Back when I was a lad, we used to celebrate Arbor Day — a day when we were simply encouraged to plant a tree. My Sunday school teacher — the ancient and slightly scary, Miss Hattie Hack — dutifully took us outside the first Sunday after Arbor Day to plant a sapling. Miss Hack solemnly said a prayer over the spindly stick we planted, invoking God’s protective love to nurture and strengthen our little tree. The fact that our sapling always died by summer’s end in no way diminished the connection Miss Hack made in the hearts and minds of her little charges — growing things were holy and beloved of God.
This doesn’t seem like such a difficult concept to grasp, but I am amazed at how resistant many people are to it. It has been heartening to see the recent advances in the Green movement, but it still is featured as somehow exceptional. Taking care of the earth isn’t something we are all committed to, but is something we have to work at. I have a friend who told me recently that she, “remembered how much fun the ecology movement of the 70s was, but that it didn’t last.” I wonder if our current fervor will become the norm, or if it isn’t one more in a long line of Gaia fads we embrace every decade or so.
Most people are surprised to realize that the first Earth Day was in 1970, almost forty years ago. It would be wonderful to point to the amazing advances we have made, but just about every gain we made prior to the dawn of the twenty-first century was undone by the Bush administration. Today, we are actually recycling less and dumping more than we were thirty years ago (per capita, and in real numbers). Certainly, more individuals and more companies are making efforts, and every effort it worthwhile, but in an individualistic, consumeristic, somewhat selfish, comfortable, and leisure-loving culture such as ours, waste still trumps conservation. It is getting harder and harder to live simply and kindly. So much of the helpful advice given today isn’t about doing anything positive, but about not doing harm — not being wasteful, not polluting, not being selfish, turning off lights and water. The edict to do no harm is an important one, but (ask Mr. Wesley) it needs to be followed by a commitment to do good, as well. Getting people motivated to create a new future is a bit harder than asking them to do less harm to the present.
It has always felt to me to be a spiritual issue — how well are we caring for the home given to us by God? Some of my Christian friends believe the earth can heal itself, and therefore it’s fine for us to take as much as we can. A few others believe that Jesus will be back any day, so we don’t need to sweat it — God will merely finish the destruction we’re begun. Others I know mock us liberal tree-huggers and say the prophets of global doom are just ignorant malcontents. It’s fascinating that I don’t know any scientists who declaim global warming, but I know a number of corporate types who “know” it’s all a myth. Most of these discussions leave me frustrated, because in my mind, they all miss the point. Ultimately, it boils down to living a life of integrity, that does as little damage as possible, and does as much good as conceivable. Littering is only superficially about pollution — at its deeper level it is about civility, respect, responsibility, and common concern. No one wants to live in a trashcan — so no one has the right to treat the world like one. Resistance to recycling isn’t just a political issue — it cuts to the heart of deeper values like gluttony, sloth, avarice, lust vs. justice, fairness, compassion, and hospitality. Our compulsive consumption of oil is not fundamentally about emissions and the ozone layer, but about who we think we are and what we believe we are entitled to.
Some see receiving “dominion” over the earth as permission to destroy it. However, there is good evidence that the earth was given to humankind not as a product to consume, but as a treasure placed in sacred trust. This is the heart of stewardship — to see how wisely and well we can manage what we have been given, and to one day return what has been entrusted to us to its rightful owner, in better shape than when we first received it. Pray that God doesn’t call any time soon…
As Christian disciples our vision should be to participate in the creation of paradise — to bring what we believe is the greatest of God’s kingdom to bear on our shared life today. To be just, to be kind, to be merciful, to be compassionate, to heal, to comfort, to care for, and to love all require that we make our world a better place. To destroy is not an option.
We are a people who have made a commitment to live “in defense of creation.” We are a people defined (now) by a mission that calls for “the transformation of the world.” We have been challenged by “three simple rules” (do no harm, do all the good we can, and to stay in love with God) that are not options, but mandates of Wesleyan discipleship. We need to do away with April 22 as Earth Day, and begin to live and embrace Earth Day 365(6) days a year. It cannot remain a “special day,” but must move us to a place where we see each day as a special, glorious, precious, and spectacular gift from God.