Those of us who lived through the 1980s have not forgotten the rush of “relief concerts” that followed the USA for Africa “Live-Aid” concert for famine relief in Ethiopia. On the heels of “We Are the World,” Willie Nelson organized “Farm Aid” to provide relief for foreclosing family farms. Other musicians put together concerts for various causes, from opposition to South African apartheid to third world debt relief. The 1980s are back, but the issues are bigger than saving the children or saving the farmers. We’re rocking to save the whole planet.
Former Vice President Al Gore’s “Live Earth” concert this weekend demonstrates something of how culturally popular the crusade against global warming can be. The truth really isn’t all that inconvenient for most Americans, because the “solution” to global warming seems so abstract and distant that few Americans can picture how exactly fixing the problem would change their lives at all, beyond listening to concerts and watching Al Gore documentaries. I am hopeful, however, about this debate, precisely because it is, at its heart, deeply theological.
I am a conservative and a conservationist. I may be to the left of most of my fellow Southern Baptists on environmental issues. I believe government has a role in restraining corporate America from poisoning our eco-system, just as government has a role in restraining corporate America from poisoning our culture. I believe in wetlands protection, in the national parks system, and in most of the environmental laws passed since the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency in the 1970s. I am horrified to see woodlands and forests mown down to put up another Home Depot, and believe there ought to be common-sense zoning laws to keep Outback Steakhouse and Wal-Mart from taking over the countryside like so much kudzu. And yet, I am disturbed by the ideology behind much of the religious rhetoric behind the global warming debate.
I don’t deny that there has been climate change. I don’t deny that human beings are a factor in this climate change. What we don’t know with any level of certainty is how much human beings have caused so-called global warming and what it would take to reverse the effects. Because that’s the case, Christians can, and do, disagree about what are the most prudent measures to balance competing interests in the common good.
Yes, divine revelation tells us that we are to be stewards of the universe. The Bible tells us that God takes delight in the earth and one day will redeem it. At the resurrection from the dead, we will not be living in a sanitized, air-tight heavenly compound, but in a universe of trees and rocks and waterfalls and wildlife and star systems. Scripture does not lay out for us, however, a legislative blueprint for every possible environmental problem. Some Christians shrug their shoulders, cite the dominion clause of the Genesis mandate, and then endorse the bumper-sticker slogan: “Earth First: We’ll Pave the Other Planets Later.” Other Christians, just as casually, wrinkle their brows, cite the stewardship clause of the Genesis mandate, and propose “What Would Jesus Drive” anti-SUV campaigns.
The Bible doesn’t speak to, for instance, proper levels of CO2 emissions. To use Jesus as a mascot for this specific a political program on an issue this theologically unclear tends to trivialize the Gospel and hurt our political discourse. To be honest, liberals are not the only ones guilty of this. In the 1980s and 1990s, some conservative Christian groups talked about the “Christian” position on a Balanced Budget Amendment or a Line Item Veto or congressional term limits. There is no position that comes to us with biblical authority on those issues. There are some issues that are clearly defined in Scripture. That’s why Roman Catholic and evangelical activism on the abortion issue was heroic. The Scriptures clearly speak against the injustice of taking innocent human life.
There are certain aspects of this debate that Scripture does address. A laissez-faire libertarian approach to the earth’s resources is not a Christian option. At the same time, many of the proposals of global warming activists (population control, for instance) are in direct contradiction of a Scripture that celebrates the blessing of children. Scripture also ordains and yet limits the scope of government power (Rom 13, Rev 13) in such a way that Christians ought to be rightly suspicious of global bureaucratic structures, even when they promise to save the world.
A few weeks back, I testified before the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on religious views on global warming along with the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in America, the head of the Evangelical Environmental Network, and others. You can access the testimony and supporting documents here along with the other panelists testimonies here. It is hardly “Thus saith the Lord.” It is more along the lines of, “Let’s be careful here.”
My main concern is not the neo-pagan pantheism of some environmentalist spirituality. Instead, it is an evangelical utopianism that believes, in the words of one evangelical leader, that we can “restore Eden” through legislative means. I am also deeply suspicious of the kind of doomsday scenarios laid out for us by Al Gore and others in a kind of secular Left Behind series.
The universe is cursed, and the universe groans under the burden of this curse (Rom 8:19-22). That doesn’t mean that we simply give the earth over to the ravages of its birth-pangs, anymore than we can cite the curse of literal human birth-pangs as reason not to comfort a mother in delivery. It does mean, though, that we understand the limits of “saving the world” in this time between the times. And it means that we understand that, whatever the environmentalists tell us, humanity is not a “cancer” on the earth…or a “virus,” or a “fever.”
The earth is longing for something, the apostle Paul tells us, longing for a Man, the Lord Jesus, who unseats the dragon despot of this present darkness. The earth is groaning for us, “for the revealing of the sons of God” (Rom 8:19). That’s why gospel proclamation is the most farsighted form of environmental activism. The earth is delivered when her rulers are raised from the death curse, when all things once again are under their feet, in Christ.
That’s where “Live Aid” was closer to the biblical truth than “Live Earth.” The Scriptures, from Genesis to Revelation, tell us something secular environmentalism and ideological Darwinism can never accept: “We are the world.”
We ought to support reasonable laws that protect the earth and its resources. We will disagree often on how best to do that. But, in the meantime, we ought not to turn away from what we know to be true in order to support what we think seems to be true. Even if doing so wins us the applause of the rock stars.
Let’s take care of the earth, protect the natural order. But let’s remember that the world is not ultimately rescued by politicians or musicians or filmmakers or scientists. The world is saved by blood, not Gore.