Recently, my wife and I stood at the lake near our house and watched a pair of wood ducks swim back and forth. Pretty soon, a mallard hen with a dozen ducklings swam up, and we watched as the ducklings skittered back and forth over the water. And as I stood there and watched the ducks, I thought about the environment, and how I could make sure that my children would have the opportunity to watch ducks one day.
That line of thinking turned me towards reflection on the lectures that I’ve heard on a Christian response to the environment.Those lectures sometimes made great points, especially when they emphasized that scientists and engineers have important Christian vocations like everyone else. But, part of the lectures I’ve heard felt lacking to me. They focus on themes like “Christian stewardship,” “Christian duty,” or “Christian responsibility.” And while I’m sure all these themes are well meaning, I can’t help but think that they all have the same flaw. They all attempt to take justified Christians and present them with a new set of requirements that they have to check off in order to maintain good standing with God. With every strategy and conversation about the environment comes the inevitable subtext: “You’re not a good Christian if you don’t…” “Christian environmental stewardship” has become a new form of moralism, a way of measuring our sanctification through Priuses, fluorescent bulbs, and bee gardens. The problem with Christian environmentalism is that it has become a new way to tell who’s in and who’s out, who’s a sinner and who’s not. All this talk on the environment has become a new way for us (and not God) to decide who gets grace. The criteria now isn’t Jewish ritual law, it’s how green you are. And while it may be a lot more hip than circumcision, it’s the same problem that Paul faced when he started that church in Galatia.
And like Paul wrote to the Galatians, all this talk about who’s green and who’s not misses entirely the way that God speaks to us through the Law and the Gospel. The point of the Law isn’t to help us to “be the best steward that we can be.” The point of the Law is to help us see that no matter how well we’re taking care of the environment by human standards, we’re still failing miserably. While a Christian environmentalist may not be burning coal in their backyard or actively chopping down rain forests, they’re still not saving the environment from the massive destruction that happens every day. Christian environmental thinking abuses the Law when it thinks that doing slightly better than your neighbor fulfills the obligations that Christians owe to God’s creation. It’s true, the Prius driver may be doing slightly better than their Hummer driving neighbor, but this system of gradations is still thinking in the categories of the old sinner. But it’s even more true that the minute we make saving the environment an obligation on baptized Christians, there’s only two things we can do: We can throw up our hands in despair and acknowledge that no matter how well we’re doing, the blood of the environment is still on our hands, or we can become smug idolaters, proud of our own progress.
In making the environment an obligation, Christians not only abuse the Law, but they also miss the true beauty of the Gospel. When Christ said, “It is finished,” He meant it. He didn’t mean “I’ve done a little part, Christians go do the rest.” When Christ proclaimed that He had done everything for us, that everything includes the environment with all its problems. Christ has taken the environment, redeemed it and given it back to us as a wonderful gift. Instead of being slaves to the obligations of preserving nature as pristine, or cruel slave drivers wringing every last drop out of the world around us, Christ has freed us to be recipients of a world that God has created for us. From Christ, we receive a world to feed us, a world to clothe us, and a world to dazzle us with wonder.
And so if we take seriously the way that God speaks to us with the Law and the Gospel, our Christian response to the environment receives a 180 degree reframing. Christ turns us away from the desire to prove our own goodness, and hand us a world created for our benefit. Christ takes away the necessity to plant a garden, and gives us an opportunity to nourish God’s creation. He removes the obligation to eat locally and frees us to taste the bounty of the earth that God sustains every day. Christ removes nature as an opportunity to bash our neighbors for owning plastic Tupperware, and gives it back to us as a testament to the love and care of God. All nature, all gift, all opportunity to rejoice.