Bridging the Environmental Gap
By anna m. clark
July 6, 2012
When I first started sharing my convictions about the environment, I thought, If I can just make people understand that saving the planet is the most critical issue of our time, we might all be okay, not understanding how sheltered and lopsided that point of view appears to many people. Try telling a mother whose child is terminally ill that melting glaciers should matter to her. Try telling a breadwinner who fears losing his job about the plight of the polar bear. Try telling a fundamentalist Christian who sees the end times as imminent that she should care about preserving the planet.
One reason why all the scientific evidence isn't translating into widespread green change is that many Americans put more stock in their beliefs than in science. America is a religious country. Whether we choose to admit it or not, our thoughts and actions are shaped by the beliefs we hold dear. Politicians don't ignore this, considering the media coverage dedicated to candidates' responses to the Religious Right.
Our forefathers didn't ignore it either. They created a government that would give religious freedom to people of all faiths. These men knew their Bible. The immensity of its wisdom is felt in their writings, some of which form the basis for our country's political and legal system.
The merits of the Bible are not discussed so openly today. Some of us do not relish discussing its nuances outside of Sunday school. Many of us have never read the Bible cover to cover. And yet, in today's sound-bite culture, we can find an enormous number of Christians who boil down the whole of humanity's relationship with the natural world to a single (and often unnuanced) word: dominion.
On the flip side are the secular environmentalists. In the eyes of believers, these activists come off as walking billboards advertising an angry message. And when each side turns a deaf ear to the other, both sides end up preaching to the choir and wonder why they don't have more new converts.
An Eco-Care Theology
A saying goes, "Liberals are people who know about the Bible but not what's in it, and conservatives are people who know what's in the Bible but know nothing about it." This has been confirmed for me a number of times with secular-minded friends and family, some who know biblical history as thoroughly as any other subject. At the same time, I have some Christian friends who know next to nothing about science or, for that matter, biblical history. This lack of understanding of both the theological basis for creation care and well-documented scientific evidence has led many social conservatives to resist environmental stewardship. Sadly, it has also turned many well-educated people off of Christianity.
While exploring different belief systems in search of an eco-care ethos, I decided to start by confronting my own. What I discovered among some Christians was disheartening. Some assert that God's green earth is simply too big, too indestructible to be tampered with by mere humans. My response is that among all the wonderful things that God created, we humans have managed to destroy a number of them. We have tortured, raped, aborted, and murdered other humans throughout history. We have abused, neglected, and exploited animals. And if we look at the overwhelming scientific consensus, we are doing the same thing to our planet.
Although most Christians won't admit this, many of us do not know our Bible. I used to be one of them, and I still am to a large extent, though it's not for lack of trying. It just happens to be a very large book. In 2005, after having my daughter Jordan, I had an unquenchable urge to test out my own beliefs. Acting on my newfound convictions, I took that year to read the Bible in full for the first time.
It's been five years now since I began studying the Bible. Since that time, I've come to understand the importance of reading things in their historical context. Written over two thousand years ago, the Bible says a lot of things that aren't easily understood in today's world. Also, it is open to interpretation from dozens of denominations. For example, the Bible tells us that God created the earth for the benefit of humankind. One oft-cited passage reads, "Then God said, 'Let us make man in our image, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth and over all the creatures that move along the ground'" (Gen. 1:26).
We must ask ourselves if words such as rule (or dominion from the earlier King James Version) can mean the same thing as squander, exploit, and dominate. In the context of the kings in the Old Testament, rulers who exercised dominion in cruel ways were used as examples of how not to behave. Based on biblical teachings, a more appropriate interpretation of rule is "steward." Deciphering the meaning behind these nuances requires scholarship, prayer, and wisdom.
Even if we account for varying theological leanings, it is difficult to build any case against a clear biblical mandate to protect the planet when we read, "The land is mine and you are but aliens and my tenants. Throughout the country that you hold as a possession, you must provide for the redemption of the land" (Lev. 25:23-24), or, "The earth is the LORD'S, and everything in it" (Ps. 24:1).
An ancient Native American proverb says, "We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children." As I read ancient passages, I am struck by the realization that as wonderful as modern living is, it has severed our bond with nature. Happily, people from all faith traditions are seeking to renew this bond. An eco-care ethos is as universal to humanity as is the search for God himself.
Excerpt taken from Green, American Style by Anna M. Clark. Copyright © 2010 by Anna M. Clark. Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group. Used by permission. All rights to this material are reserved. Material is not to be reproduced, scanned, copied, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without written permission from Baker Publishing Group.