Wrong Words lead to Wrong Actions: Environmentalism and John 3:16

She came in on a hot summer day to be treated for Asthma.  Dr. Matt Sleeth treated the young child, born into poverty, and told little Etta for whom breathe had become a literal life and death matter, that he wouldn’t let her die.  A few years later though, she did die, in a severe asthma attack – in prosperous America.  Don’t worry – this isn’t a post about American health care system(s).  It’s about something much more important- how our reading, or misreading, of the Bible shapes our actions and how those actions affect other people.

Dr. Sleeth gives us a hint of the issue when he writes that “to reduce traffic congestion during the Olympics, the city of Atlanta closed the downtown area to car traffic, increased access to public transportation through additional buses and tyrains, and promoted flexible work schedules, carpooling, and telecommuting for Atlanta workers.  The result:  for seventeen days, peak daily ozone concentrations decreased 28%.  Concurrently, acute asthma events dropped as much as 44%.  Atlanta’s inner-city children on Medicaid seemed to benefit the most, showing a more than 40% decrease in asthma related emergency room visits.  After the Olympics, when Atlanta traffic patterns returned to normal, so did Ozone concentration, asthma attacks, and rates of emergency room visits among the poor.”

The colors of brokenness in our world are many: human trafficking, abortion, torture, totalitarianism imposed in the name of God, or the state, or both, addictive behaviors of every stripe, greed, loneliness, boredom, poverty, lack of access to clean water or health care.  The good news is that for many of these issues, Christians are stepping up, painting the colors of hope on the canvass of their world.  Soon, our church will begin partnering with a mobile medical clinic to meet the needs of an increasingly large uninsured American populace, which will better enable us to serve our world and make God’s reign visible.

There’s an area though of injustice and devastation that at best gets little attention among Christ followers.  At worst this area is dismissed as snake oil science, or new age attempts at a one world government.  The neglected area is environmentalism, and its well beyond time that the church wake up to just how central stewardship of the planet is to our calling.  Scott Sabin, who directs a favorite project of mine (more about that later) has written a simple small book about environmental stewardship as a central element of discipleship.  His thesis is  that it’s central for __ reasons.

1. Our God given task has never changed.  – Genesis 1 & 2 reminds us that our calling is to ‘serve’ (translated ‘work’ in most Bibles) and ‘protect’ (translated ‘keep’) the garden.  It was, in fact, the very first job God gave to humanity, and though humans were removed from the garden, every indication of God’s dealings with his people (see especially the environmental laws related to Israel’s treatment of the land, and related public health laws having to do with water sanitation and waste treatment) is that this calling never left humanity.  To the contrary, God’s judgement on Israel is that ‘the land mourns‘.  When our lives are driven by greed and consumerism, we’ll overuse and abuse creation, and the result will be environmental degradation.

2. Our fallen world cries out for us to act.  Romans 8 tells us that all of creation is longing for the redemption of humanity, that creation is groaning as humankind abuses creation.  You see, in God’s creation mandate he told all creatures to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ so that the cycle of replenishment could continue on the earth down through the millenia.  Instead, we’re presently seeing increasingly species extinctions that are caused by humans (especially through pollution, overfishing and over hunting).  This isn’t just a problem for the whales and polar bears.  The same causes of extinction create cultural crises, and environmental crisis, so that people, made in God’s image, suffer too.  Cancer and Asthma are on the rise in America, but that’s less than even the tip of the melting iceberg.

3. It’s part of the upstream solution to numerous downstream problemsScott’s book speaks of environmental as a justice issue because our failure to steward the earth has become a contributing factor to countless justice issues:

“There is a dramatic statistical correlation between race and proximity to facilities where hazardous waste is treated, stored, and disposed of.”  (Scott Sabin) Entire communities are destroyed in Appalachia by “mountaintop removal coal mining practices” which blow the top 800′ off a mountain to get at the coal, destroying streams and water tables for communities below.  It’s cheap and efficient if your only consideration is dollars.  But if the long term well being of communities is worth anything, then we need to rethink this.

