Sydney, Australia

"In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." Ten words into the Bible - in Genesis 1:1 - and the first thing we learn about God is that He created the Earth. 

And repeated throughout that first chapter is the suggestive refrain, "And God saw that it was good."

Germany climate change protest

People participate in a protest calling for action on climate change in Germany in 2019. PICTURE: Marcus Spiske/Unsplash

There is significance here for us as Christians. We refer to God as the ‘Creator God’, and we know also from Genesis 1:26 that we are to be stewards of the Earth He created. 

So, where are we? Why are Christians so eerily quiet on matters of climate change? Why are we not at the forefront of the environmental movement? 

"Why are Christians so eerily quiet on matters of climate change? Why are we not at the forefront of the environmental movement?"

In 1971, Greenpeace founders drew inspiration from Quakerism for what would underpin their method of direct action.

"Guiding all of our actions, always, is a commitment to nonviolence and personal responsibility. These principles are inspired by the Quaker concept of “bearing witness”, which is about taking action based on conscience," Greenpeace UK say.

But what about today? Why aren’t Christians the ones calling for the closure of coal-fired power stations, leading climate marches worldwide, speaking out publicly about environmental degradation yet lovingly sharing knowledge and wisdom about why and how we should care for God’s creation?

Why aren’t Christians the go-to people for sustainability and caring for the earth?

Why instead, is Australia’s most prominent Christian standing on the floor of Parliament with a lump of coal in his hand telling people not to be scared. Where is our conscience?

Billy Graham pointed towards where the problem may lay: "Why should we be concerned about the environment? It isn’t just because of the dangers we face from pollution, climate change, or other environmental problems- although these are serious. For Christians, the issue is much deeper: We know that God created the world, and it belongs to Him, not us. Because of this, we are only stewards or trustees of God’s creation, and we aren’t to abuse or neglect it. The Bible says, 'The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it' (Psalm 24:1). When we fail to see the world as God’s creation, we will end up abusing it. Selfishness and greed take over, and we end up not caring about the environment or the problems we’re creating for future generations."

The salient point is our failure to see; the failure to connect creation with our everyday Christian lives. To somehow disregard, and therefore neglect, the importance of the Earth, leading to selfishness and greed by ourselves and others.

But where does this disconnect come from? As insightful as Graham’s quote is, he adds a caveat: "But don’t lose sight of something that is even more important: your relationship with God" [italics mine]. 

It’s hard to argue against our relationship with God being above all else but perhaps this has become a ‘Get out of jail free’ card for Christians. There is danger when we place too much emphasis on specific areas of doctrine - which is what Graham is cautioning - but there is danger too in not paying enough attention to where it is needed. 

When Jesus tells us to "seek first His kingdom" (Matthew 6:33) the instruction isn’t to ignore everything else but rather to prioritise. Likewise, Graham is saying don’t make the environment your god but recognise that it is God’s and that we are called to be stewards over it.

When we fail to see the world as God’s creation, we will end up abusing it
Climate change and environmental degradation on the scale we now know it, is a recent issue – a post-industrial revolution issue with significant changes in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels occurring after 1950.

Since that time, environmental concerns moved increasingly to the left of the political divide; they became increasingly secular and closely aligned with the counterculture. Any Christian concern for the environment was connected to "Jesus Freaks" and communes, to hippies, country soul and back-to-the-land movements. Attitudes were influenced by the culture and politics of the day.

And the environment butted up against the scourge of our time – comfort and convenience. Plastic, motor cars, shopping malls, mass production, fast food, fast fashion, and a rapid globalisation and industrialisation that separated us from manufacturing and primary production processes, drew us in. Out of sight, out of mind. 

People - Christians included - simply didn’t know what lay behind their consumer choices, nor the impact of those choices. Few thought to ask.

Mainstream Christianity - despite Jesus’ own radical, non-violent, counter-cultural approach to contemporary politics and contemporary views - is generally conservative. Environmental concerns, with their leftist political overtones, rarely made the sermon series, the prayer list, the Bible study. 

We were saving souls, not saving whales. The environment was not on the Christian agenda in the same way vulnerable people were – despite the link. Meanwhile, selfishness and greed ran roughshod over the created Earth.

What we see today is a very politicised (and polarising) Christianity. The public’s perception of Christianity is politically very right, particularly in the US and here in Australia. Elsewhere it lies dormant; a quiet voice getting quieter and less relevant regarding topical issues – even issues of caring for the Earth that God created. 

Christian leaders are either scared of upsetting their conservative base or are so indifferent to climate change as an issue, that they haven’t seen it as one that needs to be considered from a Christian perspective. We have fallen behind on the issue that we should, as stewards of God’s creation, be leading.

