In late autumn, in a forest somewhere in southeast Asia, a fire is kindled at the base of a tree. In the tree is hiding a pangolin. Pangolins are small, long-snouted, ant-eating mammals covered in scales, the sole representatives of their order (Pholidota). They are increasingly rare, and trade in them is illegal. But their meat is tasty, and their scales prized in traditional medicine. The poor family of my hypothetical pangolin harvester might be sustained for weeks by the money earned from the capture of this pangolin, once it’s smoked out of the tree. So the tree is felled, the pangolin caught, the sale made.
Several months later, among the consequences of this otherwise unremarkable event are the deaths of over a hundred thousand people (as of the time of writing), the sickening of millions, and the grinding to a standstill of the world’s economies.
To be sure, scientists do not yet know the source of the virus that causes COVID-19. Early evidence points to bats, with pangolins as a potential intermediate carrier, and the virus may have jumped to human beings in a market in Wuhan, China. A scenario something like the one described above is thus probable, but uncertain. Nonetheless, whatever the precise chain of transmission turns out to be, the pandemic is a stunning reminder of how interconnected is our earth and how entangled is human life with the natural world. It also warns us of the consequences of ignoring what science tells us about the risks of some of the ways we choose to live in relationship with God’s creation.
Fifty years ago, on April 22, 1970, as many as twenty million people in the United States, observed the first Earth Day. By 1990, this annual day of celebration, protest, and activism had gone global, and today the estimated billion people who participate might make it the largest secular civic event in the world. On Earth Day people acknowledge that we as human beings are entangled with the natural world, and that we collectively have an outsize ability to impact the earth and its creatures, and in turn, to experience the effects of that impact ourselves. Even the potential of COVID-19 to impact human life is directly related to the way we construct our cities, obtain our food, clear our forests, and make use of other creatures whose homes are becoming ever smaller and more fragmented. As differences in mortality rate make painfully clear, exposure to air pollution weakens the ability of many to survive a virus like this one. Yet today, human civilization and the health of the earth itself face greater threats than most protesters in 1970 could have foreseen and that dwarf even the impacts of COVID-19.
There have been some notable successes since the first Earth Day. When I look up at an endless blue sky and breathe fresh, unpolluted air, I am thankful for those who passed the Clean Air Act (also in 1970, not incidentally the same year as the first Earth Day). When I wander under the ponderosa pine and Douglas fir in a forest near my home in Spokane, Washington, I praise God for the foresight of those who set aside such places for the thriving of other life and for the health of town dwellers like me. And the bald eagle I saw a few hours ago, soaring over my neighborhood, testifies to the remarkable recovery of a species once on the verge of extinction. But the blessings that I inherit as the result of the work of diligent scientists, faithful activists, and wise leaders of the past are not experienced by many around the globe; and all the gains of the past decades are now everywhere under unprecedented threat.
Billions of sisters and brothers across the world, nearly always the most poor and powerless, suffer daily from the results of our collective failure to embrace just and sustainable means of growing our food, generating our power, and producing our goods—means that are already available but that we too often neglect due to laziness, greed, and a failure of the imagination. And nearly all the gains of the last fifty years—and, more than that, the very possibility of the ongoing flourishing of our richly diverse and fertile earth—are at risk of being lost as a consequence of our failure to attend to the health of creation and to confront the threat of climate change. These are the greatest challenges of our century. Yet they are ones that Christians are uniquely poised to face.
Christians, in fact, have more reason than anyone to observe Earth Day. Jesus calls us to love God and neighbor. Loving God includes cherishing what God has made and caring well for a creation for which we have been given much responsibility. Loving our neighbors includes ensuring the health of the earth and the ecosystems of which they and we are a part and upon which we all depend. So how can Christians appropriately mark Earth Day? Here are three suggestions drawn from Christian tradition and Scripture itself: celebration, lament, and activism.
Some Christians are wary of personifying creation as “Earth,” concerned it might lead to deifying and worshipping creation instead of the Creator. Yet it is striking how often biblical writers themselves personify the earth and its creatures. They assume the earth has its own integrity, its own agency, its own voice. The non-human creation testifies to God’s glory. The earth cries out against injustice and mourns under the weight of human sin. Above all, creation praises and worships God—simply by being what it is created to be. The earth and its creatures exist first not to serve us, but for God and for God’s glory in Christ. So our celebration on Earth Day might begin by acknowledging the gift of this good creation, all which God made and values. Scripture considers creation in its wholeness to be good and worthy of celebration (read Psalm 104 for one example). Our response to this gift is not to worship the Earth, but rather to attend to its testimony about God, to heed its warnings, to care for its creatures, and above all to join it in worshipping the Creator—as texts like Psalm 148 and Revelation 4-5 describe so vividly.
