I’m Sarah Scherschligt, the pastor of Peace Lutheran in Alexandria. As an environmentalist, I have been encouraged by the Synod’s response to the coronavirus. We took the threat seriously and valued human health and well-being. We proclaimed the gospel through our willingness to sacrifice personal freedoms and re-organize our lives around care for the common good.
It has me dreaming: what if the church took climate change that seriously?
Consider the following points:
- Climate change is real. The science is clear. Human activity is warming the planet, causing long-established weather patterns to change. This is not a future possibility; it is a present-day reality. It has the potential to affect everyone, some worse than others.
- Every significant social issue the church cares about is related to climate change, including health, immigration, food security, poverty, war, and racial justice.
- While we have already done irreparable damage to our planet’s health, there is still a narrowing window of time for us to change the worst outcomes.
Given these facts, Christians who take the love commandment seriously need to attend to climate change and other environmental degradation as the urgent matters of faith they are.
For too long, church leaders have addressed environmental issues as optional, one issue among a platter of important concerns. But given the extent of the harm, and the centrality of a restored creation in a vision of the reign of God, the church’s action on climate is essential to our ability to proclaim the gospel convincingly in this generation.
I suspect most people know this but aren’t quite sure what to do about it. Indeed, the enormity of the issues, alongside everything else that vies for our attention, make it hard to address.
I offer a simple piece of advice, something I learned from a guitar teacher who said the key to learning to play the guitar was simple. Keep it out of its case. Pick it up. See it every day. Don’t put it away.
I have found, in my decades of work on environmental issues, a similarly simple way to effect change vis-à-vis climate and environment. Keep it in view. Talk about it. Make it part of every day.
You will see it everywhere if you are looking for it. Scripture is overflowing with descriptions of a just relationship between humans and the rest of creation. Here are some of my favorites:
- In Genesis, the first instruction God gives humans is about our relationship to the earth. The original sin is a misuse of natural resources.
- In Proverbs 8, limits of creation are part of God’s wisdom. Happy are they who stay within them.
- Throughout Isaiah, human sinfulness is manifested in desertification and pollution. The opposite is true too. When humans are right with God, they are also right with the earth.
- The gospel of John affirms that God loves the world. The “word made flesh” in John, Jesus, is resurrected with the appearance of a gardener.
- The final scriptural image of restoration in Revelations is profoundly earth-centered, with rivers and trees and a harmony between human civilization and the rest of the created order.
Keeping climate change in view also means reading creation-oriented theology. The organization Lutherans Restoring Creation is a great clearinghouse for articles, books, podcasts and other resources.
Grounded in scripture and theology, we can reinforce a commitment to creation care throughout our churches and our lives. In worship and prayer, budgets and staffing, we do well to ask: how does this decision affect climate change? Does it degrade the environment? Does it affirm that a right relationship with the earth is an essential aspiration of a Christian life?
I’m not going to pretend this is rosy or easy. The social systems at time seem intractable and it is impossible to live in this plastic-loving, carbon-burning society without an outsized environmental impact. The outlook is grim.
But we are a people who look squarely at the cross – the grimmest moment in human history – and trust in the God who moves us beyond despair. As Jim Wallis says: “Faith is acting despite the evidence then watching the evidence change.”
I have been watching the evidence change through the congregation I serve, Peace Lutheran. Eight years ago, we articulated the value “we promote love and justice for all creation.” By articulating these visions and values, we gauge all other decisions against it. So, for instance, when we bought new dishwashers we made sure they were energy efficient. We worked solar panels into our capital campaign (they’re being installed next month!).
Our children’s ministry only uses recyclable materials. No foam or plastic. (Side note: parents will thank you for reducing their clutter at home). We developed community gardens that support low-income members and reduces our lawn-mowing. We include advocacy for environmental concerns in our outreach ministry. We’ve educated ourselves about the connections between the environment and racial justice. The congregation supports my work on the board of an environmental non-profit. We carpool to events. We toured a wastewater treatment plant. And more. We are building a culture where environmental action is part and parcel of our witness to the good news.
I take heart that the Metro D.C. Synod has put “cultivate a bold and boundless love for … God’s beloved creation” in our mission statement. Church, there is no time to delay. As the novelist Richard Powers wrote in his book The Overstory, “the best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The second best time is today.”
I know there is so much else going on, but this Earth Day, I implore you to take environmental concerns out of their case and put them in plain view. Write them on tablets. Or on a post-it note on your mirror. Set a weekly reminder in your calendar to pray about the environment. Whatever it takes to not ignore it anymore.
As Covid-19 has taught us, we can change our lifestyles, radically. Now is the time to re-organize our lives around caring for God’s earth for the generations of creatures who will call it home. The gospel will be proclaimed as we do.
In hope and prayer,