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“Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Jesus of Nazareth
While I was unaware of it during my formative years, I grew up in a faith tradition that was becoming increasingly entrenched in a kind of biblical literalism that was the fulcrum of theological understanding and biblical interpretation. So, it was not uncommon to find people opposed to ideas that hinged on what has been pejoratively called the “social gospel.” I vividly remember sitting in lecture halls in some of our higher learning institutions, listening to professors clustering together ideas, such as God’s preferential option for the poor, with historical heresy. Over the years, this mindset has morphed into an alarming denial of basic principles of Christian love and a rejection of anything perceived as intellectual or scientific.
Thus, concepts like global warming, deforestation, topsoil depletion, climate change, increased concentrations of greenhouse gases, dependence on fossil fuels, and others are dismissed as liberal propaganda. From my social location, it seems that this position stems, at least in part, from a faulty understanding of God’s instructions to fill the earth, subdue it, and have dominion over it found in Genesis 1:28. These instructions are not a carte blanche to plunder all of earth’s resources for personal gain but to care for it as good, responsible stewards of his creation.
The unbridled impulse to consume more resources is one of the underlying causes of the destructive weather patterns and events that have become our new normal. Sadly, these events disproportionately affect the most vulnerable members of society. I know acknowledging this can be uncomfortable. However, one of the most foundational biblical tenets is the responsibility of caring for God’s creation, which includes both the environment and those living in the margins. Jesus calls them “the least of these” (Matt. 25:40) while entrusting us (i.e., his church) with their care. The good news is that we can embrace science to help those in the margins.
The Victims of Our Modern Scapegoat Tall Tale
A few days ago, I had an interesting conversation with a 7-year-old kid about the chance of tsunamis, tornadoes, floods, and other weather-related events affecting his home. It dawned on me that, even when the likelihood of these events was relatively low, his family has the resources to deal with their aftermath. However, those living on the margins often don’t. While Jesus instructs us to be concerned with alleviating our neighbor’s suffering and tangible needs (just think about the Good Samaritan’s parable), society has found ways to scapegoat those who don’t look like us or whose existence has been deemed less valuable.
As the wheels of industry and economic growth turn, we have been the beneficiaries of systems that also have polluted the environment, poisoned the waters, wiped out entire animal species, damaged the ozone layer, increased greenhouse gases, and set the stage for catastrophic climate events. Often, these things have been done with an attitude of disregard for the safety and integrity of others as long as there is profit. The effects of these systems clearly contravene God’s desires for a creation he declared good. Theologians like Thomas Aquinas, Saint Augustine, and John Chrysostom understood the value and goodness of God’s creation. Aquinas reminds us that everything God brought into existence (i.e., every living species and abiota) represents and communicates his goodness. Chrysostom posits that all creatures are intrinsically valuable and are instrumental to God’s eternal purposes. Saint Augustine proposes the interrelatedness of everything God created and how these relationships bring order and peace to the universe. Therefore, we must care for and honor God’s creation diligently.
However, instead of caring for his creation, we have too often participated in what is expedient for personal gain and profit. While Claude Frédéric Bastiat underscores the philosophical argument that governments and societal frameworks exist to promote economic growth and protect individual rights over private property, Christian ethics go beyond these ideas. The God of the margins insists on calling us to a radical engagement that centers on ensuring those in need have food and clean water, adequate shelter, healthcare access, and a good and welcoming living environment (Matt. 25:35-40).
- Check out our curated list of creation care resources.
- In Mangoes from Heaven, Drew highlights how science can help create sustainable environments for at-risk populations.
- Biologos contributor Nate Rauh-Bieri unpacks the 2023 UN climate report and why it is important for Christians.
- Check out what the Episcopal Church is doing about creation care.
- Please check our list of denominational and ecumenical resources.
- If you’re unsure how to mobilize your ministry around creation care, the organization Care of Creation can answer some of your questions.
- The Lausanne Movement can help you become a good steward of God’s creation.
For God So Loved the World: Reshaping Christian Stewardship
We all probably know John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” However, we think of this declaration in terms of an individual salvation that disregards God’s full redemptive purposes. Borrowing from Heather’s side of the theological aisle, the Episcopal Church reminds us that “In Jesus, God so loved the whole world. We follow Jesus, so we love the world God loves. Concerned for the global climate emergency, drawing on diverse approaches for our diverse contexts, we commit to form and restore loving, liberating, life-giving relationships with all of creation.” Even more, this declaration highlights that climate change and environmental degradation are manifestations of our turning away from God and thus require a radical return to our Creator’s intent.
What I am saying is that because creation is not our property, we show love, devotion, respect, and obedience to the Creator by becoming good stewards of his creation. Pope Francis affirmed that “Creation is a gift, it is a wonderful gift that God has given us, so that we care for it and we use it for the benefit of all, always with great respect and gratitude.” Ergo, an essential part of expressing our faith should map to resource conservation, caring for the environment, and working to ensure that no harm comes to creation through a lack of Christian environmental stewardship.
So, what can we do to become good stewards of creation and care for those living on the margins? I am glad you asked! Beyond recycling, tree planting, and energy conservation, the Center for American Progress provides a comprehensive list of things communities of faith can do to care for the least of these. Here you have a few examples:
- Making pulpit pledges by linking worship to creation care, eco-justice, and caring for God’s creation.
- Greening low-income housing to help alleviate summer heat in poorer communities.
- Advocating for the world’s marginalized groups, forests, animals, and ecosystems.
- Providing a moral voice to the climate change crisis.
I know that some will perceive my approach to the subject as “too radical.” After all, aren’t people ultimately responsible for their actions? I guess that is the proverbial “Am I my brother’s keeper?” query. As Jesus of Nazareth said, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matt. 25:40).