Thinking environmentally as Christians
Interview with Arthur Walker-Jones
Christianity. Environmentalism. They’re two words that often seem to speak from opposite sides of the political and ideological spectrum. Whether it’s for reasons of negative association, intentional indifference or simply being unaware of the issues, many (but not all) Christians have been reluctant to link themselves to environmental movements.
However, a growing number of Christian congregants, ministers, scholars and activists have spoken in favour of being environmentally conscious, saying that Christians, perhaps more than anyone, have a divine responsibility to be good stewards over creation.
Among those who have spoken on the topic is Arthur Walker-Jones, a Winnipeg-based biblical studies professor and author of The Green Psalter: Resources for an Ecological Spirituality, in which he explores the environment as it relates to the Book of Psalms. Walker-Jones believes that Christianity and environmentalism need not only be unopposed to one another, but that faith can inform the way we live in and care for the world that God has given us.
Why should Christians feel inclined to care for the environment and practise good stewardship over Creation?
AWJ: For me, it’s a huge ethical issue. It’s a sad thing if the Church can’t speak on major ethical issues of our age. It’s disturbing to me that it’s been slow to respond to [environmental concerns], though in fairness there were some Christians that were among the earliest [to speak up]…in the 1960s.
Whatever you think of climate change, it’s a scenario that looks at massive destruction of animal habitats, and of humankind. Some scientists think [climate change] threatens the extinction of humankind. At minimum it will cause a huge amount of suffering which will be borne most heavily by the poor.
So for me, the ethical questions are, “What right do we have to do that kind of damage to the poor, to future generations? What kind of world are we leaving for our children and grandchildren? Is it right to be using [so much of] the Earth’s resources that we cause that kind of suffering and devastation in this and future generations?”
Some might argue that our first and foremost concern should be people, and that environmental concerns are at best secondary. How do you see caring for Creation as being integral to helping people thrive?
AWJ: It’s actually social conditioning that’s developed through our language, our imagery, through the stories that we tell, through the ways we’ve interpreted Scripture that our society has come to see the word ‘environment’ as something that’s around us and unrelated to us. People live in denial—they don’t even think about it. They think that you can pollute the air, pollute the water, destroy habitats and somehow human beings can be separate from all of that.
As the Bible often tells us, the Israelites lived in a very fragile ecology of preserving water and scarce resources, so they had a much better sense of that. Many people, especially urban people in modern cultures, are detached from the many ways we’re actually dependent on the air we breathe, the trees that clean the air that we breathe, all the animals and plants that provide food for us, the ecosystems that make those possible.
I think we’re starting to get to a point where more and more people are recognizing that we have actually been damaging ourselves and risking our future by the way we’ve been behaving.
Why do you think Christians are often hesitant or even resistant to think about the environment as something that we should care about?
AWJ: I think it’s a deeply frightening thing. It’s easier to be in denial than look at [the issues]. Sometimes I’ve asked people at workshops to think of a natural place they knew when they were young but that is now gone. You get a tremendous amount of grief. For some of us more wealthy people it’s the cottage that’s gone. For Aboriginal people it’s the whole landscape of their childhood that’s been flooded, or lost species, etc. So there’s a huge grief. To start thinking seriously about the implications becomes quite frightening. It’s often easier just to say, “I don’t want to worry about that—I don’t have to worry about that.”
In the West in particular, we’ve developed interpretations of the Bible and Christianity that legitimize our exploitation of the environment. For instance, we understand Christianity with having just to do with going to heaven and not having to do with how we treat the Earth and Earth’s creatures. Or we hear what the first chapter of Genesis says about creation being good but then we understand that as being largely negated by sin instead of holding the two together.
What’s your biggest frustration with Christianity and environmental ethics?
AWJ: The lack of action, personal and institutional. We have lots of nice statements by Evangelicals, by liberals…but not a lot of action by those churches as a whole. There are individual churches and people that are exemplary and probably leading the way, but the message hasn’t really gotten to the grassroots in a lot of denominations.
How do you respond when you hear the environmental counter-arguments of “we shouldn’t be focused on worldly things like the environment,” or “this place is not our home, so it doesn’t matter how we treat it,” or other similar points?
AWJ: I’ll give you a biblical response.
I think we’ve misinterpreted the New Testament. In the Lord’s Prayer Jesus prays, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” not “take us to heaven.” And in the Book of Revelation, the New Jerusalem comes down from heaven to Earth, and God lives with people on Earth. So among New Testament scholars, there’s pretty widespread agreement that the early Christian understanding was actually that their actions were creating heaven on earth. It’s more of a Greek idea that the reason to be a Christian is you’re going to go to heaven, which is someplace up there, separate from this world.
I think the reason that [the Apostle] Paul was so committed to the resurrection was because it was part of his understanding that our bodies and the whole world was going to be transformed, not that we were some spirit that was going off somewhere.
Some Christians have been turned off of environmentalism, due to the perceived links to things like evolution, Al Gore, hippies, etc, and other stereotypical “evils” that are often a cause for disassociation. What would you say to Christians who avoid thinking environmentally for reasons of association?
AWJ: What comes to mind immediately is that they might want to think how culturally bound their Christianity is if it’s so tightly identified with a particular political position. And how odd, in a way, because Jesus was a homeless person wandering around in the hills. (laughs) I’m a child of the ‘60s and ‘70s, so Jesus as a hippie works for me. But that’s my politics too.
I’m encouraged that those kinds of things seem to be breaking down, because to me these issues have the sort of urgency as a World War. We need to realize that it’s in all our interests, no matter what particular stripe of Christianity or political affiliation you’re associated with. Somehow we have to work out ways that we can work together and we have to do it pretty quickly.
What steps can Christians take in becoming more environmentally conscious? What’s needed from the Christian community at this point, in your opinion?
AWJ: There are so many ways. I think everyone has their own interests, their own callings, so just figure out what you, with your gifts and interests and passions, can best be involved in. Whether that’s planting trees, or working with an environmental organization, or getting people in your church organized to get geo-thermal heating for the church or solar panels, or whatever. There are so many things that you can do. Different people will have different gifts and passions.
Why is it important that Christians see the Earth as more than just fallen, imperfect, and set for impending judgment/destruction? What are the practical implications of such a mindset?
AWJ: Thinking of the Earth as sinful and set for impending destruction leads to attitudes towards the Earth and other people and other creatures that, to me, are just violent, destructive and immoral.
If you think of the resurrection, that’s the resurrection of both your body and spirit. Your body needs to be redeemed, and the Earth needs to be redeemed, too. If the Earth is a creation and gift of God, and even if you think that Christianity is just about going to heaven, when you get there what is God going to say about the way you trashed the gift?
If this life is practice for heaven, then we should be practising care for creation—God’s creation.
Arthur Walker-Jones is a member of the University of Winnipeg Faculty of Theology and is author of The Green Psalter: Resources for an Ecological Spirituality.