Christian Earth-Keeping

Description: NECF Malaysia Cross-Currents Consultations
        Author: Living Lee Chai Peng


Christian earth-keeping is not something new or unknown but not much attention has been given to this topic here in Malaysia in comparison to the developed countries in the west. The results of the recent NECF Survey indicate that only 1.9% of churches have environmental conservation as a recreation activity organized or run by churches to interact with non-Christians in the neighbourhood over the last one year, only 2.3% of churches were involved in environmental protection activities as a social service for the community, only 1.8% of pastors say environmental issues for Christians should be a priority field of study by the NECF Research Commission and only 3.9% of Christians participate in voluntary organisations involved in environmental conservation outside their church activities where there is interaction with unbelievers.

It is certainly not high on the agenda of most local churches or individual Christians compared to say evangelism or social action. Why is this so? I will attempt to answer this question and then see if there is anything we should and can do about the present situation.

Globalization and the environment

What is the impact of globalization on the environment? As the world's population increases, consumption increases and more waste is generated. The depletion of finite natural resources and the safe disposal of man-made waste present the greatest challenges to modern man as he races against time for survival. Before the advent of modern transport and communications, such problems were localized to a certain extent affecting only some people in some spot on the globe at any one time. Even devastating plagues such as the Black Death was not worldwide in its effect. Most plagues would have killed themselves off when the host populations were destroyed before they could spread to other parts of the globe. With increased travel and trade, it has become increasingly more difficult to stop the transmission of disease vectors although we have developed an array of modern scientific measures to fight them. We have been extremely lucky so far that plagues such as the foot-and-mouth disease or JE virus were detected early enough and contained successfully.

The main force that drives globalization, unbridled consumption driven by greed, shall destroy us by destroying the environment that sustains us if left unchecked. I agree with Marshall (2000) that living a responsible Christian life today is a far more complicated matter than it was in the first century. Whatever happens across the globe has implications for each of us whether we are aware of it or not for we live in a much interconnected world.

De Witt (2000) has observed that many people are getting increasingly alienated from creation and its testimony to God's glory as they become increasingly separated from the natural world due to rural-urban migration when they move to expanding cities whose growing inner cores often displace and destroy nature. It also comes, he says, from the disconnection of human causes from environmental effects, as happens when people come to believe that food comes from a shop and petrol from a pump. This was forcefully brought home to me when I heard how some children answered when asked "where do eggs come from?". "The supermarket", they replied. This alienation from nature is further aggravated in an ever downward spiral through environmental degradation as when once-inspiring rivers supporting diverse life are transformed into open sewers, or when formerly clear skies are obscured by air pollutants.

What then is under threat in our world? De Witt (2000) has listed them under what he describes as 'seven degradations of creation' in his paper "Creation's environmental challenge to evangelical Christianity". They are:

  1. Alteration of Earth's energy exchange with the sun, which results in accelerated global warming and destruction of the Earth's protective ozone shield.
  2. Land degradation, which destroys land by erosion, salinization and desertification, and reduces available land for creatures and crops.
  3. Deforestation, which annually removes some 100,000 square kilometres of primary forest - an area the size of Iceland - and degrades an equal amount by over-use.
  4. Species extinction, which finds more than three species of plants and animals eliminated from Earth each day
  5. Water quality degradation, which defiles groundwater, lakes, rivers and oceans.
  6. Waste generation and global toxification, which result from atmospheric and oceanic circulation of materials that people inject into the air and water.
  7. Human and cultural degradation, which threatens and eliminates longstanding human communities that have lived sustainably and cooperatively with creation, and eliminates a multitude of longstanding varieties of food and garden plants.

Theological dilemmas -stumbling blocks to Christian earth-keeping

1. A wrong interpretation of dominion in Genesis1:28. Many (eg. Lynn White,1967), particularly critics of Christianity, have pointed to Genesis 1:28 to show that the Bible is the root cause of environmental problems. Dominion has unfortunately been interpreted by some earlier Christians to be the same as destructive domination and a licence to plunder the environment instead of responsible stewardship. This is of course unacceptable for surely God did not create the earth and then hand it over to man to destroy it. Man was created in His image which involves trustworthiness and responsibility (Moule, 1964). Hebrew rule was meant to be a servant kingship not a despotic potency as exemplified by the instructions given to David and Solomon, and demonstrated by Jesus Christ (Berry, 2000). It is also important to remember that the creation mandate was given before the Fall when greed and exploitation were not part and parcel of exercising dominion over the earth.

