Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Ecological Destruction Is Sin
distributed 2/15/19 - ©2019

"To continue to walk the current path of ecological destruction is not only folly; it is sin." So said a group of prominent theologians in an open letter to church and society that was published on Valentine's Day in 2005 -- 14 years ago this week.

I've found myself referring to that document, "God's Earth is Sacred," many times recently. I find the deeply religious message of that letter to be powerful and disturbingly relevant as we face rapidly escalating eco-justice crises, and as we consider potentially helpful initiatives such as the Green New Deal.

The letter is remarkably short -- the copy saved on our website is only about three pages long. But in that concise appeal, we find strong moral witness, sharp ethical clarity, and a demanding call to faithful action for Christian churches.

I hope my introduction (or re-introduction) to the letter today entices you to read it, study it in congregations and clergy groups, and -- most importantly -- to heed the call of these wise church leaders.

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In 2019, we can only bring increased urgency to the opening words of God's Earth is Sacred: "God's creation delivers unsettling news." The list of problems -- climate change, species extinction, air quality threats to human health, and more -- are still very much with us.

The "theologians, pastors and religious leaders" who wrote the letter speak of the compulsion they felt to "speak out and act with new urgency." But they also write confessionally. While naming the efforts that have been made in churches to address issues of ecology and justice, they lament that "we have clearly failed to communicate the full measure and magnitude of Earth's environmental crisis -- religiously, morally, or politically." And so they turn to blunt religious language.

The proclamation of sin that I used to open today's Notes condenses a longer statement from Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew which repeatedly declares that destructive human activities are sins. You might recall that Pope Francis, in his equally passionate and direct encyclical in 2015, had a substantial section in the introductory chapter celebrating the leadership of Bartholomew. The Pope quoted the same words about sin.

God's Earth Is Sacred prefigures the Pope when it insists that "ours is a theological crisis as well. We have listened to a false gospel ... a gospel that proclaims that God cares for the salvation of humans only and that our human calling is to exploit Earth for our own ends alone." The heresy, though, is not only in the church. "The secular counterpart of this gospel rests in the conviction that humans can master the Earth."

What is to be done, especially by Christians? "The imperative first step is to repent of our sins, in the presence of God and one another." That repentance will open us to a recognition that we are part of the web of life. It will lead us to listen more honestly to the maker of Heaven and Earth.

"The second step is to pursue a new journey together, with courage and joy." We share in God's renewal by taking a path different from our present course. To that end, the theologians write, "we affirm our faith, propose a set of guiding norms, and call on our churches to rededicate themselves to this mission."

In just one page, eight guiding norms for church and society are defined. The eight words each have a short paragraph of description: justice, sustainability, bioresponsibility, humility, generosity, frugality, solidarity and compassion. Each of the norms stand in contrast to the path of modern society, and each offers guidance toward a different way of living in relation with all of God's creation, human and the other-than-human.

As we, in 2019, consider a Green New Deal, the norms give us criteria that we can use to measure that political proposal. In both the theological proclamation of the letter, and in the ethical norms, we have standards to direct us as we seek to "forge ways of being human that enable socially just and ecologically sustainable communities to flourish for generations to come."

God's Earth Is Sacred is an open letter to both church and society, a call to "our brothers and sisters in Christ, and all people of good will." The sentences that stick with me most strongly through one and a half decades, though, the lines that I keep quoting through all these years, are directed at the Christian church.

In this most critical moment in Earth's history, we are convinced that the central moral imperative of our time is the care for Earth as God's creation. ... We believe that caring for creation must undergird, and be entwined with, all other dimensions of our churches' ministries. We are convinced that it is no longer acceptable to claim to be "church" while continuing to perpetuate, or even permit, the abuse of Earth as God's creation.

For the secular world, the word of judgment also is clear: "Nor is it acceptable for our corporate and political leaders to engage in 'business as usual' as if the very future of life-support systems were not at stake."

This new understanding will come most surely "by listening most intently to the most vulnerable," and by hearing that "the whole Earth is groaning, crying out for healing." The religious challenge goes deep. We must integrate "this understanding into our core beliefs and practices surrounding what it means to be 'church,' to be 'human,' to be 'children of God.' "

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God's Earth Is Sacred is 14 years old. Looking back over those years, we need to repeat the world of confession: "we have clearly failed to communicate the full measure and magnitude of Earth's environmental crisis." In far too many churches, if eco-justice concerns are named at all, they are still one "issue" among many. We have not taken on care for Earth as God's creation as the central moral imperative of our time.

The letter is 14 years old. Last fall, the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change told the world that we have just 12 years to make unprecedented changes in human society, with dramatic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, if we are to stand any chance of keeping Earth's warming within manageable bounds. We have just a dozen years to achieve significant cuts in carbon emissions, which means that transformation of our society must begin immediately.

A few technical fixes for renewable energy, and a few economic tweaks for the business world will not bring about the depth of change that is so urgently needed. The religious letter of 2005 speaks truth, still, about the need for repentance and transformation -- a need that is now even more dramatic.

In 2019, I echo the closing sentence of the old letter in my appeal to the religious constituency of Eco-Justice Ministries. "In Christ's name and for Christ's glory, we call out with broken yet hopeful hearts: join us in restoring God's Earth the greatest healing work and moral assignment of our time."

God's Earth is Sacred was released in 2005 by the Eco-Justice Working Group of the National Council of Churches -- now Creation Justice Ministries. Copies of the letter, with underlining added by Eco-Justice Ministries, is found on our website as both a webpage and a PDF document. A companion resource from the Eco-Justice Working Group, "Opening the Letter: A Congregational Guide to God's Earth Is Sacred," is a four-session curriculum that is available for free download from Creation Justice Ministries (at the end of the section on "Climate and Energy Resources").


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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