Lament, hurrah, call to action: An historic gathering of Christian ecologists -- Part 1

by Rich Heffern

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In August, the summer of 1987, I covered an important conference for Praying, the bimonthly magazine on spirituality NCR once published. It’s nearly 25 years ago now. It was the first gathering of people from Christian churches all around the country who were interested in exploring the links between Christianity and the growing tide of ecological awareness and concerns.

On the shores of Lake Webster in north-central Indiana, the homely yellow flowers of the jewelweed nodded quietly in the humid summer breezes while lively chickadees foraged overhead in the red oak branches like shoppers at a garage sale. Goldfinches nearby, dazzling in their bright yellow and black feathers, uttered their rhythmic call as they moved among the rough leaves of the asters searching for seeds. Winds off the lake fluttered the leaves of redbuds and sumacs in the late summer afternoon. Bright sunlight gilded and fired the intricate edges on the long banners of cloud overhead. The reflection shimmered on the ruffled surface of the waters.

In that quiet corner of the natural world it was easy to forget the devastating assault on the Earth that was occurring almost everywhere. But not far from the shores of that lake, a university professor pacing before his audience, intoned the familiar litany of destruction, misuse and degradation.

The tropical rainforests were disappearing at the rate of 100,000 square kilometers a day. Plant and animal species were being driven to extinction at the rate of more than one per day. The deserts were expanded inexorably and bringing along the haunting specter of hunger to inhabitants in their path. Ground water in this country was becoming increasingly polluted. Topsoil was disappearing as agriculture became agribusiness. The ozone layer that protects the earth from harmful radiation for space had been breached.

The professor invoked names that conjured images of threats: Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, Bhopal, Love Canal. Even the chickadees and goldfinches of the eastern woodlands were threatened by the acid rain that is a byproduct of industrial smokestacks.

The speaker was addressing the first gathering of the North American Conference on Christianity and Ecology, which had been called together at Epworth Conference Center in the lakes district of Indiana. More than 400 people gathered for four days in August to find ways to enlist the resources, concern and energy of America’s Christian churches in the battle to save the earth.

Some were ecologists, environmental activists, thinkers and teachers. Others were ministers and educators who work in the churches of America. All attended presentations given by over 80 speakers and panelists -- including a dozen Roman Catholics – addressing all aspects of the Christian environmental spectrum: pastoral concerns, liturgy, citizen organizing, policymaking, preaching, direct action, alternative lifestyles and spirituality.

This gathering in Indiana was all at once, a lament, a hurrah, and a ringing call to action.

The lament was over the perceived silence on the part of the Christian churches in the past to speak out against the many depradations taking place against nature and over Christianity’s failure to be concerned with developing and preaching an environmental ethic.

The hurrah was an outburst of praise for and celebration of the joining together of the churches with the environmentalists and ecologists. The call to action was an invitation to rekindle from the pulpits and in the church bulletins a sense of moral purpose calling on Christians to take responsibility for the care and keeping of creation.

“The American revolution became a reality when it reached the church pulpits,” said conference board chairperson, Jesuit Fr.Albert Fritsch, who directs a center for science in the public interest, in Livingston, Kentucky. He added: “The Christian churches offer the single greatest source of moral change to challenge and change the destructive tendencies in modern industrialized society.”

The North American Conference on Christianity and Ecology was more than a four-day event in August. It was also a continuing program. The conference began in 1985 when a group of people including Fritsch, bioregionalist David Haenke, and Fred Kruger, with a long-standing concern for Christianity and the environment joined to establish a framework that could articulate the ecological implications of the Christian religion. This group wanted to begin to call forth from the church community the impetus to action they saw latent within it. Gradually others from the grassroots were enlisted in the venture. The idea for the gathering naturally followed.

Continuing goals of the conference were to assist every Christian in becoming an ecologist.

In a presentation at the conference, Calvin DeWitt of the Au Sable Institute of Environmental Studies in upper Michigan and provides educational program for evangelical colleges, spoke of the ecology crisis as a “fierce green fire dying.” This phrase was taken from an essay by Aldo Leopold, one of the key figures who helped awaken the conservation movement in this country in the 1930s and 1940s.

Leopold wrote eloquently in this essay, titled “Thinking like a Mountain,” of a conversion experience he had as a young man. Unthinkingly, he and his companions shot an old wolf in the mountains of Arizona. Standing over the wolf and watching “the fierce green fire” dying in its eyes, Leopold realized that he had done a great wrong..

DeWitt felt the real tragedy is that we have become completely alienated from an understanding of nature that generates awe and respect. There is a cultivated kind of arrogance and ignorance in our modern life that separates us from the contemplative experience of the natural world. This experience nourishes that awe and wonder. And awe is essential because the ability to care for and nurture creation comes from it. “Through awe and wonder we become members of the bio-community rather than its exploiters,” he said.

“Modern culture has been waging war against nature,” said Wesley Granburg-Michaelson of the New Creation Institute in Montana. He enumerated some of the reasons for this alienation on the part of Christianity from the concern for the Earth’s wellbeing. Christian faith in the West, he said, has been captive to the assumptions of modern culture which sever God from the creation.

He said Christian theology has put humankind at the center of its inquiry rather than trying to understand how the whole world is related to God. And he added, the Western church has been arrogant, inattentive and condescending toward non-Christian perspectives which would augment its own view, perspectives such as that of the Native Americans, which are rich in awareness of the harmony between nature and human.

It was agreed by many speakers that the family farm in North America is like the canary in the mine whose death alerted miners to the presence of deadly poisons in the air. The troubles that plague agriculture are a foretaste of what is in store for the rest of us.

The speakers spelled out the scenario this way: When production and profits are seen as more important than the quality of the soil or the quality of living, when insurance companies buy up millions of acres of farmland for speculation, when increasingly we turn over our self-reliance and self-sufficiency to the manipulation of advertising and the whims of corporate agribusiness, then it is likely that our humanity and human values will soon become as outmoded as the family farm.

To help prevent such an eventuality, Wes Jackson of the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, said that the Christian task is to proclaim over and over that greed and envy are sins, that we will not sacrifice our topsoil and our good communities for short-term interests and profits.

Wendell Berry, poet and farmer from Kentucky, in the keynote address to the assembly, called for a moral economy, one that would revitalize farming as a way of living rather than just a business, a way to make money. “The ecological teaching of the Bible,” Berry said, “is inescapable. We are obliged to take excellent care of this Earth.” He called the whole idea of Christian ecology “endlessly fascinating and relentlessly practical.”

What would a Christan ecologist look like? A statement adopted for use by churches suggests some key efforts and movements to which God calls us in the struggle to preserve the planet.

  • First, to a change of heart whereby we become sensitive to the presence and activity of God in nature and in one another.
  • Second, to the preservation and keeping of creation’s rich and diverse life, and to the healing of its many injuries.
  • Third, to a transition to an ecologically sustainable economy in which all members of the human family participate and from which they can draw sustenance.
  • Fourth, to the renewal of an ethic of work as a blessing to self, to others, and to creation.
  • Fifth, to the transformation of the prevailing self-centered and overly consumptive lifestyle toward one based on conservation, restoration, simplicity, shalom and community.
  • Sixth, to the vigorous pursuit of justice in our communities, country and world.
  • And last, to the practice of unceasing prayer and persistent efforts directed at bringing all humanity into active service in the restoration and keeping of creation.

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