Creation Care: join the revolution
Ruth Valerio, keynote speaker at Good News for God's Earth, the Diocesan conference on Christian concern for the environment, challenges us to consider how we can be the change we need to see for our world.
I’ve just come back from preaching at a church that used little plastic disposable cups for communion. Probably about 500 were used which equates to about 26,000 little plastic cups in a year (never mind the throw-away coffee cups it also used).
And so what? This was a lively, large church with a thriving ministry both within and without its walls. Why does it matter if it uses and throws away hundreds of little plastic cups every week?
It matters because it highlights just how much of a blind spot that church has. Whilst doing all sorts of excellent things, it has failed entirely to embrace wider creation care as an integral part of its theology and, as a result, is entirely unaware of how its activities impact that wider creation, whether for good or for ill.
I want to see the culture of the UK Church revolutionised so it becomes as commonplace for it to be engaged in acts of wider creation care as it currently is for it to be engaged in acts of community involvement.
Think about it: you would be hard pressed nowadays to find a church that isn’t involved in its community in some way or another, whether that is through food banks, Street Pastors, toddler groups etc. If you were to find such a church you would, I am sure, feel it to be deficient and you would question whether it had fully understood what the Gospel of Jesus Christ is all about. And you would be right: such engagement is an essential part of what it means to be a community of people loving and following Jesus.
My understanding of the gospel is that the same is true of wider creation care. In other words, if we find a church (or are in one, or even leading one, ourselves) that is not integrating environmental concern and action across its life then I suggest that church is not fully living out its Christian faith.
Why do I think this? Because when I read the Bible, there are five points that become clear to me:
1. God made the world and he loves it
God is the creator of the world and he thinks it is, ‘very good’ (Genesis 1:31). God is involved with his creation, sustaining it and caring for it (Psalm 65:9-13; Matthew 10:29; Hebrews 1:3; Colossians 1:16-17). This is not antievolution (the Genesis creation stories teach us theology not science), but an affirmation that this world has a greater being behind it and has a purpose.
Not only that, but Colossians tells us that this world was made both by Jesus and for Jesus. This world is not something that God made for us to use and abuse and throw away: it was made for Jesus. Was the creation of this world the Father’s present to the Son?
If that is the case then the whole creation is incredibly precious to God. When we love someone, we naturally want to love and look after the things that are significant to that other person. And so, because we love God, part of how we worship him is by loving and looking after this world and all that is in it.
2. God created us to look after the world
We are created beings, part of the whole community of creation, one part of an intricately connected ecosystem. But we have also been given a special task: to look after the rest of what God has made (Genesis 1: 26-28; Gen. 2:15). This is not an optional extra for a few keen environmentalists, but a fundamental part of what it means to be human. We become less than human when we lose that connection.
There has often been a problem with the command to humans to ‘rule over’ the fish of the sea, birds of the air etc. But consider how God expected his kings to rule (see for example Proverbs 31: 1-9). They were to rule with justice and compassion, looking after the poor and abandoned. God’s view of rulership is nothing to do with domination or subjection. It is actually about servanthood, and so we have been told to be ‘servant rulers’ over the wider world, acting for justice and righteousness, not abuse.
3. It has gone wrong because of us
It is a sad truth that the many problems our world and its inhabitants face are caused by human activity. Our wrongdoing separates us from God and also has human consequences, and we are used to seeing the consequences of sin in that way. But it is important to notice that sin also has ecological consequences. When people act in ways that are unrighteous and that do not practice social justice, then the land responds and there is environmental devastation (Amos 8: 1-8).
Our relationships with God, with other people and with the wider natural world are all bound up together and impact each other. One thing that strikes me is how the natural world responds to how we act. Both Jeremiah 12:4 and Hosea 4: 1-3 speak movingly of how the land mourns because of the wickedness of the people. By contrast, how wonderful to picture the trees of the field clapping their hands and the mountains and hills bursting into song because the people’s relationship with God has been put back to rights again!
We bear the guilt for the state our world is in (Isaiah 24: 4-6) and each one of us, therefore, has a responsibility to act.
4. Jesus came to this earth for the whole world
The good news is that God is working to put back to rights what has gone wrong. We are all clear that Jesus died to restore our relationship with God (2 Cor. 5: 8-11), and we sometimes remember that his death also brought about reconciliation with other people (James 3:18; Gal. 5:22; Eph. 2:14-17). But the Bible is also clear that Jesus’ death impacts the other-thanhuman part of his creation. Colossians 1: 19-20 states bluntly that Jesus’ blood was shed to reconcile to himself all things, not humans alone (and Romans 8: 19-22 speaks into this as well).
5. God has a purpose for the world and asks us to join in
The Bible doesn’t depict us being whisked off to spend eternity in a blue-yonder heaven whilst the world is destroyed. That picture owes more to Victorian hymnology than anything else! No, God has promised that, when Jesus returns, this world will be radically renewed: all that is evil will be destroyed; all that is good will shine out (2 Peter 3: 10; Revelation 21 – 22:6).
The Gospel invitation is to follow Jesus and join in: to play our part in working to see justice, peace and ecological healing.
With all this in mind, it is good to see that the UK Church is beginning to get active. We are like a sleeping giant just starting to wake. The giant is rubbing its eyes, stretching and pulling back its bedclothes, just beginning to get itself out of bed…
That is exciting because imagine what could happen if all around the country thousands of churches got involved in community conservation projects in their localities; joined in with other sustainability groups such as the Transition Towns movement; twinned with overseas churches that were feeling the impact of climate change; worked hard at reducing their ecological footprints; switched their energy supplier to one that invested in renewable technology; helped their congregation to understand the importance of wider creation care; became beacons of ecological sustainability in their communities…
And imagine the impact if millions of Christians began changing the way they lived: using their cars less; holidaying by car or public transport; cutting down on their waste; eating less meat; buying ethical products; using less energy in their houses; planting up the verges and waste grounds with edible produce; pushing the government to take serious action on climate change…
A Rocha UK’s Eco Church scheme is all about helping churches integrate caring for God’s earth right through the heart of church life and I urge you to look at www.ecochurch.arocha.org.uk and find out more.
Seven churches from a variety of denominations within the Diocese have already registered with Eco Church and are actively working towards an Award. These include Aylsham Parish Church, St Agnes Church, Cawston and Wymondham Abbey. “Working towards our Bronze Award is helping us to put care for creation at the heart of our mission” said Simon Court from St Agnes Church in Cawston. “Some aspects of Eco Church are more of a challenge when you have an incredible medieval building but the survey has helped us identify plenty of actions we can take to live more sustainably.”
I believe a revolution is possible and it would change the shape of the Church as we know it. The question is: what will you do to be a part of it?
A version of this article is published in Encounter with God April to June 2017. © Scripture Union. Used with kind permission.
You can join in the discussion at facebook.com/groups/NorfolkEcoChurch
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