New Moral Awakening, or How I Changed My Mind
Ezekiel 37:3–5 — “He said to me, ‘Mortal, can these dry bones live?’ I answered, ‘O Lord God, you alone know.’ Then he said to me, ‘Prophecy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.’”
Should caring for the environment be a major priority for people of faith? Only a few years ago, I would have blithely answered this question “No.” Care for the natural world was not a priority of our governmental affairs work. Nor was it a priority in my personal and family life.
What changed? I changed.
I realized I was violating the biblical commands “to serve and to protect” creation (Genesis
2:15). The Hebrew words to serve, avad, and to protect, shamar, mean we must be caretakers, not just takers.
I had to turn about and go in another direction. That’s what the biblical word for repentance, metanoia means.
What got my attention, and keeps it, is the impact of climate change, habitat destruction, and species extinction on Earth. Sir John Houghton, the first chair of the Scientific Assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — and an evangelical Christian — made a presentation on the impacts of global warming to the Oxford Conference of 2002.
Among those sitting in the audience was a skeptic; that person was me. It was my reasoning that the science was disputable. “No dog in that fight,” was my judgment at the time, referring to the debate over global warming. It took the unequivocal evidence of climate change — significantly caused by humans and irreversible in its nature — to shake me out of my own lethargy.
It’s been said that if you don’t now and then change your opinion about something, check your pulse — you may be dead. Millions of my fellow evangelical believers need to examine themselves. Too often we’ve bought into questionable science or simply given too much weight to our political views — namely, that the environment is for latte-sipping, East Coast liberals.
With regard to this Earth, our assumption has been, well, things will always be the same way. And that there is nothing we can do about it. And, if not, God will take care of this Earth anyway. No need for us to do so.
Are we as a nation in trouble? You betcha. Entering into the twenty-first century, more than ever before, America is experiencing a deficit in moral leadership. The issues that we face — the degrading of human dignity, climate change, civilization conflict, war, and violence — will require not just leadership that has been desperately lacking — but moral imagination of a kind previously unheard of.
What is leadership with moral imagination? It’s the capacity to see leadership, first of all, as service to others. According to Jim Collins, author of the book Good to Great, “These leaders blend extreme personal humility with intense personal will.” They are studies in duality — modest and willing, shy and fearless.
To my mind, it requires people who realize they have an obligation that goes far beyond their own personal interests. It necessitates a willingness to say, “This is where I draw the line.”
I’m reminded of the story in the Bible of a leader who knew triumph and defeat. His career started at age seventeen. He was almost killed by his brothers but rose to prominence in one of the major countries of the world. I am talking about Joseph, a patriarch of Israel — a man who knew despair and despondency, served prison time, yet survived to become a powerful leader, second only to the king.
In his case, he was able to interpret Pharoah’s dream, but he sketched out a plan to address the seven years of famine the dream predicted. Because of his planning and leadership, there was adequate grain to feed the hungry and poor. Joseph met the test for being a man of moral imagination in the midst of a human predicament. He gave credit, respect, and affirmation to God in the tough places. And he brought reassurance, comfort, and hope to those who were troubled.
The Earth Is the Lord’s, Not Ours
We need Josephs today — young people who are willing to go against the grain to do what is right. In the evangelical community, it requires going against the prevailing attitude that caring for creation, particularly global warming, is, as Jerry Falwell put it, “a satanic distraction.” We need Earth protectors whose moral imagination turns into all-consuming passion that changes the world.
We do not own this Earth. Indeed, the phrase “the Earth is the Lord’s” (Psalm 24:1) was first used by Moses as part of a dire warning to the arrogant, oppressive, and possessive Pharaoh of Egypt (Exodus 9:29).
The Pharaoh learned the hard way that the Lord did not turn the ownership of Earth over to people. It is a sin to ignore this eternal principle — with consequences to people of faith who deny it.
For whatever reason, the Lord seems more patient with us in the twenty-first century, but how long will that last? Time is running out. The natural world is imperiled by human activity, especially by our unsustainable burning of fossil fuels and our degradation of living systems.
Dr. E. O. Wilson, author of the recent book Creation, says: “If current deterioration of the environment by human activity continues unabated, half of Earth’s surviving species, plants, and animals will be extinguished or critically endangered by the end of the century. One quarter, it’s been estimated, could leave us in the next 50 years due to climate change alone.”
Human health and life are particularly endangered, with the poor and disadvantaged among us at the greatest risk. James Hanson, a top scientist at NASA, states, “One quarter of carbon dioxide that we put in the air by burning fossil fuel will stay there forever — more than 500 years. If we burn all fossil fuels without capturing and sequestering the CO2, we will create a different planet.”
To address these threats, the National Association of Evangelicals convened thirty leading scientists and theologians to begin a dialogue abut how we could work together.
At our meeting in Georgia in December 2006, we discovered that we agreed far more than we disagreed, that we shared a deep reverence for life on Earth, and that we felt a sense of urgency about what human beings are doing to creation. We pledged to do everything in our power to preserve this precious gift the Creator has given us, and to invite our colleagues, including some who may not fully agree with us, to join us in these efforts.
