Matthew Sleeth

Confessions of an Evangelical Tree Hugger

This essay is reprinted from Holy Ground: A Gathering if Voices on Caring for Creation, recently published by Sierra Club Books.

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The Future of Eco-evangelism

On April 22, we celebrated the 35th anniversary of Earth Day. This year, however, was also special for other reasons. This year all living things around the planet and secular environmentalists have a new ally: evangelical Christians.

Evangelicals believe that God not only made everything, but that he loves his creation, enjoys it, and claims ownership of it. Yet for the past two centuries Christians and non-Christians alike have taken God's creation for granted or, worse, seen it simply as a resource to be exploited. Evangelicals cannot claim to love God and not love what he loves. It is true that God gave humans dominion over the earth, but many evangelicals have come to recognize that we must face the meaning of this mandate.

But will evangelicals collaborate with traditionally secular environmentalists to fulfill this mandate?

Before I explore that question, let me tell you a little about myself in the hope that it will illuminate an evangelical Christian's path toward an environmentally conscious life.

I was raised in a Methodist home, lost faith, and then returned to the church when I perceived a spiritual crisis in myself and those around me. My spiritual crisis, I soon discovered, had a lot to do with the environmental crisis we face. I no longer felt grounded in every sense of the word.

So my family and I moved from our large house on the coast of Maine, sold or gave away half of our possessions, and consciously sought to bring our lifestyle in line with our values. I now drive a hybrid car, live in a passive solar house, and use one-quarter of the electricity and one-third of the fossil fuels that I did five years ago. Most importantly, I left my work as an emergency-room doctor to focus on the most pressing health issue of all time: Earth care.

I am not, however, the only person of faith to notice the plight of the planet. The earth is ill. There are no elm trees left on Elm Street, no chestnut trees on Chestnut Lane, and soon, there will be no maple trees left on Maple Avenue. The clouds of birds that migrated in my youth are gone. Frogs are dying all over the globe. Hourly, farmlands are being supplanted by malls and subdivisions and fertilized by suburban sprawl. Our industrial way of life is literally giving our planet a fever. As ancient polar ice caps and mountain glaciers melt, we are increasingly pummeled by severe weather. Climatologists have long predicted the changes that are now happening; we do not need yet another study to confirm what we already know.

Although the fate of our planet should be concern for all human beings, there are many who think an alliance between evangelicals and environmentalists as unlikely or even unwise. Why? Both act out of a desire to protect those plants and creatures that cannot speak for themselves. Both fight for elements of life over which mankind exercises "dominion." These include the most mute and vulnerable of all creatures -- the generations yet to be born.

Arguing about who gets to save the planet is like two passengers on a ship fighting over who should throw the life jacket to the man who has fallen overboard. For the drowning man, it does not matter whether a Hindu, a pagan, an evangelical or an environmentalist saves his life. In my years as an ER doctor, I saw some 30,000 patients. Never did I have a patient stop me during the course of treatment to question my religious beliefs. So why do we care who gets to save the planet? Should we not be rejoicing instead that so many are working hard to save it?

To begin with, here is a Christian tradition that all can benefit from: celebrating the Sabbath. The fourth commandment -- "Honor the Sabbath" -- is a mental health prescription that has served humans well for millennia. If Americans did no work, no shopping, and no driving one day a week, we would instantly produce fewer greenhouse gases, use billions of gallons less fuel, and be closer to sanity and to God. The Sabbath is God's gift to man, 52 times a year.

Evangelicals, on the other hand, must recognize the fact that the most pressing problem facing the world is overcrowding. Before we dismiss population control out of hand as a matter unworthy of consideration, we would do well to reflect on the following facts. If we place all 10,000 years of human history (8000 BC-2000 AD) on a single calendar year, the number of human beings on the planet does not hit one billion until late on Dec. 24. And then this: one billion more people are added to the planet on the Dec. 29, and then again on Dec. 30. We then added an astounding 3 billion to the population on Dec. 31, only to hit seven billion at eleven a.m. on New Year's Day.

When we accepted the life prolonging fruits of science, we unbalanced the natural human population equation. Yet we want to oppose the use of science to control the number of lives created on this planet. We can not meddle with one side of the equation without attending to the other side. In other words, we can not have our cake and eat it too. The choice is simple: We either need birth control or to forgo the use of medicine to prolong life. It is up to the individual, society, or religion to choose one or the other.

America is the third most populated country on the planet. We will surge from our current 296 million to 600 million in only 70 years. Will eco-evangelists lead, or will they find themselves mired in hypocrisy, materialism, and finger pointing?

To the extent that eco-evangelists act to preserve the earth, they will become moral leaders. Jesus describes the road to heaven as narrow. The path may not accommodate a Hummer, but it surely has room for many a sister and brother.

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