Four Ways to Talk About the Environment as an Evangelical

By A.J. Swoboda 03-11-2014
Human interaction in creation care, Sergey Nivens /

Human interaction in creation care, Sergey Nivens /

After completing a full-length textbook to be released this coming summer called Introducing Evangelical Ecotheology (Baker Academic), I’ve come to believe that one of the central challenges the environmental conversation poses for evangelicals is a very practical one: How do evangelicals simply learn to talk about the environment in the life of their communities without being crucified or written off for it? It’s a real challenge for many; one that I believe must quickly be addressed.

Silence will always be the easiest answer. Recently, a member of my church community proudly completed the requirements of his chaplaincy training, having learned many of the ins and outs of the chaplaincy world. Turns out, the work of a chaplain requires a kind of juggling to serve the pressing needs of patient, families, doctors, and nurse — all while keeping a sane mind and a cool emotional demeanor in trying times.

In one of his final sessions, my friend was surprised to learn of a phenomenon in the medical community widely known as “Mutual Pretense.” In many cases, mutual pretense is something that takes place after the period of treatment for a particular patient has run its course and it’s become clear to everyone that it’s not working and the patient will die. Despite the fact that this the dark reality is clearly known by all parties involved, the doctor, patient, and family of the patient will often deal with the fact by talk about anything other than the fact that the patient is going to die. They’ll talk about what’ll happen once they get out the hospital, what they are going to do when everything better, about sports, about family — anything but the truth of the impending death.

Mutual pretense is a kind of survival mechanism that allows everyone to continue talking to each other while not having to actually talk about what’s going on.

When facing a crisis, silence is certainly easiest. But silence isn’t best. As we face some very challenging environmental issues, evangelicals must learn to begin to discuss the environmental crisis with creativity and integrity. Whether it’s because we know we play an integral role in the healing of the world, in agreement with Wendell Berry, who says our fate is “mingled in the fate of the world.” Or, because we’ve come to see our responsibility to care for God’s creation as a central aspect of our love of Jesus Christ. Regardless of our reason — silence can’t be our policy.

In a very real sense, the easiest way for us to deal with the realities of the 21st century ecological crisis is practicing a kind of mutual pretense. That’s the easiest thing to do. Despite the humming knowledge that hard things await, we will talk about anything without actually talking about what is going on. More than many, I know that this can be the practice of evangelical Christianity in which I am rooted. We’ll talk about the return of Jesus, about theology, about church practice, anything but what’s actually going on in our world.

The hardest thing to do is learn to stand up and speak for ecological justice even if it gets you in hot water. But it simply must be done. Unfortunately, the environmental conversation has been an off topic in more conservative communities out of sheer fear that it would be used to usher in an onslaught of liberal ideology that displaces the gospel at the core of our faith. But that fear-based way of approaching justice is just the thing that our conservative forbears would be disappointed in. Consider, for a moment, that the revivalist Charles Spurgeon was so avidly passionate about speaking strongly in his time against the institution of slavery that American publishers of his sermons began omitting his remarks on the subject in his publications.

The present challenge for many in the evangelical community is learning how to simply talk about the issues of environmental justice without being written off as having gone off the deep end.

Here are a few ideas to chew on:

1. Reject all suggestions that God’s creation is a liberal issue. For many evangelicals, there is a great deal of fear that environmental issues are progressive issues. Dispel that. If you are a conservative Christian and love God’s creation, be you, and love God’s creation.

2. Use your tradition to critique your tradition. By this, I mean, work tirelessly to locate and use evangelical heroes (pastors, theologians, leaders) who are well respected in the evangelical community and utilize them as a springboard for conversation. Some of our greatest heroes (e.g., N.T. Wright, Stanley Grenz, Frank Schaeffer) speak boldly about their belief in the integrity of creation and our responsibility to care for it. The very fact that they speak as boldly as they do offers you strong evangelical conversations partners.

3. Gladly embrace a healthy dose of rejection. It validates your cause greatly when your evangelical friends know that you care deeply enough in this to get into a little bit of trouble. Embrace that. I’ve heard it said that if you aren’t upsetting somebody, than you aren’t saying anything.

4. Tell your story. Your story is perhaps the most important way to begin a conversation. For myself, Jesus clearly revealed to me through a reading of Scripture that the issue of God’s creation is important to him. It’s my story, and Jesus has used it greatly to shape the way I think about the world and my role in it. As it is fitting, share your story with a friend of why you came to love God’s creation in the way that you do. Let your story do the preaching.

Dr. A.J. Swoboda is a pastor , writer , and professor in Portland. He is @mrajswoboda on Twitter.

Image: Human interaction in creation care, Sergey Nivens /

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