Donald Trump, The Environment, and The Christian

Recently Outside Magazine released an article titled, “An Illustrated Guide To Trump’s Plan For The Environment.”[1] In the comic book-styled piece, the author playfully shares what she imagines the first 100 days under Trump might look like for our planet, and it is really grim.

It’s no secret that Trump has been critical of environmental protection, but is it really fair to portray the president as someone who may use his power to actively destroy the environment for profit or other less-than-savory gains? Well, if his recent reversal of the Keystone Access Pipeline is any indication, I fear that our planet may be on a fast track to a level of destruction many of us never imagined we’d see in our lifetime. As Derrick Z. Jackson of The Boston Globe said, “Trumps war on the environment has begun.”[2]

You may be wondering why I’m making such a big deal about the environment. Perhaps you’d prefer to read about a more pressing topic. What about women’s rights, mass incarceration, race, and refugees? While I believe that these issues are vitally important, and I plan to address them soon, I can no longer sit by and watch as environmental protection is pushed aside as a secondary issue in Christian circles.

I’ve been a part of evangelical culture my entire life and I have rarely, if ever, heard teaching on the Christian’s call to steward the environment. In fact, most of what I’ve heard from Christians about environmental protection has come in the form of criticism, mistrust, and even disgust.

In my own experience, I have been called a “liberal” or “radical” because of my belief in environmental stewardship, and many of my friends have been told to “get their priorities straight” by other Christians who believe they “care too much” about the earth.

Today I’d like to answer the following questions:

  • Why have Christians neglected this teaching?
  • Are Christians really called to protect the earth?
  • How can we protect the earth when our leaders won’t?

Why Such Hostility Towards the Earth?

I could write all day about the damages caused by fundamentalism, the “moral majority”, and dispensationalism.[3] The combination of these movements has led to what some have labeled as “evacuation theology.”

When a group of people emphasize a rapture[4] away from the earth and separation from the world, and when these ideas become fused with a right-wing, religious-political system, then care for the earth not only becomes irrelevant, it becomes a wrong. While these cultural phenomenons are worthy of attention, I’d rather not spend my time disproving a system.[5][6] Instead, I’d like to look to Scripture and see what God has said about the earth and our responsibility towards it.

The Image of God

The Bible begins with a story of God bringing chaos into order. At the final stages of this grand orchestration, he sets one creature apart and places him in the most privileged position: he makes mankind in his own image.[7]

There has been a lot of discussion concerning what it means to be “made in God’s image.” However, the ancient readers were familiar with this language and would have been quick to recognize the primary meaning of what it meant to be made in the image of God.

In the ancient world, religious statues were more common than they are in modern, western society. During the time Genesis was written, statues of deities were found on street corners, in temples, and surrounding palaces. These statues served as representations of the gods that a particular society worshiped. In the Second Commandment, God forbids his people from creating such statues: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image or any likeness…[for the purpose of worship].”

God did not want his people to create “images” of himself (or any other deities) for the purpose of divine representation on earth. Instead, God made mankind in his image to be his representatives on earth. Human beings would serve as living statues that betoken the Creator.

Representing God

After making mankind in his image, God gave these humans responsibilities as his representatives on earth. This instruction is known as the Dominion Mandate.[8]

“Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it. Rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and every creature that crawls on the earth” (Gen. 1:28).

  1. Be fruitful
  2. Subdue the earth
  3. Rule over all creatures

The words “subdue”[9] and “rule” do not sit well in our postmodern minds, because we’ve rarely seen subduing and ruling exercised properly. As far as we know, ruling has always been aligned with exploitation. But let’s not read our prejudices into this story. Remember the context.

In God’s original design, ruling and subduing were to be acts of care done for the purpose of cultivation and flourishing. God had just completed the creation and he was very pleased with what he saw. He described the earth and its creatures as “good.” He was ready to take up his throne in his cosmic temple and enjoy the wondrous beauty that was before him. Lovingly, he had brought all things into existence and gave everything a function so that the earth could exist in balance and harmony. He gave mankind the responsibility of representing him, cultivating the earth on his behalf, and ruling over the creatures in his place. This role given to mankind was to be a continuation of the creation event begun by God himself.

I have heard this passage interpreted in ways that support the exploitation of the earth and its creatures, claiming that “ruling over the earth” means that humans have the right to use its resources however they see fit. Not only is this interpretation exegetically irresponsible, but it also defies the character of the Creator and undermines his instructions of care for his creation.

Failing at Our Responsibility

God had set into motion a holy creation that would be filled with peace between mankind, animals, plants, and God himself. Sadly, we humans undermined God’s rule and this resulted in a severed relationship, both with God[10] and the Earth.[11] We decided that we wanted freedom from God and we believed the lie that we could be our own gods. This decision led to our destruction, and it also led to the earth’s destruction.

Because of our sin, humans don’t live the way God intended and the earth does not run the way God planned. This is evidenced by suffering that is ever in our midst. We humans have trampled on everything and everyone in our path. And one of the greatest failures of the human race has been the repeated disregard of our role as God’s representative caregivers of the Earth.

What Would Jesus Say About the Environment?

Jesus came to Earth in order to live a perfect life and die an undeserved death. Not only that, but he rose from the dead. Because of this supernatural act, the curse caused by our rebellion is being undone. Mankind’s relationship with God is being restored and the earth is being renewed. One day, this restoration process will be complete and creation will be made fully new and we will dwell in peace on earth with God, plants, animals, and each other forever.[12] Notice, God’s love for the earth will lead him to restore it, not destroy it.

