Sunday, October 14, 2007

Christianity & the environment: 7 principles

Blog Action Day 2007

The goal of Blog Action Day is to get the whole blogosphere talking about one topic – this year, the environment. A goal of this blog is to get Christians to think about things from a distinctly Christian perspective. To that end, I’d like to look at some general principles I think the Scriptures give us for approaching environmental issues.

1. “The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it” (Psalm 24:1). If the earth belongs to the Lord, then we must apply a concept that we all try to teach our children:

When you’re using someone else’s stuff, you have to take care of it.

We have a fundamental obligation to take care of this planet for the simple reason that it’s not ours to tear up.

There are those who claim that we don’t have to worry about the environment because soon the Lord will return and destroy the whole place anyway. Let’s assume that their timeline is correct for the moment: That still doesn’t give us permission to mess the place up. If God wants to destroy the earth by fire, that’s fine because it’s His earth. We don’t have that privilege. And whenever the Master may return, until then, we have to share this place, which leads me to the second principle.

2. “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt 22:39). For however long we have to share this place, we’re stuck with each other, so:

Leave the planet like you want it left for you.

Do you want to drink dirty water? Then you don’t expect anyone else to do it either. Do you want to have to chew your air? Then no one else should have to either.

Taking this a little farther, if your child was living with filthy water, would you want someone with the power to fix that to actually do something about it? Then you have to do so as well.

3. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked” (Jer 17:9). We are a fallen race. Every human bears the image of God, but it is marred, and the best of us sometimes give in to our most base impulses. The rest of us do it a lot more than “sometimes.” So here’s a principle for environmental issues and everything else in life:

Assume people are going to sin.

People are selfish, greedy, lazy, and arrogant – and this is on a good day. Most people don’t set out to ruin the environment, but it’s so much easier to do than it is to do right.

On most issues, I’m pretty conservative, maybe even libertarian, but on the issue of the environment I turn a bit left, and this is why. Republicans will talk about things like market forces and enlightened self-interest encouraging people and corporations to take care of the environment, but experience tells me that everyone tells themselves at some time or another that “my one piece of litter” won’t make that much of a difference. But if everyone said that, we’d be hip deep in paper. Ditto for toxic chemicals and anything else that can be difficult to get rid of properly. So on this issue, I’m inclined to say that we may need laws, even lots of laws.

Of course, since I believe in the rule of law, specifically our Constitution, we have to address the fact that our federal system doesn’t permit the national government to do certain things. That’s a topic for another time, but I’d like to say briefly that the answer is to change the Constitution, not ignore it.

4. “God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground’” (Gen 1:28). Or in the vernacular:

God gave us the earth to use.

We’re supposed to use it wisely, but it is ours to use. We’re allowed to cut down trees, eat animals, and dig up coal. Just don’t go crazy.

5. “God created man in his own image” (Gen 1:27). The Bible makes this statement about no other creature. Humans are special. We are also told, “you are worth more than many sparrows” (Matt 10:31). Given all that we’ve said so far, I think it’s safe to say, borrowing from the Master, the earth was made for man, not man for the earth. So let’s keep this in mind:

Humans are more important than the environment.

We need to protect the environment, but not at the expense of people. Humans are more important than owls, field mice, and wetlands. This doesn’t give us license to clear cut whole continents, but it does mean that we should be sure we take care of individual humans (not just the whole) while we take care of the environment.

6. “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt 22:39). Yep, that again. That bit about giving people clean water if you want clean water has a nasty twist:

Don’t ask anyone to do anything you’re not willing to do.

Here I’m think about people who want clean energy – in other people’s back yards – and people who use personal jets to tell you to raise your thermostat. Hypocrisy is a sin, folks.

7. Speak the truth in love (Eph 4:15). Strong feelings tend to rise up when discussing this topic, but the truth is that the evidence isn’t always cut and dried, and even when it is, the appropriate action is not necessarily as obvious as some think. And, let’s say it again, no one wants to have dirty air, poisoned water, or a treeless planet. It’s just a matter of what to do about it. So here’s the final principal to guide us through these issues:

Debate, but pretend you’re sitting between your mama and Jesus.

If you wouldn’t say something if you were sitting between them, or if you wouldn’t say it the same way, rethink your words. Remember, speak the truth in love.

Next time I’d like to try to apply these principles to a specific debate that gets particularly heated.