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The Meaning of the Word.


I’m used to the odd looks.

Person talking to me: “You’re an environmentalist ... and a Christian?”

Me: “Yep.”

Cue the [raised eyebrows] [barely concealed smirks] [twisted theological doctrines].

The reactions come from people of all stripes. People outside the faith are understandably perplexed. “Seriously, you Christians care about these things?” And who can blame them? Modern-day followers of Christ haven’t exactly embraced environmental causes as a core concern. A vocal minority has even actively campaigned against certain environmental causes, deeming them political hot potatoes or contrary to their established list of priorities.

The conversation, however, usually goes a bit differently with other Christians. Some tell me I’m misguided. Wasting my time. Faith is about winning souls, not saving trees, they say. Focus on people; that’s what matters.

Other Christians offer a more politically refined response. Environmentalism sounds like additional rules and regulations, they say. More regulation means bigger government and undue interference with business. Unnecessary suppression of certain markets ... not on the conservative agenda.

Still other Christians voice their concern from a cultural perspective. By embracing environmental “causes,” Christians are uncomfortably aligning themselves with liberals. I mean, what could we have in common with tree-hugging, new-age-embracing, neo-hippies? Could we work shoulder to shoulder with people who don’t accept other tenets of our faith? I’ve observed people getting twitchy just thinking about how to articulate those worries.

And then there are the objections rooted in theology. Since the Earth will pass away and a new one will replace it, why bother with environmental concerns? God will eventually renew all things, so we don’t need to overly concern ourselves with the natural world. Isn’t it enough to recycle plastic and go paperless?

I’ll address all of those contentions over the next few weeks. But I want to start with something more fundamental, because it’s the place where things really seem to go off the rails: We have different ideas of what it means to be an environmentalist.

Here’s what it means to me:

Environmentalism is about acknowledging the indisputable link between toxic chemicals and sickness and poverty. People smarter than me have figured out that these factors are intertwined – toxic chemicals make people sick, which reduces their ability to work and/or pay medical bills, thereby edging them toward poverty; poor people lack adequate medical care, which exacerbates illness, and lack the means to move away from toxic environments. (Recent headlines: “Exposure to hormone-disrupting chemicals is likely leading to an increased risk of serious health problems costing at least $175 billion (U.S.) per year in Europe alone” or “Sixty percent of US bankruptcies have a medical cause.”) We cannot remain ignorant about a root cause (or perpetuator) of poverty and and still profess to care about the sick, poor and oppressed.

Pollution is associated with the most pressing issues people face: people die without clean water. Dirty air elevates asthma levels, supresses the immune system. Sick people face more obstacles in terms of work, stress, or the accomplishment of goals. Illness contributes to poor decisions, which lead to even worse consequences. Sickness tries to rob people of their dignity. It certainly robs them of their parents, children, or pets. For us to ignore the serious impacts of toxic pollution or chemical exposure is like wanting to help a bleeding man, but ignoring the six-inch blade sticking out of his back.

Environmentalism is about standing up for the poor or disenfranchised or any living creature that lacks a voice. No living thing should be forced to breathe toxic air, drink polluted water, or farm in degraded soil. We must take a stand on behalf of people who cannot do so for themselves. We investigate. We lobby for assistance. We attempt to restore what’s been taken. We pursue justice for them and protest, if necessary. It is a moral imperative.

Environmentalism is about action when concerns about toxicity surface. We provide sick, poor, or oppressed people with the know-how and wisdom to track down potential sources of pollution. We help educate them as to the dangers of nearby pollutants. Millions of people live near leaking landfills, downwind of toxic factories, or alongside distressed waterways, but they lack the means to investigate suspicious events when they occur. Sometimes the government agencies responsible for our safety fall short. Can you imagine what would’ve happened in Flint if private researchers didn’t speak up and instead simply relied upon agency assurances of safety? If a doctor didn’t put her reputation on the line? People and animals would’ve continued being poisoned. Those courageous individuals helped establish facts and forced comprehensive testing. They stood up for those most vulnerable. They took action.

