Bible is printed above, Genesis 1:28. Whether we use subdue, dominate, rule, or any of a host of English words, it conjures mental images of the right to do as we please without regard. Yes, the Church has made a mistake in teaching some variation of this for much of its first two millennia. These are the same mistakes and rationalizations made regarding slavery or even the feudal system. Far too often, we examine Holy Scripture looking up through our sin instead of down through God’s grace.

Just as we are called to love our neighbor, not subjugate him or her, the same applies to creation we may not simply do as we please. Genesis 2:15 instructs humanity to tend and care for God’s garden, and Psalm 24:1-2 declares that the earth and everything in it belongs to God. How in God’s Kingdom did we ever assume that the earth was to be trashed or misused in anyway? Genesis reports just the opposite. The earth supplies the necessities for biological life; God designed creation for exactly that purpose. For life to prosper, humans are to enable the garden to flourish. God created and was the first gardener. We have been clearly given the responsibility, as created in God’s image, to reflect his image, God’s presence, by caring for creation.[2]

The sad reality since Genesis Chapter 3 is that our stewardship reflects our fallen condition. Upon a close reading of Genesis 3, we understand that original sin was the temptation to be god-like, to be in control. Looking back at human history our principal failing always seems to be the desire to be in charge combined with the inability to live within God given limits. The Genesis narrative describes a universal order with God as the loving/very good creator, humans cast in his image as partners in maintaining creation, and all creation living in a sustainable relationship. However, our sin (our desire to be in control) broke the order, attempted to by-pass the limits, and the injured the relationship leading to a broken and unsustainable world. Each time we use more than we need or consume greater than our share we perpetuate our sin, support our vanity, and continue disregarding God’s limits distorting the creation and impacting all. Scripture puts it this way.

Isaiah 24:4-6 (NIV)

The earth dries up and withers,
the world languishes and withers,
the exalted of the earth languish.
The earth is defiled by its people;
they have disobeyed the laws,
violated the statutes
and broken the everlasting covenant.
Therefore a curse consumes the earth;
its people must bear their guilt.
Therefore earth’s inhabitants are burned up,
and very few are left.

Throughout the Old Testament, God defines and provides deliberate instructions in tending the earth. There are strict ordinances regarding farming, animal husbandry, and land use in general. These conditions define the parameters for living in relationship with God, people, and the earth in integrated approach to life. Perhaps no theologian has stated this better than John Calvin:

“Under its inhabitants. Whether תהת (tăhăth) be translated “Under its inhabitants,” or, “On accountof its inhabitants,” is oflittle importance. There is a kind ofmutual bargain between the land and the husbandmen, that it gives back with usury what it hasreceived: if it does not, it deceives those who cultivate it. But he assigns a reason, imputing blame tothem, that they render it barren by their wickedness. It is owing to our fault that it does notnourish us or bring forth fruit, as God appointed to be done by the regularorder of nature; for he wished that it should hold the place of a mother to us,to supply us with food; and if it change its nature and order, or lose itsfertility, we ought to attribute it to our sins, since we ourselves havereversed the order which God had appointed; otherwise the earth would neverdeceive us, but would perform her duty.[3]

Creation subject to humanity’s sin suffers. Disregarding God’s instructions to tend and care the earth results in the earth’s failure to provide the necessities for sustaining life. The consequences of our poor stewardship and the selfish desire to over consume utterly disregard the natural order. Our disposable and carbon based energy overindulgence in the words of Scriptures, “consumes the earth.” This is just not a matter of creation care but of people care. The interdependent relationship between the earth, God’s people, and all creation, bound together since the beginning is failing because of humanity’s inability to follow God’s covenant.

With no desire to read into the text, it is interesting that Isaiah declared, “Earth’s inhabitants are burned up.” The 2011 became the 35th consecutive year that annual world-wide temperatures were higher than average and the 11th warmest since in recorded records. While one season does not prove or disprove climate change, the eastern United States experienced a mild weather and very early 2012 spring at the same time the Western US experiences a massive snowfall. The extremes at work.

Over the past hundred years, we have seen the earth’s temperature rise significantly and at unprecedented rates. The NASA supplied graph clearly demonstrates the steeply increased temperature. The combination of the increased temperature and sharp rate are unnatural and against the design of creation. The increasing temperature effect more than the earth. They change God’s design and impact people; especially the developing world’s poor as cited earlier. Climate change, for evangelical Christians, presents a double Biblical imperative as we are called to tend creation and for the poor.

Among evangelicals, no one would disagree with the calling to follow the great commission:

Matthew 28:16-20 (NIV)

Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.

Unfortunately, we have tended to focus on having a personal relationship with Christ as the final act of Christianity instead of a new beginning. Holy Scripture clearly describes a Holy Spirit transformation that moves humanity from our fallen human nature into the Imago Dei (Image of God). In the Great Commission Jesus instructs us not to produce converts but offer discipleship and obey the very commandments of Christ. Jesus’ commands are not about escaping the very good creation that God ordered, but redeeming the world by acting as God agents reflecting his image into the fallen world.

