by Sam Smidt
A popular student reaction to creation care is to eat less beef to reduce CO2 emissions to protect those living in marginalized communities. This type of action-solution-benefit logic has established “loving your neighbor” dialog as foundational within creation care circles. In other words, actions to reduce an environmental footprint directly benefit the marginalized, so I am motivated to act because I love my vulnerable neighbor.
Ask almost any environmentally focused Christian about creation care, and eventually you will hear this type of rationale. I have used it myself because it is clear to communicate and understand. But in my opinion, this misses the point of our actions and is not a good representation of creation care.
Encouraging others to eat less beef ostracizes hard-working cattle farmers, which is not being very loving to those farmers. Motivating others to go green can lead to more resource use and consumption. So, while loving your neighbor has largely become the go-to rationale for creation care, there are complexities that prevent this dialog from advancing our work.
An under-discussed reality: some are harmed, others benefit
Consider the underdiscussed reality that changes in the environment are not always bad; there are beneficiaries of environmental change. For example, high-latitude populations, already living with harsh living conditions, are preparing for the benefits of a warming climate through increased crop production and the northward migration of new commodities that will improve food and economic security for these regions.
Cases like this are often overshadowed by regions where environmental changes may be catastrophic, such as coastal areas prone to flooding. Loving your neighbor dialog inherently prioritizes the negative impacts, because the implication is further environmental change would be unjust for those at-risk of suffering from the adverse consequences. But it is also justifiable to say inhibiting environmental change would be similarly unjust for those suited to be the recipients of the likely benefits, particularly those in underprivileged communities.
Intentionally preventing someone from improved well-being is unjust, and this occurs through both action and inaction against changes in the environment. It is then misleading for justice-minded, creation care movements to advocate for action that enables one group and disables the other, all while marketing the initiative as being loving to your neighbor.
As a result, I do not think it is right to frame creation care as loving your neighbor for two reasons: (1) it is a paradox that will always lead to injustice, and more importantly, (2) it is dialog that implies the presence of people is a problem and not a solution. Environmental change is due to humans and their actions, ergo humans are the problem. To fix the problem, we must fix the people. But how can we fix the people, as people, if we are always a part of the problem?
No one reading this post will have lived a consumption-free life, meaning every reader will have contributed to environmental change in some way, shape, or form. And everyone who has lived or will live on this planet contributes to environmental change, albeit to varying degrees. Fully resolving the environmental consequences due to people requires transformation and restoration of the earth – a restoration only to be had when the earth is made new through the Lord’s almighty power.
Environmental stability, sustainability, or other related topics are complex beyond what unjust humans can feasibly bring into true forms of systemic justice. That is why, in my opinion, it is critical for creation care to focus on its original intention of pointing everything back to God, as only the Lord can bring true justice and restoration. Anything else will prevent creation care from reaching its full potential.
Pointing back to God
So, why care for the creation if it is not out of love for your neighbor? We care for the creation because we care for our Creator, and we care for our Creator because of what has been done on our behalf. Allowing others the opportunity to experience the Lord through the creation is a by-product of this care. Wanting these experiences for our neighbors can certainly be loving, but the focus extends much beyond social justice and being a responsible steward. Instead, the focus is on the power and glory of God and the desire for righteousness beyond what can be achieved by human beings alone.
The creation, much like the love of Christ, is so awe-inspiring it is nearly impossible to find the words to describe it. Caring for the creation means upholding opportunities for others to experience the intimate connection between the Creator and the created. It means granting as many people as possible the opportunity to share in the natural world and experience the deep joy and profound connection between humans and their environment.
It is time for creation care dialog to advance beyond the loving your neighbor framework so all can be included and the full glory of the Lord can be magnified. Doing so will refocus our efforts to bring a new sense of clarity, motivation, and passion that will help us carry out the Great Commission through caring for the creation.
Sam Smidt is an assistant professor in the Soil and Water Sciences Department at the University of Florida/Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. His specialty is in sustainable water and land management, and he is committed to achieving environmental harmony through research, teaching, and public outreach.