Follow Jessica on Twitter @CrossAndLeaves or follow the Five Leaf Eco-Awards @fiveleafeco

Thursday, July 1, 2010

How I became a Christian Environmentalist

Writing some of my speeches recently, I've had to reflect a bit on my own story and how I came to be where I am now. You will probably see the below again in various versions in those speeches, but here is the story itself - my testimony of becoming a Christian Environmentalist. 

I grew up as a Christian and an environmentalist. Like many who care for this earth, I was one of those kids who ran around the back yard getting dirty and playing with anything living I could find there. I learnt how to stop ants from biting me, I bred Slater pigs (woodlice), I grew flowers and played with the plants in my mother’s garden, I caught the boatmen in our pool and I fished out the drowning bees and other insects and tried to save them when mum wasn’t looking. Most of all, I loved my dog – Sandy the golden Labrador cross. She was a beloved best friend who stood beside me my entire childhood – 17 years in fact. 

My parents both have agricultural science degrees, so my early interest in the environment is perhaps not that surprising. Mum used to teach me how to identify different kinds of plants, and we travelled a lot so I learnt about different environments around the country. I got bored at school so to keep me from running wild my parents gave me projects on animals like whales and dolphins to do after school. I collected book inserts on animals from a magazine each week, and it was from these I first learnt about endangered species like wolves, minx, elephants and orang utans. When I was eight years old I decided that I was going to create the world’s biggest and best zoo, one that was going to save all those endangered species from extinction. I think, at the time, my parents probably laughed off such an insane idea, but over roughly the next decade, when I didn’t give the idea up and spent much of my spare time researching information to help me design and realise this zoo, they had to reassess. In later high school, I did a nine month individual research project on Animal World – the inventive name of my future zoo. I learnt a lot trying to think through the various exhibits, animals and designs and my idea of what I wanted to do with my future changed. Some might say I finally gave up on the impossible zoo, but in some ways, it was more an expansion of my ambition than a contraction of it. Over the course of the months following completion of the project I slowly realised that it wasn’t enough. A zoo alone was never going to achieve all that needed to be done. The animals needed a habitat to go back to, and threats like climate change meant wider changes within our society were needed if we weren’t just going to have a few arks in a sea of destruction and extinct species. So I moved to Canberra for university to learn more about how to save the world, and thankfully discovered I wouldn’t have to do it on my own. Actually it was really confusing for me in some ways, I had spent my childhood preparing to fight against a hostile world as a voice for the environment, an interest that was still rare when I came to uni to study the environment, but which quickly became normal while I was there. As some of my friends like to say, ‘I was green before it was cool’.

I became a Christian at Sunday School, so early I can’t even remember the date. I think my parents thought it was their duty to send me to Sunday School, but they weren’t particularly supportive and I left a few years later. But God was not done with me yet. My church used to give us presents for Christmas each year, and the year before I left, mine was a Bible. I don’t think I would be a Christian today if not for that little act of providence. In the years between then and when I finally decided I would go back to church on my own, I read that Bible through several times, and became, I think, quite well versed in Scripture for my age. When I returned to church I was warmly welcomed, in particular by a special lady who assisted with the youth leadership. Before long, she and I were leading the Sunday youth group together. 
So here I was, passionate about the environment, passionate about my faith, and yet, unable to marry the two yet. It shames and confuses me now that I could have read the Bible so many times and never seen the green message I now see within the text, but for so long I was confused and afraid. The only thing I loved more than the environment was God, yet the Bible said people had dominion over the animals didn’t it? I couldn’t understand or countenance a faith that believed we had the right to abuse our fellow creatures, and I didn’t think, everything belonging to God, that God would approve of this treatment either, and yet how else was I to understand Genesis 1:28? After all, the church didn’t seem to care about the environment. So I was torn, often wondering if God would one day call me to give up my work for the environment and come serve the church. I always promised God that if asked I would do so, but the thought broke my heart and I didn’t understand why God would create me with such a passion for the environment if I was not supposed to use it.

So one day, I heard that the then Bishop George Browning of the Canberra Goulburn Diocese was talking at the ANU about Christianity and the Environment. It was an unpromising event really – it was in a small theatre and very few people turned up, but after the talk I worked up the guts to ask about the question that was bothering me the most – I asked about Genesis 1:28. George Browning thanked me for the question, explained that it confused many people and then explained to me that the word translated ‘dominion’ could also be translated as a commission for humanity to rule over creation in the same way that the sun rules over the day and the moon over the night – as servant rulers. I thought about that for a moment. The sun is the source of all energy on Earth, it nourishes us and make our lives possible yet never receives anything in return. It was a classic eye opening, lightbulb experience. Later, when I was invited to be an Australian delegate to the Asia Pacific Interfaith Youth Camp on Climate Change in Surubaya, Indonesia; I did a whole bunch of reading before the trip so that I would be able to share with the people from other faiths what Christianity had to say about the environment. The eco-theology texts were fascinating and while reading them I finally realised I could actually do this, I could marry the two pillar of my life together. I could be no only a Christian and an environmentalist, but a Christian environmentalist.

At first, I had been concerned that verses like Genesis 2:15 where God tells man to tend and care for the Garden of Eden were isolated proof texts that couldn’t be counted on to build a solid theology. As Shakespeare once said, “the devil can cite Scripture for his own purpose”. As Matthew Sleeth writes in his personal account of his ecological conversion (The Green Bible), “Much harm has been done in the past by taking one or two lines from the Bible and building an entire theology on them. Was the call to care for creation care one of those instances? Was my church right in remaining silent on creation? The good news is that the Christian faith is not based upon trends, but is instead founded on a book – the Bible. ... I turned to it to answer my question.... What my reading of the Bible disclosed is that creation care is at the very core of our Christian walk.” Likewise, I came to the conclusion that creation care was one of the Bible’s central messages and I became convicted that God was calling the church today to respond to this, so I decided to do something about it.

After the trip I began work on what eventually became the Five Leaf Eco-Awards, an ecumenical church greening program I run that I’m hoping to make interfaith soon. I also started volunteering for the Justice and International Mission Unit of the UCA Synod of VicTas where I get to help create a range of resources to help churches in the two states become more environmentally friendly. I love what I'm doing and I'm finally at peace that I can serve God while also helping the environment. I don't know what the future holds, but I look forward to seeing God's will at work in the greening of the church worldwide.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Important Lessons from the Bible

Why Jesus came:
"that the world might be saved through him"
John 3:17

Who Jesus is going to use to save the world:
"For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God."
Romans 8:19

Our role on earth:
"The LORD God put the man in the Garden of Eden to take care of it and to look after it."
Genesis 2:15

The Five Pillars of A Christian Theology of Sustainability

1. God is the creator, sustainer and redeemer of creation.

2. Covenantal Stewardship (we have a covenant with God as stewards of the earth).

3. The creation-fall-redemption paradigm (God made a good world; human failure broke the relationships between god, man and creation; Christ provides hope for all creation).

4.Bodily resurrection(we will rise with bodies, not as spirits)

5.New Creation (a new Heaven and new Earth refers to a renewal and an earthing of heaven, not starting over).

Adapted from When Enough is Enough: A Christian Framework for Environmental Sustainability, Edited by R.J. Berry, Published by Inter-Varsity Press, 2007, Nottingham p43+