Caring for Creation Isn’t Enough

I began talking publicly about caring for creation in my first book, Brother Earth (1970). As the ecotheology movement grew in succeeding decades, that construct, which was never just mine by any means, found a place in the then growing discussions of ecological issues in many American denominations, especially thanks to the contributions of the Presbyterian biblical scholar, Theodore Hiebert (see his book, The Yahwist’s Landscape, 1996). It was no coincidence, then, that along the way the 1993 social teaching statement of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Caring for Creation, highlighted that theme. That made compelling sense, theologically and ethically.

Ever since that era, too, I myself have made the caring-for-creation theme a central point of my typical church stump-speeches. Here’s an example. Question: “According to the Bible, why did God place Adam and Eve in the Garden?” Typical answer from my audiences: ‘to till and to keep’ it.” “Right,” I would say, “but wrong. That’s the traditional translation. But the biblical Hebrew actually says: ‘to serve and protect’ it. For Genesis, at least according to one of its creation narratives, God created human creatures, because God needed them to care for the earth!”

Fast forward now to 2022: caring for creation has become a major, if not the central, theme in ecumenical ecotheology. As an aside, be it noted, another more traditional theme, stewardship of creation, has also continued to appear in some popular church discussions since the last century, as well as in the writings of a few ecotheologians. That theme has been critiqued by Lutheran theologians like Larry Rassmussen and myself. Not coincidentally, the 1993 ELCA statement on our earth crisis avoids using stewardship language altogether. Even more interesting perhaps, Pope Francis, in his lengthy and highly influential encyclical, Laudato Si’, uses the word stewardship only once, by my reckoning, and that only in passing!

What’s behind this kind of theological inattention to the hitherto popular stewardship theme? I’m not going to try to respond to that question here, because that would take me too far afield. My purpose in this essay is to convince you, if you need convincing, that, important as it is, biblical as it is, and preferential, I think, as it is compared to stewardship theology, the theme of caring for creation should not be allowed to stand on its own.

Rather, biblically speaking, caring for creation should be regarded as a secondary theme, due to the comprehensive crisis that we humans have brought upon ourselves and the whole Earth. In a word, leaving stewarding nature aside for now, the Bible does mandate us to care for the earth. But, biblically speaking, caring for creation is the lesser of two good commitments. What, then, according to Holy Scripture, is more important than caring for the earth?

Recall these fundamentals of biblical teaching. Figuratively speaking, humans no longer live in the Garden. Figuratively speaking, we live in a fallen world, outside the Garden. Do you need convincing of that? When our whole planet is now, to coin a phrase, going to hell due to humanly induced climate change? Be reminded, then, that the construct caring for creation, according to the biblical imagination, has its primary setting in a world before the fall. For our fallen world, God speaks a different kind of Word first and foremost, not primarily a Word of blessing for humans as we rightly commit ourselves to care for creation, but primarily a Word of judgment on us humans – especially on the wealthy and the powerful around the planet – for the mess we’ve made of things.

Here’s an example of that Word of judgment – which is particularly sharp for someone like myself, who has invested so many energies of my professional life over the years in what I and others used to call “liturgical renewal”: “Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:23-24). Reformulating this proclamation by Amos in terms of today’s global crisis, I want to say this: however much you may preach and teach and even celebrate caring for creation as you worship, it all amounts to nothing, unless you’ve first responded wholeheartedly and effectively and consistently to what’s happening to the poor and the dispossessed around the globe.

Did you know – of course you did – that rising global sea levels, caused mainly by historic Western industrial development, first impact the lives of people like the poor who live in the coastal regions of Bangladesh, not those, like me, who live in much more secure settings? Those rising waters are already beginning to wreak havoc in the Bangladeshes of this world. And those rising waters are at once a judgment on those of us who live affluently and securely and who have done so much to bring on climate change!

Did you know – of course you did – that the steel plants that have produced the material for the sleek and polluting cars that some of us drive have, along the way, massively spewed pollution for generations on to the very neighborhoods in which they’ve been located – and that those neighborhoods have often been populated by low income people of color? All that destructive pollution is a judgment on those of us who live affluently and securely and who have done so much to bring on climate change!

Many Church people, of course, have known all along about such grim facts on the ground. That’s why most American Church bodies – sparked by prophetic investigations already pursued by U.S. Methodists during the last century – have claimed a relatively fresh theological construct as their own and made it a matter of first priority – ecojustice. Thus, already in 1993, in its statement Caring for Creation, the ELCA issued a stirring, lengthy, and carefully wrought four-part “Call to Justice,” as the heart of that statement.

Caring for creation, then, has no genuine theological meaning apart from a resolute and thoroughgoing commitment to ecojustice. That’s why caring for creation isn’t enough. The first Word that the Lord speaks to us affluent Christians today is this: Let ecojustice roll down like an everflowing stream!