The natural world is in big trouble. Human activities over the past century or two have wrought some catastrophic environmental problems. These include global change (e.g., global warming, pollution, thinning of the ozone layer), unsustainable use of resources (e.g., water, soil, energy), and the loss of biodiversity (as irreplaceable genes, species, and ecosystems). Earth’s restoration to health will require a monumental effort on our part, if such a recovery is even possible.
How did we let things get this bad? For one, an unrelenting push for economic growth, assisted
by great technological prowess, has exacted some staggering costs to the environment. Our
traditional North American folk heroes were those who cut down forests, plowed up prairies,
varmints, and dammed big rivers. Earth’s native places and wild creatures have been
powerless in the face of this onslaught, quietly blipping out of existence without fanfare or even
much notice on our part. Now, at the beginning of the 21st century, we have reached a point
where humanity may have indeed wrested the last bit of wildness from Nature.
Surprisingly, until very recently Christians have largely stood by silently as the Earth has
suffered. Moreover, this wanton destruction seemed to be supported by a Biblical mandate to
subdue the earth (Genesis 1:28). As a result, the mainstream environmental movement has
come to regard Christianity as mostly hostile toward the environment. Whence this estrangement
between the Judeo-Christian world view and modern environmentalism?
With the rise of monotheism, the one God in heaven replaced a multitude of gods dwelling in the
rocks, trees, and animals, and natural things began to lose their sacredness. Roderick Nash, in
Wilderness and the American Mind, points out that as Christianity spread, wild lands were cast as
unholy places. Christians judged their work to be successful when they cleared away the wild
forests where the pagans held their rites. Later, with the development of rationalism and modern
technology, the natural world’s sole purpose for existence became to serve human
The dominion passage of Genesis seemed to give humanity license to do as it saw fit with
Nature--the absolute right to use what we want and destroy anything in our way.
In 1967, UCLA professor Lynn White published a now famous piece in Science magazine
The historical roots of our ecologic crisis. White’s essay was a stirring indictment
against our Christian heritage.
By destroying pagan animism, he wrote,
Christianity made it
possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects. The faith
that set human beings above the beasts and the flowers of the fields also set in motion two
millennia of environmental degradation. Christianity bears a huge burden of guilt.
A careful examination of the Bible, however, suggests that God in fact cares deeply about
Creation. For example, at the end of the Flood account, God makes a covenant with Noah, the
all living creatures of every kind (Genesis 9:12-17). In Leviticus 25:23, God states
to His people,
The land belongs to me, for you are only strangers and guests. In Psalm 104:24,
the writer declares,
How many are your works, O Lord! In wisdom you made them all; the
earth is full of your creatures. Ezekiel 34:18 calls us to enjoy, but without destroying, Creation’s
Dominion as outright oppression is neither advocated nor condoned by the scriptures. First, Genesis 1:28 gives the blessing and mandate to people before the Fall. Second, if this passage is understood in the context of the rest of the Bible, one could conclude that dominion means responsible stewardship, not ownership, and certainly not domination. For Christians, the model for dominion is Jesus Christ.
Christian tradition holds up the natural world as a medium that reveals God’s attributes (e.g., Romans 1:20). The mystics, Francis of Assisi, Meister Eckhart, and Hildegard of Bingen, extolled the integrity of God expressed in the Creation. Jesus and the prophets spent much time in the wilderness because they understood that Nature holds an unadulterated quality in which the presence of God can be experienced.
Mending the rift between Christianity and the environmental movement began about ten years
ago when Pope John Paul II issued a resounding call to heal the Earth in his 1990 World Day of
Peace message, entitled
The ecological crisis: A common responsibility. More recently, Ron
Sider, Cal DeWitt, Tony Campolo, and others have called upon evangelical Christians to turn
attentive ears to the pleas to save God’s Creation out of a deep love for the Author of life. Care
for Creation is becoming an important element of religious life for many Christian denominations
which are working to create their own doctrinal statements on environmental stewardship.
It is fitting, then, that this new collection of Anabaptist/Mennonite perspectives, Creation and the
Environment, has appeared to inform and encourage us. The fourteen contributors were drawn
from the fields of anthropology, biology, economics, farming, history, ministry, social sciences,
sociology, and theology. Some of the chapters that appear in the book were generated for a
Creation Summit organized in 1995 by the joint Mennonite Church-General Conference
Mennonite Church’s Environmental Task Force. The book is divided into four parts:
Activities & Their Alteration of the Creation,
Anabaptist/Mennonite Life & the Environment,
Anabaptists’ Theological & Historical Orientation, and
The Challenge to Take Care of the
In his introduction, Calvin Redekop, professor emeritus of Sociology from Conrad Grebel College, identifies some unifying themes for the various contributions to follow. One theme is the Judeo-Christian worldview that humans have been given the responsibility to keep the garden. Our record regarding the tending of Creation is dismal, however, a conclusion that prompted the development of this book. Most of the contributors also share the conviction that the Anabaptist/Mennonite perspective offers some important, perhaps unique, insights for achieving environmental health.
In the opening chapter,
Economics, Development, and Creation, Jim and Karen Klassen Harder
provide an excellent introduction to the relationships between economic systems and the health
of the environment. They dispel three common cultural myths: that growth equals development,
that resource use can grow indefinitely without limits, and that economic growth solves poverty.
Concluding that we can no longer continue in ignorance of what we are doing to the environment
and to future generations, they end with a proposal for a new economic/environmental ethic.
