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Something about Forests and Trees…

Well, this really is a head-scratcher for me. This morning I came across this truly baffling article in the New York Times. Leaders of several conservative Christian groups have apparently drafted a letter with the expressed purpose of attempting to dissuade the Washington policy director of the American Association of Evangelicals, Rev. Richard Cizik, to stop speaking on the problem of global warming. The following rationale is provided:

“We have observed,” the letter says, “that Cizik and others are using the global warming controversy to shift the emphasis away from the great moral issues of our time.” Those issues, the signers say, are a need to campaign against abortion and same-sex marriage and to promote “the teaching of sexual abstinence and morality to our children.”


Sometimes, as a non-American with a fairly rudimentary understanding of the dynamics between politics and religion south of the border, it’s easy to think that there once existed these quasi-fictitious creatures called “fundamentalists” who were endlessly obsessed with abortion and homosexuality, and believed that the world had to reach a kind of critical point of apocalyptic destitution before God would return to burn it up and vindicate them. This group seems to have existed at some point in the mid-20th century, but are now largely a memory of the past, useful for little more than discussing historical peculiarities and providing foils for more sound theological arguments…

Apparently not.

I wonder, if global warming is not considered to be a moral issue by these Christian leaders, what kind of an issue would they consider it to be? I certainly don’t consider myself to be well-informed enough about the science of climate change to launch into technical discussion about precisely what will happen if we don’t start to address global warming. For me, the first question is always “why?” Why ought we to care about the environment?

For most secular environmental types, I suspect, the answer to that question reduces to some form of utilitarianism grounded in, at some level at least, self-preservation. As Christians, however, I would think that we have, and have always had, our own fairly important reason to treat care for the earth as a moral issue. As the image-bearers of a creative God who commanded us to be his regents over creation, it would seem to me that irrespective of whether or not the current excitement over climate change is warranted (i.e., whether or not we really are damaging the environment through our over-consumption and rapacious behaviour), we ought to treat the world God has made and entrusted to us with utmost care and attention. Simply put, caring for the world and promoting shalom is what we were made to do, and it’s how we most faithfully image our maker. Displaying a cavalier and reckless attitude to something that God pronounced good, and will one day fully redeem, seems to be, among other things, an immoral thing to do.

That’s why I find it so astonishing that these evangelical leaders in America are, with a straight face, arguing that Cizik should stop speaking out on global warming. Aside from the fact that it might be useful, even necessary, for the evangelical movement’s attention to be diverted for a time in order to provide a corrective against the misdirected overemphases of the past century and perhaps work toward rehabilitating their public perception, the kind of thinking represented by these leaders simply demonstrates a woefully inadequate theology on so many levels. It reinforces a dualistic way of thinking about the world, where physical stuff isn’t really important and all that really matters is human souls; it makes it extremely difficult to understand why God went to the trouble of creating a world at all; it doesn’t take important parts of the Bible seriously (Gen 2:15, for example); and, perhaps ironically, it isn’t even logically consistent with respect to its own implicit eschatology. If the world has to get sufficiently bad before Jesus will come back, and this justifies a lack of concern for the environment, then we shouldn’t really care about abortion or homosexuality either. Why not let the world get as morally corrupt as possible? It’s just one (necessary) step closer to glory!

I’m not for one moment suggesting that the moral issues these Christian leaders get so exercised about are not important. But it seems to me that this is, at the very least, a case where we’re not dealing with two mutually incompatible things. Unless I’m missing something obvious, it is possible to show moral concern both for the world, and for the people who are called to care for it.

15 Comments Post a comment
  1. jc #

    a link to the letter is here

    March 3, 2007
  2. Thanks for the link.

    March 4, 2007
  3. jc #

    It is interesting how the Christian Evangelicals have seemed to align themselves with the Right ever since the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan. You do have your Tony Campolo’s out there who see themselves as left leaning along with the others who write on This upcoming election will be very interesting to watch if a guy like Rudy Giuliani[who is pro-choice and pro gay-rights] wins the Republican nomination and even more interesting if Barak Hussein Obama wins the Democrat nomination. Christians will not be able to decide who to vote for just on a single issue such as abortion or gay rights. If Clinton wins I can see Christians still having an aversion to voting Democrat.

    I can see how some Christians might be upset that their agenda of pro-life and anti-gay rights could be hijacked to promote a “green” agenda. As far as a hierarchy of morals goes I think trying to stop abortion and sexual immorality would be much higher on the list then stopping global warming[which nobody seems to know how to do anyways without ending civilization as we know it and that probably won’t work either].