Too often, we miss the call to discipleship by placing our belief solely on the cross instead of faith in both the cross and resurrection. The cross, thanks to Jesus’ sacrifice, atones for our fallen nature and provides the opportunity to a new and transformed life. Easter and the resurrection are the opportunity to encounter the risen Lord, be changed into his image, and complete all creation’s redemption. Many scholars agree in the significance of the resurrection occurring in the garden. The garden image draws us back to Eden. In Eden the creation was declared very good and with Jesus’ resurrection, the entire creation now has the opportunity to return to that original condition, if humanity accepts God’s restoration to the Imago Dei as originally intended. Redeemed and transformed humanity first instruction in the new Eden (as in the old) is to tend and care for creation. Our divine imperative for creation care becomes foundational in sustainable life for all creation.

We know that complete redemption only will occur upon Christ’s return. However while we wait, we are called do accomplish Jesus’ mission and Biblically to do greater works than Christ. Accomplishing our ministry becomes possible only through reflecting God image into the world. We are not attempting to earn our salvation, but to live life in Christ as a response to our redemption. It is beyond the scope of this paper to discuss every aspect of Christ’s mission. The vast majority of Biblical scholars would agree that we have a mandate for ministry with and for the world’s poor. The Bible is quite clear on this perquisite, and Jesus defined his ministry (and thus ours) succulently in Luke:

Luke 4:16-20 (NIV)

He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath
day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read.
The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he
found the place where it is written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down.
The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him,

Jesus also instructs our behavior towards others represent our actions to him.

Matthew 25: 31-40 (NIV)

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him,
he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered
before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd
separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right
and the goats on his left. “Then the King will say to those on his right,
‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance,
the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.
For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty
and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in,
I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me,
I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ “Then the righteous will answer him,
‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you
something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in,
or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in
prison and go to visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever
you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’

Then the apostle Jamesdefines a key aspect of discipleship.

James 2:14-17 (NIV)

What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

The above Scripture speaks for itself for those who are open to hear the message. Christian disciples seek obedience to the Bible but even more importantly to Christ. Faith expressed without concern for creation and especially the impact of climate change on the poor is no faith. Ted Jennings states discipleship as a call to mission and ministry in love:

Understood in this way faith in Christ will be expressed as faithfulness to his
Mission and ministry, loyalty to him and to the project of announcing and actualizing
the Reign of God as the reign of justice and generosity and joy. In this way
we may succeed in making clear how it is that the sheer unmerited favor of God
in Christ that befriends the outcasts of religious, economic, and political society awakens the astonished and glad response of joy and gratitude among these so as to engender a glad response of joyful loyalty to the love that befriended us. [4]

The negative writing and press against climate change and its impacts on the poor stress fear, sacrifice, and hurtful economic impacts in the United States. In very real ways, they are the same arguments used against abolitionism in the eighteen and nineteenth centuries. The evangelical Church and some of its greatest leaders like John Wesley, Wilbur Wilberforce, Charles Finney, and Luther Lee, renounced the fear and replaced it with optimism. Living as Christ’s disciple is good news and not bad, caring for our brothers and sisters, God’s fellow children results in joy, not despair. As discussed earlier, when we examine scripture, we must read down through grace and not though our sin. Fear and pessimism are not of the Lord. Joy and opportunity are.

The climate change challenge should awaken the Church to place its hope not on what we can purchase, consume, or even our lifestyle. This is an opportunity for living life by the Spirit and gaining the Spirit’s fruits, the Apostle Paul describes in Galatians:

Galatians 5:16-26 (NIV)

So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature.
For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit
what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other,
so that you do not do what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit,
you are not under law. The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.

We have a fresh and new opportunity for renewing our life in Christ, to die to the old and co-create a sustainable creation that God spoke into being. Jesus rose and goes forward creating a new world, asking us to join with him. What greater love is possible than to be doing Jesus’ ministry for him and through him. Creation Care, including climate change, is not about doing without. It’s about doing for Christ, and as such offers us the Spirit’s fruit the Apostle Paul describes above. The love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control result by being Christ for this world, acting as creation stewards. The world is not so patiently awaiting the church to be the church.Some of the least reached people groups in the world suffer the most from climate change. Knowing that the Church cares would offer new opportunities in evangelism, and be similar to the missionaries of old who came with the good news along with hospitals, food, and schools.

Even more than the poor, Jesus awaits us to be disciples. The Book of Acts opens with the disciples staring off into the heavens awaiting the Christ’s return. Two angels look down despairingly and ask, “What are you waiting for ” go be Jesus for the world.” It’s time for the church for be the Church and live out the double Biblical imperative to care for God’s creation and the least of these. How will we answer the call?

This Easter may the Church arise and follow our Risen Lord.

The Rev. Mitchel C. Hescox is President & CEO of the Evangelical Environmental Network

___________

[1] Louth, Andrew, ed., Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Vol. 1, Genesis 1-11, Inter Varsity Press, Downers Grove, IL, 2001. John Chrysostom, Homilies on Genesis 3:12, pg. 45

[2] Wright, N. T., After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters, Harper One, NY, NY, 2010, pg 74-75.

[3] Calvin, John, Commentary on the Prophet Isaiah, second volume, Christian Classics Ethereal Library, Grand Rapids, MI, http://www.ccel.org

[4] Jennings, Theodore W., Wesley and the Poor: An Agenda for Wesleyans, The Portion of The Poor: Good News to the Poor in the Wesleyan Tradition, Kingwoods Books, Nashville, TN, 1995, pg. 31.



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