Illegal immigration?  Countless immigrants from Mexico make their way to the states, not because they want x-boxes and flat screen TV’s, but because their land has stopped producing anything at all, having been stripped of its topsoil for a host of reasons. Astonishingly, some Americans have responded to this by saying we need to deport ‘these people’ so that we can collectively have a smaller environmental footprint.  I can’t respond to that kind of thinking without swearing, so I’ll move on.

In Thailand, this same problem doesn’t lead to illegal immigration – it leads to parents selling their children, often unwittingly, into sexual slavery.  That 13 year old girl sleeping with 20 men a night is doing this because her parents were unable to feed her, or themselves.

What does all this have to do with the Bible?  Many of us remember reading John 3:16 as children and being told to replace the Bible’s words, “the world” with our own name.  So, when I was in 4th grade, I stole a glance in Sunday school at the brown haired girl across the circle before reading out loud, “For God so loved Richard Dahlstrom that he gave his only son”.  It’s great to be loved by God.  It’s terrible to mess with the Bible that way.  God was saying something significant here about his love, not just for me, not just for humanity even, but for the whole world – for rock badgers and mountain goats, salmon and honeybees, forests and mountaintops.  By the reading the book of Job, I get the feeling that God loved the world because he delighted in it, and while that’s true, the more I understand the world, the more I realize that he loved every element in the world because every element needs every other element.  The ones in charge of loving the whole world on God’s behalf?  Well, these days, it’s supposed to be God’s followers.  Instead, God’s followers are often too busy protecting free markets and deregulation, so they outsource environmentalism to “the world”.  I, for one, am moving in a different direction because I can’t appeal to Genesis as the basis for marriage and continue to be silent on God’s words regarding care for the planet which come from the same chapter in the Bible.

I welcome your thoughts…

About Richard Dahlstrom

As Pastor of Bethany Community Church in Seattle, Richard teaches with vision of "making the invisible God visible" by calling people to acts of service and blessing. It's working, as a wilderness ministry, homeless shelter, and community meals that serve those living on the margins are all pieces of Bethany's life. "We're being the presence of Christ" he says, "and inviting everyone to join the adventure." Many have, making Bethany one of the fastest growing churches in America in 2009 according to Outreach Magazine.

  • http://www.lifeisontheground.com Scott

    Well said! Thank you for articulating, and for helping mobilize action.

  • Lamont

    “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that
    rock badgers and mountain goats, salmon and honeybees, forests and mountaintops believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

    Jesus was talking to “Nick At Night” (Ref: John 3).
    Nick was a devout Jew. Jews (wrongly) believed that only Jews would be saved. Jesus then reminds Nick of Moses holding up the serpent in the wilderness. The ones (Isrealites) bit by the serpents that looked upon it (the serpent) were saved. Those that did not perished. Jesus was equating that (serpent) with the cross (the anti-type). Jesus was letting Nick know that it wasn’t just about Jews, but God so loved the “world” (Kosmos) both Jews and gentiles, that He gave His only begotten…
    That flows perfectly hand in hand with what John tells us later in Rev 5:9 …
    “…you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God
    from every tribe and language and people and nation…”

    The word “Kosmos” (English “World”) is used in more than 14 different ways in the NT:

    http://www.pbministries.org/books/pink/Sovereignty/appendix_03.htm

    I don’t agree w/your use of it in this particular instance. The context does not allow it.
    There are other verses in scripture which show that God loves His “Kosmos” i.e. creation.

    I understand what you are trying to get across and am better off for it.

    Thank you.

  • mark epps

    Yeah, it’s very tempting to apply scripture to what we believe instead of visa versa. That “slippery slope” suddenly appears and away we go. I am not saying that is what is happening here, but it is very unnecessary and a little disconcerting when it raises its “ugly head” even in seemingly harmless ways. Christianity has a horrible history of being wrongly convinced, me included. I appreciate your comment, Lamont. And your passion to bring us back to the “center”, Richard.


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