Living a Green Revolution

Tolstoy famously declared, "Everybody wants to change the world, but no one thinks of changing himself." Any call to transformation must first begin with ourselves.  

Integrity counts. If we want to be listened to, we first need to practice what we preach; if we advocate taking care of the environment, we had better make sure our lives match up.

We can fall into two traps when we pursue change, whether it's in ourselves or in the community around us. The first is that the changes we make can give us only the appearance of being environmentally sensible, while little below the surface is truly improved. In envirospeak, this is called "greenwashing," and it can be either intentional or unintentional.

For instance, we separate out the recyclables from our regular trash in public, but cut corners and dump both out together in private. Or we buy a fuel-efficient car but then end up driving it a lot more on unnecessary trips that were short enough to walk. In both scenarios, we are not as truly green as we think we are or give the appearance of being.

We must be alert to avoid greenwashing. We might make a change to help us look or feel good, instead of doing it because it really makes a difference. This can happen when we are not honest with those around us. Jesus railed at a group of religious leaders (the Pharisees) for trying to appear holy while living in sin:

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men's bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness (Matthew 23:27-28).

The second trap is legalism. This is something else the Pharisees struggled with. They were so busy keeping their rules that they lost track of the bigger picture; they emphasized the letter of the law so much that they did not grasp its meaning. As a result, they became self-righteous and prideful, judging and condemning others for not being as holy as themselves.

There are two aspects of this legalism. The first is that we end up obsessing about details and making them count far more than they really should. I often make this mistake. Once I got very involved in a discussion with some friends over whether it was more energy-efficient to boil water for tea in a hotpot or in a microwave-not a big deal compared to the cross-country round trip to Florida we were also planning. Many things we do in life affect the planet, but some have a far heavier impact than others. We should not get so distracted focusing on the little details that we miss the really big problems.

The second aspect of legalism is that it builds a superiority complex. In Luke 18, Jesus tells the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector "to some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else" (v. 9). Retold in our context, the story might go something like this:

Two men go to church one Sunday: an environmentalist and a business student. The environmentalist boldly stands up in public and thanks God that he is such a good person because of all he does to warn people about the environmental crisis: ''I'm totally on top of this. I learn all about the damage going on in the planet. I fly all over to see these places and buy lots of carbon credits to offset my travel. I am way ahead of the curve compared to everyone else" In the corner, the business student bows his head and silently confesses, "I don't know very much about this environmental stuff yet, but I imagine my lifestyle is not sustainable at all. I wish I could afford a hybrid car or solar panels, and live close enough to bike to work, but I can't. I feel so trapped. I want to be a better steward of the earth-please help me."

Jesus concluded this parable-his original version-with a lesson that must have scandalized his audience: "I tell you that this man [the business student], rather than the other [the environmentalist], went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted" (v. 14).

Legalism is a danger for all of us. We can get so caught up in the details of green living that we forget what really matters and begin to do things out of pride instead of love.

Learning to live well and sustainably on the earth is a lifelong process. I have found that being young is an advantage here, because I own relatively few material possessions and don't have a family yet. This is an easier time to be intentional about lifestyle choices and to start good habits that grow stronger through time.

In the end, though, we are all on this journey toward good stewardship together, even if we are at different stages or facing diverse circumstances along the way. The point here is not to compare or to compete with each other, but to keep moving in the right direction.

Along the way, other people will take notice and be inspired to ioin us on this journey. We are in a unique position to witness through the way we live. In a world inundated with many competing claims, actions speak louder than words, and transformed lives authenticate our message.

As Gandhi said, "You must be the change you want to see in the world."

Taken from Green Revolution: Coming Together to Care for Creation by Ben Lowe. Copyright(c) 2009 by Ben Lowe. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press PO Box 1400 Downers Grove, IL 60515. www.ivpress.com.

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