2. Why bother to care for the environment if the old world is going to be destroyed and replaced by a new one anyway?
De Witt (2000) has called this the "This world is not my home. I'm just a passing through" stumbling block. The reason behind this excuse for not caring for the environment is "since we are headed for heaven anyway, why take care of this temporal Earth?" He argues against it by pointing out that the everlasting life we received when we believe in Jesus includes the here and now. And just as we in the here-and-now take care of our bodies, our teeth and our hair, even though 'the length of our days is seventy years or eighty …'(Ps.90:10), we need to take care of the earth even though our hope is heaven. He even went on to suggest that perhaps our learning how to take care of things in this moment of eternity is important for the care of things with which we will be entrusted later. Rev11:18 which says that "The time has come … for destroying those who destroy the Earth" implies that God will execute judgement on those who destroy this temporal home of ours. This view would of course answer the other common excuse for neglecting earth-keeping which is "Christ is coming back soon so and we have to concentrate our efforts on saving souls instead of taking care of the environment". This very short view of time left on planet earth is often illustrated as "why waste time straightening deck chairs when the Titanic is sinking?" The problem is we don't know how fast it is sinking. Can you imagine living in totally filthy conditions just because everyone thinks that rubbish disposal should be low in the Christians' agenda because Christ is coming soon and saving souls is more important? We need to care for God's creation in a sustainable way till Christ returns whether it is tomorrow or twenty years from now.

What can we do for the environment?

An Evangelical Declaration on the Care of Creation was issued in 1994 by the Evangelical Environmental Network (a joint initiative between the Theological Commission of the World Evangelical Fellowship and the Au Sable Forum) to assert and emphasize that this Earth belongs to God (Psalm 24:1) and that we are responsible to Him for it. This belief underlines the historical Christian doctrine that we are stewards of creation, responsible to the Creator for our treatment of the environment. It reaffirms this understanding in its call to insist and encourage the church to maintain the biblical mandate for creation care in the face of claims that Christianity is irrelevant or incompetent to react significantly and positively to environmental assaults. The full text of the declaration and subsequent papers that commented on it were published in that very useful book "The care of creation-focusing concern and action" edited by Berry (2000).

John Stott in his forward in the book stated three important truths we should keep in mind in relating to the Earth. First, we will avoid the deification of nature. We respect nature because god made it but we do not reverence nature as if it were God and inviolable. Second, we must avoid the opposite extreme, which is the exploitation of nature. The dominion God has given us is in responsible stewardship, not a destructive domination. The third and correct relationship between human beings and nature is that of cooperation with God. God has given us nature and what we do with it is culture. We are urged not only to conserve the environment, but also to develop its resources for the common good. When we cooperate with God to transform the created order for the pleasure and profit of all, our work becomes an expression of our worship, since our care of the creation will reflect our love for the Creator.

The United Nations Environment Programme will make poverty eradication, sustainable patterns of consumption and production, and making globalization work to promote sustainable development as the focus for the upcoming Earth Summit in Johannesburg from Aug 26 to Sept 4 this year (2002), 10 years after the ground-breaking Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Their intention is to do away with talks about lofty ideas and go for only realistic, achievable suggestions so that anything that could not be implemented would be thrown out the window. What they hope to produce is a set of achievable actions for advancing a different kind of development - one that promotes economic growth, helps people and protects the environment. They are talking about programmes that can reduce poverty and deliver clean water, renewable energy, more jobs, a higher standard of living, and a cleaner, protected environment (United Nations Environment Programme as reported in THE STAR, 26.02.2002).

While the international efforts outlined above are very laudable, we need not wait till they are implemented before doing anything about Earth-keeping. Earth-keeping starts with us now, where we are with whatever we can contribute to make this world a better place. To this end, I would like to share some thoughts with you from John Stott's chapter on "Our Human Environment" in his book "Issues Facing Christians Today". He rightly points out that at the root of the ecological crisis is human greed, what has been called "economic gain by environmental loss". We must be prepared to pay the additional cost of production without pollution, whether in increased prices or in increased taxes. The other area that he says we must address as responsible Christian stewards of the environment is to recognise that the earth's resources are not infinite so we have to strenuously avoid all wastefulness, not only out of solidarity with the poor but also out of respect for the living environment. In other words "live simply that others may simply live". This will be reflected in our lifestyles or how we spend our money and also our investments or how we earn our money. We should no longer just go for the best deals in town without asking what will be the cost of our decision to the environment and to the poor.

Three practical steps: awareness, appreciation and action

What practical steps can us as individual Christians take to care for the environment? Environmental education is very important. De Witt (2000) mentions that as most people have been alienated from the Creator and His creation, it is difficult to love, uphold and make right a world that we do not really know. Thus many will first have to become aware of creation and its God-declared goodness before we can move to appreciation and from there move on to stewardship by action.

