Environmentalism and the Gospel

Care for Creation—A Major Theme of the Bible?
The way the Bible frames the question “What is Christian mission?” is to ask who Jesus is, and what it means to follow him as Lord.

From the beginning of Genesis to the final promises of Revelation, the biblical story is of God’s love reaching out to his whole creation, and supremely to people within it. Nothing else can explain the promise of the first covenant in Genesis 9:17, “This is the sign of the covenant I have established between me and all life on earth” or the ringing hope of Romans 8:19-21, “The creation itself was subjected to futility…in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the glorious freedom of the children of God.” The Bible understands that those who follow Jesus as Lord are led straight into relationship with him, and then toward the restoration of all their relationships—be them personal, social or with the wider creation itself.

Does Creation Care Matter to God?
It is impossible to imagine that God is indifferent to the widespread destruction of what he has created. Indeed, the closing chapters of Job reveal God’s compassionate, protective concern for the mountain goat, the wild donkey, the young raven in its nest and countless other creatures. To think that we can claim on the one hand to love God and then to be indifferent to his creation, or even worse to live destructively, is tragic. It has been well said that “it is impossible to say you love Rembrandt while you trash his paintings.” Set the wonderful promise of God’s redemption of creation against some of the statistics.

To think that we can claim on the
one hand to love God and then to be
indifferent to his creation is tragic.

In 2003 the World Conservation Union's Red List said that more than twelve thousand species (out of forty thousand assessed) faced some extinction risk. This includes:

  • one in every eight birds
  • thirteen percent of the world's flowering plants
  • one quarter of all mammals

What we are witnessing is widespread, catastrophic destruction even while our awareness of the causes becomes clearer. While conservation organisations increasingly wonder why their cries for radical action have so little effect, the Old Testament asserts that environmental abuse is often the result of sin—the pursuit of quick gain through unsustainable exploitation or illegal action (Hosea 4:1-3, Isaiah 24:4-6). We are seeing the consequences of religious choices as human society on the Western consumer model opts for personal comfort at the cost of the survival of the wider creation.

A Christian Response

For over twenty years A Rocha, Christians in Conservation has been working to show how a distinctively Christian response can bring protection to endangered areas and species, and new hope to the human communities that are impoverished in consequence. Behind it all lies a Christian witness that recognises the relevance of the gospel to everything God has made. Now working in sixteen countries, A Rocha teams are conducting scientific research and educational programmes and living out in practice what the gospel means to all of creation.

Because of the conviction that all of our relationships matter to God, A Rocha teams root themselves in particular communities where conservation action is needed. Often the team is based at a field study centre, facilitating long-term conservation research studies and an intimate understanding of local issues. At present there are field study centres in Portugal, France, Kenya, Canada and the Czech Republic. In Lebanon, the team are based in a village close to the Aammiq Wetland, where they also have a classroom.

The Kenyan centre is close to the Arabuko-Sokoke Forest, a forty kilometre-long fragment of the remaining East African coastal forest which used to extend a thousand times that length from Somalia in the north to Mozambique in the south. As time was given by A Rocha team members to learning the causes of the final destruction of the last fragment, the true needs of local communities emerged.

At a superficial level, it may seem that there is no connection between school fees and the fate of the Sokoke Scops Owl, but there is.

Most of the wood was being cut to fund secondary school fees. Of those children who earned the grades to continue education, ninety percent were unable to do so for lack of funds—tragically so, as education is a key way for families to find their way out of the grinding poverty that is endemic to the region. Proscriptive solutions that policed the forest, or educational programs that extolled the importance of its habitats in global terms, were never going to succeed without taking account of the primary needs of the local communities. A solution has therefore been found in a programme called ASSETS, which brings in revenue from the forest through eco-tourism and is then directed to providing school fees for local children. It is crucial to notice the depth of local relationship and involvement—and to recognize all of the connections—before work like ASSETS can be undertaken. At a superficial level, it may seem that there is no connection between school fees and the fate of the Sokoke Scops Owl, but there is.

There is not the space here to tell similar stories of how the Lebanon team came to understand and address the complicated causes of the destruction of the Aammiq Wetland, or how the Canada team is working with other conservation organisations to restore streams where salmon can spawn. Please visit the website for pictures and stories from around the world at www.arocha.org.

What Does God Require of His Church?
John Stott has written, “Christian people should surely have been in the vanguard of the movement for environmental responsibility because of our doctrines of creation and stewardship. Did God make the world? Does he sustain it? Has he committed its resources to our care? His personal care for his own creation should be sufficient to inspire us to be equally concerned.”

Ecological involvement must be included under the heading of “mission,” for mission embraces everything Christ sends his people into the world to do, service as well as evangelism. And we cannot truly love and serve our neighbours if at the same time we are destroying their environment, or acquiescing in its destruction, or even ignoring the environmentally-depleted circumstances in which so many people are condemned to live.”

There is still time for the Church to embrace the biblical imperative to care for creation as a normal part of mission. We can reassess the teaching in theological colleges, church sermons and Sunday schools. We can pray, as church fellowships and individuals, about local and national environmental issues and seek God’s guidance in the action needed. We can encourage suitably talented young people to consider careers in environmental sciences. We can re-prioritise the use of church lands. We can challenge all church members to make changes that will lead to more sustainable lifestyles.

If we do not do these things, we fail in our obedience to God, we contribute to the degradation of God’s world and we present an unbalanced gospel which will be increasingly irrelevant to the countless numbers of people, both within and without the church, who seek hope and encouragement in their efforts to save the planet. That would be a tragedy. For the good news that God passionately cares about his world and has plans to one day, through his Son, “reconcile to himself all things” (Colossians 1:19-20) and liberate all creation from its sufferings, is one of the most glorious and hope-giving truths of the gospel.

Peter Harris is international director of A Rocha. He and his wife moved to Portugal in 1983 to establish and run A Rocha’s first field study centre and bird observatory. In 1995 the work was given over to national leadership and they moved to France where they have worked for the last nine years with national colleagues to establish a similar centre which opened early in 2001. Peter coordinates A Rocha projects in sixteen countries worldwide.

Barbara Mearns is part of the A Rocha international team.