    You seem to be right about the conflict of Evangilical Right’s eschatological beliefs conflicting with their desire to promote their idea of Christian morals in society. I am not exactly sure of the beliefs those individuals who signed that letter profess regarding eschatology.

    What do you think is better? Should Christians gather around certain cause’s like ending abortion or should they be silent and sort of live in little sects or colonies indifferent to society around them. I sort of phrased that as an either/or but their are obviously other alternatives.

    sorry for the brackets.

    March 4, 2007
  4. Gil #

    I think there are theological blinders here that go quite deep. You rightly point to the warped eschatology behind the evangelical disregard for creation that is on display here. I think there is also a fundamental misunderstanding of the cross that plays into this. If Jesus only came to enable God to overlook my individual crimes and misdemeanors then it stands to reason that we should invest most of our energy in pointing out others’ need for personal forgiveness. If the cross was, instead, God’s way of dealing with evil (all evil) then we have a mandate to resist evil that goes beyond bedrooms and abortion clinics.

    JC I think you’re right in pointing out what may motivate the hierarchy of sins here. I don’t necessarily agree with it but I know it’s easy to feel helpless when confronted with a problem of this magnitude. I mean, I have a high efficiency furnace and my car gets 40 miles to the gallon but most of the time these feel like pretty futile gestures.

    March 4, 2007
  5. jc,

    re: your question about what is better – sectarianism, or rallying around commonly-held social/political issues, or some other thing…

    I think that one of the most helpful categories that I have been given (primarily through John Stackhouse) by which to think of what Christian involvement in the world ought to look like is that of shalom. Our job as God’s regents – those he has given the task of caring for the world – is to do what we can to promote harmony, goodness, peace etc in a world that is spoiled and stained by sin. It is not (I don’t think) primarily to preserve a holy and faithful remnant, and it is not to become a lobby group for this or that political issue.

    If we see shalom as God’s (and thus our) goal for his world, it is possible to genuinely affirm all the good that is being done in the world, even if we don’t necessarily agree with what is motivating it. This avoids the problems of sectarianism in that “the world” is not something to always and only be fearfully avoided, but something in which there are things worth affirming and embracing and things that need to be challenged or condemned. But “the world” isn’t something that is either all bad or all good. It also avoids the tendency to hitch our wagons on to one issue (like abortion, or environmentalism) because we understand that these issues are only one part of a much broader agenda from God’s perspective. I think taking a longer and a broader view of history and God’s purposes within it is genuinely helpful, and helps us avoid veering off towards extremes.

    I think that this kind of a view requires more of us because rather than just applying ready-made ethical templates or rigid dichotomies between “church” and “world,” we have to ask ourselves in each situation, “How would shalom be best promoted in this particular context.

    March 5, 2007
  6. jc #

    Okay, how does this idea of shalom respond to abortion. I am sure that it is still against it so how does one go about trying to prevent it from happening? Is it a hearts and minds campaign or do you seek legislation to prevent it? I am just interested in how theory and practice come together.

    March 5, 2007
  7. I suspect that many Christians would be just as committed to protesting against abortion when motivated by something like a vision of shalom as they were otherwise. This would undoubtedly continue to involve seeking legislation against it, but it may involve other things as well. Perhaps they could seek to provide counseling both for those who have not yet decided to abort and for those who have. Maybe this would be a way of indicating that shalom is broader than correct ethical decisions at a given moment – that it involves rehabilitation and redemption as well. I’m just thinking out loud here, but that may be a better way of seeking to eradicate abortion than bombing clinics or harassing doctors.

    The important thing, from my perspective, is that with a broader vision of shalom as the motivating factor behind Christian political involvement, you might see a move away from huge blocks of the population voting a certain way based on one issue that touches relatively few people. It might open up a door to voting for a particular candidate even if they didn’t share one’s views on select moral issues, if it was believed that in general, shalom would be best promoted by that candidate’s foreign policy for example. Then perhaps the curious phenomena of people voting Republican because they are against abortion but apparently not attaching the same level of moral significance to the thousands of live human beings who have been killed, injured, displaced, or otherwise traumatized by a large-scale war undertaken on inadequate grounds would disappear.

