This month is bookended by seemingly disparate holidays: on one end, Easter, and on the other, Earth Day and Arbor Day. If you grew up attending church, there’s a good chance your early years included celebrations of the first holiday and little mention of the latter two. Planting trees was for hippies, and environmentalism was for those in the “secular” camp.
Today, a growing number of faithful followers are changing the face of environmental stewardship within the Church. Still, the link between creation care and Kingdom work is one that needs repairing. This month, as we both marvel over Christ’s resurrection and celebrate Earth and Arbor Day, let’s take a fresh look at the connection between the two.
Creation and the rural poor
Matthew 25:40 says, “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”
Across the globe, rural communities represent “the least of these.” An enormous 70 percent of the world’s poorest people—those scraping by on less than $1.25 a day—live in rural areas.1 These communities depend on the earth in a more direct way than many of us will ever understand.
Individuals who harvest the ground have an innate connection to Creation and the Creator. Subsistence farmers depend on the soil to produce food for their families; they know the seasons and when rains will come to water their crops and allow seeds to send out roots. These roots are literally life for those living in extreme rural poverty. Because the connection is so direct, harming the earth also harms the people it sustains.
Deforestation is one of the clearest examples of this cause-and-effect sequence. As agricultural productivity decreases, farmers who are desperate to feed their families often turn to cutting down trees to sell for cash, or to clear land for farming. Yet any attempt to grow crops on cleared land will be unproductive because the soil’s fertility and ability to absorb water are held in the very trees being cut down. Deforestation also leads to erosion, loss of topsoil, water pollution and increased vulnerability during storms. The continued decline in productivity ironically leads to more tree cutting, and the vicious cycle continues.
Not surprisingly, it is the least of these—mothers and fathers struggling to grow enough food for their children, or to make enough money to send them to school—who are most affected when deforestation disrupts the earth’s production system. Environmental stewardship in all forms is a bold move of resistance against the poverty cycle. It is a tangible expression of love both for God as Creator and for His people.
What does all this mean? It means our appreciation for the magnificence of the natural world should extend past Earth Day. It means that planting trees is much more than an activity reserved for Arbor Day.
Planting trees is social justice and Kingdom work at its most fundamental level. In fact, environmental care as a whole is God-glorifying. As Scott Sabin, executive director of Plant With Purpose, writes in Tending to Eden, “Our care for the creation should be driven by a desire to love others because God first loved us. Jesus loves his creation and has a plan to redeem it. And we have been given a role to play in that redemption.”2
The radically hopeful work of earth care
So, back to environmentalism, Easter, and the question: What in the world do they have to do with each other? As it turns out, everything.
Easter marks the launch of God’s Kingdom on earth—as it is in heaven. It should come as no surprise, then, that creation care is radically hopeful work. God’s Kingdom is present, which means that this earth is being restored. It also means that this physical, present, sensory world—and of course, the people who live in it—must be tended. As Bishop N.T. Wright puts it in his essay, “Jesus Is Coming—Plant a Tree,”
“I don’t know how my planting a tree today will relate to the wonderful trees that will be in God’s recreated world … but I know that God’s new world of justice and joy, of hope for the whole earth, was launched when Jesus came out of the tomb on Easter morning.”
Although we may not know what the trees we plant today will look like in God’s renewed creation, we do know that planting a tree today provides food for the hungry, water for the thirsty and dignity for the downtrodden. Planting trees in areas of rural poverty provides a sustainable source of nutrition for families and income to access education. Planting trees becomes a source of hope in the here and now.
Planting trees in our own backyards will also heal the air, soil, and atmosphere shared by both our next-door and international neighbors. In fact, any actions we take now to steward God’s garden—composting, reducing consumption, cutting our carbon footprint, and conserving energy—ensure that the earth will remain a productive place to sustain those who depend on it daily. This is undeniably Kingdom work, and it’s a response to the new life of resurrection Jesus inaugurated on Easter morning.
By caring for creation, we are actively affirming the good future of this earth. Even more importantly, when we work for creation’s well-being, we also work for the health, dignity and wellbeing of the 70 percent of the world’s poorest people who depend on it for their very survival. After all, Jesus died and rose again for all of us—including the “least of these.”
Easter is God’s day, yes. But Earth Day and Arbor Day are His, too.
And every day after and in between, we are invited to join Jesus in the great work of letting resurrection take root on earth as it is in heaven. This April, let’s put trees in the ground and acknowledge that God’s healing work has already begun, and that there is much more yet to come.
Annelise Battles is pursuing writing and nonprofit work in San Diego, and will drop everything for a leisurely breakfast, outdoor activities and good conversation. She collects words at ajbattles.tumblr.com and interns at Plant With Purpose. You can learn more about Plant With Purpose and its dedication to combatting poverty through environmental stewardship at www.plantwithpurpose.org.