Omaha, Nebraska
April 1993
Volume 4, Number 2

The Eco-Crisis and the New Testament

Dennis Hamm, S.J.
Professor of Theology

Does the New Testament have anything to say about the ecological crisis? When the question is asked that way, the answer has to be No. The question presumes that the first-century authors of the Christian Scriptures were even aware of environmental stress in their day (though historical hindsight does suggest that patterns of human threat to Earth's life-systems--in the form of non--sustainable farming practices and uninhibited deforestation--were already in place in the Mediterranean world). The New Testament no more speaks of acid rain and depletion of the ozone layer than it treats of nuclear warfare and RU486. That having been said, it is not anachronistic to ask if the Christian Scriptures provide a vision that can help us approach such contemporary issues. As a student, teacher and preacher of Scripture, I hold that the New Testament is indeed such a resource.

The Earth is the Lord's

For the earliest Christians, the Bible was of course what we call the Old Testament. The authors of the writings that became the Christian Scriptures presumed the biblical vision of the human community in covenant relationship with the rest of what we call nature and with God, very much according to the model of "biblical ecology" sketched by Dr. Simkins elsewhere in this newsletter. That Christendom has largely failed to elaborate this vision during the subsequent two millennia is the fault not of Scripture but rather of most of its interpreters, especially during the rise of European industrialism. (Lynne White was right to notice this flaw in interpretation, but he was wrong to fault the Bible rather than its interpreters.) Have Christian leaders picked up that fumble? Have they recovered the biblical ecological wisdom as a resource for dealing with our contemporary crises? Yes they have--lately. That is, during the last decades of this century, Christian leaders have begun to recognize that our ecological crises are not simply natural disasters but signs that the covenant relationships (between humans and humans, between humans and the rest of nature, and, consequently, between humans and the Creator) have been broken by abuses of human freedom.

In addressing questions of social justice, recent popes and bishops have consistently invoked an ancient principle with biblical roots, the principle of stewardship. Essentially it is this: biblical faith perceives that the real "owner" of the Earth is God, and human beings function as "stewards" whose role is to see that the goods of the Earth are used to meet the needs of all (future as well as present generations). In this context, private ownership (admittedly, one of the needs of human dignity) must always be exercised with the view to the common good.

While the stewardship model is not in itself sufficient as an ecological vision (we are, after all, part of nature, not entirely "in charge" of it), recent popes and bishops have brought that principle to bear on the ecological crisis in powerful ways. Notable has been the effort of John Paul II to call for an authentic "human ecology" in his encyclicals Solicitudo Rei Socialis (1987) and Centesimus Annus (1991). A recent domestic articulation of Catholic social teaching on ecology is Renewing the Earth, a pastoral statement of the U.S. Catholic Conference (November, 1991). Their holistic perspective comes through in the following quotation:

    "Above all, we seek to explore the links between concern for the person and for the earth, between natural ecology and social ecology. The web of life is one. Our mistreatment of the natural world diminishes our own dignity and sacredness, not only because we are destroying resources that future generations of humans need, but because we are engaging in actions that contradict what it means to be human. Our tradition calls us to protect the life and dignity of the human person, and it is increasingly clear that this task cannot be separated from the care and defense of all creation."

They affirm that "the overarching moral issue is to achieve during the twenty-first century a just and sustainable world." Did Jesus Have an Ecological Vision?

In bringing the Scriptures to bear on our ecological crisis, have we jumped from the Old Testament to post-biblical (and mainly contemporary) church teaching, and skipped Jesus? Though Jesus of Nazareth did not speak of rain forests and endangered species, he did affirm the essential moral vision of his Jewish heritage, especially with respect to the danger of greed, the secondary place of possessions, the priority of meeting human needs, and nonviolent stewardship of the network of relationships that make up the Reign of God. Maybe the best way to illustrate Jesus' "ecological" vision is to reflect on one of his parables, The Rich Landowner (Luke 12:16-21).

"There was a rich man whose land produced a bountiful harvest. He asked himself, "what shall I do, for I do not have space to store my harvest?" And he said, "This is what I shall do: I shall tear down my barns and build larger ones. There I shall store all my grain and other goods and I shall say to myself, 'Now as for you, you have so many good things stored up for many years, rest, eat, drink, and be merry!'" But God said to him, "You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you; and the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong?" Thus will it be for the one who stores up treasure for himself but is not rich in what matters to God."

In a few quick strokes, Jesus has sketched a cartoon of a person whose selfish greed has led him to break all of the essential covenantal relationships. He has lost touch with the land as gift, arrogating it to himself simply as a possession to be exploited. He has lost touch with the covenant community, seeing the abundant harvest merely as a challenge to maximum acquisition rather than a gift to be shared with his companions at the Creator's table. He has lost touch with his own existence as a gift of God, forgetting that he is a transient steward of a land meant to feed others after him. His monologue indicates that he has come to overlook the fact that his entire life is lived in the caring presence of a Creator who has given him life as a gift to be shared not as a possession to be hoarded.

While the Christian Scriptures may not give us an action plan for ecological problem solving, they do provide a vision that can motivate and guide our work for a just and sustainable world.