Awareness involves seeing, naming, identifying, locating and knowing about God's creatures. Appreciation takes us one step further in learning not just to tolerate but respect, value, esteem and cherish the role that God has assigned to each creature both great and small in His fascinating creation. Nature documentaries and subscriptions to National Geographic help in this area. Action involves making the right use of creation, restoring what has been abused in the past, serving by keeping lovingly and caringly that which we hold in trust and entrusting to others what we have served, kept and restored.

We can only appreciate what we are aware of and right action can only come from right knowledge of what is involved in solving any problem. Unless someone is informed about what his enjoyment of shark fin soup is doing to the sharks (they slice off the fins and chuck the bodies back to die and many shark populations are being threatened because many more can afford this delicacy compared to before), he will gleefully add it to his dinner menu. Informal environmental education through setting a good example for our children and others would surely be an important step in this endeavour. In other words environmental education is to be followed up by environmental action. We can reduce the amount of rubbish we generate by recycling our waste and encouraging others to do so. We can cut down on our consumption of fossil fuels and contribution to the greenhouse gases by becoming economical in our choice of transport (one of the reasons why I ride a motorbike to work) and switching off the lights when not in use. We can save water by cutting down unnecessary wastage when we do our washing and use water from the rinse cycle of our washing machines for secondary purposes such as cleaning floors or watering plants. We can support eco-friendly industries by purchasing their products in preference to others when available. We can start or join up with others to clean up the neighbourhood or some public facility such as a popular beach or picnic site. It is always good to teach by example to our children that we must not only clean up our own rubbish but that of others so that we leave a recreational site in a better state than when we found it. Join the Malaysian Nature Society and let the values of conservation be caught as your family participate in its many interesting activities. Instead of spending time and money only at man-made theme parks and shopping malls, we can take our families for holidays and trips to waterfalls, nature parks, hikes in the mountains, snorkelling in the sea, fishing, camping, watching fireflies, bird-watching, caving and a host of back-to nature fun activities organized by such groups as the Malaysian Nature Society or on our own. Grow some of your own vegetables and fruits. Teach the children to love and respect God's creation and they will not so wantonly destroy it as those who have been detached from it by the artificiality of modern living. The idea is that every effort, no matter how small, counts. We must not give in to despair and feel that the little that we do cannot do very much to the environment and so we give up. It is the cumulative effects of careless living such as indiscriminate littering that contributes to the unhygienic piles of rubbish in many of our neighbourhoods in a developing country like ours. Likewise clean rivers and towns such as is found in many developed countries, even those with high population densities like Japan, are the results of the combined efforts of everyone in that society.

Poverty eradication plays a very important role as human poverty is both a cause and a consequence of environmental degradation. When people are very poor they would be forced to degrade the environment just to survive eg. over harvesting of trees for firewood leading to soil erosion and desertification or indiscriminate dumping of rubbish and sewage into rivers in slums. Stephen Rand (2000) has shown with a moving example from Ethiopia what it means to love your neighbour as yourself when a church transformed a 500 hectare plot of rocky barren land into a productive forest in partnership with Tearfund through a food for work programme. The battle cry for the enthusiastic young people in Britain raising funds to support the initiative was "Think global, act local" The Marxist government was so impressed that it gave the church another 500 hectare plot to transform.


I hope that you are not only convinced that it is our sacred duty to care for God's creation as His stewards but also have your eyes opened to the many practical ways in which we can do so. Having been informed, we become aware which leads us to understand and appreciate God's wonderful creation. But all that will go to waste if we do not put into practise what we have learnt about caring for His earth. James 1:22 admonishes us not to deceive ourselves by just being hearers of the word and not doers. May the Lord help us to start doing something today, no matter how small and insignificant it may seem to back up what we confess with our lips-that we love You Lord and want to glorify Your name by loving and caring for the earth and its inhabitants that you have entrusted to us and to our children.

Berry, R.J.(ed.). 2000. The care of creation-Focusing concern and action. Inter-Varsity Press. 213 pp.
De Witt, C.B. 2000.Creation's environmental challenge to evangelical Christianity. In: Berry, R.J. (ed.) The care of creation. Inter-Varsity Press. 60-73.
Marshall, I.H. 2000. Commitment to creation. In: Berry, R.J. (ed.) The care of creation. Inter-Varsity Press. 94-98.
Moule, C.F.D. 1964. Man and nature in the New Testament.Athlone.
Stott, J. 1990. Our human environment. Issues facing Christians Today. Marshall Pickering. 111-129.
Rand, S. 2000. Love your neighbour as yourself. In: Berry, R.J. (ed.) The care of creation. Inter-Varsity Press.140-146.
White, L.1967. The historical roots of our ecologic crisis. Science 155. 1203-1207.


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