Is Christianity to blame for the world’s ecological crisis and climate change?

When I told a young man in Sydney recently that I was returning to Ghana to teach a course called ‘Theology, Human Need and the Environment’ to doctoral and masters students, his response was ‘What does Christianity have to do with the environment and climate change?’ This is my response.

More than 50 years ago, historian Lynn White Jr blamed Christianity as the root cause of the world’s ecological crisis. Since then, a lively debate has gone on about the truth of that claim.

An overview of Scripture will show that the gospel addresses care of creation.

Christopher Affum-Nyarko, an MTh graduate of the Akrofi-Christaller Institute of Theology, Mission and Culture (ACI) in Ghana, had discovered during his research that some churches in Ghana actively supported illegal mining. As they financially benefitted from the proceeds, this example appears to go towards supporting White’s thesis.

This mining was not only destroying the land, but poisoning most of Ghana’s southern rivers. Traces of the cancer-causing heavy metals used were also found in fruits and vegetables being sent to markets.

Therefore, in 2017, the Ghanaian Government acted decisively to ban illegal mining. Yet, unlike Uganda, Rwanda and a number of other African countries which have banned the use of plastic bags and single use plastics, Ghana continues to struggle with the huge problem of plastic waste.

Here in Australia, although the streets are clean, evidence of our lack of care for creation cannot be hidden. The fact is that Australia has been exporting huge amounts of its plastic waste to Asian countries — an activity which political leaders now say they will phase out — while e-waste and computers used in Australian Government departments have been found in a rubbish dump in Ghana. This shows considerable irresponsibility.

Personally, I am stunned that a Federal Environment Department goes against its own policy, to permit land clearing for housing development in an area that is a critical koala habitat — a species threatened with extinction. Also, two major Australian supermarkets, Coles and Woolworths, attempt to entice shoppers with miniature, imported plastic collectables and ‘Ooshies’ that will probably end up adding to the world crisis of plastic pollution.

Strangely enough, objections to this anomaly on social media and in stores, have had very little impact.

Are there no creative Australians who could make the equivalent from clay or some other biodegradable substance? As microplastic particles are now found in falling snow from Europe to the Arctic, this has serious consequences not only for human health, but for the planet’s well-being.

In July, three papers published in scientific journals (one in Nature, two in Nature Geoscience) examined climatic evidence over the past 2,000 years. What the world has been experiencing since the 17th century in terms of climate change and global warming, they point out, is unprecedented, human-induced and global in impact.

If this is the case, then Christians, as part of humanity, are complicit. However, this is not to say that the gospel of Jesus Christ is complicit.

The key question we have to ask ourselves as Christians is: ‘What does this all have to do with the gospel?’

An overview of Scripture will show that the gospel addresses care of creation. This perspective is covered in a series of courses offered at ACI, such as ‘Biblical texts on Creation, Land and Community’. Very few theological and Bible colleges in Australia offer courses on these issues.

How many churches in Australia have held even an eco conference?

Evangelical churches are slowly waking up to their responsibility to respond theologically and in Christian mission to issues of climate change and the environment. To that effect, the Lausanne Movement and the World Evangelical Alliance have a Creation Care Network and have just produced a new newsletter, The Pollinator. I encourage you to subscribe to it.

About 30 years ago, the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Dimitrios (a key leader of Eastern Orthodox churches) proclaimed 1 September as a ‘Day of Prayer for Creation’. This has since expanded into the Season of Creation that goes from 1 September to 4 October, the day on which many celebrate the feast of St Francis of Assisi.

Christians are now being urged to live out their faith in caring for creation.

The Church of South India held its 5th international Eco Conference from 1 to 4 August.

How many churches in Australia have held even one?

In Ethiopia, despite its vastly reduced forest cover in recent years, more than 1,000 ‘Sacred forests’ surround Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido churches. The care and preservation of these forests since the 4th century are an integral part, not only of their worship of God, but also of the life of the church and community.[3]

In September, I plan to return to Ghana, conscious of the carbon footprints my flight there will be contributing to global warming. I go to co-teach a course that will look at climate change and the environment from three perspectives: historical, theological and missiological. We focus on the models that emerge from past experiences of climatic change and ecological crisis as well as the lessons learned, for practical responses in Christian life and mission today.

I pray we take practical steps to respond in concrete ways in our homes, churches, colleges and communities.

By the grace of God, we have been privileged to live on this planet. However, our children and grandchildren face a bleak future unless we take action now.

Our actions should proceed from our relationship with Jesus Christ and response to His reconciling work through his death on the cross. For he did not just die for humanity, but also for ALL CREATION (See Colossians 1:13-20, especially verse 20). As Christians, it is irresponsible and ungodly for us to simply sit back and think that this is just a matter for the ‘government’ or the ‘Green Party’. Nor should we continue to behave as if this is no problem at all.

It is my prayer that each of us this month will begin or continue to seek to understand the issue of caring for creation from a gospel perspective. I also pray we take practical steps to respond in concrete ways in our homes, churches, colleges and communities.

We demonstrate that the gospel of Jesus Christ is truly about caring for God’s creation when, in our communities, we take decisive political, industrial, religious, practical and personal action to limit global warming.

Allison Howell is an Associate Professor with the Akrofi-Christaller Institute of Theology, Mission and Culture in Ghana and is now based in Australia. She worked previously as a missionary with SIM in church planting in northern Ghana.

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