A signed statement entitled “An Urgent Call to Action: Scientists and Evangelicals Unite to Protect Creation” proclaimed the following: We believe that the protection of life on Earth is a profound moral imperative. It addresses without discrimination the interests of all humanity as well as the value of the non-human world. It requires a new moral awaken- ing to a compelling demand, clearly articulated in Scripture and supported by science, that we must steward the natural world in order to preserve for ourselves and future generations a beautiful, rich, and healthy environment. For many of us, this is a religious obligation, rooted in our sense of gratitude for creation and reverence for its Creator.
Can we hear the voice of the biblical prophet Ezekiel: “Is it not enough for you to drink the water? Must you also muddy the rest with your feet?” One of my mentors, Cal DeWitt, echoes this in our day: Is it not enough for you to enjoy a pleasant climate? Must you destroy it? Is it not enough for you to enjoy the myriad of creatures? Must you extinguish them?
Major segments of the Earth are dying, and we are responsible. Ezekiel’s imagery of the valley of dry bones is dramatic — physical imagery relating death and life. Only a divine re-creation can resuscitate the dry bones. It has been said that we must die to ourselves. Lose our life in order to gain it. But it’s not something we want. Self-denial is hard. Limitation of the old life is necessary: “For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their soul?” (Mt. 16:26)
Theologian Sallie McFague says that
while I am not suggesting that the Matthean passage is about ecological selfishness and the need for consumer self-denial and limitation, I am suggesting that its basic premise of the Christian life as cruciform makes the passage open to that interpretation.
In terms of the health and well-being of the planet, we need to lose one kind of life and gain another, and the other one, the new life, will continue to be cruciform in shape. It involves limitation, emptiness, loss. Abundant life, cruciform-style, means sharing and giving — dare we say, sacrificing? — for others, for the health of other life-forms and the well-bring of other people.
Is this the abundant life, as John 10:10 puts it: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly”? Who wants it? Maybe none of us do.
But it is realistic. It is ecological; it is what the good life must mean in nature’s terms, because it is in line with the way our planet works. Thus, the way of the cross is realistic. It is the way of life for humans to live with other human beings and with nature.
Can this happen? Can the dry bones live? Can our planet become healthy? Ezekiel says that with God all things are possible, even the reconstitution of dry bones.
In his book Serve God, Save the Planet, J. Matthew Sleeth writes, “We have a problem, one as meaningful and real as a sinking ship with billions of passengers aboard. The Earth is our ship, an ark for everything that lives. It is the only vessel available to carry humans through the ocean of space, and it is rapidly becoming unseaworthy.”
As people of faith, we have no option but to act. Why not take the lead in making our nation an example of biblical stewardship? Not every- one will come to the same public-policy solutions, but the following simple actions can make a huge difference:
Replace incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescents. Though initially more expensive, an energy-efficient fluorescent bulb will save you $28 to $58 in your electric bill during its life, and burn 500 pounds less coal to pollute the air. Recycle. C’mon, how hard can it be?
Drive the speed limit with properly inflated tires and a tuned engine. And, why not consider a hybrid car? Ask for your energy company to do an energy audit of your house or church. You’ll make money and be giving to others at the same time.
Support businesses that are creation-friendly. Vote and voice your concern to local and national government officials. Pray that our fellow citizens, congregations, and lawmakers will do what is wise to care for creation.
We owe it to our children and grandchildren that they may enjoy what we have too long taken for granted. Protecting the environment must be a priority; it’s called biblical stewardship.
This doesn’t get anyone into the “political thicket.” This is neither a “red” (Republican Party), “blue” (Democratic Party) or even a “green” (Green Party) issue; it’s a moral issue. Jesus’ first commandment — to love God with all our heart and soul and strength — means that we honor and care for all of His creation.
After all, when we die, God won’t ask us how He made this Earth — but rather, what we did with what He made.
A young man and woman were tired of the leadership offered by the old man who sat in the public square dispensing advice. So they devised a plan to discredit him. Putting a bird in their hands, they would go to the sage and ask “Is this bird alive or dead?” If the old man said the bird was “alive,” they would use their thumb to break the bird’s neck, killing him, proving their elder wrong. If the old man said the bird was dead, they would open their hand revealing the bird very much alive. And so they went confident of their plan and asked him, “Is the bird alive or dead?” He wisely responded, “My children, the answer is in your hands.”
John Wesley’s “A Charge to Keep” puts it this way: “To serve the present age, / My calling to fulfill; / Oh, may it all my powers engage, / To do my Master’s will; / Arm me with jealous care, / As in thy sight to live; / And, oh thy servant lead, / Prepare a strict account to give.”
My friends, the answer is in our hands. We live to serve the present age. May this task all our powers engage. Living in His sight. And prepare an account to give.
Richard Cizik is Vice President for Governmental Affairs of the National Association of Evangelicals, which represents about 45,000 congregations.