Interestingly, on the same day it was reported that the Catholic Church felt compelled to update the seven deadly sins (including damaging the environment), Southern Baptists experienced a watershed day. Finally, someone has determined what are the “major issues” for Southern Baptists. The “Southern Baptist Environment & Climate Initiative” was made public. Kudos to Jonathan Merritt et al for having the courage to make a public statement on such a controversial and heated issue. The political right has long avoided endorsing the notion of global warming, but now that the political door has opened (The US hosted the G8 Summit in 2007), along comes the SBC in tow, or at least folks affiliated with the SBC but who cannot truly represent her. Even though this initiative cannot represent the SBC, the concern for ecological issues by so many of the young leadership in the SBC is promising. But granted, the SBECI is not intended to be political (one hopes), one is wondering whether such a statement could have been made before it was politically acceptable for conservatives to embrace such a stand on global warming. Still, I’m sure many political conservatives are writhing in pain over the declaration at this very moment. Nonetheless, however laudatory the declaration, there are some points at which I take issue.
In a recent article on the Baptist Press, Jonathan Merritt is quoted as saying “In the lecture,” he said, “my professor made the statement that when we destroy creation, which is God’s revelation, it is no different than tearing a page out of the Bible” (emphasis added). I suppose this is an overstatement, but it is dangerous theologically, and naive at best. This is a faulty equation of the authority of special revelation, viz. the Bible, with that of general revelation. It puts them on equal terms. I am not advocating, on the other hand, ecological liscentiousness, rather, theological precision. My questions would be: Are there aspects of the imago Deiin creation? What about God are we damaging if we destroy creation (I might argue that man’s perception of God is clouded; Ps 19; Rom 1, but even then there is the God-given conscience; Rom 2)? Even if there is such a mandate to care for creation in Genesis 2 (as the SBECI implies), how does the curse of creation in Genesis 3 (not removed until Rev 22) factor into the equation? Even so, what does it mean to “destroy” creation? What of God destroying the earth in Gen 6-9? What of the perception that God will destroy the heavens and the earth prior to the New Creation (Heb 1–Ps 102; 2 Pet 3)? I think that this initiative may be overly reactionary to current cultural trends. One could even argue that it is reactionary to current ecclesiological/missiological trends as well. See Brian McLaren’s A Generous Orthodoxy, or Christopher Wright’s The Mission of God, to start with.
Given my questions of the theological underpinnings of this Initiative, let us look at the four main points:
- Humans Must Care for Creation and Take Responsibility for Our Contribution to Environmental Degradation
- It is Prudent to Address Global Climate Change
- Christian Moral Conviction and Our Southern Baptist Doctrines Demand our Environmental Stewardship
- It is Time for Individuals, Churches, Communities and Governments to Act
Note, first of all, that nowhere in the entire declaration (not just the abovementioned propositions) are the words “global warming.” Perhaps these words are too politically charged, but the initiative chose the same terms as the Bush Administration “Global Climate Change.” Interesting…but probably a good choice.
Regarding point number one, let’s give Merritt the benefit of the doubt, this is a new beginning of sorts for SBCers. But I can’t help but ask the following questions: How do Southern Baptists “take responsibility”for our contribution to environmental degradation? What is “environmental degradation”? Regarding the first question, does this mean having a neutral or positive carbon footprint (if this is even possible)? Okay, I’ll stop littering (unless I’m in India, because, hey, there are folks dependent on me throwing garbage in the street); I won’t pour motor oil in the sewer, or dump my chicken grease in my sink. For my next car (if I can ever afford one), I will buy a Pruis, or Insight, or walk or ride a bike even. My whole family will ride horses 198 miles to our grandparents house. I guess I could take a bus, it would be cheaper and we would spread out the ecological damage over several families. Even then I must ask: How does my church “take responsibility”? We can put political pressure on the government, we can put political pressure on our bosses; if we are the boss, I guess we could make some changes. We could all agree to stop eating chicken or pigs (because pig and poultry farms are harmful to the environment) or fish (because of the abuse of overfishing). What does it mean? Of course, if we are directly involved in environmentally specious activities, we should reconsider our priorities. But are the majority of Southern Baptists involved in the abusive and oppressive dealings that need to be investigated? I’m sure we can all think of the myriads of ways that the government can take responsibility, but to insure that the government does so responsibly, this means people will have to get more involved in politics. This Initiative commits its signees to action; otherwise it is just rhetoric.
Ultimately, I must ask: what constitutes “enviromental degradation”? Vague, vague, vague…makes the statement look more political than indicating a desire to change. I’m not trying to slam Brother Merritt or any of the other signees, a number of whom I know and respect, I’m sure they all have pure motives, but if this is going to be anything other than the news as it was on March 10, 2008, much more work has to be done.
