Adopted by more than two-thirds majority vote as a social statement of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America by the third Churchwide Assembly on August 28, 1993, at Kansas City, Missouri.
Part of a series on the Social Statements of the ELCA.
A complete copy of this social statement can be found here.
We live on the surface of a planet whizzing through space, orbiting a bright yellow star, in a distant corner of our galaxy. Right now, it’s the only one we’ve got–to our knowledge, this is the only planet in our solar system with any sort of life (unless you count Mars, inhabited entirely by robots), and we can’t yet bring people to another. How are Christians called to live on and with this amazing gift?
Our planet is not our own–we are merely stewards of it, and are as much a part of it as we are guardians of it. It is God, not we, who created the universe and everything in it. In Genesis, God declares all of creation “good”, and though it is now a broken creation, God’s intent for all of creation is restoration, healing, wholeness and salvation.
I was surprised that there wasn’t a long discussion on Genesis 1:28: “God blessed [the human beings], and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth'” (NRSV). The Hebrew word translated as “subdue” is kabash, which does mean to subdue, enslave, or dominate hostile forces. The word translated “dominion” is radah, which means to rule over as a king. This verse, just one of the 31,102 in the Bible (thank you, Wikipedia), has been used over and over to justify brutal exploitation of the land and the environment.
And yet, what does it mean to be a king? For that, let’s look to our best example: God. God, the Master of the Universe and Sovereign over All Creation, is the undisputed king–The King. And this King, as Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber says, “slipped into skin” and became incarnate in creation, taught peace and good stewardship, lived as a servant, endured suffering, and even died, all for the sake of a creation that was and is deeply loved. If that’s what it means to be King over All Creation, then our traditional understanding of the dominion of humanity over the earth is grossly inappropriate.
The Crisis and the Hope
Two main problems are identified as the cause of our current environmental crises. Not surprisingly, both are human-centered–because of sin, humans have turned to the destruction of nature and the environment. The first problem is excessive consumption of resources by industrialized nations, and the second is uncontrollable population growth that strains already limited resources. The earth is not an “infinite warehouse”–it is being consumed faster than it can be replenished
The statement identifies a number of immediate environmental crises human beings face: depletion of non-renewable resources, extinction, erosion of topsoil, pollution of air and water, increased waste, acid rain, depletion of the ozone layer, and global warming (the ELCA is not a climate change-denying church!). The church must learn as much as it can about these crises so that it can enact changes that will make a difference.
Though human beings have an enormous propensity to destruction, our sin and our failures are not the final word. Christian hope continually looks forward to the fulfilment of God’s promises: that the reign of God has come near and will soon fully arrive, that the salvation that comes from God by grace is for all of creation, and that the fulfilment of these promises will result in “a new heaven and a new earth”.
Acting for Justice
When talking about environmental justice, there are four principles that the church identifies as necessary for attention:
Participation: Discussions about environmental justice must include everyone–not only the people affected by them, but also the implicit voices of all creatures and lives in creation as well. People who make their living off the land and people who have lost their living through the destruction of the land must be heard.
Solidarity: The church is called to acknowledge the interdependence and connectedness of all creation. It must stand with the victims of environmental disaster. It must also call attention to the greed that facilitates the destruction of the planet.
Sufficiency: All life needs sufficient means and resources to survive, thrive, and grow. If there are lives deprived of these sufficient means, we are obligated to ensure that sufficiency. This will be, I think, the hardest concept to get across, because, as the statement says, “In a world of finite resources, for all to have enough means that those with more than enough will have to change their patterns of acquisition and consumption”.
Sustainability: We live on one planet, so until we get to another with resources to sustain us, we have to make this one last. The principle of sustainability means balancing our consumption with replenishment and rest so that we leave for our descendants a planet that can support them. The earth is not a perpetual motion machine, able to continually churn out resources for our consumption without eventually running out.
What Can We Do Now?
The best way to combat environmental degradation is through education! The better informed people are about the environment and how to care for it, the better we as humankind can do so. Congregations especially can put on programs and bring awareness of environmental crises to the people in their communities.
Advocacy can and must be done by the church. As an institution with a prophetic voice, it is called to use that voice to speak to corporations and governments that abuse the land for profit and oppress the people living on it out of greed. It must advocate for better business practices, effective regulations, and appropriate economic incentives.
I know many communities will balk at this. I live in a community that depends on hunting, fishing, and other land/water tourist activities for its economy. Fishing and hunting regulations can decrease the draw of tourists, even though the regulations are meant to keep the animal populations sustainable. Where is the balance between making a livelihood, and protecting creation?
Importantly, these discussions and these decisions must be made with the full participation of everyone whom is affected by them. There are no short term solutions–we must think long-term if we are to stem the crises we have created, and that might mean sacrifice in the short-term.
Let me rephrase that–it will mean sacrifices in the short-term. But we, who have more than sufficient resources, are called upon to ensure sufficiency and sustainability for all. We are called to be Servant-kings in creation, for the sake of creation.
Featured image: “Sunlight over Earth as seen by STS-29 crew” by NASA on The Commons is in the public domain.