The Environmental Morality Play, Sin, and Love

I recently took part in a discussion of sustainability and stewardship issues at the SERV Conference in Princeton, New Jersey. The conference centered around
Note: Beauty and Terror is the name of my new column and comes from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Book of Hours:

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.

The Dreaded Approach

I recently took part in a discussion of sustainability and stewardship issues at the SERV Conference in Princeton, New Jersey. The conference centered around seminarians from across the country who are finding ways to meld their passion for service and social justice with their call to ministry. The workshop I joined in consisted of a number of seminarians of various ages who were interested in how the church, seminaries, and non-profits can address the ecological issues of our day and draw in other Christians to this work. The overwhelming feeling at this discussion was Sisyphean— as if we are rolling boulders upward only to watch them fall back down. Perhaps we are—more on this in another column.

What I want to start this column off with is another prevalent theme of this same workshop: the delicate balance of approaching Christians with ecological issues and the need for stewardship. Most of the attendees had plenty of stories of resistant individuals and congregations who did not want to hear about environmentalism and many who were ready to go to verbal battle over this matter. Granted, this is not the only experience but it is definitely a common one.

We discussed a variety of reasons why congregants and others are resistant to the idea of stewardship and being “environmentally” minded. There are those who find it anti-Biblical. There are those who find it a pseudo-religion (I’ve discussed this in another article). There are those who find it more of a secular issue. There are those who find it lower on the level of issues the church should currently be addressing. Etcetera, etcetera, ad infinitum.

To be bluntly honest I think, above all, it is people are tired of the pretentious attitude of many environmentalists, Christian and otherwise. There is an overwhelming sense that environmentalists are arrogant, morally superior people riding around on their flawless horses casting stones at those below, cackling haughtily. Is this hyperbolic? Kind of—I know too many good-natured, humbled environmental folks to make this a blanket statement. However, I have also met my fair share of these high-horse riding sorts and they are of course the loudest and most visible.

For example, people are tired of hearing about how the world is going to end if they don’t recycle. Is recycling important? Yes. Is attaching apocalyptic language to its importance the right way to go about things? Definitely not. Recycling is an important component in finding more efficient ways of waste disposal and more sustainable use of resources. However, it is not an end all be all. Likewise, to try to garner a desire to recycle, as well as to participate in other sustainable measures, we need to try instilling a sense of respect rather than defaulting to fear-mongering. And, after all, for many recycling has become nothing more than a feel-good exercise to help us forget all of our other highly consumptive behaviors. (For a great article on this theme and Edward Abbey I suggest the reader check out the following).

The Environmental Morality Play

The problem with many folks in the environmental movement today, and I repeat Christian or otherwise, is that they have turned ecological issues into a morality play. These issues have devolved into a morality play with two types of actors: those who are right and good and those who are wrong and evil. Those who are “green” are right and all others who refuse to associate with them or are ignorant of their causes are wrong. It is a classic case of “us” against “them.” And the problem with this is that nothing gets done. Nothing. The sides become further entrenched, the individual causes further delineated, and the issues, ultimately, fall by the wayside. Need another real world example? Look no further than the United States House of Representatives and the larger, hyper-partisan political system.

So when many pastors and lay leaders approach Christians and parishioners it devolves into a finger-wagging exercise with the receiving end hearing simply, “You’re wrong, you’re bad, you’re not doing the right thing.” Who wants to hear this? What does this do? It just makes the sides more rooted, and consequently, more separated. It does not cause minds to open, for imagination to clearly see the issues, for people to see why as Christians they are called to be stewards. So what do we do, where do we go?

It is here that I think Christians have something worthwhile to add to the conversation: the concept of sin and pride. Not to further the delineation of who is right and wrong but rather to remind us that we are all wrong. St. Paul drives this point home, “For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:22-23, NRSV). The ecological issues of our age are complex and cannot be simplified down to right and wrong. In fact, we are all complicit in the ecological ills of our day; none stands innocent. None. We all take part in the systems, behaviors, and habits that continue to degrade the ecosystems we live in and beyond. “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone.”

The point I’m trying to make is that we can’t allow ecological issues to create divisiveness, to bolster “us” and to castigate “them.” Instead we need to realize that there are no sides, but rather issues that need addressing. Pressing forward to address these ecological concerns we must remain ever cognizant of our tendency to pride, remaining vigilant against turning people into simple groups of good and bad. I’m not positing a fickle moral relativism here, just saying we can’t allow morality to degenerate into the demonization of others.

Let it also be clear that I am more than aware that we all can’t be on the same side. No, that is pie in the sky idealism. Rather, I am saying we cannot let our groups become simplified into an absolute good and deem the other group an absolute bad. And here is where another Christian concept is vital, that of love. The command to love reminds us that we are all, relatively of course, good and bad and that love, ultimately, transcends these concepts and offers forgiveness. Reinhold Niebuhr reminds us, “In a final conflict only those who have learned the grace of humility can be loving, for in a conflict love requires forgiveness and forgiveness is possible only to those who know themselves to be sinners. Moral idealists never forgive their foes. They are too secure in their own virtue to do that. Men forgive their foes only when they feel themselves to be standing under God with them, and feel that under the divine scrutiny all ‘our righteousness is as filthy rags.’” 1 Without love we simply divide further and further, with nothing worthwhile accomplished.

Integrating the concepts of sin and love into our dealings with ecological issues can help prevent the high-horse attitudes mentioned above as well as the entrenched, staleness of moral arrogance. “If the Christian church is not to be ‘blown up’ by the political conflicts that threaten the Western world, it will have to add religious depth to its moral idealism. Pure morality divides people and does not unite them. Moral idealists can live with other people only if their ideals are identical with their own. Only religious realists can have respect, pity, and forgiveness for the foe whom they do not understand.” 2Perhaps as we seek to approach congregants and others we can seek to talk of respect and responsibility toward Creation and avoid applying the terms good and bad to behaviors and/or people—all the while remembering we are all sinners. And may this morality play’s curtains fall, once and for all.


  1. Neihbur, Reinhold. “When Will Christians Stop Fooling Themselves?” in Love and Justice. Edited by D.B. Robertson. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992.
  2. Ibid.
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