Throughout the nation, Presbyterians of all stripes are responding to God’s call to restore and protect creation. The shape of the response varies greatly depending on the particular theological understandings and interests of the people in the congregation, as well as the local environmental challenges of the geographic area.
Presbyterians for Restoring Creation (PRC)
For more than 10 years, Presbyterians for Restoring Creation (PRC), a nationwide network with more than 700 members, has been working to raise the visibility and effectiveness of the eco-justice ministry in the church. Eco-justice encompasses concern for the wellbeing of all people and creatures on a thriving earth. The mission of PRC is to care for God’s creation by connecting, equipping, and inspiring Presbyterians and others for eco-justice ministry. PRC worked closely with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Environmental Justice Office (until that GAC office was eliminated in May 2006 budget cuts) to support a network of “Stewardship of Creation Enablers” within presbyteries and to develop resources and events to assist Presbyterians in eco-justice ministries.
In 2005, after a national conference on water concerns, PRC launched an initiative to reduce bottled water consumption by individuals as well as at church and presbytery events. This new convenience item was costly to the environment (both the production of new PET plastic and the filling of landfills with un-recycled bottles) as well as to the pocketbook (with bottled water at times costing more than gasoline). Another concern was the privatization of water resources around the world (often with harmful impacts on brothers and sisters in the global south).
Recently, PRC has been developing an initiative to help Presbyterians respond to the 2006 General Assembly resolution that urges Presbyterians to live “carbon neutral” lives. Christians can respond hopefully to climate change by living lives that produce less carbon dioxide emissions (by such things as limiting car trips by carpooling, combining errands, and using other modes of transport) and offsetting those carbon emissions that cannot be eliminated (through buying “renewable energy credits” or “green tags”).
Later this year, PRC expects to unveil a sustainable food initiative at its sixth national conference. The food choices we make impact the use of fossil fuels, the application of pesticides, the consumption of water, and hunger around the globe, among many other concerns.
Theological foundations for eco-justice
Christians who care for the environment do so out of their faith foundations, and their experience of God in nature. Some primary theological understandings that inform those who engage in this kind of work are:
1. The integrity of God’s creation. Creation is good. Indeed, God says repeatedly in the first story of creation that God sees the many parts of the creation as very good. The earth is “the house” for the creation; both our words for economics and ecology come from this Greek word for house, oaks. Just as human households have “house rules,” there are rules and ways that our earth as the “big house” functions. These ways have been, through human activity, spoiled and disrupted. Today we see the need for a fundamental rethinking of the ways we live with creation.
2. The role of humanity in creation. In his prize-winning book Earth Community, Earth Ethics (Orbis Books, 1996), Larry Rasmussen, retired Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York, has helpfully articulated the various understandings of humanity’s role in creation. Some include:
a. Steward. In the second story of Creation in the Book of Genesis, God asks Adam (whose very name in Hebrew means earth, topsoil, ground) “to till and to keep” the garden. We, as earth creatures and formed by God’s breath, become earth guardians for God. We are the servants of God and are to wisely tend to the flourishing of creation. The Book of Order puts it this way: “God calls the Church in the power of the Holy Spirit to participate in God’s work of creation and preservation. God has given humankind awesome power and perilous responsibility to rule and tame the earth, to sustain and reshape it, to replenish and renew it.” (W-7.5001)
b. Partner. This understanding of humanity’s role comes out of the notion that humans should/do occupy a humbler place; St. Francis of Assisi is a model. Humans are part of the earth and we live, eat, and breathe within “the house.” While humanity has a special role to play, the rest of creation also counts in moral considerations.
c. Sacrament/Priest. In this understanding of humanity’s role, we are mediators with God; we intercede for the Community of Life and speak (and act!) on its behalf before God. Underlying this understanding, according to Reformed theologian JÃ¼rgen Moltmann, is the notion of panentheism because it recognizes and celebrates the divine in, with, and under all creation, but carefully avoids a creature being identified as God (i.e., pantheism, which we do not believe!).
In all of these roles, the common call is to care for creation as part of our Christian faith and discipleship.
Congregational eco-justice programs
A period of study is typically the first step a congregation takes. This is key, since biblical teaching on eco-justice is missing from many people’s church experience. Study usually leads to an exploration of greening the practices of a congregation or its congregants through measures such as energy conservation, sustainable landscaping, and recycling. When the congregation begins to look outward, community projects such as habitat restoration projects, hosting a community garden, or advocacy on environmental policy can be initiated.
First Church of Kirkwood, Mo., has celebrated Earth Day for several years by cleaning up local streams that became filled with trash.
A member of St. Andrews Church in Portland, Ore., explored how his church, whose parking borders the headwaters of a tributary of Fanno Creek, affected the urban creek. A long-term Mission Team project resulted, removing invasive plants and 14,000 square feet of asphalt and installing bioswales to filter and slow storm water runoff.
Members of Towson (Md.) Church’s Earth Corps meet with PC(USA) Washington Office staff on a regular basis to advocate good environmental public policies.
Earth Care Ministries of Second Church in Lexington, Ky., has developed a Carbon Neutral Covenant for members, supported by a communications strategy.
These examples just scratch the surface of what congregations are doing to be faithful to God’s call to eco-justice.
Ecumenical and interfaith partnerships
Ecumenical and interfaith collaboration have spurred many ideas for congregations.
Presbyterian congregations participate in the Interfaith Power and Light project, a religious response to global warming with programs in more than 20 states. Many Presbyterian churches participated in IPL’s Spotlight on Global Warming in October 2006 that featured screenings of the documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth.”
Statewide and local ecumenical and interfaith environmental ministries include Faith in Place in Chicago, Earth Ministry in Seattle, Eco-Justice Ministries in Denver, and Interfaith Network for Earth Concerns (at Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon).
The time has come for a strong eco-justice witness in the church. As Presbyterians, we work from strong theological foundations and a long legacy of eco-justice leaders. By embracing this ministry we will find new life, and those who long to connect faith with their concern for the earth will find a home.
Jenny Holmes is moderator, Renee Rico is regional representative, and Rebecca Barnes-Davies is coordinator for “Presbyterians for Restoring Creation.”