As a Christian pastor who has joined the environmental movement in earnest a short four years ago, there is only one appropriate posture to take in coming to the table: Please forgive us.
For far too long, the church in America has blurred the lines between politics and faith, unable to differentiate between party affiliations and what the Bible says on certain issues. One of those issues is the environment.
Awakening to the reality that the church -- my church, especially -- had been more than silent on caring for the planet was sobering for me. Simply silent may have been easier to handle than realizing that the church had quickly dismissed concerns raised by environmentalists and then proceeded to attack them. Calling someone a "wacko environmentalist" earned an easy laugh among many in the church. How did the church lose this value?
Lose this value? Yes, despite a more recent history of apathy toward caring for the earth or downright disdain for scientists calling for greater attention to climate change, the church once championed caring for the planet. That's difficult to fathom for many people who have only known the church to be uninterested and uninvolved, at best. It doesn't take an exhaustive research of the writings of old saints and heroes of the Christian faith to realize where the church once stood.
Irenaeus of Lyons once wrote, "The initial step for a soul to come to knowledge of God is contemplation of nature." Or consider Francis of Assisi's words: "These creatures minister to our needs every day: without them we could not live; and through them the human race greatly offends the Creator. We fail every day to appreciate so great a blessing by not praising as we should the Creator and Dispense of all these things."
Yet something happened. A break occurred. Christians held science suspect for certain theories that began to emerge. It challenged long-standing beliefs in new ways and instead of being handled with thoughtful consideration was simply dismissed as heresy.
At the end of the 1960s during the height of the environmental movement then, I was an ecology major. My wife and I spent the first 14 years of our marriage without electricity because we lived in an older home on our family ranch in southern California. We truly lived off the land; we grew some of our own food and always valued the natural balance of our surroundings.
Once I became a Christian in the late 1970s and entered into ministry, somehow I disconnected from all of those values and affections I once held for nature. I never stopped caring about nature, but it was somehow set aside because there was no real value for environmental stewardship in the church. In fact, many in the church held the view that "Jesus is returning and the earth is going to burn up anyway, so go ahead and use it up." During that era, many Christians slowly lost their value of caring for the earth, myself included... until one fateful day.
A few years ago during a wedding reception at our church, a woman cornered me and asked if I was the pastor. The tone with which she asked made me think maybe I didn't want to be at that moment. Nevertheless, I confessed that I was and braced for her impending criticism. "This wedding reception should be a crime," she stated. "I've never seen so many items going to waste instead of going into recycling bins." I was embarrassed and tweaked by the stinging truth: I had not led our church in this area, thus we had no church-wide recycling program.
God had already been at work in my heart about the issue of environmental stewardship, but this incident began to push me toward taking action. More than ever, I wanted to make caring for the environment a value in our church.
Since that time, I have worked diligently not only to instill this value in our church but also to help other churches across the country embrace caring for the environment. And in my work, I have found how the environment is distinctly tied to many of the world's issues today that the church does indeed care about addressing -- poverty, world hunger, poor health and disease, human trafficking and corrupt leadership.
Though years have passed, I can only ask for forgiveness from those outside of the church for the church's lack of leadership on this issue and actively engage with you in making a difference. Salvation is the heart of the Christian faith -- and Christians can no longer ignore a planet that needs saving.
Tri Robinson is the pastor of the Vineyard Boise Church in Boise, ID, and author of Saving God's Green Earth and Small Footprint, Big Handprint. He lives on a homestead that is almost fully sustainable and blogs about his adventures there at www.timberbuttehomestead.com.
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