by Beth Baker
Major faith groups, from Evangelical to Catholic to Jewish, are using the Bible and a concern for God's creation as the inspiration for a new kind of environmentalism.
Note: This article originally appeared in COMMON BOUNDARY, September/October 1996. We would like to thank both Common Boundary and Beth Baker for allowing the Web of Creation to reprint this article.
New Testament professor David Rhoads of the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago remembers clearly how he became an ardent environmentalist. An environmental canvasser knocked on his door, asking for contributions, and handed him a newsletter containing a story that he says "connected" with him.
The story was about a man whose uncle considered himself the family environmentalist. The uncle's main concern was preserving the giant redwoods of California. "He would tell all his relatives about the importance of these old-growth trees that were so beautiful and needed to be saved,"says Rhoads. But one summer the uncle found that he needed to replace the pier at his lakefront home. He was advised that the best material for a new pier was redwood, which he proceeded to use. The uncle still considered himself the family environmentalist, the story continued, but he no longer talked about saving the redwoods. Instead, he became an enthusiastic defender of the whales.
"This story touched a raw nerve about my sense of hypocrisy," says Rhoads,"How easy it is to save something that you stand for, but how difficult it is to live it. Reflecting on that story led me to say, I'm choosing (environmentalism) as a concern that I want to express with integrity.' "
Today Rhoads is helping transform his seminary and other church groups in the Chicago region into models of earth stewardship. "It is very important that we bring this concern for the environment into the orbit of faith, because no technological fix will heal what we have done to creation," Rhoads believes. "Healing will require a major change of lifestyle, a profound human transformation."
Rhoads is one of hundreds of leaders of major faith groups committed to weaving environmental concerns into the fabric of religious life. In the process, they are making changes both practical and philosophical - from using recycled paper in church bulletins to making "covenants with creation" intended to transform people's beliefs, attitudes, and behavior toward the planet.
"The Church is bringing a historical and spiritual grounding to the 'why' of why we need to save our environment," says Renee Rico, who recently quit her career with the Environmental Protection Agency to pursue a spiritual calling at the San Francisco Theological Seminary. "Secular groups are really good at strategy and understanding how to do things. But when they try to articulate why, they often come across as shrill. When religious people talk about it, it comes across as part of a whole way of living."
Rico has found a way to merge her religious calling with her environmental expertise through an internship with the Bay Area Religious Coalition for Green planning, a partnership to promote sustainable development policies. "It's an exciting way for congregations to say we care about these issues," says Rico. "Collaboration is the way to get things done."
This "greening of theology" brings a new dimension to the environmental movement. The major environmental organizations tend to focus more on regulation, litigation, and political action than on matters of the soul. While nature is revered through Sierra Club calendars and Greenpeace activism, the notion of a Divine Creator is not reflected in the movement's language.
"Many people, whether religious or not, can speak of encounters they've had with the natural world as inspiring,"says Michal Smart, director of education for the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL). "We have the tools and the conceptual vocabulary to help them understand and expand on that. From the secular perspective, it's hard to talk about why other species have inherent value. The biblical perspective starts with a fundamental belief that this world is God's creation and not an accident, that we therefore have some moral responsibility to care for what God has created.
Such an approach to environmental problems transcends political and religious boundaries and is embraced by such traditional conservatives as evangelical Christians and Eastern Orthodox denominations. The common thread running through the teachings of these diverse religions is stewardship of God's creation. "After all, we claim to know the Creator and serve the Creator, so we should be about the business of serving God's creation," says Reverend Stan LeQuire, director of the Evangelical Environmental Network, a leadership institute in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania.
The Evangelical Environmental Network is one of four major faith groups affiliated with the National Religious Partnership for the Environment (NRPE), a New York-based coalition that aims to infuse environmental concerns into religious life. Organized in 1993 NRPE brings the Evangelicals together with the National Council of Churches of Christ (NCC), representing mainline Protestant and black denominations; the U.S. Catholic Conference (USCC), the public-policy arm of Roman Catholic bishops; and COEJL, representing all denominations of Judaism. NRPE affiliates claim to serve 100 million Americans.
"For us, this is not just another issue, not just another mobilization, not just another campaign, but an effort to understand what it means to be religious, now and henceforth, in light of the global environmental crisis," says NRPE executive director Paul Gorman. "We are not the environmental movement at prayer; we are not Greens in collars. We are religious people acting a distinctively religious response."
