Mother Earth, Heavenly Father, and How the Bible Counsels Our Views on Environmentalism

President Obama’s administration is expected this week to announce its rejection of TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline.  Environmentalists are naturally against the installation of the 1,700 mile crude oil pipeline that would reportedly transport nearly a million barrels of crude oil a day to refineries in the Gulf Coast as well as create thousands of potential jobs and provide for greater U.S. energy security.

While questions about environmental preservation have been popular for years, coming to a head at the release of Al Gore’s 2007 Academy Award-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth, this specific pipeline project seems to have taken on a particular level of importance, as it potentially symbolizes the future of U.S. energy policy.

It also happened to tie together well with an interesting statement in my devotional reading for today, from Deuteronomy 20:19-20.  In this section, God is telling the Israelites what they are to do to the lands that they conquer en route to claiming the land that he had promised to them and their ancestors.  Upon telling the Israelites to destroy everything that breathes when they enter into a foreign city, so that they will not become corrupted by the godlessness, God then says, “When you lay siege to a city for a long time, fighting against it to capture it, do not destroy its trees by putting an ax to them, because you can eat their fruit. Do not cut them down. Are the trees of the field people, that you should besiege them?  20 However, you may cut down trees that you know are not fruit trees and use them to build siege works until the city at war with you falls.”

There are two very interesting points that God seems to be making here, and they both help us understand mankind’s relationship with nature. I’m going to treat the second point first.

In verse 20, God says that trees that are not bearing fruit may be cut down for the very practical purpose of making the equipment necessary for defeating the enemies that God told the Israelites to destroy.  This is tremendously consistent with God’s statement in Genesis 1, that mankind has been given the earth as a gift to rule over and that man may use the earth to accomplish some of the purposes for which God created him – “fill the earth and subdue it….I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food.” (Gen. 1:28-29)

However, in verse 19, God makes a fascinating statement of environmental conservation.  He encourages the Israelite army to NOT cut down the other trees in the cities that they siege.  Now, the normal custom of ancient armed forces in full military mode would be to completely and thoroughly destroy and plunder the cities they conquered.  But God tells the Israelites to show restraint in the way they treat his creation.  After all, the trees are God’s creation and they never did anything to warrant destruction. This, by the way, is tremendously consistent with what God says to Noah after the Great Flood.  Look at what God says in Genesis 9: “This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: 13 I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 14 Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, 15 I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life. 16 Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth.” (Gen. 9:12-16)  Now, throughout the Bible we see God entering into covenants (e.g. Abraham, Moses, David).  A covenant is a promise that God makes to save someone.  What’s so interesting here is that God says he enters into a covenant with “the earth.” (vs. 13)  The earth has not sinned, so why does it need saving?  It needs God’s help to save it from humanity’s sin!  God seems to be suggesting here that he is going to save the earth from the wickedness of humans.  Therefore, as Christians, if we are going to be on God’s side of this argument about environmentalism, we also have to be on a side against the outright exploitation of the earth.

Environmentalism is generally seen as a hot political issue.  But do you see that the Bible presents a much more beautiful understanding of our relationship with God’s creation than any political affiliation can?  This view is way too Christian for most liberals, but it’s way too environmentalist for most conservatives.  The Bible perfectly balances respect for all creatures, while still appropriately understanding where the earth and the creatures in it stand in relation to humans – the crown of God’s creation.

If this entire issue seems a bit cliché, I’d suggest it’s still tremendously relevant and needs to be addressed because, despite being a nominally Christian country, Americans routinely evidence that they are wildly unaware of God’s direction on dealing with nature.  For instance, just take popular American cinema, which generally mirrors the thoughts of society.  The blatant subtext of the 2009 film Avatar (the most commercially successful film of all time to date) is that there is really no difference between God as Creator and his creation.  This has historically been the understanding of Eastern religion, not Christianity.  Similarly, in 2008, M. Night Shyamalan’s film The Happening revolved around the idea that after humans had been mistreating the earth for years, the earth itself was finally rising up to defend itself.  Countless other examples are available.  The point is, our (potentially imbalanced) relationship with the earth is on the minds of people today.  What are we as Christians going to say about it?  And, is what we say consistent with what God says in his Word?

So how is Jesus different from the other religions of the world when it comes to a view of creation?  Consider this: most religions of the world speak about dying and going to another place, recognizing the fallen state of this world.  The goal and reward are simply to get out.  This is true, to an extent, in Christianity.  But it’s not ultimately true.  In the end, the Bible says that Jesus will come back to bring a new heaven and a new earth – restoration.  Jesus loved matter so much that he became matter so that he could save matter (which includes us).  And that leads us to proportionately love matter too.

The Only Answer to Racism

Ota Benga in 1906

The Andaman islands are small pockets of land that exist in the Indian Ocean, southeast of India’s mainland.  They are the home to a tribe of several hundred “primitive” people called the Jarawa.  This unique people group is making news this week because video footage has surfaced of native Jarawa women dancing naked for tourists in exchange for food, after a local policeman apparently accepted a bribe to produce them.

