Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Creation Care and Environmental Justice

By Maria Boccia, PhD
Professor of Pastoral Counseling and Psychology
Director of Graduate Programs in Counseling Charlotte campus

Yesterday, I was driving in my car listening to an NPR program called “The State of Things” which is produced by our local radio station at the University of North Carolina. They were describing the origins of the environmental justice movement, and interviewed the couple living in Warren County, North Carolina, who are credited with founding the movement. The story was an interesting account of their efforts to prevent their poor, predominantly black community from having a toxic waste landfill located in their community. In this story, the “environmental” aspect of the story is obvious. The “justice” aspect of this story is the way poor, and often predominantly minority, communities are exploited in this way. One aspect that caught my attention, however, which leads to this essay, was the couple’s rationale for their activism.
When the interviewer asked them what motivated them. They unabashedly declared, we are Christians, and we must take care of God’s creation. It is our duty. This was their motivation . . . . in the 1970s. As the story unfolded, their Christian commitment and how it motivated them to care for God’s creation wove in and out like a golden thread. It was a spiritual battle they were waging. It delighted me to hear this couple innocently declaring how their faith in the Creator God led them to engage in resisting the pollution of their community with toxic substances and in doing so gave birth to the environmental justice movement. All of that on NPR!
Today, I am more likely to hear evangelicals and other conservative Christians express criticism of environmental activism, and promoting development of all stripes. I’m always surprised by this, and that led me to reflect on why I find conservation issues so compelling. In my mind, it starts with the creation account. God created us in his image and gave us dominion over the creation. He placed us in the garden he had made and gave us the responsibility to tend it and cultivate it:
Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
The Lord God planted a garden toward the east, in Eden; and there He placed the man whom He had formed. Out of the ground the Lord God caused to grow every tree that is pleasing to the sight and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. . . .Then the Lord God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it. The Lord God commanded the man, saying, “From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.” [1]
When I was an undergraduate, I learned about ecology as a biology major, I became a Christian, and I learned about creation. The juxtaposition of these three experiences intertwined to set me on a course to be a Christian who believes in conservation, and what today has come to be known as “creation care.” Ecology taught me about the complexity of the world and the utter interdependence of each element on every other element in the environment. We cannot survive without each other. You eliminate all the wolves and the deer population grows explosively. They overgraze the forest until all the trees die. They get hit by cars and people are injured or die. They starve to death. We protect designer species like the tiger by setting aside great tracts of land, which protect all of the creatures who live in that environment, not just the tiger. As our environment goes, so goes the planet, and so go us.
As a young Christian, I learned that God made the world. Not only that, but he made us stewards of it. He gave us dominion, but that dominion was a stewardship under his sovereignty. God still is the creator of it all and the sustainer of it all. As a Christian, therefore, I realized that someday I would stand before my Lord, my God and the Creator of all that is, and account for my stewardship of the creation over which he gave me dominion. I have, therefore, always been confused by the opposition I have encountered among so many evangelicals and otherwise conservative Christians to conservation or any aspect of the environmental movement. Granted, taken to its extreme, it can be both idolatrous and ultimately destructive to the environment it desires to protect. Furthermore, our dominion as the only creature made in the image of God, includes cultivation of that creation. Therefore, my environmentalism is not a blind “leave it alone it does best when left to itself” view of the creation. God gave us the stewardship of the creation in order for us to care for it, cultivate it, and use it responsibly, knowing that ultimately we will have to give an account of our stewardship to the true owner of everything that exists. To do anything less seems to me to be both disobedient to the God who created us for this purpose, and destructive to the creation of which we are stewards and to our witness to the God we serve before the unbelieving world.

[1]New American Standard Bible : 1995 update. 1995 (Ge 1:26–28; 2:9-17). LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation.

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