January 8, 2016

The Green Repentance

“Going green” will require that we do more than recycle our aluminum and keep noxious chemicals out of landfills.

Bill Knott

“Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.”1

When the English religious poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote those candid but hopeful lines more than 125 years ago, he couldn’t have guessed how much in danger nature now is of being “spent”—exhausted and depleted by the assault of industrialization and population explosion. Hopkins wrote that “the world is charged with the grandeur of God.” Faith meant believing God would protect what He once made.

It’s much harder for Christians to be optimistic now about the planet’s future, and much more difficult to decide what to do about it. One human activity alone, deforestation, in one region only—the Amazon rain forest—cleared more than 15,000 acres of biodiversity every day during the first years of this millennium, the vast majority of it for cattle to satisfy the world’s appetite for beef, or to grow soybeans. It’s tempting for “green” Christians to “call out” Brazil’s farmers and cattle ranchers for despoiling one of the world’s great ecosystems, on which the planet’s air and water quality depend. We need the billions of trees they are cutting, we say, and thus they shouldn’t fell them.

But history reminds us that an equally dramatic assault on the landscape occurred in the United States during the first half century of Adventism—long before environmental concern arose among Christians. Case Western University law professor Jonathan Adler reports that, according to U.S. Forest Service data, “farmers were clearing forests at the amazing clip of 8,640 acres per day, a rate that continued for over 50 years.” The now-open farmland of New York, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois was an unbroken canopy of dense, virginal forest when the Pilgrims landed, on which, Adler notes, “it has been said that . . . a squirrel could travel from Maine to the Mississippi River without ever touching the ground.”3 Much of this land was and still is used to graze cattle and raise soybeans.

And yet how differently Americans, Adventists among them, relate to this story of deforestation. This is the stuff of patriotism and hero legends, of tough determined immigrants who wrestled a living out of the land with sweat and hand tools to build a farm economy that one day fed the world. This clearing of the land was necessary, we say, to build the most prosperous nation ever known.

Jesus once asked, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” (Matt. 7:3). It’s a question Adventist Christians should consider as they educate themselves about the complex issues of both caring for the earth and caring for the physical and spiritual needs of 7 billion fellow humans.

“Going green” will require that we do more than recycle our aluminum and keep noxious chemicals out of landfills. It will require thoughtful Adventist Christians to address the far more vexing and enduring questions of how to feed, house, and clothe the millions in the developing world who still wrestle with the land to stay alive. The best minds of this movement are needed to design sustainable irrigation projects, increase crop yields, and improve food distribution services—all in Jesus’ name.

God may not float the axhead that allows us to cut more timber this time around (2 Kings 6). The Spirit may well task us to more wisely use other, newer tools to extend meaningful Adventist witness.

  1. Gerard Manley Hopkins, “God’s Grandeur.”
  2. Jonathan H. Adler, “Poplar Front,” Policy Review, Spring 1993.