You shall love the LORD your God.
You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
There is no other commandment greater than these.
Radical—it is a fiery word of intriguing background. The first and second definitions listed on Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary are "of, relating to, or proceeding from a root; of or relating to an origin: fundamental." The third—and more popularly recognized—definition is, "marked by a considerable departure from the usual or traditional: extreme." Somehow, these definitions seem unrelated to each other. How can a word be defined as meaning both "fundamental" and "extreme"? Perhaps this seeming oxymoron makes perfect sense in the arena of Christian environmental stewardship. Though I am not here to argue etymology or word origins, or to misapply definitions, I do intend to show that the idea of Christian environmental stewardship is radical in both ways; it is fundamental and extreme. Though this seems confusing on the surface, I hope it will be come clearer as I continue.
In order to understand how Christian environmental stewardship can be fundamental, I must first be able to outline the fundamental beliefs of Christianity. These beliefs are that God created man perfect, in His own image; that man sinned and became corrupt, and that he now lives a disjointed version of the life God intended for him; that God wanted to bring man back into relationship with Him; that in order to accomplish this, God sent His Son Jesus to die in the place of man; that Jesus rose again after being dead for three days; that man may be saved by faith in Jesus' death and resurrection; and that those who claim to have faith in God must live in a worthy manner. What is a worthy manner of life for a Christian? According to Jesus, the commandments that contain all the rest are these—to "love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength" and to "love your neighbor as yourself" (Mark 12:30a, 31a; NASB).
"Love the LORD your God," I am told, but often I am unsure how exactly to obey this command. According to the Bible, however, love for God is not difficult to understand. In fact, love for God is bound up with obedience to His commands. Loving God and obeying Him are mentioned together at least eight times explicitly in the book of Deuteronomy (cf. Deut. 11:1). This was not just an instruction for the nation of Israel, however. It is repeated for Christians—for me. "For this is the love of God," John writes to the young church. "that we keep His commandments [. . .]" (I John 5:3, NASB; italics added). None of this may seem to connect to environmental stewardship at first glance. However, the very first responsibility given to mankind was none other than envinronmental stewardship. In the beginning, after the creation of mankind, God instructed them to "rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth" (Genesis 1:28, NASB). He then placed them "into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it" (Genesis 2:15, NASB). Ruling over the creation of God is the first responsibility given to mankind, and by obeying this command of God and ruling wisely and kindly, man is able to show his love for God. My dilemma, however, is what constitutes wise rule and, therefore, obedience to and love for God. This is also addressed in the Bible.
"If someone says, 'I love God,' and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from Him, that the one who loves God should love his brother also" (I John 4:20-21). In order to love God as I should, I see that I must love my neighbor as myself (cf. Mark 12:31). Love in this case is not simply an emotion; it is an action. Paul summarizes this in Romans 13:10—"Love does no wrong to a neighbor" (NASB). These principles of love for my neighbor can be applied to my understanding of Christian environmental stewardship. Any decision that does wrong to a neighbor is unloving to mankind, and displays disobedience to God. Decisions that show love to a neighbor are obedience to God.
This is where issues and real-life gray areas creep into the discussion. Being born and raised in America, I have the privilege of living in one of the wealthiest countries on the planet. However, it is also one of the most wasteful countries on the Earth. Every day we pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere as we drive our cars to and from work, on errands, and for pleasure. Every day we bury tons of solid waste, taking up land that could be used for farms or homes. Every day we throw away more food than many people in the world will see in a week. Every day we use up more water showering than some families in the world will be able to access for bathing, cleaning, cooking and drinking combined. Every day we live in extravagance that much of the world only dreams about. The resources of the world are inequitably allotted, that is certain, but I wonder how this knowledge should affect me. I cannot help where I was born; I did not choose it or have a say in the matter. It is not my fault that other continents or countries do not have the resources to live as well as I can. Often my attitude is one of apathy. I did not create it; I cannot change it on a worldwide level. I have been given these privileges and it is right that I should take full advantage of them. When I begin to think like this, I fight to remind myself of another very important verse—"For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another" (Galatians 5:13, NASB). I was given this privilege and opportunity, and through faith in Jesus I am given freedom to enjoy these things. However, by choosing to follow and obey Jesus, I take on the responsibility to love my neighbor as I love myself. I am not allowed to ignore the hurt and desperation of others; I am not allowed to live a fat, lazy, apathetic life. I am called to love—but how do I live this out?
I believe correct Christian environmental stewardship demands sacrifice. By looking at the concept of the commons I can see that my everyday decisions do affect worldwide health. My decision to drive instead of walk five minutes down the road adds unnecessary pollution into the atmosphere, causing it to be dirty not only for me but for all others sharing the planet with me. My choice to take a much-longer-than-necessary shower depletes just a little bit more clean water from the general world supply. I have the freedom to do these things, of course, but by doing them, I wonder whether I am using my God-given freedom as I should be using it—to love my neighbor. If I am honest, the answer is no. Using an exorbitant amount of resources does not show love to my neighbor nor obedience nor love to God. This is the fundamental basis of Christian environmental stewardship.
Am I advocating that Christians sell their cars, give up electricity and running water and heat, and live in caves and under trees? Not necessarily. However, I believe that Christians can and should live their lives in such a way as to love their neighbors, and in so doing, to obey and love God Himself. This is where Christian environmental stewardship becomes extreme.
Love demands sacrifice. This is perfectly exemplified by Jesus' death on the cross. Love for my neighbor in the context of Christian environmental stewardship demands I make sacrifices as well—though none could ever reach the level of Jesus' sacrifice for me.
What if I were to choose to live without electricity or running water in my house? What if I were to choose instead to haul my water and plan my life around the sun's rising and setting, as much of the world does?
What if I were to give up the American dream of a six-bedroom, three-bathroom house on rolling acres of land? What if I were to find a house just large enough for my family, and property only spacious enough for a garden and a small lawn, still more than many people can have?
What if I were to sacrifice the easy life of fast food and prepared foods and frequent trips to the grocery store? What if I were to work to sustain my family by growing a garden and raising our own animals, as do most women in the world?
What if I were to live as cleanly as possible, so as to reduce my effect on global pollution?
What if I were to take the money I might spend on things like property taxes and electricity and water bills and fuel and processed foods and were to send it to the needy in other countries, through mission agencies like World Vision which aids the poor both physically and spiritually?
What if I were to actually do all this?
Maybe I will actually do it. Even though, through this class, I have changed my ideas of Christian environmental stewardship, I am still dissatisfied with the way I live.
I want to be a radical.
I want to love my neighbors—local, national, and global—by living as simply, cleanly and cheaply as possible. I want to raise my children to know that having a little can be difficult, but it is not a disaster. I want to go to bed at night, tired from a long day of working, but satisfied that with the little actions I took, I was able to fulfill the great commandments. I think I have to do this, or someday die full of regrets.
Christian environmental stewardship is radical. It fulfills the fundamental commands of Jesus—love the LORD, and love your neighbor. It demands extreme sacrifice and labor and personal change. Perhaps not all Christians feel called to live the way I described. However, I think all Christians would agree that we have the responsibility to obey the great commandments. This is one of the ways I see to do this. Yes, it is radical. Jesus was radical, too. Those who follow Him cannot expect to be called to anything easier or quieter. As a wise professor remarked, "It is not as if you live your Christian life in your heart."