Of Oil, Eschatology and Creation Care
The “oil volcanoe” from the British Petroleum-owned oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico has greatly depressed me. At first, I was angry–full of righteous indignation at the “drill, baby, drill” crowd (because I feared exactly this when expanded offshore drilling was proposed in ’08) and at Pres. Obama for attempting to relax restrictions on offshore drilling as a way to buy Republican Senate votes for a climate change/clean energy bill–a ploy that wouldn’t work because Sen. Minority Leader McConnell (R-KY) has decided that the way back to a GOP majority is to block everything the president was elected to pass through whatever obstructive rules he can find. But even if it would work, I fear the price is too high. What is the use of tackling the problem of human-caused catastrophic climate change through shifting to clean energy if one is just going to trade it for the ecological disasters of drilling for oil in ecologically sensitive areas–or in places where one cannot shut off the pump if the worst happens?
I could say, “I told you so.” I could point out, as others have, that certain Southern governors are not decrying “socialist” big government, or threatening to secede, now, but are standing in line for federal disaster relief money! I could, but my Schadenfreude is as exhausted as my anger. Watching the ecological disaster in slow motion in the Gulf is simply leaving me depressed. I grew up in Florida and I know those fragile waters all too well.
One of my childhood heroes was the French-Canadian explorer and environmentalist, Jacques-Yves Cousteau, co-inventer of the “self-contained underwater breathing apparatus” or SCUBA gear. In my house we had strict rations on the number of hours per week we could watch television and I would save up time for one of ABC’s two-hour specials, The Underwater World of Jacques Cousteau. I learned so much from those TV programs. I fell in love with the oceans even more than I already had. Too young to know much about early environmentalists like Rachel Carson until later, it was, instead, Jacques Cousteau who made me an early environmentalist. Even at 8 years old, I berated a guest-evangelist at our church for littering on the beach!
I saw no tension between faith in God and care for God’s good Creation. Scripture is clear that humans have responsibility for the created order. I can still remember reading 2 of the earliest examples of environmental theology as a child, Eric C. Rust’s Nature: Garden or Desert? (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1971) and Henlee H. Barnette’s The Church and the Ecological Crisis (Grand Rapids, MI:Eerdmans, 1972). (Later, I found that the conservative Francis A. Schaeffer, who was a major voice in the founding of the U.S. Religious Right, had also written a pioneering environmental theology, Pollution and the Death of Man (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1971). Sadly, that work had little effect on the Religious Right as a whole.) So, it took me some time to realize that many U.S. Christians did not share my ecological concerns–and longer to figure out why.
One day in college (so it had to be the early ’80s), I was watching the TV news and saw a brief interview with James Watt, who was Secretary of the Interior under then-Pres. Ronald Reagan (R). Watt was arguing for the privatization of much of the public lands of the Interior–including lands that had been set aside as public parks since the days of Pres. Theodore Roosevelt. Watt wanted to lease much of this land out to oil companies and other major polluters. Asked why, he made it clear that his Premillenial Dispensationalist eschatology led him to have little concern for the environment: After all, Jesus was coming back soon, so what did it matter? A light dawned on me. I began to see why so many Christians could be so indifferent to the poisoning of God’s Creation.
The problem is a faulty eschatology–a faulty view of the future. Instead of seeing the future hope as a motivator for ethical action, for what our Jewish brothers and sisters would call tikkun olam, “the healing or repair of the world,” too many conservative Christians believe that God’s Creation is expendable. They believe that Creation is only a stage for the drama of salvation (which involves only the souls of individual humans) and will be destroyed at the Second Coming of Jesus. (This is also why they dismiss Jesus’ commands to be peacemakers or to feed the poor and clothe the naked. If you believe the world MUST continually get worse before the End, then action for social justice is useless at best and at worst delays the Second Coming!)
Theologians from many parts of the spectrum have been rethinking this view since the early 1970s. If one punches in “environmental theology” in the Amazon.com search engine, the titles will go on for 100 pages or more. If I were to list just the GOOD works in this area, it would be a long bibliography. Yet, somehow, not much of this is finding its way into the average pulpits. I met an environmental lawyer last month who is a fellow Baptist–and told me he has never heard a sermon on care for the Creation! Some conservative evangelicals are actually anti-environmental because they believe that all those who are concerned for the environment are Wiccans or some other form of neo-Pagan. Yes, Native American, Wiccan and other “new age” spiritualities do lend themselves to environmental concern, but I would argue that Scripture provides as much or more ecological resources. A knee-jerk reaction of “they are for it so we should be against it” seems terribly shortsighted.
John 3:16, the favorite Bible verse of evangelicals, does not say that “God so loved humankind,” but God so loved the cosmos,” the created universe “that He gave His only Son.” Christ’s saving death was not on behalf of humans alone, but on behalf of the entire Creation. “All things in the heavens and on earth, both visible and invisible, have been made through [Christ] and for him. He himself is before all [ta panta] and in him all holds together. . . . [T]hrough him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of the cross.” Colossians 1:15-20. Salvation is COSMIC, including the entire Created order, not just human beings. In light of this, we need to see the “new heavens and new earth” of the Book of Revelation as a renewed heavens and earth–in continuity with our current order, not de novo after this order is destroyed. And since humans were given the task of stewardship over God’s earth, should we not tremble when we think of God’s judgment on how we have treated this Creation?
How could we have EVER thought that God was only concerned with us humans? Sure, in both Psalm 8 and Genesis 1, humans are called the “image and likeness of God” and no other part of the Creation is given such an honor. But that hardly means that the rest of Creation has no intrinsic worth, but only worth as far as it is useful to humans–as I have heard so often. In Genesis 1, every part of Creation is pronounced “GOOD” by God before humans are even around. In Job, God portrays God’s self as finding food for hungry baby lions, roaring in their dens. The Psalms are full of the praise of God’s creation. How have so many churches missed all this and more?
I ask this because I believe God is weeping over the creation we are destroying. The oil volcano flows onward, BP is not even sure it knows how to stop it, the fishing industry will be destroyed along the Gulf coast for decades–and still our churches are silent. Where is the Christian outcry on behalf of God’s wounded planet? Where are the church leaders demanding that offshore drilling be stopped and DEMANDING a shift toward a Green Economy?
Big Oil and Big Coal have big bucks and many lobbyists to look after their interests on Capitol Hill. But we have the prophetic voices of the churches (and other faith groups). Can we not lift those voices on behalf of God’s Creation and tell our elected officials to put the planet ahead of the profiteers? For the sake of God’s wounded world, I hope so.