Says seminarian Rico: "Racing around sending letters to Congress, though part of our duty, is not the most important thing. It's personal and communal transformation."
Many in this new movement reflect a strong desire to distinguish the religious message from that of the traditional environmental movement. For some members of conservative churches, the environmental movement is seen as politically liberal and philosophically suspect, representing secular humanism or "tree-worshiping" paganism. In its manual "Let Evangelical Churches to Care for God's Creation," the Evangelical Environmental Network takes pains to distinguish itself in this regard:
"Many in our society, caught up in a chaotic, technological world, are looking to the beauty and harmony of nature for meaning in their lives. The New Age movement has offered them an answer by focusing on the spiritual aspects of the creation. What New Age followers don't realize is that they love creation because they are actually seeing and experiencing the invisible attributes of God. Some even worship the creation because they do not know the Creator. Christian faith never confuses the distinction between God and nature."
Interestingly, NRPE was sparked not by eco-activists in the pews but rather by a band of eminent scientists who called upon religious leaders to join in the challenge of saving a threatened planet. In an "Open Letter to the Religious Community," issued at an international conference in Moscow in 1990, 34 scientists - including astronomer Carl Sagan, paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, and physicist Hans Bethe - decried the state of the global ecosystem and urged that "problems of such magnitude and solutions demanding so broad a perspective must be recognized from the outset as having a religious as well as a scientific dimension."
Hundreds of US religious leaders responded. Subsequent discussions included representatives of major faith groups, scientists, and members of Congress, including then-Senators Al Gore, Tim Wirth, John Heinz, and James Jeffords. By 1991, a consensus emerged from the religious leaders that "the cause of environmental integrity and justice must occupy a position of utmost priority for people of faith," according to a joint statement. This commitment led to the establishment of NRPE, with the help of private foundation grant money.
Originally planned as a three year project, NRPE was recently extended for three more years, as the movement has blossomed. "It is now possible to say that the American religious community, across a remarkably broad spectrum of faith groups, has established structural ownership of the environmental agenda,"says Gorman. "This is now rooted in the soil of religious life in America."
Each of the four NRPE faith groups found its own path to environmental involvement, drawing on its particular texts and language. Evangelical leaders, for example, studied the Bible for nine months, reflecting on whether their spiritual teachings called them to environmentalism. "Our conclusion overwhelmingly was that we must take a stand on this issue," says Reverend LeQuire.
For Evangelicals, the Old Testament story of Noah was pivotal in their understanding. "Our main biblical message was the story of Noah's ark, where God clearly and deliberately said, 'Save all the creatures,' " says Reverend LeQuire. "Not those who look cute and cuddly, not those with medicinal value, but all of them-every slug and salamander. That's a demanding message, even more than the secular environmental message. We are called as Christians to save them just because they are God's."
Indeed, the religious response to the environmental crisis is more far-reaching, coherent, even more radical than the environmental movement's has been. While environmental groups are often organized around a particular problem - clean water or wildlife protection, for instance - the churches view the whole earth and all of its inhabitants, including humans, as God's sacred creation, and they do not rely on pragmatic or utilitarian arguments to defend endangered species.
The faith groups also share a strong focus on the relationship between degradation of the earth and poverty. Humanity's devastating impact on the planet affects not only rainforests and spotted owls; problems such as deforestation, desertification, and water and air pollution also cause severe health and economic hardships for human populations around the globe. Churches speak out forcefully on this connection, and their environmental work is closely linked to their international hunger and development programs.
"We experience God as Redeemer as well as Creator, in healing the brokenness of the world," says Bill Somplastky-Jarman, who heads the Presbyterian Church USA's Environmental Justice Office, based in Louisville, Kentucky. "It is the experience of God in both ways that led the religious community to coin the phrase 'eco-justice,' which is really deepening the linkage between social and economic justice for humankind on a thriving earth. We have a more holistic understanding of what we need to do to protect both the planet and the people who live on it."
Parallel with NRPE's formation has been a movement among Christian and Jewish scholars to reread religious texts in light of the environmental crisis. This reading of the Bible with a "green lens," as Rhoads puts it has led to new interpretations of traditional passages. In the past, the Book of Genesis was cited as justification for destroying wildlife habitats. According to Genesis, "God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth." How could saving the snail darter or the spotted owl, at a cost of people losing their jobs, be the right thing to do, went the argument, when the Bible so clearly stated humanity's right to dominate other species?
