Called to Love Neighbor and Care for Earth

It is an astounding moment in history to be people who serve the God revealed in Jesus. The gifts from this God shake the foundations of life as we know it:

  • The first gift is God’s love. God – the creating, liberating, healing, sustaining Source – loves this world and each of us with a love that will neither cease nor diminish, a love more powerful than any other force in heaven or earth.
  • Next, this God is at play in the world, breathing life into it.
  • But that is not all. We human creatures are created and called to recognize this gracious love, receive it, relish it, and trust it.
  • After receiving God’s love, we are to embody it in the world by loving God and loving neighbor as self. We are beckoned to join with God’s Spirit of justice-making Earth-relishing Love in its steadfast commitment to gain fullness of life for all.

According to widespread understanding of the Christian story, this is the human vocation, our life’s work. Two millennia of Christians and the Hebrew people before them have sought to heed this calling: “to love the Lord your God” and “to love your neighbour as yourself.” “Our responsibility as Christians,” Martin Luther King, Jr. declared, “is to discover the meaning of this command and seek passionately to live it out in our daily lives.” What love is and requires in each new time and place is the great moral question permeating Christian history.

According to Genesis 2:15, the human creature, even before being called to love, was placed in God’s garden Earth to serve (abad) and preserve (shamar) it.

According to Genesis 2:15, the human creature, even before being called to love, was placed in God’s garden Earth to serve (abad) and preserve (shamar) it.[1] Thus, the call to love neighbor presupposes that, in doing so, we also are to serve and preserve garden Earth. What does this call mean for people of faith in Cascadia today?

Haunting Contradiction

I am haunted by the contradiction between this reason for being – to love as God loves and care for Earth – and the deadly ecological and social consequences of our collective lives, consequences well hidden from our awareness if we are not suffering directly from them. We are implicated in the unprecedented two-fold moral crisis now facing humankind.

The first fold is ecological. Fundamental to Christian faith is the claim that when God created the Earth, God saw that is was tov (good) (Genesis 1). The Hebrew tov, while often translated as “good,” also implies “life-furthering.” God said time and again that this creation was tov – a good that is life-furthering. Here we arrive at a gut-wrenching theological problem. God’s primal act is not merely to create a magnificent world. God creates a magnificently life-furthering world. The scandalous point is this: With climate change, we are undoing that very “tov,” Earth’s life-generating capacity. We – or rather, some of us – have become “uncreators.”

Indeed, through climate change, our young and dangerous species has become a threat to Earth’s life-generating capacity. The credible scientific community is of one accord about this basic reality.

The horrific consequences of climate change are not suffered equally by Earth’s people. Nor are the world’s people equally responsible.

Less widely accepted is a corollary point of soul-searing moral import. The horrific consequences of climate change are not suffered equally by Earth’s people. Nor are the world’s people equally responsible. Those least responsible for the Earth crisis are suffering and dying first and foremost from it. Moreover, the victims of climate change are overwhelmingly people of color.

What do I mean? Climate induced rise in sea levels will not force you or me from our homes. Not true for many impoverished people in low-lying areas. The nation of Maldives, to illustrate, is threatened with loss of its entire landmass. Rising sea levels, furious storms, drought, and lost food and water supplies will displace and endanger billions of already impoverished people. Global warming will decrease yield of Earth’s food staples – wheat, corn, barley, rice – in seasonally dry areas. Subsistence farmers and people with little money will go hungry. We will not.  Coastal peoples without resources to protect against and recover from the fury of climate-related weather disaster are not the people largely responsible for gas emissions. Nor are they, for the most part, white.

In short, climate change is caused overwhelmingly by the world’s high-consuming people who are disproportionately descendants of Europe. Yet, climate change is wreaking death and destruction first and foremost on impoverished people who also are disproportionately people of color. The now nearly 25 million climate refugees are primarily Asian and African.

In startling theological terms, through climate change we – the world’s high consumers — are countering God’s primal creating activity and defying the calls to neighbor-love and Earth care.

My friends, this “we” includes me and most of us who read this journal – participants in one of Earth’s highest consuming societies. Yet, we of Cascadia are particularly apt in the arts of denial. It is seductively easy for us to pretend that climate change is not real, for the beauty of our land masks ravaging impacts worldwide.

What does the call to neighbor-love mean for us if we are, through climate change, threatening Earth’s God-given capacity to generate and sustain life? Never before in Christian history have the stakes in heeding our call to neighbor-love been so high.

What Then Shall People Who Follow Jesus Do?

Faithful responses to climate change abound. They involve change at all levels of society (household, institutions of civil society, business, and government). Here I note one powerful and profoundly hopeful option for faithful response by communities of faith.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu and over eighty other theologians and religious leaders from across the world released a statement recently calling on faith communities to combat climate change by divesting from their holdings in fossil fuels and reinvesting in a clean energy future. As a signer of the statement, I joined leaders from varied faith traditions, urging our communities to use our money to promote our values.

The statement’s authors note that in 2013 scientists calculated that humanity could emit approximately 500 more gigatons of CO2 before forcing the climate past the gravely dangerous threshold of a two degree temperature rise. By burning its current reserves the fossil fuel industry will create 3,000 gigatons of greenhouse gas emissions, six times this threshold level. Despite these dire consequences, in 2013, the industry spent over $600 billion exploring for new fossil fuel reserves, and it continues to wield enormous financial power aimed at preventing legislation and binding agreements to reduce carbon emissions.

Historically, the statement notes, “religious communities have decided that profiting from certain economic activities is incompatible with faith. When an industry continually, over years, causes massive harm while intractably resisting calls for change, faith communities have moved beyond education…and advocacy to divestment.” Faith groups used this approach in response to apartheid and to the tobacco industry, wielding powerful moral and practical influence. Because of the grave threat of climate change and the fossil fuel sector’s unyielding refusal to change, the statement urges religious groups and institutions to divest from fossil fuels and reinvest in renewable energy and creative mechanisms for energy conservation and efficiency.

Religious institutions do tremendous good with their investment earnings and are rightly hesitant to endanger them. This presents us with the moral opportunity of our era! It is to employ our creative genius to develop re-investment strategies that serve God by serving and preserving Earth’s garden, while also maintaining the financial resources necessary to our missions. Such is the defining moral challenge of our day.

May the religious organizations of Cascadia lead the way. May we show the world that it is both morally worthy and financially feasible to serve a gracious God by withdrawing our support from industries that are threatening life on Earth and reinvesting in companies committed to forging a clean energy future.

May the religious organizations of Cascadia lead the way. May we show the world that it is both morally worthy and financially feasible to serve a gracious God by withdrawing our support from industries that are threatening life on Earth and reinvesting in companies committed to forging a clean energy future. Urge your alma maters and church networks to use their money to love neighbor and serve and preserve God’s good Earth. Encourage them to move investments into companies working to ensure a clean energy future.

In this – our decisive moment in history – will the church step up to the plate to protect the gift of life on Earth? The signers of the religious leaders’ statement came together across lines of religious and national diversity because we believe humanity has no choice but to answer “yes.” We must act decisively now to choose life for Earth’s web of life, including the neighbors whom we are called to love. Divestment and reinvestment embody that choice.

[1] The Hebrew abad refers, in its noun form, to a servant. Shamar means to preserve in the sense of protect or keep (i.e. in “The Lord bless and keep you.)