Earth Day: an urgent call to creation care and environmental justice

[Special note: This article first appeared on Baptist News Global on April 22, 2019.]

April 22 is Earth Day – a day to celebrate all that draws us closer to God through this beautiful and awe-inspiring world. It is also a day to mourn the ongoing destruction of this same world. This year, Earth Day falls after Holy Week and on the first day after Easter – another time in our Christian lives when we lament our own sinfulness and the sacrificial love of Jesus on the cross before we celebrate the glorious resurrection of our Lord and Savior.

What is the significance of this date following on the heels of the most important day in Christianity?

Earth Day and the Environmental Protection Agency both had their beginnings in 1970. Since that time, we have had the privilege of learning from numerous people of faith, including Pope Francis, Katharine Hayhoe, Calvin B. DeWitt, Bill McKibben and Walter Brueggemann. We have learned from organizations such as the Evangelical Environmental Network, the Catholic Climate Covenant, Interfaith Power and Light and hundreds, if not thousands, of other organizations big and small. Even after years of Earth Days, sermons, blogs, news stories, rules, regulations­­ and countless scientific reports about climate change and environmental justice, we still have situations such as the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, occurring far too frequently.

Where is the Baptist voice on this issue?

Contemporary society is disconnected from nature in a way that would have been unheard of several hundred years ago, before the industrial revolution changed our lives forever. That part of our inmost being that God created to live in tune with our environment has been smothered by our own creations. We have misplaced the sense of the divine that still is available to us everywhere. We have purposely killed off some of the natural world, changed other parts to suit our needs and intentionally ignored our part in the degradation of the world as a whole.

We must find that internal gift from God – that graced part of ourselves – that was created to live in harmony with the natural world instead of rule over it. Unlike the “rich young ruler” of Matthew 19, we must find the strength to give up our “stuff” and radically change our own lives in order to let others live. Sounds remarkably like the message of Jesus proclaimed to us again and again from the pages of the Bible!

The topic of climate change, for example, has become increasingly polarizing and confused with a huge amount of misinformation promulgated as fact. Many Baptists and others of the evangelical tradition have been hesitant to discuss any culpability in the problem of climate change – or a responsibility to take steps to address this monumental challenge. Asking people to give up some of their comfort, time or earned wealth on behalf of others, however biblical or easily seen as an outward sign of love, is frequently ignored or dismissed. Without a true appreciation of the natural world around us and our interconnectedness with all of creation, any discussions seeking transformation will likely be unsuccessful.

Environmental justice and climate change solutions must move beyond a new appreciation of creation to include listening to and learning from the poor and marginalized of our own communities and the voices of those from around the world. Our often thoughtless use of resources to the detriment of others must be challenged at all levels, including the spiritual. In order to educate Christians about the very real issues of environmental degradation and encourage them to act on behalf of both the natural world and humanity, we will need to get people to open their eyes, metaphorically, and see God’s presence in the natural world, beyond a beautiful park setting or a walk in the woods.

Baptist churches are in almost every city across the United States. The bottom line is that Baptists across the board must make care of creation a priority – from the pulpit, with our funds and in our actions.

On a Friday afternoon almost 2,000 years ago, the hope of a dedicated group of disciples appeared to die on a cross. And yet, three days later that same hope was resurrected to bring us life eternal. All around us, this world created lovingly by God is dying right in front of us. This Earth Day, let us grasp together the hope to which our Christian faith clings and work to reconnect our physical and spiritual worlds. God’s qualities need to be seen once again throughout creation and thus re-ignite a sense of wonder and responsibility toward the world to which we are all intrinsically bound.