    March 5, 2007
  8. jc #

    From what you have said about Shalom it doesn’t strike me as that much different then what is happening now. There are crisis pregnancy centers all over the United States that do just what you describe. The incidents of clinic bombing and doctor harassing are quite rare. I still think Christians will be motivated to vote Republican as long as long as they have a social conservative agenda. Abortion is a big deal to them. I think the perception of Christian social conservatives being clinic bombers and doctor harassers is media promoted. I am pretty confident that no matter how much shalom you are out there promoting as long as you have a stated position of being anti-abortion or pro-life the media is going to label you as so. Would you not say Dobson is not out there providing shalom as you describe it? The only other name I only recognize Gary Baur’s. If this letter was written by Jerry Falwell and signed by Pat Buchanan then I think I would be more apt to agree with you. Right now I am not so sure… and its just fun to take the other side a lot of the time.

    March 5, 2007
  9. In bringing up “shalom” as what I consider to be a helpful category through which to evaluate Christian social/political involvement I was not suggesting that there is nobody out there who thinks this way, or that it isn’t currently motivating a good deal of activity. And I agree, the stereotypes of right-wing evangelicals are certainly driven by the media. But stereotypes do originate somewhere. I don’t think it’s unfair to say that there is a substantial population in America that has historically voted predominantly based on specific moral issues at the expense of a careful moral consideration of the effects of their government’s foreign policy. From my perspective, they do not have a broad enough (or biblical enough) vision of shalom informing their actions.

    I’m not exactly sure what you are disagreeing with here. Do you think that Christians (or anyone else) should be actively working against shalom? Do you think it is a damaging or unhelpful category through which to look at the Christian’s involvement in the world? Do you think that it could not, in principle, provide some who have exhibited a tendency to view the world and their role within it in fairly narrow terms a more expansive and liberating view of their social and political options within it?

    March 6, 2007
  10. jc #

    What I was trying to point out is that those who sent the letter were not necessarily acting against shalom as your first post implied. I am not convinced that their effort to keep abortion as a priority is anti-shalom. I think there are some good reasons not to let something like the issue of global warming take priority or make a list of issues that an organization should be lobbying the government for. I think their statement in the letter is quite valid about the points of disagreement on why the earth might be warming and what should we do about it. I think it is also true that if one would examine the constituents of the NAE you would find wide disagreement about global warming and its implications. Maybe you consider the verdict on global warming to be delivered already and that it is high time government started legislating deep changes to the western lifestyle to combat it. Then I suppose it would be logical that it should have some footing within the NAE as an issue and should be pursued as they also pursue the issue of abortion and homosexual issues. I do not have such an opinion of global warming so I guess that is why I don’t see a contradiction.

    March 6, 2007
  11. The post itself did not imply that the letter writers were not acting to promote shalom. I only introduced that category in response to the question of Christian social involvement. In subsequent responses, I suggested that their vision of shalom could perhaps be a bit broader. I failed to see how any Christian could, in good conscience, tell a Christian brother to stop speaking about care for the earth as an important moral issue. I concluded the post as follows:

    It seems to me that this is, at the very least, a case where we’re not dealing with two mutually incompatible things. Unless I’m missing something obvious, it is possible to show moral concern both for the world, and for the people who are called to care for it.

    I simply don’t think that concern for moral issues and concern for the earth are mutually exclusive as the writers of these letters seem to indicate.

    “Maybe you consider the verdict on global warming to be delivered already and that it is high time government started legislating deep changes to the western lifestyle to combat it.”

    I don’t recall saying anything about what the government ought or ought not to do. The post was about what I felt to be a strange response of one group of Christians with respect to another Christian. I also indicated in my original post that regardless of the scientific verdict on the matter (which I confessed to be unqualified to judge), Christians have enough of a reason to include the earth into the arena of their moral deliberations within their own scriptures. In a sense, it doesn’t really matter if scientists are right or wrong about global warming because Christians are called to responsible stewardship as part of the mandate given to them by God.

    March 6, 2007
  12. jc #

    I am actually just trying to discuss this issue for no reason except for the fun of it. I don’t really have a stake in the discussion. I don’t really care what the NAE lobby’s for or not. So I am probably just wasting your time. I am reading that book ‘Proper Confidence.’ It got really interesting around pg 50. I agree with you that a Christian worldview would consider stewardship of the Earth as a mandate given by God.

    March 6, 2007
  13. jc #

    By saying the NAE isn’t really that interesting to me I wasn’t saying that it was a lame post. I realize it would be more interesting to a lot of people who follow your blog.

    March 6, 2007
  14. jc #

    This is not totally unrelated. but you can check out this documentary on google videos.

    The things you can do with documentaries these days…

    March 11, 2007

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