Should Christians get involved in the environmental movement?

This last March on the Janet Mefferd Show, a nationally syndicated Christian radio program aired on over 100 affiliate stations, Dr. Calvin Beisner, of the Christian group The Cornwall Alliance, discussed a number of reasons why environmentalism is a threat to Western civilization and Christianity.

Against Christian Involvement in the Environmental Movement: An Anti-Witness

This last March on the Janet Mefferd Show, a nationally syndicated Christian radio program aired on over 100 affiliate stations, Dr. Calvin Beisner, of the Christian group The Cornwall Alliance, discussed a number of reasons why environmentalism is a threat to Western civilization and Christianity. 1 Mefferd opened the show by noting the environmental movement’s agenda of global control, fueled by a pagan spirituality, all of which is “absolutely antithetical to the Christian faith.” Shortly afterwards, she introduced Dr. Beisner who quickly rattled off four “simple, direct reasons why the environmental movement is the greatest direct threat to western civilization:”

“First, unlike the Soviet Union and its satellites in the cold war and unlike Islamic jihads today which were or are external and clearly recognized as enemies by the overwhelming majority of people in the free world, environmentalism is internal and thought by most to be friend not foe. Second, because unlike nihilistic secular humanism, environmentalism speaks to the inherent spiritual yearnings of human souls and it provides plausible answers to dogged questions about how we got here and what causes suffering and how suffering might come to an end. Third, because environmentalism incorporates the strengths of all three of those other threats: the utopian vision of Marxism, the scientific facade of secular humanism, and the religious fanaticism of jihad. And fourth finally, environmentalism encompasses all the vague spiritualities that have already, frankly, overwhelmed secular humanism in the West and now threaten the Christian faith.”

Mefferd and Beisner then went on to speak of a number of environmental programs that, “infiltrate churches and trick people into thinking this is Christian stuff.” One of their main targets was the United Nations’ Earth Charter, which Beisner explained “is an explicitly religious document, it is explicitly pagan in its thinking and yet it’s also cloaked in language that gets it pass people who are not already well-familiar with the movement.” Mefferd then followed up with, “And drafted by the socialist?” “You bet, it’s a combination of pagan resurgent religion and socialism which really makes it doubly dangerous to the western civilization,” Beisner responded.

Particular to the Earth Charter was its call to sustainability which Beisner defined as “a euphemism for setting most of the earth’s resources off limit so that we can not touch them, supposedly saving them for future generations but of course every generation is going to have to save them for future generations so they never get touched.” By now you are probably asking: what then is proper sustainability? Beisner explained, “the truth is that it is only by our using resources that we become economically more advanced and through that economic advance we are able to generate new technologies that make us able to do more and more with less and less which is why we create more wealth in our life times than we consume and we can leave future generations better off than we are, that’s sustainable.” Beisner’s solution to the environmental issue, is to create more economic wealth and for Christians to not fall into the “pagan, socialist, utopian” trap of the modern environmental movement.

When confronted with statements like these, one must wonder what exactly is the proper Christian response to the current ecological crisis? Where do Christians fit in in the overall environmental movement? Do they fit in at all? Many Christians, among others, would shutter at the statements heard on Mefferd’s radio program, quickly dismissing them as the beliefs of a small percentage of the country. I can hear many of my fellow seminarians saying, “That’s just some kook no one is listening to, a loud voice—nothing more.” From someone who spends the majority of their life in the confines of Northeastern mainline Protestantism this response is understandable. However, those of us who have grown up and/or spent a large portion of our life in the Southeast know this is not only a common belief but one that is quite widespread. I can remember studying evolutionary biology at the University of Kentucky while being less than two hours away from the Creation Museum in Petersburg, KY, a “museum” which promotes the belief that Earth is roughly 6,000 years old and was created in six days. A stance of dismissiveness is not only wrong, but allows these beliefs to perpetuate.

LifeWay Research recently published a report based off a survey of 1,000 Protestant pastors’ views on environmental issues conducted in October 2012. 2 In an era when the global scientific community has all but completely joined together in proclaiming global warming as a man made phenomena, pastors are moving away from this belief. In just four years the number of Protestant pastors who believe global warming to be man made has decreased from 47% to 43%. These are not old, stubborn pastors from a bygone era but rather quite the opposite. “The survey also reveals pastors age 65 or older put more stock in the validity of global warming over their younger counterparts. This group is more likely (32 percent) than pastors age 45-54 (20 percent) and 18-44 (19 percent) to strongly agree with the statement: ‘I believe global warming is real and man made.’” These are the future leaders of the church and the ones who will be facing the consequences of global warming.

Today Christians all too commonly try to box the work of the Church in, assigning it to specific causes, limiting the range of its work, putting up barricades to the church’s exhaustive work. It is not that these causes, whether they be pacifism, hunger relief, human rights, etc., are not within the scope of the Church’s witness and work but rather that they become insular and closed off. As seen with Dr. Beisner, his authentic concern for poverty and hunger relief, has created a barricade, in which the Church is restricted to work only within these confines and concerns. And because of this narrow-view of Christian witness and work, Dr. Beisner views environmentalism’s concerns as outside the limits of the work of the Church, and therefore they ultimately become un-Christian.