Environmentalism is about being engaged in politics and policy. We will surely differ in our priorities or in our opinion of the science underlying a particular environmental issue. But concern for our fellow man and the natural world must drive us to learn more, to better understand the debate. We have to keep an open mind about science. We must understand the issues that divide us, and be prepared to respectfully discuss them before making (or objecting to) far-reaching policy decisions.

For those in the medical field, environmentalism is about listening to people and not dismissing their concerns because something doesn’t seem to fit. People with environmentally caused illnesses seem to present with a myriad of seemingly unrelated symptoms. So many that you might question their credibility. Before you drop them as patients or shuffle them off to eight different specialists, perhaps attempt to get to the root of the issue by using a holistic, big-picture approach. Who else is sick in the household? Are pets sick? What’s happening in the neighborhood? What’s happening on a city level? Are your colleagues in different states seeing the same levels of brain tumors, MS, or thyroid disease? Are you seeing “rare” diseases far too frequently? If so, then step up. Alert the county and state health departments. Start an informal study. Discuss your observations with colleagues. Contact a university about formulating a study. Do something.

For those in the governmental agencies charged with our protection, environmentalism is about doing your job with a sense of urgency, competency, and transparency, without regard to the corporate or hierarchical toes on which you’re about to step. Be courageous. And yes, it might cost you your job. It might cost you an election.

Environmentalism is about holding polluters accountable for negligently harming others or lying about the dangers associated with their products. Sometimes agency officials do not act until public pressure mounts, which is why those who can MUST stand up for others. Sometimes it might take the form of legal action or criminal prosecution. Either way, it takes courage.

Environmentalism is about exercising stewardship over natural resources. We conserve. We use resources responsibly. All living things should have access to clean air, water, and soil. And sometimes we must act to fix a problem. Remediation of defiled resources is part of how we responsibly steward the Earth.

Environmentalism is about helping others to manage conflict over natural resources. Historically, disputes over water, boundaries, access, soil, forests, minerals, or precious metals have fueled prolonged conflicts. Collaboration over the ownership, management, and use of natural resources is therefore critical to peace and stability. Let’s practice peacemaking over these shared resources and encourage others to do the same.

Environmentalism is about being transparent and truthful as we develop or implement green innovation, including recognizing the limitations to our technology. (Flint water filters, anyone?)

Environmentalism is about being an active participant in caring for the things that God cares about. We believe that God created people, animals, and our environment. Over and over, Scripture talks about the beauty and majesty of the natural world, and how God delights in it. He loves His creation, so we love it, too.

All of these facets of environmentalism require something of us. This should not be surprising to the Christian. The Bible couldn’t be more clear about our responsibility to seek justice, and care for the poor, sick, widowed, fatherless, or oppressed. In Isaiah 1:17 we’re instructed to:

Learn to do right; seek justice.

Defend the oppressed.

Take up the cause of the fatherless;

plead the case of the widow.

In Proverbs 29:7, we’re taught that “[t]he righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern.” In Psalm 82:3, we’re called to “defend the weak and the fatherless, uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed.” After all, “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of [God’s] throne. Love and faithfulness go before [Him].” Psalm 89:14.

As followers of Christ, showing care and concern for people, especially those among us who are most vulnerable, and caring for God’s creation, are precisely the “causes” Christians should (and do) care about. Care and concern necessarily means that we tackle some of the most preventable sources of poverty, illness and degradation: environmental corruption, toxicity, and defilement.

I pray that everyone--Democrat, Republican, Socialist, faith-follower, atheist--would work to relieve the suffering of living people and things. And because of our core beliefs, Christians--in whatever way God has gifted them--should be leading the charge to right the wrongs that harm the things God loves. We are his hands and feet. He works through imperfect people (us) for His glory.

To me, being an environmentalist is a natural expression of my faith. An expression of my love for people and the natural world. An expression of my love for God.

Maybe now you’ll look at me differently.

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