For point two, I would agree that it is prudent to address global climate change. It is an opportunity to Christians to show they care for the concerns of their non-Christian peers, but I must ask if we are somehow conceding that Christians are to blame for the mess. I don’t know, maybe. Will a bunch of Christians signing up for an “Adopt-A-Highway” section put forth a good ecological witness? This is an assumption that churches aren’t concerned for their respective communities. How do we know that Southern Baptists aren’t already concerned for the environment? Just because its not preached? Lay people read the Bible and understand it and they have the ability to obey without the pulpit intervening (at the same time, too many Southern Baptists are biblically illiterate). In Kazakhstan, for example, it was the Protestant Germans who were credited for keeping the villages clean. After the fall of the Soviet Union, when Germans returned to Germany, the villages were left in disrepair. There was something in the ethos of the Christians that made them care for their environs. This could easily be extrapolated into an argument that Christianity supports environmental concerns, but I wonder if Christians are at fault? My Dad instilled into me as a boy to always leave something better than you found it. Where did that come from? In other words, what type of change do we expect to see from this initiative? I don’t want to say there will be none, but the History of Christianity witnesses the efforts of Christianity, whenever it enters a new context, trying to improve the surrounding conditions. Its not a statement or a purpose that will change Southern Baptists, but Baptists living out the gospel in their context (I guess you could argue that the SBECI is a way to do just that).
Its not until point three that Merritt affirms the theological priority of Scripture in his statements (he does in the preamble, don’t get me wrong here). But lets look at his other points.
First, the world is God’s world, therefore “we share God’s concern for the abuse of His creation.” Again, please define. I think I should become a Jain and abstain from any activity that may result in the death of another being…such as a bug, or a paramecium. What is abuse? If abuse is above me sociopolitically or geopolitically, how do I “take responsibility”?
Second, he states “Within these Scriptures we are reminded that when God made mankind, He commissioned us to exercise stewardship over the earth and its creatures (Gen 1:26-28). Therefore, our motivation for facing failures to exercise proper stewardship is not primarily political, social, or economic–it is primary biblical.” I can hear the good ole boys hootin’ and a hollerin’ in the background, but is this true? When I read scripture, the first thing I think of is not “how do I stem Global Climate Change?”. That’s okay, it doesn’t have to. I rather think it should be primarily social and we should not be ashamed at saying that (see Stott, Christian Mission in the Modern World, or Bosch, Transforming Mission, “Chapter 12). The Biblical worldview allows it, and given our context, it is “prudent.” Ultimately, this subpoint is either an uncareful statement or an attempt to appease the “fundamentalist” strain in Southern Baptist life.
My one major critique of the proposal lies subpoint three under the third statement: “The consequences of these problems will most likely hit the poor the hardest, in part because those areas likely to be significantly affected are the world’s poorest regions.” Yes and No. Yes, because the majority of the problem is generated in those regions themselves. Even if every American in every North American company in every North American Country completely offsets their carbon footprint, the causes (if they are indeed proven to be) of Global Climate Change will continue to affect the globe (keep in mind almost every nation in the world has signed the Kyoto Protocol and yet the problem persists). As such, how does the SBC change the environmental policies of the world? Even if we grant that this is the job of the international community, you still have the very real problem of ecological and economic colonialism–the West is calling the shots. The major problem with this theological-ish initiative is that it is oversimplifying an otherwise very complex issue. Great, some Southern Baptists agree that we need some sort of change, but what next? Do we pressure the US government to enforce ecological policies on the rest of the world? How many more wars would that cause? How many more of the poor would be affected then? Slippery slope, maybe, I’ll admit that. But I think our concern for the needy, the orphan and the widow should be way much more than ecological–how bout food, money, shelter, hospitality, family, etc.
Finally, Statement 4 is a call to action, for individuals, churches, communities and individuals. In this call, though, Merritt humbly admits that “simply affirming our God-given responsibility to care for the earth will likely produce no tangible or effective results. Therefore, we pledge to find ways to curb ecological degradation through promoting biblical stewardship habits and increasing awareness in our homes, businesses where we find influence, relationship with others and in our local churches. Many of our churches do not actively preach, promote or practice biblical creation care. We urge churches to begin doing so.” This is well said. It has to be much, much more than a signed statement.
Less you think I am unfairly bashing this initiative, I am not. There are certainly things therein with which I could agree. However, much more thinking needs to be done before I can sign this. So much is left undefined that my signature could be attributed to some policy that embarrasses me. I don’t have anything in mind, but let us first define what it means to “take responsibility” or what is exactly “environmental degradation”, etc. Let us think more about the complex relations between other nations, cultures, peoples and the West. What if the US government, for instance, at the call of the SBC, enforces economic sanctions on offending nations? Is this not more dangerous for the poor than the ecological problems themselves? Let us think.
Jonathan Merritt, if you ever read this, you are the man. Few would be so bold to write what you have and then have it signed and released to public scrutiny. Do not be offended by my critiques, but let them be a call to further study and action. I am not asking you to stop, but to keep going. Work hard and this has the potential of being very persuasive.