India’s Tribal Affairs Minister V. Kishore Chandra Deo has commented on the footage, saying “It’s deplorable. You cannot treat human beings like beasts for the sake of money.  Whatever kind of tourism is that, I totally disapprove of that and it is being banned also.”

This behavior – the subordination of perceived “primitive” people – is  nothing new and almost seems primitive itself in a very sensitive, very liberated 2012.  But let me share with you a similar story that’s really not that ancient of history.

In 1906, a Congolese Mbuti pygmy by the name of Ota Benga was featured in the Monkey House of the Bronx Zoo.  If you’re unfamiliar with what a “pygmy” is, its breed is…..human.  The zoo exhibit’s intention was to evidence the contemporary evolutionary belief of a “Missing Link” who bridged the gap between humans and ape ancestors.  Bottom Line: they put a human on display in a zoo.  One can only imagine what kind of psychological damage this would inflict upon the African man.  In fact, you don’t really have to imagine.  Benga committed suicide in 1916 at the age of 32, shooting himself in the heart with a stolen pistol.

While I’d certainly agree that there should be laws against treating humans like beasts, I’d suggest that no legislation is ever really going to stop the problem of the human heart that perceives others, especially those whom we struggle to understand, to be inferior to us.  And, let’s be honest – a belief in macro-evolution, still the current paradigm taught in public schools for the origin of mankind, is not only not helping, but in reality, it creates a justification for the mistreatment of certain people groups.

The simple logic that Darwinian evolution helps contribute to modern racism is as follows: If humans have evolved from apes, then different ape groups likely would have evolved into humans at different rates, depending on a variety of factors.  Consequently, some of us would be closer to modern man, while others of us would be closer to lesser evolved animals.  Understandably, we treat animals very differently than we do humans.  Therefore, according to Darwinian logic, there’s nothing wrong with putting “less-developed” humans on display in cages as a result of their color, language, and culture.  Sound offensive?  It should be.

It’s important to see that the Bible teaches something so very different and so much more beautiful and true.  The Bible consistently speaks in language that sees mankind as one race, which has divided into two races – believers (offspring of the woman) and unbelievers (offspring of the serpent) as referenced in Genesis 3:15.  Acts 17:26 From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live.  The Bible indicates that from our common ancestors, Adam and Eve, all of us descendants inherited a sinful nature.  Therefore, in our natural state, we’re not only more genetically alike than we assume, but we’re more spiritually alike than we realize as well.  We’re all in the same boat; we’re all in dire need of outside help. Romans 5:12 Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned.  And finally, just as we all have the common problem of sin which leads to death, we also similarly require the same medicine for healing – Jesus Christ.  1 Corinthians 15:45 So it is written: “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam (i.e. Jesus), a life-giving spirit.

Racism existed long before the theory of evolution.  For example, we see it clearly in Numbers 12 when Moses’ siblings, Miriam and Aaron, speak out against Moses because of his marriage to a dark-skinned Cushite woman (to see God’s ironic rebuke, check out the chapter).  It’s important to understand that Darwinian evolution is not the root cause of racism.  Sin is.  There are plenty of people who believe in evolution who do not necessarily practice racism.  However, what Darwinian evolution does is it provides people with a very, very convenient rationalization for perceiving certain people groups as inferior and blaming them for the problems of the world, i.e. racism.  In other words, if I believe that another people group, whom I don’t understand, is truly more like animals than me, then it becomes easy to treat them like animals.

Harvard Professor and prominent evolutionary biologist, Stephen Jay Gould, in his book Ontogeny and Phylogeny, wrote, “Biological arguments for racism may have been common before 1850, but they increased by orders of magnitude following the acceptance of evolutionary theory.”  Do you see what he’s saying?  One of the foremost minds in recent evolutionary thought is freely admitting that belief in Darwinian evolution lends itself towards human prejudice.  It’s a painful reality that you simply will not find in any high school biology texts.

But what about Jesus?  He’s so much different and so much better than all of this.  The Bible does not teach “survival of the fittest.”  Instead, it teaches that the “fittest” (God in human form, i.e. Jesus) came down to earth to rescue the unfit (fallen mankind).  It teaches that we all are essentially family as common ancestors of Adam and Eve, and Jesus came to save our family to make us part of God’s family.

You see, if you have an evolutionary paradigm, you will not condescend to love and rescue those who are “less than” you.  You probably wouldn’t give your life for a random animal, whereas you probably would give your life for family.

Many anti-racism advocate groups, celebrities, etc. out there will tell you that we should all get along and be nice to each other and love one another.  Telling someone they should love people  does state a reality, but it has never actually motivated anyone to love, and therefore cannot generate a new reality.  These groups are dealing with symptoms, not root problems.  They sense that there is a better world out there, but can’t/won’t see that the Savior of the Bible is the only road to worldwide family.

The day a person sees God’s intended oneness for mankind in Christ Jesus is the day that they will actually care about people who are different from them.

