God saw all that he had made, and it was very good (Genesis. 1:31 NIV)
Imagine if Christians had been on the forefront of protecting our earth, if they actually viewed the world as God’s creation, and the animals as God’s animals, and the plants as God’s plants, and land as God’s land. What if the American Church spent millions of dollars fighting to preserve nature instead of investing in divisive culture wars and political lobbying campaigns? What if Christians were viewed as protectors of creation, shielding millions of acres of land, restoring polluted areas, and protecting animals from cruelty and exploitation?
Unfortunately, Earth Day is rarely celebrated within mainstream Christianity beyond a Sunday sermon, and environmentalism is often frowned upon by evangelical leaders instead of championed. Here are the main reasons Christians have rejected caring for our environment:
1) The Environmental Movement’s Political Affiliations
For years environmentalism has been associated with various political parties, personalities, ideas, and agendas. Iconic images of flower-holding hippies, Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, radical activists, slogans about Mother Earth, controversial nude promotions, and ruthless political ads are incomplete portraits of environmentalism — but many Christians still fear these associations and want to avoid being labeled as “liberal tree-huggers.”
Christians need to stop worrying about these associations and start taking small steps towards being good stewards of our world. How did something like becoming a vegetarian because of animal cruelty become so controversial among American Christians? Why is “going green” seen as a political statement instead of an act of following God? Unfortunately, environmentalism has been associated with everything but Christianity — this needs to change.
Christians have historically been opposed to the idea of evolution, seeing it as a direct assault against the creation story in Genesis. Contrarily, many scientists have accepted evolution as fact and some are anti-faith — creating a heated tension that has been emotionally fought out in schools, courts, and throughout the media. Traditionally, many pro-evolution scientists have also been environmentalists, further alienating many Christians away from an environmental movement they should wholeheartedly belong to. Environmentalism is often seen as a false idol that glorifies “Mother Earth,” but in reality it is a form of worshipping God.
3) The Victimless Crime Syndrome
When we flick a cigarette from our car window, drop a candy wrapper in the grass, dump used oil down the gutter, or do any sort of damage to the earth, we rarely see or feel the consequences. Unlike person-to-person conflict where reactions can be fast, furious, and swift, when we attack the earth, it simply continues to revolve, and the sun eventually rises the next morning.
We’ve lost our intimate connection with God’s creation, and technology has advanced so much that most of us no longer raise our own crops, care for our own animals, manage our fields, or purify our water. We no longer associate our food with animals that are stuffed with chemicals, or our clothes with where the material came from, or our fuel with how it changed our land. We may watch a documentary or news clip, but then our focus shifts to something we view as more important. Few Christians embrace creation care as a lifestyle choice, and few view it as a spiritual issue — but it is.
In fact, the only time we really care about these things is when a conflict forces us to address them. Thus, our attitude towards the earth is reactive instead of proactive. We passionately respond to oil spills, nuclear meltdowns, and smog levels that make it hard for us to breathe, but we fail at preventing these things from happening.
Genesis 1:26 talks about how God gave humans to the responsibility to rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground. Are we ruling well?
4) We have Short Attention Spans
Christians are similar to the rest of society: we value the present more than the future. We selfishly and continually ignore problems related to pollution, landfills, food processing, environmental change, chemical waste, and land mismanagement because they seem irrelevant to our current wants and needs. Environmental problems require lots of time, patience, and perseverance — too much for many churches to handle.
Westernized Christianity currently doesn’t value the environment, and few Christian organizations and churches offer educational classes, teaching, and ministries that focus on earth stewardship.
5) Environmentalists Who are Self-Righteous and Judgmental
Just because you eat meat, use pesticides, fail to recycle, or drive a diesel truck doesn’t mean you hate the earth. But we all know that person who posts “helpful” advice on Facebook on what foods to eat, which products are the most earth-friendly, and how to live a zero-waste life. They constantly link health problems with our inability to use chemically free dishwashing soap, and we feel horrifically guilty when our kids get sick because it was probably a result of them eating non-organic chicken.
As Christians, we need to show grace to those around us and realize that everyone is at different places in their life. For many, the idea of caring for the earth might be making the simple decision to recycle their trash, while others might become vegans. Each may view their own lifestyle changes as equally radical. Christians need to abandon the idea that caring for our earth requires radical minimalist living, and instead start trying to make small changes that benefit the world around us. Once we have mastered the small changes we can try something bigger.
The most frustrating part of Christian environmentalism isn’t that we’ve failed — it’s that we haven’t even tried!
Stephen Mattson has contributed for Relevant Magazine and the Burnside Writer's Collective, and studied Youth Ministry at the Moody Bible Institute. He is now on staff at Northwestern College in St. Paul, Minn. Follow him on Twitter @mikta.
Photo: Tree hugger, Andrei S / Shutterstock.com