"That's a total misunderstanding of the scripture and of Hebrew words," says Walt Grazer, director of USCC's Environmental Justice Program in Washington, D.C. According to USCC's manual "Renewing the Face of the Earth -A Resource for parishes," "Such an anthropocentric (human-centered) world view is certainly not biblical. The Bible has a theocentric (God-centered) view...It is false to think that humankind is itself the measure of everything."
Another theme being revisited is that of natural disasters common in the Old Testament. In many Bible stories, God punished people for their sins by unleashing floods, droughts, locusts, and other plagues. In rereading the Bible, environmental theologians are now considering our sins against the earth. When people ignore God's command to care for His creation, according to the new interpretation, the result is ecological degradation.
Once the theological foundation was laid, NRPE's faith groups took seriously their commitment to imbue their congregations with an environmental ethic. As a first step, each of the four affiliates developed its own comprehensive manual to send to local congregations. More than 100,000 manuals have been published:
- The USCC's Environmental Justice Program sent its manual to all of the nation's 18,000 parishes.
- COEJL distributed its "To Till and to Tend" manual to every synagogue, Jewish school, and Jewish agency in the nation, including Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform congregations.
- The NCC, which worked on environmental issues well before NRPE was established, sent manuals to 10,000 congregations. Subsequent mailings reached tens of thousands of others.
- The Evangelical Environmental Network distributed 35,000 "Let the Earth Be Glad" kits to Evangelical churches. Twelve hundred responded that they wanted to get involve.
How much is this initial effort has taken hold in local churches is difficult to measure. NRPE has identified more than 2,000 churches that are actively engaged in environmental activities, although Gorman believes that the number is much higher. Thirteen regional trainings for 2,000 clergy and lay leaders have been held, and legislative - alert networks have been set up to mobilize 25,000 public ñ policy activist
Local congregations have shown creativity and breadth in the ways they're getting involved. Leaders of Eastern Orthodox denominations gathered in Baltimore for a major conference that culminated in a blessing of the waters of the city's harbor. They also organized a boat trip through the Greek Islands for religious leaders, scientists, and government officials to discuss the relationship between scientific understanding and theology.
In Chicago, Rhoads helped organize a regional conference, sponsored by NCC, on "Making Your Church a Creation - Awareness Center." Worships were held on 20 topics, from energy - efficient buildings and urban gardens to liturgical resources, personal lifestyle, and teaching the Bible for the integrity of creation. This fall, the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago is launching an Internet service, called the Web of Creation, to provide similar information to parishes around the nation.
In Minnesota's Twin Cities, Lutheran churches are crating a model for "congregation - supported agriculture," in which Lutheran families invest in small, organic farm operations. Farmers are seen as "earth-keepers,"says Job Ebenezer, director for environmental stewardship and hunger education for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. "These are people who are taking care of God's creation. Helping the farmer grow safe food becomes part of a spiritual journey for both the farmer and the supporter." Some of the food is then used for the Church's hunger programs.
Catholic churches have emphasized safe agriculture and the protection of farmworkers from dangerous pesticides. In Hereford, Texas, the Promised Land Network is working with a community of 100 small farmers to teach sustainable agriculture techniques, including better grazing and less reliance on chemicals. The effort is part of the Church's rural ministry, says project staffperson Lydia Villanueva, and fosters reverence for creation, knowledge of ecology, community empowerment, and spiritual renewal.
In Portland, Oregon, Jenny Holmes, chair of the Interfaith Network for Earth Concerns, a program of Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon, feels that the church can play an important role in finding common ground among people who have been at odds over environmental issues. At a recent conference called "Ethics, Economics, and Endangered Species: Finding Ecological and Ethical Integrity Together,"a panel representing federal agencies and timber, environmental, community - development, commercial - fishing, and small - woodland interest discussed issues surrounding endangered species. It offered people representing disparate interests an opportunity for dialogue in a "safe and respectful environment," says Holmes.
Perhaps the best - publicized example of church involvement with environmental issues came in January, when the Evangelical Environmental Network went to Capitol Hill to urge protection for the endangered Species Act. "The story was covered by ABC World News, National Public Radio, BCS Radio, and more newspapers than I can count," says Reverend LeQuire of his network's first legislative foray. "It really caught their attention that evangelicals would have a voice in this matter."
