It was my third year at Wabash College, and the climate change debate was just beginning to heat up. On campus, the local Republican group invited (and paid for) Ann Coulter to speak. I had no idea who Ann Coulter was, only that she was a conservative speaker, a self-avowed Christian, and that Greenpeace really hated her. So, I went to the talk – the chapel more full than I think I’d ever seen it – and I was shocked enough that I couldn’t decide if she was just trolling everybody as a secret Democrat comedian or if she was being earnest. At one point the student members of Greenpeace stood up with a sign in the middle of the audience and began shouting at her until they were either escorted out, shut up, or chose to leave (I can’t quite recall which happened now). In the audience, people either sat silently or clapped and cheered and egged her on, but as the speech continued, some people, mostly professors, got up from their seats and trickled out the door quietly.
I stuck it out for most of the speech. It was my first real encounter hearing a radical speaker spilling the kind of vitriol that’s become, well, pretty common in American discourse ten years on. I stayed until Ann Coulter began talking about the environment. I stayed until she said, “God gave you the Earth. Take it. Rape it. It’s yours.” When she said that, one of my religion professors I deeply admired stood up and walked out. And I followed him feeling a little sick to my stomach.
Truth is, I’m sorry to admit that ecological concerns have not been a real concern of mine over the years. It wasn’t that I hadn’t cared about the environment so much as I just had a lot of other priorities to care for. And I suspect that’s true of most of us. Most of us aren’t Ann Coulter or Greenpeace. We’re somewhere in between, and the things that grab our attention grab our attention so we become five-minute supporters of five-minute causes before we move on to the next cause or to no cause at all – whatever we have time for, of course. I mean, we might recycle. Sure, I recycled both at the church camp I worked for and started a temporary recycling program at the church where I was a youth director. But I wasn’t about to be “one of those” Greenpeace nuts about it, I told myself. I read recently about an activist who had erased her carbon footprint (or was trying to) by not having any trash at all, and hey, more power to her, but most of us are doing good to just acknowledge that we aren’t Ann Coulter, that climate change is real, and that we do care about our Earth. For a lot of us, just recycling is a big deal, but we can’t really compost in our house. And those little things we can do and are doing are important enough as it is, what with 2014 being the hottest year on record or with the current Congress being one that, by-and-large, shares Coulter’s views. And that gets to the heart of what I wanted to address: Christians have a responsibility to care for the planet, not to rape it.
Taking care of the earth was an important part of my religious upbringing. Caring for the environment was a huge part of being a camper in a natural setting – whether church camp or Boy Scout camp. We were “stewards” of the Earth, we called ourselves. We practiced the policies of “leave no trace” when backpacking or camping. I was never fed the kind of “dominion theology” that Ann Coulter spouted off that night in the Lilly Chapel and was shocked to learn it existed. But that kind of theology currently grips the American south. And it’s plain wrong.
Dominion theology is a theology that stems from Gen. 1:28 (cf. also, Ps. 8), which claims that God has commanded humans to “have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” Of course, it’s one thing to say, “Humans, this creation is your responsibility,” a statement widely accepted across most religions and how I read that verse of Genesis, but then quite a logical leap to jump from there to, “Well, since it belongs to you, it’s yours to destroy! Have fun raping it!” With 97% of climate scientists warning of the destructive inevitable effects of our inaction on global climate change, now is not the time to be making the kind of logical leaps where “raping” (or pillaging or destroying or trashing or polluting) the Earth is in any way deemed acceptable.
Although maybe I’m not being entirely fair: I tend to believe that most conservative folks would acknowledge Coulter’s language goes a bit too far and isn’t representative of how they really feel. I know plenty of conservatives who are churchgoing people who care deeply about the planet, many of whom instilled in me a love of nature as a kid, and I in no way wish to generalize an entire political or religious group when I make tremendous effort on my blog to preach against that regularly. But to claim you’re a Christian is to go as far as to claim a responsibility for the Earth such that, regardless of whether climate change is real or whether it’s the result of human action, we should still be advocates and stewards of our planet. I don’t personally believe that the end-times are upon us or that any warming of the Earth is because God is destroying it. After all, why would God need to destroy the Earth when we’re already doing such a good job of that ourselves? But even if you’re operating from the worldview that the apocalypse is upon us, shouldn’t that mean that now is the time we should act as our best selves? Isn’t it precisely Paul’s concern for the end-times that he encourages believers to do their best and not to endorse some kind of apocalyptic fatalism? To return to the very scripture from which dominion theology sprang, caring for the planet was right there in Genesis 1, one of the first directives God gives after creation along with “be fruitful and multiply.” It’s not hard to argue it’s one of the most important responsibilities Christians have – to be caretakers – when that responsibility is an aspect of our creation myth. And to be advocates of the planet is to take very similar action climate scientists have been recommending for decades. Alternative sources of fuel in spite of our limited resources shouldn’t be controversial for Christians. Fighting against any form of pollution should be a chief goal among Christians. The only arguments I could conceive of against these stances are purely financial ones. And that mass production, certain industries, and many jobs would take a hard hit in the effort to create clean energy cannot be a reason for letting our planet waste away, especially when there are clean jobs and clean industries paving the path to the future already. If money is to dictate our stance on caring for the Earth, then we can’t well claim to have been reading our Bibles or what they have to say about money.
Most of us, as I said before, are neither Ann Coulter nor Greenpeace if that’s the scale we’re working from. But if, indeed, caring for the planet is supposed to be a priority for Christians, a directive from God, then it might at least behoove us to be a little more like Greenpeace and a little less like Ann Coulter.