We celebrate the wonder of a world which we are invited to explore and study but which, no matter how much we learn about it, remains a miracle, something that finally transcends us and points us to the transcendent God. It helps that Earth Day comes so soon after Easter. Easter invites us to step into the new life that God gives us in Christ and prepares us to see afresh this world as the arena of God’s glory. We are freed to celebrate the goodness and resilience of a creation that even in its groaning under subjection to human sin still reveals the glory of God and has a future in God’s purposes. Even though we suffer, even though we lament, even though we cry out for a better world that will one day more perfectly reflect God’s purposes for it, this world remains God’s good world. So let us become amateur natural historians and learn something new about the ecology of our own place. Let us see with new eyes the wonder of the world around us. Let us not throw back in God’s face the gift of this wondrous creation, but rather celebrate it, and learn how to join our voices with this cosmic choir that ceaselessly praises our Creator and Redeemer.
Earth Day provides Christians with the opportunity to be truth tellers, to look soberly at what science reveals about the health of creation, and to acknowledge the reality of a world that is far from perfect.
Christians are able to celebrate and experience joy in creation not only because of its enduring goodness but also because of our hope that in Christ all things will be renewed. Yet true Christian hope can be known only alongside and through lament. Earth Day provides Christians with the opportunity to be truth tellers, to look soberly at what science reveals about the health of creation, and to acknowledge the reality of a world that is far from perfect. It is an opportunity to reflect on how our broken relationship with God leads to brokenness in our relationship with each other and with the earth too. We must give space in our lives and in our churches to groan alongside the groaning creation, to mourn what is lost, to discern what is being destroyed, to cry out against injustice, and to prepare to be challenged and changed ourselves.
Sadly, there is much to lament. Consider a few examples that hint at the scale of the changes wrought in our world even just since that first Earth Day in 1970 (by when, of course, the earth had already undergone changes unprecedented in human history). As those called to rule and care for other creatures, consider that animal populations globally are now under half of what they were then: the abundance of other vertebrate life has declined over 60% just since 1970, due to habitat destruction, clearing of land for human use, degradation of the oceans, and overexploitation of animals and fish. We are also driving entire species extinct, at a rate of something like 1000 times higher than it would be without us.1
We have radically changed the very atmosphere of our life-sustaining planet. Just since 1970, we have increased the concentration of heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from just over 325 parts per million in 1970 to 407 parts per million as of Earth Day 2020, higher than it’s been for millions of years. The great majority of greenhouse gasses have been emitted just in the last few decades, and since 1970 carbon dioxide emissions alone have increased by 90%. The profound effects this has on the earth’s climate were known long before 1970 and are now beginning to be experienced around the globe. It will change life for all of us, and already it is threatening the ability of ecosystems and human civilization to adapt.2 The consequences if we do not act together to reverse these trends will be far graver and longer-lasting than the consequences we are now experiencing as a result of our failure to listen to those scientists who warned for years about the risk of a pandemic like COVID-19.
In celebration and lament, inspired by hope, we can find by God’s grace the resolve we need to act. Science cannot tell us what to do. It only gives us the data we need to make informed decisions. As Christians, we turn to Scripture to learn who we are called to be in a time and place such as this. With biblically-grounded principles and informed by what science reveals about our world, we can weigh the ethics of the decisions we must make about how we arrange our lives and care for people and non-human creation together. When we have been faithful, Christians have always held up a vision of human flourishing that does not depend on materialism, wealth, power, or any particular economic or political ideology. We ought to be well-positioned to advocate for change, to call out injustice, to fight for truth and peace, and to believe in the possibility of transformation and renewal.
We ultimately trust God in Christ to bring about those things that are promised—to effect the transformation that is possible through the power of the Holy Spirit. So we are humble and realistic about our abilities, our wisdom, and our limited sight. Yet we are called nonetheless to love, to love of God and neighbor, and to a love that acts boldly here and now. With hearts transformed by God’s Spirit and the example of Christ before us, Christians of all people ought to be those who on Earth Day are willing to act on behalf of the poor and powerless, challenge the powers that be, lay down our lives and relinquish our comfortable conventions about how power and money and business must look, and embody the life of the kingdom of God in which there is fullness and flourishing of all of life. As those renewed in God’s image, we are called to serve and protect all that which has been entrusted to us, living as members of God’s kingdom and “new creations” in Christ through whom a whole groaning creation can even now experience a foretaste of the freedom and glory that God promises.
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