Can a Christian Be an Environmentalist? (1)

Sandra L. Richter

The subject matter of this article is one of the most misunderstood topics of holiness and social justice in the Christian community today. The topic is obviously important, relevant, contemporary, and compelling. It is something our neighbors (both locally and globally) care about deeply. As a result, this is a subject that profoundly influences the church’s witness to the world. But as I have traveled, written, and spoken on environmental stewardship for more than a decade, I have found the church is largely paralyzed on this topic. From CEOs to pastors, cattle ranchers to coal miners, Californians to Kentuckians—we the church are MIA on the issue of environmentalism.

Why? Why has the church, historically the moral compass of our society, gotten so lost on this topic? One reason is certainly politics. Not kingdom politics, but American and international politics. I think most would concur that the traditional political allies of the church are not the traditional political allies of environmental concern. If you are prolife, supposedly you cannot also be pro-environment. If you are a patriot, supposedly you cannot be a conservationist. Or to be more forthright, in the US, environmentalists are typically Democrats, and Christians are mostly Republicans. As a result, environmental advocacy has been pigeonholed into a particular political profile and, in the eyes of many, has become guilty by association. But of course, Christians are first citizens of heaven, and therefore our alliances should not be defined by American politics. Rather, our value system (that is, “holiness”) is defined by the Holy One. As citizens of his kingdom, ultimately there is only one set of politics Christ-followers should be concerned about.

A second cause of the church’s paralysis on this topic is familiar to many matters of social concern. We in the West are largely sheltered from the impact of environmental degradation on the global community. We don’t see how unregulated use of land and water decimates the lives of the marginalized. We have not witnessed the sterilization of the fertile fields of Punjab, India, at the hands of unrestrained industrial agriculture or stood on the shores of the Ganges River and seen (and smelled) the results of the unrelenting abuse of this mighty estuary via untreated industrial waste and sewage. Neither do our front windows offer a view of the lunar landscapes left behind by mountaintop-removal coal mining in Appalachia, or the ragged remains of Madagascar’s deforestation. As a result, we struggle to understand creation care as an expression of concern for the widow and the orphan.

Third, and perhaps most detrimental, is the theological posture taught by many that the created order is bound only for destruction. Subsequently, many devoted followers of Jesus have come to believe that it is ethically appropriate to use the earth’s resources as aggressively as possible to accomplish what really matters, namely, the conversion of souls. The end result? The church, particularly the evangelical wing of the church, has inadvertently dismissed the issue of environmental stewardship as peripheral (or even alien) to the theological commitments of the Bible.

My new book, Stewards of Eden: What Scripture Says about the Environment and Why It Matters (IVP Academic, 2020) is directed at exposing and uprooting these misconceptions, and hopefully empowering the church to reclaim her role as moral compass in this urgently important arena. The book’s focus is biblical theology. Seven chapters are dedicated to walking the reader from Eden to the New Jerusalem with the same question constantly in view: Does our rule of faith and praxis, our Bible, address this controversial topic? The conclusion is yes. The Bible has a great deal to say about environmental stewardship. And what it has to say is that the responsible stewardship of creation is not only an expression of the character of our God; it is the role he entrusted to those made in his image.

What does the Bible Say?

Let’s take a sampling of what the Bible has to say by exploring its message regarding human responsibility toward the domestic creature. And let’s begin with the Sabbath.

One of the greatest gifts of the Mosaic covenant was the Sabbath ordinance. Three months free from the tyranny of Egypt, three months into their journey toward the Promised Land, Yahweh offers the children of Abraham his covenant at Mt. Sinai. The core message of this covenant? “If you will honor me as God, your only God, I will make you mine forever.” The gifts of this great covenant included a new identity as a nation, the land grant of Canaan, protection from their enemies, economic security, and Yahweh’s very presence among them enthroned in the tabernacle.

In anyone’s universe, this is a great offer. But pause to ponder who is standing at the foot of this mountain. This is a nation of slaves. These people had never known freedom. Their parents and grandparents before them had lived out their lives laboring endlessly with no self-determination, systematically dehumanized until old age and abuse deposited their broken bodies in the ground. But in the radically different relationship offered to Israel at Sinai, a new kind of master commands this people to rest. Every seven days. Stop. For twenty-four hours, just stop. And while you are stopping, remember who you are. Stop cooking and cleaning, writing and networking, farming and building, stop. Why? In the words of Henri Blocher, because the Sabbath “relativizes the works of mankind, the contents of the six working days. It protects mankind from total absorption by the task of subduing the earth, it anticipates the distortion which makes work the sum and purpose of human life, and it informs mankind that he will not fulfil his humanity in his relation to the world which he is transforming but only when he raises his eyes above, in the blessed, holy hour of communion with the Creator . . . . The essence of mankind is not work!” (In the Beginning: The Opening Chapters of Genesis [InterVarsity Press, 1984], 57).

As practicing Jews everywhere would tell us, “The Sabbath is the most precious present mankind has received from the treasure house of God” (Abraham Heschel, The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man [New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1951], 6). But we might be surprised to learn that the Sabbath is not just for humans. Rather, God says, “You shall not do any work. Not you or your son or your daughter or your male servant or your female servant or your ox or your donkey or any of your domesticated beasts …” (Deut 5:14–15). According to the mandate of Yahweh’s covenant, the Israelites were to honor their God by allowing their livestock to rest. This should arrest our attention. Here in the Ten Commandments humanity is commanded to allow the domesticated beast to rest. Why? In the words of Deuteronomy, because you were once slaves yourselves. You know all too well what it is to labor without relief, to live out your entire life captive to the whim of another, to be disallowed control over a single corner of your own existence. You know what it feels like not to be allowed to rest.

