I need to make a confession: I have failed to love my neighbor as myself. In the instances when I show disregard for the natural world around me, I am failing to love my neighbor. The following is why I have come to believe that, and why I (as a person of Christian faith) feel deep concern for the natural world.
In the beginning, God created and it was good. In the Christian world, there are differing views regarding how God created and how long it took for God to create, but there is a general consensus in recognizing that God created the natural world in goodness and love. God creates, and it is good.
As part of the creation narrative recorded in Genesis (the first book of the Bible), humans receive a special commission to take care of the good creation (Genesis 1:28). Part of being created in the image of God refers to a calling to care for the natural world and its goodness -- just as God expressed care and goodness in creating the natural world. Humanity is called to be “the channel of conveyance” of blessings to both one another and to the natural world around us. We are challenged with keeping creation and the natural world good. When we fail to do so, we mar the goodness of creation, we mar the image of God in ourselves, and we block up the channels of blessings flowing out of us towards one another.
And so it is time I confess that I demonstrate a lifestyle and harbor an attitude that devalues the goodness of creation. I engage in behaviors that I know detract from the goodness of the natural world. Specifically, I drive almost everywhere I go, pumping harmful emissions into the air. I consume with little regard for the sourcing of what I consume nor how I will dispose of consumables when I’m done. I could go on. But it likely suffices to plainly admit that I contribute to the pollution that mars creation.
The harm I -- and many others -- do to creation has real effects. While some may disagree that humans are contributing to global climate change (I believe the science supporting the view that human activity contributes to global warming), we cannot deny that human activity often has negative effects on the natural world. Every year eight million tons of garbage (some of which may come from me) are dumped into oceans, poisoning natural food supplies and coral formations. Fertilizers contaminate water supplies and kill wildlife. Deforestation threatens wildlife habitats, contributes to soil erosion and to the rise of greenhouse gases.
The natural world is a means of encountering God. Romans 1:20 says that God’s power and nature are understood and seen through that which God made. We see God’s goodness and love in nature. Likewise, we understand that God cares for us because of the bounties of nature. The natural world provides so much of what we need.
So when I am contributing to the pollution of nature, I believe I am harming my fellow humans because I am limiting access to, or even deleting, that which they need. Most often, those I am harming the most are the most vulnerable of our world. What happens when the natural environment becomes inhospitable or hostile? What witness do we bear regarding God’s goodness when we pollute drinking water? How are we experiencing the goodness of God’s love when the burning of fossil fuels creates air conditions triggering asthma or burning eyes?
When we contribute to such conditions, we mar the witness to the goodness of God. How am I to believe in a loving God who cares about my every need when I can’t find drinkable water or clean air? And, the fact is, the poorer a person is, the more likely environmental degradation will deliver negative effects. The fewer resources available to a person, the more likely she experiences hardship from environmentally-influenced asthma or cancer. The lower one’s income, the more likely they are to come into contact with toxins in their home or neighborhood. The farther removed from opulence, the more likely one becomes dependent on contaminated water sources. The impact of environmental disaster (human-contributed or otherwise) deepens in accordance with poverty.
This, I believe, links my concern for my fellow humans to a concern for the environment.
John Wesley -- an influential voice in the world of United Methodism -- proposed three general rules for Christian living. They are rather simple:
- Do no harm.
- Do good.
- Attend to the ordinances of God.
When it comes to the environment, we have repeatedly sought out rule 2 while remaining neglectful of rule 1. That, of course, means we’re missing out on rule 3 -- for God commissions humanity to care for the natural world.
The challenge moving forward is in considering the ways in which I contribute to harming the environment, and thereby harming my neighbors. John Wesley used to ask his comrades if they prayed about the money they spent. I believe this was a way of calling into consideration the real value of each transaction they made: whether their expenditures were being optimized for good in the world. We can begin to limit the harm we do in our consumption by taking a similarly prayerful approach. Do we prayerfully consider the things we consume and how they may be contributing to harming the natural world?
If you’d like more ideas in limiting harm to the environment, visit this helpful page from the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society: https://www.umcjustice.org/what-we-care-about/environmental-justice
Ryan Dunn is an ordained deacon in the United Methodist Church currently serving as the Minister of Online Engagement at United Methodist Communications in Nashville, TN.