In Part 1, I introduced two recent books on environmental stewardship, focusing on a few of the essays in a recent collection of articles from the last fifty years of Christianity Today. It is humbling to discover in a collection like this how many of the ideas about creation care that people like me write about today were already anticipated and developed many decades ago. It’s also sobering to be reminded that the Christian church has had for decades (and, really, for millennia) a clear biblical and theological mandate to care well for the earth, its creatures, and our human neighbors. Yet here we are more than 50 years since the first essay of this collection appeared. Do North American Christians stand out from the surrounding society for our commitment to caring well for the earth, for sustainability, conservation, environmental justice, and climate action?
Sandra Richter’s book Stewards of Eden claims that unfortunately quite the reverse tends to be the case. Yet she finds when she speaks across the country on what the Bible says about creation care, there is a deep resonance among many Christians who simply had not yet heard this message in their churches but who are excited and motivated to join in the work to care better for the earth as part of their worship of God.
A scholar of the Hebrew Bible, Richter focuses her short book mostly on the Old Testament, which in any case has more to say about the land than the New Testament since, as she says, it is addressed to a largely agrarian context (and, we sometimes forget, the Old Testament comprises more than three quarters of our Christian Bible). One of the great strengths of Richter’s book is her close attention to context, both the ancient Near Eastern context of the Old Testament and our own contemporary context. Her attentiveness to the social, economic, agricultural, and ecological world in which the biblical stories take place means that the distinctive teaching of the Old Testament stands out with startling clarity. When this teaching is then brought into conversation with contemporary stories of social, economic, agricultural, and ecological brokenness, we can’t miss how profoundly radical is Scripture’s prophetic witness for our own time.
The Old Testament tells God’s people that they are tenants on land that belongs to God. As Richter puts it, “Israel’s worship was structured around the regular acknowledgment that nothing they had was truly theirs” (p. 20). This is seen especially in the laws for Sabbath, Jubilee, and tithing (which Richter says is best understood as a form of regular taxation). The Sabbath law of rest for the land and crop rotation were part of how the nation acknowledged God’s purpose that they “operate with the long-term well-being of the land as their ultimate goal” (p. 24). Short-term gains might be higher without such practices; but Israel’s concern was to be with long-term sustainability. By contrast, Richter cites speculation that the agricultural collapse in late eighteenth century (BC) Babylonia may have been the result of Hammurabi rescinding the practice of the regular fallowing fields in pursuit of higher short-term yields.
Richter also introduces readers to the devastating and more lasting effects of the relentless focus on short-term yields in our own industrialized agricultural system, brought through dependence on fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, and monocultures, and operating at scales where carefulness is eclipsed by efficiency and short-termism. The result, in places like Punjab, India and the Mississippi delta (and across the globe) are degraded landscapes and ruined lives; and Richter cites Michael Pollan’s observation that even the so-called efficiency of our agricultural system actually continues to decline if measured by the amount of fossil fuel energy required per calorie of food produced, having increased nearly five-fold since 1940.
Such examples remind us that people and places together benefit materially from the application of a biblical wisdom of limits, restraint, and investing in long-term sustainability. Yet what is even more challenging about Richter’s analysis is her assessment of the sacrifices often required for faithfulness to God’s command to care for the needy, the land, and its creatures.
Richter introduces readers to recent archeological studies of subsistence agriculture in ancient Israel, where it is estimated that the average family would have fallen short of their essential food supply for sixty days every year (pp. 33-34). There are different ways a farmer might try to make up such a shortfall, including through hunting, but the reality is that ancient Israelites regularly went to sleep hungry. As a result, Richter says, they had to do all they could to conserve every kernel of wheat and barley. Consider, now, in this context, what it meant for such a farmer to extend the sort of care and concern for their animals that Deuteronomy 25:4 requires: rather than keeping their ox muzzled during threshing to protect the family’s food supply (and presumably feeding the ox only just enough), they were to let their ox work unmuzzled and enjoy the fruit of its labor, even though it would mean the ox eating five to seven pounds of their grain during an average day of threshing (p. 35). Moreover, in order that the poor and marginalized (the resident alien, the orphan, the widow) might also be fed and sustained by the land, the farmer was to leave some crops in their field for them to glean (e.g., Deut 24:19). As Richter says, “the drive for economic security and surplus in Israel must always be tempered by God’s command for charity” (p. 77).
Summarizing her findings, Richter writes, “In Israel neither economic expansion, national security, nor even personal economic viability, were legitimate justification for the abuse of the land, the poor, or the domestic or wild creature” (p. 107). I suspect that, like me, most readers of this journal have been blessed with far more material resources and power than most people in the history of earth, even if it’s easy to forget when we compare ourselves only to those in our wealthy societies who have more than us. God called ancient Israelites, who often did not have enough food to feed themselves and their families, to forms of worship, charity, and agricultural practice that meant less food and profit in the short term but that ensured the long-term fertility of the soil, the sustainability of their local ecosystems, and the provision of the needy. What does that mean for how we choose which companies, which agricultural practices, and which charities we support through our investments, our buying habits, and our personal lives?
And here is where both these books, and my own brief comments, leave us. Richter’s book ends with some suggestions for how to take action, which includes the call to vote with our finances and our investment portfolios (pp. 114-115). Some of the CT articles also attend to economic questions and challenge Christians to consider how our business and financial decisions might better reflect a biblical vision of good work and ecological flourishing. Yet I am struck by the gap between Scripture’s radical call and the tepid nature of most of our responses. I am grateful for the work of Christians in the faith and investing space that help us begin to bridge that gap and to think more wisely and creatively about how to be faithful in this area. And given that in Christ through the Holy Spirit it is God who does this work in and through us—and who promises one day to make all things new—we can leave aside the judgementalism and anxiety of many environmentalists and embrace a truly Christian approach to creation care (or stewardship or whatever we call it!), which will be, as Peter Harris reminds us, “celebratory and grateful and hopeful” (Stewards of the Earth, p. 246).
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