"This is a community stereotypically regarded as being in the heart of the religious Right," says Gorman. "they were coming forward with a strong religious message, saying, 'Don't touch the Endangered Species Act." This from a community that has been utterly beyond the reach of the environmental movement."
The religious message is getting through to policymakers. While some Republican Congressional leaders lambasted the evangelicals, Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich gave them an audience. Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt met with NRPE representatives and began using biblical and spiritual themes in his environmental speeches. In his keynote address to the Associated Church Press at its 1996 convention, Babbitt sprinkled his political message with religious images and biblical allusions. "You can help," he concluded, "by asking your leaders, your congregations, and yourselves to transcend the narrow partisan differences which can only drive us back toward destruction, and instead uphold our moral obligation as stewards of God's creation, which can only bring us closer to the hope and renewal that was and is the promise of His covenant." Babbitt also sought out Holme's group in Portland, visiting an urban stream restoration project. The publicity around Babbitt's visit generated considerable local interest in what churches were doing with regard to the environment.
Many in this emerging movement, such as Holmes, are longtime environmentalists who are pleased to finally be able to combine their spirituality with their green ethics. In addition, churches are reaching people who would not normally heed the environmental call. Homes describes a forest- industry attorney who participated in an ecology - theology study and was able for the first time to think about his work in terms of his faith. "For many people, the church is their source of values," says Holmes, who recently became a "restoring- creation enabler," a new position created by a grassroots network of Presbyterians. "If they hear something coming from their community of faith, it has more weight than if they hear it from another source, and it reaches people's hearts."
Michal Smart of COEJL agrees that religious institutions broaden the constituency for environmentalism beyond the ranks of large advocacy organizations. "The American public is tiring of the alarmist message," says Smart. "People are desperately in need of inspiration and a love of creation, and we can offer that enthusiasm and faith. I see myself as part of the environmental movement - a unique part. I feel a genuine religious calling to engage in these issues and a genuine religious horror when I look at what people are doing to creation."
Religious leaders say they've met little resistance from congregants. In fact, many appear to have been waiting for just such leadership from their pastors and rabbis. "In almost every congregation, you'll find people with whom this new emphasis just hit the mark and resonated with what they've been feeling for a long time," says Somplatsky - Jarman.
Evangelicals, too - perhaps the most socially and politically conservative of the faith groups - welcomed the new message, according to Reverend LeQuire. Opposition from Church members has been "very minimal," he says. "Much greater has been the attitude of 'Thank God you're here; I'm glad you're doing this.' "
Nevertheless, the road to transforming every local church and church member will be a long one. We're planting the seeds and creating some models," says Ebenezer. "Education will also change the minds of people and transform their spirits. Basically, that's what we're looking for. If the churches can take leadership, then sustainability can be achieved."
How to Get Involved
For ideas on how to blend spiritual and environmental concerns, contact the National Religious Partnership for the Environment (NRPE) and ask for the report "Models of Engagement profiles of Environmentally Active Congregations." Included are short profiles of 150 congregations involved in such projects as environmental education workshops for synagogues, a community harvest festival sponsored by the Diocese of Duluth, Minnesota, and Eastern Orthodox Epiphany services held on the banks of the polluted Mississippi River. Call NRPE at (800) 280 - 8858.
Each of NRPE's four faith groups has produced "creation care" manuals that weave together biblical teachings, liturgy, hymns, learning activities for adults and children, and scientific information:
To order "To Till and to Tend," contact the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, 443 Park Avenue South, 11th Floor, New York, NY 10016; (212) 684 - 6950.
To order "God's Earth Our Home," contact the National Council of Churches of Christ, Environment Associate, 475 Riverside Drive, Room 572, New York, NY 10115; (212) 870 - 2386.
To order "Renewing the Face of the Earth," contact the United States Catholic conference, Environmental Justice Program, 3211 4th Street, NE, Washington, DC 20017; (202) 541 - 3182.
To order "Let the Earth Be Glad," contact the Evangelical Environmental Network, 10 East Lancaster Avenue, Wynnewood, PA 19096; (610) 645 - 9392. At the same address, you can order Green Cross, a quarterly environmental magazine for Evangelical Christians. A recent issue included articles on theology ("Hearing the Word of God in Creation"), practical information ("How Lawn Chemicals Degrade Creation"), and profiles of communities and individuals "on the healing edge"of planetary stewardship. Subscriptions are $25 ($12 for students and low-income people).