If any Biblical passage screams out against this tendency to narrow-mindedness, it is Colossians 1:15-20, the Christ Hymn. This passage cries out against the inclination to make Christ our Christ, to make our concerns his concerns, and to make them the only things worth worrying about. The author of Colossians reminds Christians again and again, that in Christ “all things in heaven and on earth were created…and in him all things hold together.” And it is not just humanity that Christ is concerned with reconciling. Christ’s salvific act encompasses, envelopes, and surrounds all of Creation, drawing “all things” in to reconciliation with God.   Limiting the scope of the Church’s work creates situations in which we are shortsighted in our solutions. Beisner believes that Christians should not worry about managing natural resources through sustainable practices, but rather use these resources to create wealth which will fund technology which in turn will address the lack of natural resources. Accordingly, all of the issues of poverty and hunger throughout the world will be solved through the accruement of wealth and the progress of technology. Do you see the issue here? Through limiting the scope of of the Church’s work, Dr. Beisner has fallen prey to creating his own idolized intermediaries of wealth and technology. His answer to the ills of this world is, simply, more money and more technology.

Not only do we limit the scope of the Church’s work, but we also become closed off and fail to see issues in their entirety. Beisner believes that as Christians our main concerns should be alleviating poverty and solving the hunger crisis. For him these issues are not environmental and as such, environmental issues should be disregarded. However, these issues are overwhelmingly environmental. Climate change is expected to hit the poorest countries in this world the hardest, despite the fact that these countries have a much smaller carbon footprint than richer countries like the U.S. These countries will ultimately bear the brunt of climate change’s burden, which includes increased chances of catching life threatening diseases like malaria, increased flooding and subsequent loss of housing and land, shifts in weather patterns which will lead to decreases in crop output— the main source of income in most of these countries, and droughts in many areas resulting in roughly 50% of the global population living in water scarce areas.

Likewise, increased production will not solve the world’s hunger problems. Hunger is not an issue of underproduction but rather of distribution. Wendell Berry aptly pointed this out in The Unsettling of America some 35 years ago. Some of the most productive agriculture regions in the world are the hungriest. The Food and Agriculture Organization reports that 70% of the people starving in the world today are farmers. Thirty percent of the food produced today is wasted and thrown away. Richer nations drive up farm prices globally through immense demands, creating exorbitant prices in these poorer nations that their citizens can’t afford to pay. Beisner’s claim that greater economic and technological development will solve the global hunger crisis is not only misguided but misses the issue entirely. The claim that environmental issues have nothing to do with hunger and poverty is not only shortsighted but leads to superficial treatments of these issues.

We do not need to go on global searches to become aware of these issues though. One hour south of the clean streets and fresh air I enjoy daily in Princeton, NJ is the city of Camden. Camden is one of the nation’s poorest cities with 45% of the city’s population living under the poverty line, compared to the New Jersey average of 12.5%. In the one square mile Camden neighborhood of Waterfront South there are two ship terminals, the county’s sewage treatment plant, a Gypsum plant, a trash to steam incinerator, and multiple scrap metal recyclers. The sewage treatment plant which treats the county’s 35 mostly white, suburban, affluent municipalities releases noxious and toxic fumes daily that only Waterfront South residents must bear, residents who are 91% people of color. Within the city of Camden, there are over 100 contaminated waste sites. All of these plants contaminate the air and have led to rates of respiratory disease over 35% amongst the area’s residents, and 60% in the Waterfront South neighborhood alone. The contamination of water from high levels of chromium and lead has led to decades of contaminated drinking water. Camden also has the second highest cancer rate in New Jersey. And not only do these residents have pollution to deal with but Camden has been designated as a food desert by the USDA, with only one full service supermarket to serve more than 77,000 people—a supermarket located on the southern edge of the city which is hard to access for the many residents who do not have a car.

Beisner stated on Mefferd’s show that those living in poverty, “don’t worry much about smog, water pollution, solid waste pollution, sewage treatment or anything else like that, you worry about those immediate desperate needs…We need to see these people raised out of poverty through economic development, through private enterprise, entrepreneurship, effective markets and those are all things the environmental movement opposes.” The citizens of Camden do, though, worry about air and water pollution which are part of the “immediate desperate needs” they daily face. And so, in this food desert, people are confronting the food and environmental injustices they face through urban and community gardens. Together all of the gardens within Camden produce 2.3 million dollars worth of produce a year. And in 2001 when the  St. Lawrence Cement Company wanted to put a plant in Camden which would have created over 100 extra tons of pollutants and approximately 77,000 diesel truck trips a year a small group of citizens, known as the South Camden Citizens in Action, filed a lawsuit against St. Lawrence to block the $60 million dollar plant, which would only bring 15 jobs to the area. This injunction succeeded at first but was eventually overturned. However, because of the witness and tenacity of this group the entire nation was made aware of environmental racism and the constant environmental injustices faced by poorer communities. And credibility was given to environmental justice legal battles nationally because of the group’s original victory. As overwhelming as the odds are, Christ is working through community groups, churches, and individuals to bring reconciliation to all things.

The Church is called to participate in the work of Christ throughout all of Creation. Divisive attempts at breaking down the work of the Church into minute causes and those causes alone are anti-witnesses. Likewise, simply dismissing these voices as small and not a factor is an anti-witness as well. Christians are called to join in the global work of seeking out the healing of all of humanity and Creation. This is a work that speaks against and breaks out of constricting norms and insular causes, and is ultimately the boundless, world-grasping love of Christ the Church is called to participate in. Gerard Manley Hopkins put it best in As Kingfisher Catch Fire:

I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.


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