The original tree huggers were 363 people from the Bishnois community of Rajasthan in India. The story goes that in 1730 an order was given to fell some trees so the wood could be used for the construction of a new palace. Those trees grew near Bishnois villages where some of the people valued them so highly that they wrapped their arms around them as the loggers started work. The villagers never stopped holding on, and lost their lives as a result. When news of the massacre reached the person who had ordered the felling, he ordered that the trees should be protected.
I’m not about to suggest that it’s worth dying to save a tree, but there were religious reasons why these people valued their local forest so highly, and Christians also have a serious theological mandate to protect the non-human parts of creation from human greed. There is a very strong theme throughout the Old Testament that all of creation praises and brings glory to God. This is the intrinsic value of creation – not just that it inspires people to worship God, but that it honours him in its own way.
God’s original mandate, given in the first two chapters of Genesis, was for people to tend and keep creation on his behalf. It’s true that they were also told to subdue creation, but the rest of the Bible demonstrates that rulers are not to wield power in a heavy-handed or selfish way. It’s too easy to silence the choir of praise, both in the wider creation and also among people – especially the poor who often rely very directly on natural resources for their livelihoods.
The Old Testament Law included some wise principles for sustainable agriculture and land management. For example there was a rhythm of fallow years, a rule that fruit trees must not be carelessly cut down in wartime, and provision for land- or jobless people by leaving gleanings in the fields. But it seems, from the rest of the Old Testament story, that much of this law was not regularly followed.
The Biblical prophets were well aware of the consequences of human selfishness. God had promised to protect his people and help them to prosper, but if they disobeyed him they would reap the consequences of their actions. The greedy and violent behaviour of corrupt Israelite kings who didn’t bother following the law, or teaching it to their people, left the land devastated. The prophets Hosea, Micah, Isaiah and Jeremiah all bitterly lamented the corrupt actions of powerful people that left the land damaged and people poverty stricken.
Jesus’ life, death and resurrection made possible a different way of living. In the New Testament we see members of the newly-established church sharing amongst themselves and taking care of the poor in a sustained, systematic way. This change was catalysed by a restored relationship with God and the power of the Holy Spirit in people’s lives. Jesus didn’t just come to restore human life but all of creation. It would be reasonable, then, to expect that the new Christians were thinking about how they could live out the principles of love for God, their human neighbours, and the rest of creation.
Today the Lausanne Movement, which seeks to support the church as it reaches out around the world, is finding that one of the main challenges or opportunities is how to care for creation. Missionaries around the world can see that environmental issues are top of the agenda for many of the people they serve. It’s almost pointless trying to separate out aspects of caring for people and caring for the non-human parts of creation, because what affects one usually affects the other. When land disappears due to sea level rise, or drought, flooding or pollution hit an area the rich can usually escape, but the poor and the rest of creation are left to manage as best they can. These are the communities where both material and spiritual needs are felt most acutely. How can the Church stand with them?
Many people in Minority World churches are already caring for creation on an individual level. Sometimes this action happens at the level of the whole congregations or group of churches, because the impact is far greater when we work together. The Eco-church movement has helped many churches to build environmental sustainability into their way of living out the gospel. In the same way that Biblical principles about loving people are taught regularly, care for creation is worth including in the main preaching schedule for every church. Some will be called to give more time to these issues than others, but everyone can use their voices and their purchasing power (the details will look different for every individual) to support the development of a way of life that extracts enough material from land and sea for human life to continue while allowing the rest of creation to keep flourishing.
So the answer to the question, ‘Should Christians Be Concerned About the Environment?’, is yes! Christians can have faith in God to help us live as we should, making the necessary changes and sacrifices to help us care for his creation. We also have hope for the future: the renewed heavens and earth that we believe have been promised to us by God. In the meantime, we can continue to be concerned, praying and active – especially those of us with the power, resources and time to do something about these issues. It will be hard work, and we may need to adjust our lifestyles quite significantly, but if caring for creation is part of our calling as God’s people we will find that it works, and that the church grows and becomes more effective as a result.
For further exploration
Creation: Care and Enjoy: recommended accessible resources from the Faraday Institute, including Bible studies, church services, short articles, and a number of excellent organisations.
Ecologist Ghillean Prance, Thinking About Creation Care, leaflet (pdf) by Christians in Science
Excerpts from an interview with the former chair of the IPCC scientific panel, John Houghton.
There are many more posts on creation care on the churches section of the Faraday website.
Talks on the environment at the Faraday Institute – look out for Katharine Hayhoe, Jonathan Moo, Bob White, Dave Bookless, Ruth Valerio, Hilary Marlow and Meric Srokosz
Faraday paper no. 5, Why Care for the Environment? by John Houghton
Check out the resources on this topic for children on faradaykids.com.
 You can find extended examples of this idea in Psalm 19, Psalm 148, Job 38-41, Proverbs 30, and Isaiah 40, but there are many more scattered throughout the text.
 For example, Hosea (4: 1-3), Jeremiah (chapter 12) and Isaiah (chapter 24) connect environmental damage with human moral and spiritual failings.
 John 3:16. Colossians 1:19-20
 Some city or Majority World dwellers may well have a louder voice on environmental issues than the farmers who produce their food. Like the Rajasthan massacre, the top-down effect of powerful people can force terrible change – but they can also do great good. One very effective way of supporting the church in rural areas around the world would be to pay more attention to the seemingly unstoppable forces that affect so many farmers – climate change, pollution, the buying and selling of land, construction, or logging – and get behind those who are working for justice on these issues.