Evening light through forest

"The Earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it."  PICTURE: Beth Jnr/Unsplash

A word that should become ingrained in the Christian lexicon is 'orthopraxy' – how we as believers act, what our conduct should be; not simply what we believe - 'orthodoxy'but how we live our daily lives as Christians. 

Those lives, as we read in Matthew, should be a shining light, "so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in Heaven" (Matthew 5:16). It is the light the Greenpeace founders saw shining from the Quakers. And it is a notion echoed by James, "faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead" (James 2:17). 

Our required action is dotted throughout God’s Word. But firstly, we need to step away from the politics and see, as Graham referenced in Psalm 24:1, that "The Earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it."

God, too, is protective of His creation and quick to remind us of its importance: "every animal of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills. I know every bird in the mountains, and the insects in the fields are mine" (Psalm 50:10–11). 

We know from Genesis 3 that the environment is somewhere God took pleasure in when He "was walking in the garden in the cool of the day". The garden, the environment, being in nature, is a place of restoration.

And when we consider Colossians 1:15–16, our stewardship and required reverence of creation takes on a frightening perspective: "The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in Him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth...all things have been created through Him and for Him."

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Jesus often referenced nature in his parables and teachings - lilies of the field, birds of the air, mustard seeds, trees and fruit, even weeds - and our close connection to the earth for work: sowers, vineyard workers, fishermen. 

And let us not forget that Jesus would often find a solitary place in nature to withdraw from the crowds, to seek solitude, to speak with His father. And it was high on a mountain that He took Peter, John, and James for the Transfiguration.

But Genesis 1:26 creates a wrinkle: "Then God said, 'Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground'." [italics mine].

Some translations (KJV, ESV, RJV etc.) use the word 'dominion' in place of 'rule'. Mankind - whose default setting is sin - was given dominion over God’s creation. Part of our sin is failing to see that the earth and everything in it is the Lord’s. And with that failure the door swung wide open to let in selfishness and greed.

Addressing the 'Three C's'
Christians have long helped the poor and vulnerable, and well they should. But there is an inextricable link between poverty and the environment. It has become part of the triple threat known as the ‘Three C’s’ – Conflict, COVID, and Climate Change. 

In September, 2021, the first-ever UN Food Systems Summit took place with a pre-summit held in Rome in July. 

The importance of food systems and its impact is being acknowledged because it "refers to the constellation of activities involved in producing, processing, transporting and consuming food. Food systems touch every aspect of human existence. The health of our food systems profoundly affects the health of our bodies, as well as the health of our environment, our economies and our cultures".

According to the UN, the impact when food systems fail, can be profound. "When our food systems fail, the resulting disorder threatens our education, health and economy, as well as human rights, peace and security. As in so many cases, those who are already poor or marginalized are the most vulnerable."

The summit had one primary objective: "Raise awareness of food systems' centrality to the entire sustainable development agenda"

The first of the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals is to "end poverty in all its forms everywhere".

In an open letter in April, 2021, more than 250 humanitarian organisations called on states and their leaders to take urgent action.

"Every day, we work with people who are fully capable of producing or earning enough to feed themselves and their families. These people are not starving, they are being starved," the letter stated. "There is no place for famine and starvation in the 21st century."

By failing to see the Earth as God’s creation, we are contributing to climate change and therefore contributing to the pressure on food systems and consequently, contributing to poverty. 

It is ironic that many Christians - both individually and collectively as churches - support humanitarian aid programs, emergency relief action, and poverty alleviation. Yet little is said of our contribution to those problems. 

Graham’s words of greed and selfishness are harsh, but it is our lifestyle, our desired comfort and quality of life that direct our choices. By being ignorant of the impact we make, we are part of the problem, not the solution. 

If there is no place for famine and starvation in the 21st century, there is certainly no place for ignorance. 

As Christians, we need to ask ourselves some questions. Why are there poor? Why do we keep using single-use plastics? Why do we keep burning fossil fuels? Why do we turn a blind eye in the supermarket, not just with plastic packaging, but when we know or suspect that the can of tuna is contributing to global overfishing, that the bacon comes from horrendous factory farms and so do the caged eggs? 

And why do we buy the cheap T-shirt when we know it likely contributes to modern slavery and forced labour?

Comfort, convenience, selfishness, greed, and a failure to see and understand the responsibility of stewardship over God’s created Earth and all that is in it – and that includes people. 

We need our orthopraxy to include creation care and we need to be a shining light. We need to ask whether it’s time to bear witness again.

And we need to look at the world and, like God, the Creator of all things, see that it is good.

matthew smeal

Matthew Smeal is a Sydney-based writer.