Remember, the first mission we were given was the Dominion Mandate,[13] which is a fancy title for the instruction God gave mankind to care for the earth. In the New Testament, this mandate is further clarified as we are given the role to represent Jesus on Earth.[14] Before ascending to heaven, Jesus left his disciples with this commandment:

“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”[15]

As God’s people, our task is to make disciples of Jesus. However, I’d like to emphasize that this role does not preclude our original responsibility. We are still made to be God’s image. We are still his representatives on earth. We are still responsible to rule over his creation. God loves the earth. God has plans for the earth. Therefore, faithful adherence to our “spiritual calling” does not mean neglecting our “physical calling.” We have been called to care for both the physical and the spiritual.

We may recognize that we will be held accountable for what we do with the gospel, but how many of us also realize that we will be held accountable for what we do with the earth? In Revelation 11, we see a futuristic picture of Jesus establishing his eternal kingdom. There the 24 elders describe what Jesus will do as he restores the earth:

“The time has come for judging the dead, and for rewarding your servants the prophets and your people who revere your name, both great and small—and for destroying those who destroy the earth.”

“The time has come for…destroying those who destroy the earth.” That is a verse I’ve never heard a sermon on. How did the prophecy conferences and end-times movies miss that one? When Jesus returns to judge the living and the dead, he will “destroy those who destroy the earth.”

Apparently, The Great Commission did not nullify The Dominion Mandate. Jesus holds humans liable for the assignment given to them in Genesis.

What should I do?

Throughout Scripture, there is a consistent theme of human responsibility towards the earth that literally runs from Genesis to Revelation. In his letter to the Roman church, the Apostle Paul writes:

“For the creation eagerly waits with anticipation for God’s sons to be revealed.”[16]

The creation is waiting for the day when God’s people are fully restored. In the same way that our image was marred, the image of creation was marred. Therefore, the plant and animal life that you see is just a shadow of what it would look like in the presence of the Creator. The earth knows that our redemptions are not separate acts, but one in the same, and we will be redeemed alongside the earth and all that exists here. According to the voice of scripture, we are deeply connected with nature.

So how should we respond to this?

  1. Recognize that you are responsible to care for the earth. The scriptures make it clear that we have been called to rule over the earth in a way that reflects the One who lovingly created it. Our responsibility to care for creation must be considered an indispensible Christian doctrine and must be taken as seriously as any other command from God.
  2. Cultivate a loving relationship with the earth.[17] The earth was created for God’s pleasure, and subsequently our pleasure. If you do not posses love for creation, you must first learn to enjoy and appreciate it. This requires you to spend intentional time with creation, asking God to help you along the way.
  3. Act on behalf of the earth. The planet is being systematically destroyed. The rain forests are being ravaged and the oceans are dying. Animals are being brutalized and the atmosphere is being poisoned. The vast majority of this destruction is preventable, and some of it is reversible. We can’t fix everything, as God will ultimately do that. But we will be held accountable for what we don’t do.

In closing, I hope you can look past the politics, stigmas, and cultural ties that surround environmentalism. Please don’t let your loyalty to a political party cause you to neglect your responsibility towards the earth. And please don’t let your fear of being aligned with a certain people group allow you to miss out on doing what you were created to do.

As Christians, we live in the midst of empires that may or may not have policies that align with our sacred and holy calling to love the earth. We must be ready and willing to obey our divine mandate whether our government stands with us or against us. This is our chance to be on the right side of history. Christians, we are called to lead this charge.

 

[1] https://www.outsideonline.com/2150411/worst-could-happen-planet-under-trump

[2] https://www.bostonglobe.com/opinion/columns/2017/01/20/trump-environment-this-war/OOjkMVQULhWmPIlp7xtO8N/story.html

[3] Charles Darby invented dispensationalism in the 1830’s. This system cannot be affirmed by church history, and its only similarities are found in the teachings of heretical doomsday cults. It rose to popularity in the 20th century through the work of C.I. Scofield and Charles Ryrie. In recent years, the claims of these theologians (i.e. That the state of Israel is the people of God, that world events point to the “end times,” the ethical teaching of Jesus don’t apply to the church age, etc.) have led to a sharp decline of dispensationalism. In, fact dispensationalism is nearly extinct in Christian academia, and churches and denominations are quickly following suit.

[4] There was no Christian teaching of “the rapture” before Darby began preaching it in the 1830’s.

[5] Many authors have taken the time to honestly evaluate dispensationalism. One book that I found helpful is Dispensationalism: Rightly Diving The People of God? By Keith Mathison.

[6] For further reading on Evangelical right-wing politics see The Myth of a Christian Nation by Gregory Boyd.

[7] Genesis 1:27

[8]  Cultural, Adamic, or Edenic mandate are also acceptable terms.

[9] The Hebrew word kabash is understood as an agricultural term in this context, and can therefore be translated as cultivate.

[10] Genesis 3:24

[11] Genesis 3:19

[12] Isaiah 11, 55; Revelation 21

[13] After making mankind in his image, God gave the first humans responsibilities as his representatives on earth. This instruction is known as the Dominion Mandate: “Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it. Rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and every creature that crawls on the earth.”

[14] Whether the Dominion Mandate and Great Commission are seen as separate instructions or a continuation of the same instructions makes no practical difference.

[15] Matthew 28:19-20

[16] Romans 8:19, HCSB

[17] Every person already has a relationship with the earth, but for many people it is a negative relationship.