Paper or Plastic?

by Rev. Christopher Hall

Paper? Plastic? Or did you bring your own bags?” Once upon a time, we didn’t have a choice. Back then we needed to “Save the rain forests,” and plastic bags were in. Then we needed to avoid plastic. Now we choose how we want to save the world, and the choices can be overwhelming. The grocery store is just the beginning. Do we carpool or take public transportation? Do we sell the gas guzzler and buy a hybrid?

Then there is the political baggage that comes with the “reduce, reuse, recycle” movement. Those on the left argue strongly, but on the far right are equally strong voices arguing for sustainable living and “going off the grid,” that is, generating your own electricity and growing your own food. It is hard to know what arguments to believe, how much action to take and how to find a reasonable path.

One of the crown jewels of our Lutheran heritage is the Small Catechism. Luther’s explanation to the First Article of the Apostles’ Creed provides a helpful perspective that will lead us to make responsible choices and be citizens who can engage the world and our culture from the perspective of those redeemed in Christ.

First Article

“I believe that God has made me and all creatures; that He has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my members, my reason and all my senses.” So begins the Luther’s famous explanation to the First Article of the Apostles’ Creed. It is not a complex notion but is rooted in many passages from Scripture, from the story of creation to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7). God creates us and provides and sustains us. As Christ preaches, “Do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” (Matt. 6:25).

But there is more to this article than the personal gifts God gives. The explanation continues with what God gives: “land, animals and all I have. He richly and daily provides me with all that I need to support this body and life.” More than just the gifts of body and self, God gives the land, the environment and all that entails: dirt and minerals, air and weather. He gives this for a purpose: to “support this body and life.”

In other words, the world is given for us, for us to use and care for, for us to tend and keep, for us to nurture and work. This is the first purpose given to humankind: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (Gen. 2:15). Humans indeed are also given dominion over the earth and its creatures (Gen. 1:28), but it is to be a responsible dominion, a kindly lord­ship, based not on consumption but as a steward or land manager.

Our common concern

This fits hand-in-glove with many of the environmental movements and programs in our world. When the Christian recycles garbage, uses low-energy products, reduces consumption of non-sustainable resources or even goes off the grid, he is taking responsibility for a corner of the garden and being a responsible steward of what God has given him. There is no easier or simpler way of tending the garden than cleaning it up, using what you have and keeping the trash out!

Instead of shaking our heads at the tree huggers, we have a responsibility at least to love them as gifts of God that play a role in the health of the planet. Instead of shaking our heads at the hippies who raise their own food, Christians will do well to lessen our own impact on the world and remember our great-grandparents who did the same. They respected the land God gave them, they looked to Him to provide the rain and sun and they worked hard to provide for generations to come. In short, we would do well to take the First Article seriously and faithfully.

Where we differ

There are some grave differences between Christian stewardship of the world and much of what happens in the modern environmental movement. Christians do not care for “Mother Earth.” God is our Father, and the world belongs to Him. Where the environmental movement emphasizes the uniqueness of this world as our only home, Christians need to remember that we care for the world not for the sake of the world but for the sake of God. And to be sure, this is not our only home, for we look forward to our own Promised Land in the Kingdom of God when He will create a new heaven and a new earth (Rev. 21:1). We are given the vocation of caring for this present world and life, but we are not to take our eyes off the world to come.

Furthermore, activists sometimes seek an unspoiled, natural world and envision a place untouched by humans, and the Christian must strongly object to this. The world was created for men and women, for us to use and care for, and while that use should be responsible, to argue that we should leave no trace of our presence is unbiblical.

Witnessing to and in the world

Beyond different assumptions and starting points, Christians of all political stripes have common ground with the secular environmental movements, and the Christian and the church would do well to emphasize our agreements in caring for the world, in keeping our world clean and safe, and every way we can care for this world and serve our Lord in this place. By emphasizing our agreements, we can provide a positive witness and have opportunities to give voice to why it is we care for the world and who we believe the Creator of this world is. The psalmist declares, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein,” (Ps. 24:1), and this truth is sorely lacking from much of the press we hear regarding the environmental movement. Living for the sake of Christ and serving faithfully our place in God’s creation is a good first step in witnessing this truth to our culture.

> 48 percent of Americans “believe the earth has undergone climate change before” (Barna Group).

> Gallup reports the “widest margin in nearly 30 years in Americans’ prioritizing economic growth (54%) over environmental protection (36%).”

About the Author: Rev. Christopher Hall is pastor of Redeemer Lutheran Church, Enid, Okla.

August 2011

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