Earth Care as a Spiritual Discipline

By David Rhoads

We can bear the spiritual witness as individuals in our daily lives. Think of it this way. Our living spaces are connected directly to virtually every ecological issue we face. Consider the emissions from furnaces; the food that has been transported from a distance; beef the production of which contributes more to global warming than do automobiles; the gas and oil in the car in the driveway; the water that comes in and goes out of the house; paper for office and household use; the cleaning products that enter the waste stream; the pesticides and herbicides used on lawn and garden that leech into the watershed; the electricity from power plants; the wood in the products purchased; the garbage that goes into landfills; and on and on. People can make choices every day that have an impact for good or ill on the well-being of God’s Earth.

            Accumulative decisions by individuals and faith communities to change lifestyle have the potential to make an enormous impact. In the face of our discouragement at what seem to be such puny efforts of our own, Stan Hallett, a Chicago environmentalist gave this encouraging analogy about the aftermath of eruption Mount St. Helens, an active volcano in northwest US. When the volcano blew, it completely destroyed all plant and animal life for miles around. The whole area was decimated. The incredible aspen stands were burned flat to the ground. For a long time, nothing grew. Then, the moss came back, and the moss created the conditions for the lichen to grow. The lichen returned, and that created the conditions for the shrubbery to grow. The shrubbery returned, and that has created the conditions for the aspen to begin to grow again. And the animal life returned. All these small efforts we make at the grass roots are like the moss, creating the conditions for greater measures to be taken, which in turn create the conditions for more extensive changes to take place at the level of corporations and governments. Thus, even with small efforts, there is an important process of regeneration, indeed a process of resurrection, which is taking place among us.

            And what if we Christians brought these commitments to labor—work places, factories, farms, businesses, organizations, corporations—with which we are affiliated? What if we collectively advocated for Earth-friendly laws and policies in the public realm? What if we participated in hands-on efforts to restore degraded habitats? What if it became part of our collective consciousness to avoid certain behaviors and embrace others—simply as part of our life together? Missionary engagement with the world must include the deliberate engineering of salient eco-ethics and radical changes of lifestyle, the commitments and the sacrifices—the new ways of living needed—for a just and sustainable world.

            When we embrace the fact that the church exists for the sake of the world, our faith communities can become alternative communities. We can bear our mission by being a light to the world. We can show what it means to care for the wretched of the Earth as well as for the wretched Earth. We can manifest a contrasting lifestyle to the economic exploitation of nature and people that impacts so many cultures. We can be in the forefront of advocating for local practices, national laws and policies, and global treaties that bring us together on behalf of all.

            What will motivate us for this labor of love? What will sustain us for the duration? Will we be motivated by fear? We have reason to be afraid, but fear would not sustain us for long and it certainly would not motivate others. Will we be motivated by guilt or shame? These emotions might lead us to realize our culpability and make some changes but, again, these would not sustain us for the long haul. We certainly may be motivated by outrage at how much wanton destruction is happening and how little is being done, especially at the corporate and governmental levels. But anger would exhaust us before long. What about grief at the loss of life as we have known it? Again, this is an appropriate response but certainly not life sustaining. We may see all these emotions as alarm systems—fear, guilt, shame, anger, grief—all as appropriate signals in a warning system, but not good grounds for making wise decisions or for providing the nurture needed to sustain us.                  

            In the end, we may discover the answer with the very God who impels our mission. What can sustain the whole of creation is the presence of God in all of life witnessed by Jesus. Gerard Manley Hopkins referred to this presence as the “dearest freshness deep down things.” Wendell Berry names it “the fund of grace out of which we all live.” This reservoir of God’s presence in all of life and God’s love for all creation does not quit. And it does nothing but generate more love and grace—in us. This is what empowers and sustains us for the mission ahead. 

            The early church announced an apocalyptic sea-change that occurred as a result of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. This apocalypse transformation continues today. It includes a call to withdraw “from this present evil age” (Galatians 1:4; Revelation 18:4-5) and to enter into a “new creation” coming into being (Galatians 6:15). Contemporary churches, in response to the enormity of the ecological crises we face, are challenged to be “transformed in the renewal of your minds to what is the good and perfect and acceptable will of God” (Romans 8:22-23) for our time—the mission to restore God’s creation and to form a sustainable life for God’s beloved Earth community.