Counterfeit Deeds and the Authentic Jesus

My single favorite story entering into the new year is that of a 53-year-old Lexington, N.C. gentleman by the name of Michael Fuller, who racked up $473 worth of goods from Walmart and tried to pay with a fake million-dollar bill.  Walmart employees became suspicious and contacted local authorities to arrest Fuller on account of THERE IS NO SUCH THING.  In fact, the largest bill in circulation in the U.S. is the hundred-dollar bill, ever since the elusive $10,000 bill, featuring former Secretary of the Treasury, Salmon P. Chase, was removed from public usage in 1969.

When first hearing Fuller’s story, I assumed he must be attempting an elaborate hoax, and that this was a performance artist shtick out of the Andy Kaufman mold (or Ashton Kutcher’s Punk’d for you younger generations out there).  Nope.  Turns out he was just being an idiot.  I haven’t been able to find any interviews conducted with Fuller online, but would love to find out what exactly he thought was going to happen, best-case scenario. Perhaps, upon receiving his vacuum and microwave all bagged up, along with receipt, he thought he’d receive $999,527 in change.  Or maybe he was just trying to impress the checkout girl with the bill (we’ve all seen the guy who flashes his Ulysses Grant’s when he digs into his wallet just to let you know he’s a real high roller in life).  I honestly have a hard time getting over how much I love the idea of a guy with a million-dollar bill feeling the need to shop at the store that claims rollback prices and bargain basement deals.  I thought avoiding the parking lot at Walmart was one of the benefits of becoming a millionaire.  It really doesn’t matter though.  Any way you slice it, Fuller is a frontrunner for biggest fool of 2012.

However, is it fair to label Fuller as that much different from most of the world?  You have a man who brings what he perceives to be a great thing ($1 million dollars) before the largest goods provider in the country (Walmart), anticipating receiving good things in return (vacuum, microwave, & other products), only to find out that he’d lied to himself and his “great thing” really is a counterfeit (fake bill).

Is this not what every non-Christian religion on the planet throughout history has sought to do?  A man brings his good deeds before God, gods, or some impersonal concept of god, expects that his notion of God must bless him because of these great things (or at least “better” than others by comparison), but in the end finds out the truth – that All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away. (Isaiah 64:6)  And, There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. (Romans 3:23)  No human can bring the righteousness and perfection that God requires for dwelling in his eternal presence.   No mere human anyway.  And this is all why God would have to send his own Son, Jesus, into the world.  On him all sins would be laid and through him all necessary righteousness would be freely given (2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Cor. 15:22; Rom. 5:15-19).

But we Christians know this, understand this, and live this, right?  Unfortunately we don’t.  In his 2007 book, unChristian, David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Research Group, states that over one-third of regularly practicing Christians embrace the idea that you can earn a place in heaven if you do enough good things for others or if you are a decent person.  Fascinatingly, he also reports that statistically, outside of higher church attendance, owning more Bibles, and donating more to charitable organizations, the average modern Christian’s life is virtually identical in most every moral way to the average modern non-Christian.  In other words, on average, while we continue to argue that people can be welcomed into heaven on the basis of good deeds, our own deeds are essentially the same as those of most others, including non-Christians. Does that seem inconsistent or hypocritical?  Of course.  Welcome to fallen humanity.  We can’t even meet our own watered-down expectations of ourselves, even when salvation is on the line.

You see, at the core, we all are Michael Fuller.  Delusional, we all tend to bring hands full of what we perceive to be good things to God and think, “Well, you’ve gotta bless me now!  How could you NOT love me?!”  And then in those clarifying moments of life, when we become acutely aware of our own fallenness (you know, the hardest times of life), we despair, having forgotten that our good times were never the result of our own doing in the first place, but gifts.  By the way, Michael Fuller is currently in jail on a $17,500 bond.  That should be chump change for a millionaire.  Unless all your good things are counterfeit.

Let go of all of your presumptuous doing.  You can’t earn anything from God with it anyways.  If you could, God’s love wouldn’t be grace.  This is the reason why so many American Christians don’t have lives any different from their non-Christian counterparts.  They think the essence of Christianity is moral living.  As a result, when they seek to accomplish that, fueled by nothing but willpower, they can’t even do it, frustrating themselves and living as confusing witnesses to the world.

Instead, let your Christian faith be about redeemed life in your Savior Jesus, fueled by the gospel.  If your faith is about Jesus, what he has done for you and the reality that he now lives in you, you will not only find eternal life, true meaning, and internal peace, you will find godly living as well.

As Christmas has now come and gone, think about the characters surrounding Jesus in the Christmas story as your examples of faith in the new year.  None of them have any spiritual resumé of greatness.  The shepherds had no real religious status.  The gentile wise men had no ethnic status before the God of Israel.  Joseph, a humble carpenter, had no important societal status.  And Mary, a teenage girl, had no legal status.  But as God came in human form, nothing less than the holiness of God became their own personal status in Jesus.  And in Jesus, this is your status too.

Spiritually speaking, on our own, we are fools standing before God and trying to pass forged bills.  In Jesus, we have the keys to Walmart itself.