THERE ARE TIMES when our daily Bible readings take us into apparently barren territory. Take 1 Chronicles, chapter 12 for instance. Here we find lists of the men who came to join David when he was banished from the presence of Saul. Uninspiring stuff, you may think. Yet when we come to verse 32, we find an interesting phrase describing the men of Issachar: "men...who understood the times and knew what Israel should do." Could we apply this description to the church today? Yes, you say. The church well understands the spiritual needs of the world, and knows that it must preach the Gospel to save souls. Fine, but what about the other major issues which are concerning the human race? Here I have the feeling that the church is far less well informed, let alone equipped to know how to respond.
One of the failures of evangelicalism for much of the twentieth century has been its focus on personal relationships with God. This focus has resulted in an egocentric form of Christianity, where personal spiritual blessing is paramount. But God's activity in his world is not limited to the personal and spiritual. He may and does bless us personally, but not purely for our own benefit. We are blessed that we may bless others. When we become Christians, God transforms our minds. That transforming process is not solely directed to a new understanding of spiritual matters. It also helps us understand, from God's perspective, the society in which we live. We can then be salt and light in God's world in very practical and down-to-earth ways.
Recently the nations of the world met at Kyoto at the Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Climate Change. We watched them struggle to reach agreement on the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Regardless of the result, was it worth the effort? Swampy buries himself in the ground to stop road construction. Is he a hero or a villain? Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, the National Trust, the Council for the Protection of Rural England: are they friends or foes? What is a Christian perspective on environmental matters?
If you think green issues are someone else's problem, think again. Einstein defined the environment as "everything that isn't me." He was wrong. We are all part of it, and everything we do affects it. We consume its resources, we pollute it, and we waste it. The result of that consumption, pollution and waste is environmental problems on a global scale. You may not think your humble contribution amounts to much, but when all our humble contributions are added together, they begin to threaten the survival of the planet. Further, our numbers are increasing enormously. It took us until about the 1700s to reach one billion. By the middle of the next century, our population will have reached ten billion.
Let me give you a few examples of the impact of human beings on the earth. The net loss of forest since pre-agricultural times has been an area the size of the USA. Three quarters of this has been cleared in the last three hundred years. The annual human withdrawal of water from natural circulation is now about 3,600 cubic kilometres. Three hundred years ago it was less than 100 cubic kilometres. We have caused acid rain, the beginning of the breakdown of the ozone layer, and global warming. The consequences include environmental pollution, severe health risks, losses in food production, and the disappearance of some of the low-lying areas of the world.
Despite the shortcomings of the Kyoto Conference and its like, official reaction is taking these matters seriously. Kyoto was one of a series. Ten years ago the Montreal Protocol tried to control substances that deplete the ozone layer. In 1992, the UN Conference on Environment and Development ("The Earth Summit") met in Rio de Janeiro, resulting in Agenda 21, the Climate Change Convention, and the Biodiversity Convention. The European Union has an Environment Action Programme, and a great deal of European regulation relates to environmental conservation. Within Britain, a national strategy for sustainable development followed the Earth Summit. We have many environmental regulations, concerning water quality, sewage treatment, industrial pollution and the protection of environmentally important areas and species. The concept of sustainable development is now a key theme in our town and country planning system. At the very local level, many people are now getting involved in Local Agenda 21. This is another result of the Earth Summit, and encourages people to "think global and act local."
There is, of course, a considerable amount of self-interest underlying all this activity. It concerns the survival of the species, if not the earth. Yet we need to understand the underlying philosophy of the environmental movement and our Christian response, before we can "know what Israel should do." Indeed, some environmentalists squarely lay the blame for the environmental crisis on Christianity. In particular, they point to Genesis chapter 1 verse 26 as giving human beings carte blanche for doing as they like with God's creation. Many environmental thinkers have then gone to the other extreme, and tried to diminish the role of humans as, at best, an equal partner in creation, or, at worst, a subordinate player whose activities should be governed by the environment. While these positions can be challenged on the grounds that they are self-contradictory (how do you diminish the role of mankind in your thinking, when it is you, a human being, who is doing the thinking?), we should be aware of their influence. For instance, designated nature conservation areas in Britain are increasing in significance, in terms of restricting development. In effect, we are beginning to see the promotion of non-human "homes" above human. Is that right?
We return to our need to "understand the times?" Here we must explore a number of key Biblical themes:
1. The environment is God's creation (Genesis chapters 1 and 2). The created order was good (Genesis chapter 1 verse 31). It was not over-exploited, polluted or wasted. It provided beauty and resources.
2. Mankind is part of the created community and has dominion over it. We are created in the image of God (Genesis chapter 1 verse 26), and therefore are different from the rest of creation. However it is important that we keep in balance our "togetherness" and our "otherness."
3. The human race are stewards of God's creation. Genesis chapter 1 verse 26 cannot be read as an order to destroy creation. A creator, whose motive was selfless love, would not charge one of his creatures to destroy all that he had made. Rather, being made in the image of God, human beings are God's representatives and stand between him and the rest of creation. We should therefore act as God would act. In Genesis chapter 2 verse 15, mankind is told to care for the earth's resources. Taken with Genesis chapter 1 verse 26, we can conclude that we may use those resources, but this use should be constrained by our knowledge that the creation remains in the ownership of God, to whom we are responsible.
4. It all went wrong at the Fall. Mankind's relationship both with God and the rest of creation was broken: self-worship led to exploitation, pollution and waste. If we disregard God, we are no longer stewards and all the responsibilities of stewardship can be disregarded.
5. It was put right by Christ's redemption on the Cross (Colossians chapter 1 verses 19 and 20 again). We recognise that our redemption has "now" and "later" aspects to it. For now, as redeemed individuals, we must try to treat God's creation in the way he originally intended. In that way we shall be his agents to bring to pass what Christ achieved on the Cross. There will also be a future time when everything will properly be brought together (Romans chapter 8 verses 18 to 22).
And "knowing what Israel should do?" We can start with the small things: re-use, recycle, avoid unnecessary packaging, use plastic carrier bags more than once, insulate your house and, if you are a gardener, take Bob Flowerdew seriously. However our responsibilities are far wider than avoiding the use of aerosols. We should examine our lifestyles in their totality. How much are we caught up in materialism? Start living according to need rather than want. Think about your travel requirements. They may even force you to move house or job to reduce the distance and way you travel. Lobby for those environmental causes which can be justified from a Christian perspective. Commercial interests, which may run counter to a Christian understanding of the stewardship of God's creation, are powerful, and politicians need support in their efforts to address environmental issues. Above all, realise that environmental issues are your problem. We should all be green men of Issachar.
Don Gobbett is a town and country planner with Dorset County
Council. The views expressed here are his own.
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