Transforming lives on four continents

Mark Greenwood


Mark Greenwood, BMS Regional Team Leader for sub-Saharan Africa and South America, explores the unseen forces shaping our decisions and the challenge of walking our talk in the area of climate justice.


I’d like to begin by thinking about two fundamental premises of Christian ethics:

·      What we do has to be related to what we believe

·      What we believe makes a difference to what we do.

The first denotes a deliberate seeking to live with integrity, a proactive matching of words with actions. The second is a recognition of the unseen forces which our cultural assumptions, worldview, religious beliefs, spiritual inheritance and personal spirituality exert on our actions.


Most of the time we live without stopping to reflect on why we are doing what we do or making the ethical decisions we make – they seem to be second nature, or common sense. This is an illusion, however (or delusion, perhaps). In fact, we have been moulded to be the people we are, making the choices we make, by our social, cultural and spiritual context. These understandings are fundamental to the ethics of sustainability, because the destructive behaviours of humanity towards the ecosystem (and towards our very self) have been moulded by our societies, cultures and spiritualities. Which also implies that if we can shift our social, cultural and spiritual attitudes towards the environment, and seek deliberately to act towards the environment and fellow humans in accordance with those renewed attitudes, then we may make some steps towards sustainable living.


Christian understandings of humanity’s relationship with the planet


As Christian churches, then, we have to ask ourselves: what do we believe about the planet? Because what we do on or with the planet has to be related to what we believe about it, and what we believe about the planet will make a difference to what we do.


There are, in broad general terms, two ways Christians answer this question, both having a certain degree of biblical foundation. The first is to believe that as the world is embroiled in evil, the result of human sin, the earth is beyond redemption, awaiting a re-creation by God of a new perfect natural order. From this perspective, any action or intervention aimed at diminishing systemic human suffering or the suffering of the created order is, at best, irrelevant. From an extreme point of view, such action is a diversion from the more important task of saving from perdition the greatest number of humans possible, so that in the future they might enjoy the new created order.


The second broad answer that is given, and I subscribe to this one, is that the planet is God’s beautiful creation, and that one of the purposes of our very existence as humans is to look after God’s handiwork, the environment in which we live. Indeed, according to the second chapter of the book of Genesis, God’s plan included creating humans in order to care for the other things he had created. Clearly, if our spirituality, religion and relationship with God have this idea as a fundamental concept, then our attitude and action in relationship to the planet will be radically different than for those who concur with the first answer.


We see a healthy relationship with God’s creation as one of the fundamental means by which people can have a fulfilling relationship with God.


The first view, that the world is embroiled in evil, is based on a verse in 1 John (5: 19). However, to understand this to mean that the physical world is irredeemable is to misunderstand Johannine theology. The “world” in this verse signifies human society, and it is this world that God so loved, to which he sent his son, to be light in it (John 3). And although Jesus affirms that this world hates the followers of Christ, he nevertheless sends his disciples into the world to make a difference (John 17). Indeed there is a clear stream in Johannine thought, and in Jesus’ teaching, that it is actually possible to live a fulfilled life – in abundance – here on this earth, even before eventually benefitting from eternal life (John 10: 10, 17: 13).


Furthermore, if we are to seek biblical thoughts on the relationship of God’s people to the physical world (environment), then we can find the concept of the responsibility humanity has to care for creation and even alleviate its suffering – what has been called stewardship, or creation care. This is particularly clear in Genesis and the creation Psalms (eg 8, 104), but amazingly in Paul’s drama of the end of time, the created order is in pains akin to labour, anxiously awaiting the “sons of God” to bring liberation (Romans 8: 18-25). This is eschatological, and so does not preclude hope for a new heaven and new earth, nevertheless, the underlying principle in Paul’s mind is that the sustainability of the physical created order is our responsibility as children of God.