Keep in mind that just like today, Israel kept farm animals for only one reason—to provide for the wellbeing of humans. The most common livestock to be found on an Israelite homestead were mixed flocks of Black Sinai goats and Awassi (“fat-tailed”) sheep. Israel relied on these animals for milk, meat, cheese, goat hair (for tents, rugs, and bags), and Awassi wool for textiles of every sort. (Less obvious products included fat, skins, bones, and parchment.) Sheep and goats ensured the economic stability of the household. Awassi sheep were the “cash crop” due to the excellence of their wool, and we have extensive records of the lucrative exchange of this textile dating back into the third millennium BCE. If life went smoothly, Awassi sheep were the “stocks” of an ancient investment portfolio.

The Black Sinai goat was not as valuable, but they were reliable. Whereas the Awassi was the more lucrative investment, it was also the more vulnerable. Picky eaters, sensitive to drought and heat, and pretty much defenseless against predators, the Awassi get lost easily, are terribly nearsighted, and panic easily. So when one of these sheep wanders off (as they are wont to do), they typically hunker down and begin to cry—an effective way to locate the nearest predator. Their only self-protective instinct is to huddle. Also not an ideal strategy—and one that reminds me far too much of the thousands of committee hours that have consumed most of my most precious creative capacities, but that is another topic. For their part, though, the Sinai goats are tough as nails. They are irritatingly independent and capable of returning to an undomesticated state if the need arises. They have an extremely high tolerance for heat and drought, will eat just about anything, and even during the hottest part of the season only need to be watered every four days. Goats were therefore the “bonds” of the Israelite farmer’s portfolio. Even if the market went south, the goats didn’t. How these realities affect our interpretation of Jesus’s parable about separating the sheep from the goats on the final day of judgment (Matt 25:32–33), I will leave to your imagination. But from an economic perspective, these 40/60 mixed flocks of caprids were a staple of every Israelite household and greatly outnumbered any other livestock in Israel’s world.

Bovines (cattle and oxen) were also essential to the Israelite village economy, but unlike sheep and goats, they were far too valuable to eat. Rather, oxen provided the brawn necessary to farming grain. Among the small-holder farms of the central hill country, the cereal crop was fundamental to everyone’s survival and therefore so was the labor of the ox. (See fig. 1.)

Figure 1. Oxen threshing wheat, used by permission, courtesy of Reconstruction: Semitic Museum, Harvard University and Estate of L. E. Stager; illustration: C. S. Alexander.

Israel’s agrarian economy would also be classed as a “subsistence economy.” This means that nearly everyone was barely making it. Juxtaposing population with harvest predictions, Israelite archaeologist Baruch Rosen has quantified what “barely making it” looked like by estimating how many calories it took to supply the average Israelite village per year. He has further determined that this typical village experienced a shortfall of fifteen million calories per year. Anticipating that the average family included five people, this shortfall amounts to a shortfall of sixty days of food per family per year. Although this sort of “hungry season” is not a surprise to the anthropologist (many agricultural communities experience the same), it certainly helps the modern reader to humanize the experience of our biblical ancestors. Rosen hypothesizes that most families mediated this shortfall by truncating daily rations, attempting to raise and store more grain, and/or by slaughtering additional animals from the flock. But, of course, more grain required more land and seed, and slaughtering an extra animal would put the farmer behind the eight ball next year. Hunting was an option as well (cf. Deut 12:15, 22; 14:5; 15:22). But whatever potential solutions a farmer contrived, the point here is that when harvest time finally came, our heroes were counting every kilo.

Knowing these economic realities, let’s pause over Deut 25:4: “Do not muzzle an ox while he is threshing [the grain].” I am guessing that this simple agricultural law is one very few people lose sleep over. But with the information above, I hope you are beginning to realize that when God commands the Israelite not to muzzle his eight-hundred-pound working bovine, he is talking to a man who is hungry. And the five-to-seven pounds of grain that an ox could consume over a single day of threshing (threshing that could go on for many days) made a difference. Yet God commands his farmers to allow the beasts who served them the opportunity to enjoy their life and work—even though that farmer knew that offering this privilege to his beast would cut into his family’s essential food supply.

A survey of the Old Testament teaches us that our rule of faith and praxis does indeed speak to humane animal husbandry—a Sabbath’s rest, a share of the harvest, humane treatment in life. Further inquiry demonstrates that Yahweh also expected his people to slaughter their livestock with dignity and compassion (Lev 19). As the people of God today, can we offer our God anything less as regards the creatures entrusted to us? In our next essay we will explore how these Old Covenant laws regarding the humane treatment of the domestic beast reflect on modern practices of animal husbandry in the US and how you and I can respond.

[Material adapted from Stewards of Eden by Sandra L. Richter. Copyright (c) 2020 by Sandra L. Richter. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL.

See Sandra L. Richter, Stewards of Eden: What Scripture Says about the Environment and Why It Matters (IVP Academic, 2020), for further discussion of this topic, as well as a chapter on “Resources for the Responsive Christian” that helps individuals and churches move forward.]

Posted Nov 25, 2020