Next, Kenton Brubaker notes that the impact of scientific discovery and technology on the natural world has been immense, in most cases leading to surges in the growth of the human population. He discusses the need to reign in the proliferation of environment-damaging technologies. In a similar vein, Carl Keener and Calvin Redekop acknowledge that the size of the human population is currently one of the most obvious forces affecting Nature, but it is an issue little discussed in the Church. They recognize that a huge challenge before us is to create a balance between human population density and the sustainability of the environment.
David Kline, an Amish farmer and writer, in his chapter
God’s Spirit and a Theology for
Living, offers an old German prayer as a source for such a theology:
…and help us be gentle
with your creatures and handiwork so that we may abide in your eternal salvation and continue to
be held in the hollow of your hand. Kline contends that today’s Anabaptists are having a hard
time finding a theology for living because they have become alienated from the land to which
their forebears felt closely connected. He includes some noteworthy principles. First, we ought to
conduct our daily lives as if Jesus were returning today, but care for the land as if He were not
coming back for 1000 years. Or, the land ought to be treated with such care that parents can face
future generations without shame.
In contrast, Michael Yoder and Mel Schmidt are somewhat skeptical regarding the Anabaptist heritage for taking care of the land. Yoder, for example, contends that there are no hard data to show that Mennonites are more environmentally conscious than other groups. Schmidt goes on to complain that there is no identifiable institutional presence by Mennonites in the sustainable agriculture movement. Although Schmidt cites a few examples in which individuals and Mennonite organizations united with environmental groups to address specific causes (e.g., the proposed Fort Riley, Kansas, expansion), by and large Mennonites are not standing with other churches in pressing for environmental legislation. Mennonites have high credibility and integrity, however, which would give them a powerful voice in the environmental movement.
The rest of the chapters turn theological. Ted Hiebert explores the relevance of the Biblical
creation story to the paradox of human existence in the biosphere. He identifies three common
interpretations of the garden story by scholars: the Apostle Paul’s largely spiritual interpretation,
that of the Priestly writer of Genesis 1-2:3 (emphasizing order and authority over Creation), and
that of the Yahwist writer of Genesis 2:4-25 (Eden as a farm, Adam as its farmer). It is this
Yahwist interpretation that Hiebert claims speaks best to the current environmental crisis. There
is a relationship between the morality of the farmer and the productivity of the soil. We alone
among God’s creatures have the power to alter Nature for our own ends, even to the point of
destroying our very means of provision. But, since humans and all other life are
made of the
same stuff, what we do to the environment we end up doing to ourselves. Hence, there is an
awesome need to care for the Earth responsibly.
Dorothy Jean Weaver next searches the New Testament for a faith response to environmental issues. An important idea here is that Christ came to redeem not only humanity, but also the rest of Creation. It is appropriate for His followers, then, to be in the restoration business in the broadest sense.
Walter Klaassen’s chapter provides an interesting counterpoint to David Kline’s romantic agrarianism. He states that Mennonites need to abjure any notions that somehow care of the land was part of their ethnicity or that they have been better than others in caring for the Earth. Klassen contends it was basic survival, not love of the land, that produced the agricultural expertise and care for which Mennonites became famous. Modern Mennonites of all stripes have become enthusiastic participants in technological hubris and consumerism. Any consciousness among Mennonites about the need to care for Creation has come by and large from other traditions. Thomas Finger also develops this theme. Although Anabaptists’ existence over the centuries was closely intertwined with the natural world, they have always been intensely practical. As a result, almost no doctrine of Creation has arisen from them.
Themes introduced by Klaassen and Finger are echoed by Heather Ann Ackley Bean, who states that the Anabaptist record on the environment is ambiguous. Historically, Anabaptists neglected environmental issues not only in their theology but also in everyday practice. A theology of Creation was impeded by an understanding of the created world as the realm of Satan separate from God. Today’s prosperity and overconsumption contradict the traditional values of simplicity and nonviolence.
Sandwiched between these chapters is a nice gem by Lawrence Hart that offers several Native American perspectives on the Earth. These emphasize peoplehood, closeness to the land, and the sacredness of land. The earth is a gift from God and should be treated accordingly. Hart states that there is nothing incompatible between this land ethic and an Anabaptist doctrine of the Creation.
Calvin Redekop wraps up with a summary,
The environmental challenge before us. Finally,
A Letter to Congress and
Stewards in God’s Creation, close the book.
In his Science essay, Lynn White went on to say,
We shall continue to have a worsening
ecologic crisis until we reject the Christian axiom that Nature has no reason for existence save to
serve man. Both our present science and our present technology are so tinctured with orthodox
Christian arrogance toward Nature that no solution for our ecologic crisis can be expected from
them alone. Since the roots of our trouble are so largely religious, the remedy must also be
At the dawn of the new millennium, humankind faces unprecedented challenges regarding the global environment. The choices we make will determine what kind of world will be enjoyed by our descendants. We must (as did Noah) protect wild species whose interactions with each other, and with the land and water, form the fabric of the biosphere. Living in our artificial environments, however, many of us have become alienated from God’s Creation. Christians have remained silent for so many years that we have defaulted to others, allowing the healing of the earth to become the province of activists largely outside the Church. It is long past time for the people of God to assume their rightful place as advocates for the Earth and its nonhuman inhabitants. Not only is there a place for people of faith in the environmental movement, but it is part of the Anabaptist calling to speak up on behalf of the powerless. My hope is that this book can serve to goad us and guide us toward that goal.
Jon K. Piper
Associate Professor of Biology