Biblical foundations for a positive view of humanity’s responsibilities towards the earth


Let’s explore this positive view of humanity’s relationship with the created world a little more. In Genesis 2: 5-8 we can perceive that God did not wish to create the garden before having both water to irrigate it and someone to cultivate it. We have seen how part of God’s purpose for creating humanity was for us to cultivate the garden, but note also that the verb used in the Hebrew for the humans’ care for the creation is šmr (רמש), the same as is used five times in Psalm 121 to refer to God’s relationship with Israel, as their guardian. Our care for the created world, therefore, should reflect the nature of God’s care for God’s people.


Psalm 104 impresses with the richness of life which the author observes in the world, and the praise of God, as creator of the world, which this stimulates. There are three constant themes in the psalm: the greatness of God seen in the created universe, the admiration and praise which the psalmist feels observing this greatness and beauty, and the interdependence between a human being, other living beings, and the world in which they live.


Despite the vast differences between the principally rural world in which the author lived and our industrialised, principally urban society, everything we use or abuse still has its source – no, its being – within the natural world, however distant it may seem as a result of human intervention. We and the incredible natural world in which we live are still interdependent. There is no technology without raw materials. When there are no more raw materials, there will be no more technology. Like the author of the psalm, we should perceive the greatness of God in the world around us, gaze in awe upon its beauty, and understand the impossibility of our life (as we know it) without it.


In Leviticus 25: 1-12 we encounter a revolutionary idea for our contemporary culture of unbridled production and consumption – the idea of a periodic rest for the earth, every seven years. Commenting on this passage, René Padilla observes that, “the earth’s rest is not an end unto itself... the rest is... in honour of the Lord... These laws emphasise the importance of caring for natural resources... The ideology of unlimited economic growth does not leave space for rest, neither for humans, nor for creation. These laws call for an ‛economy of the sufficient.’ The economy of the sufficient prioritises a simple lifestyle, leaving space for rest, because it puts the relationship with God, with one’s neighbour and with the creation above material desires and needs... It questions the fundamental premises of the current economic system by which human life consists of the quantity of goods one possesses.” (Padilla, 2002).


Christian ethics, the green economy, and institutional frameworks for sustainability


So where does this reflection on Christian ethics leave us in relation to the green economy, and an institutional framework for sustainable development? Well, clearly those who offer the first answer to the question “What do we believe about the planet?” (ie that the world is embroiled in evil), will not be involving themselves with the debate. Their belief has determined their action, and they will want to be true to their belief. On the other hand, those of us who believe that the planet is God’s beautiful creation, which we were placed in to care for, will be deeply concerned about institutional frameworks for sustainability, and the development of economic systems which respect and nourish the human societies and ecosystems of which we are a part. We will want to acknowledge that the evil in which the world is embroiled is, in fact, our sin: sins of selfish ambition, greed, exploitation and disregard, amongst others, which have so debilitated our relationships with each other and with the planet. And we will want to turn from that sin and rediscover life in all its fullness in the garden of God, cultivating it, being its guardians. We will want to challenge the fundamentally materialistic nature of the United Nations’ philosophies and approaches which so very rarely reflect any understanding of the spiritual worldviews of its member states. Not only a truly biblical Christian ethic of creation, but many other spiritual worldviews would also draw us away from the materialistic economic systems which are behind most western development thinking, and in turn behind the UN. To change the way our economies interact with the planet on which they depend, the basic concepts behind “economic growth” need to be challenged if we are to avoid a “greenwash” economy.


I’d like to finish by looking at ourselves. As institutions, churches need to create frameworks, shapes of being and ways of living together, which denote a deliberate seeking to live with integrity and sustainability with God’s creation. We need a proactive matching of the words in our sacred book with our actions in the environment and human society. What we do has to be related to what we believe, and what we believe must make a difference to what we do.


This paper was originally published in: Barreto, Sehested, Rivera-Pagan and Hayes, eds. Engaging the Jubilee: Freedom and Justice papers of the Baptist World Alliance (2010-2015). BWA, 2015


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