Why do churches care for the sustainability of the planet?

The question continues to be asked: Is it really part of the churches' task to deal with ecological issues? In many circles the opinion prevails that the mission of the churches is confined to the spiritual aspects of human existence. The conference in Vilemov gave us an opportunity for an exchange on this question. What is the motivation of the churches' engagement for the protection of the environment? Participants quickly agreed that the Biblical witness inevitably leads to such a commitment. What follows here is a first attempt to formulate some common theological convictions and perspectives. Obviously, the debate needs to be pursued in future. The differences between the approaches of the various confessional and spiritual traditions have not yet been sufficiently considered. Much remains to be done to promote mutual understanding and enrichment. It is our hope that the theological exchange can be continued within the frame of the network. Bless the Lord, O my soul, O my Lord my God, you are very great.(Ps 104:1). This affirmation of praise makes clear that, for the Christian faith, what we call today the "environment" is more than simply the part of nature which surrounds us and makes possible human life on the planet earth. It is God's creation or more precisely a part of God's creation. Behold, it was very good, we read at the end of the first Biblical creation story (Gen 1:31). For the Christian consciousness there is no other choice than to respect, protect and cherish God's good and perfect gift of creation. The churches can therefore not remain indifferent in the face of the increasing destruction which human interference with nature is causing. Who confesses God as the creator will also be committed to preserve the life which God has created, not only to secure their own survival but primarily to give honour to God, the creator.

Everything, the whole universe, the earth, all life which exists and is constantly further evolving is the "work of God's fingers" (Psalm 8:3). God cares for the creation and will not abandon it. God is present at every stage of its evolution. The Bible speaks of a covenant (berith) which God establishes with all living beings (Gen.9:15). Like all other living beings on earth, humans are also creatures. The creation story emphasizes their relatedness by affirming that animals and human beings were created on one and the same day, the sixth and declared both to be 'good' (Gen 1 : 24-31). But God entrusts human beings with a special mandate. While all animals are 'blessed', God 'speaks' to humans (Gen.1:28). Humans are capable of responding and can be held responsible.

Humans have a mandate to "cultivate" God's creation. They have been given creative abilities through which they can open ever new horizons. These gifts imply a vocation. Humans are called to work for the salvation of God's creation. According to Orthodox Church tradition, humans are to be seen as priests, responsible not only to preserve God's creation but to purify and offer it to God. The inseparable connection between the redemption of humans and the redemption of all things created finds expression in the hope formulated by the apostle Paul in the epistle to the Romans that "creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God "(Rom 8:21)". In the Eucharist we celebrate the salvation for which not only humans but the whole of creation are destined. As we celebrate the Eucharist' creation can be seen in a new light; its true purpose can be understood. It is the basis of the right engagement with God's world.

God's creation remains a gift. It never becomes the property of human beings. Humans are entitled to make use of God's gift to secure and enrich their lives. But they have to be mindful of the fact that they are not alone on earth. They have to share God's gifts with others and need to be conscious of the fact that other generations will follow. Each individual has been given a certain time span between birth and death. The limits which have been set must not be transgressed. The Christian commitment to the preservation of the environment is guided by the concern to secure the well being of future generations. Christians must never be satisfied with short-term considerations. Human beings are not lord and master over life, but called to live in communion with creation.

The Bible tells us that before all other creatures God created Wisdom. Wisdom is called the 'beginning of God's works' and the 'beloved creature close to God's side' (Proverbs 8,22 ff). God's wisdom fills the whole of creation, and it is the task of human beings to discover its traces, to recognize and to follow them. To understand the meaning and purpose of creation humans must recognize their particular place within creation. The Bible leaves no doubt about the tendency inherent in human nature to acquire power over others and over nature. True wisdom is not guided by the will of power but by the will of love and communion.

The fact that humans have transgressed the limits of wisdom has become particularly manifest in our time. Inexorably we are faced in ever new realms with the destructive consequences of human activity. The resources of the planet are over exploited. Soil, water and air are being polluted. The disturbance of the present equilibrium in nature even leads to a change of the climatic condition on the planet earth. At the same time we seem to be the prisoners of an ideology which considers economic growth to be the highest value in life and is prepared to accept in the name of this value not only increasing ecological destruction but also growing social injustice. Are we at the mercy of these destructive forces? Our confidence is based on God's continuing presence and involvement with the world. God became human in Jesus Christ. "For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we may become the righteousness of God (II Cor 5:21)." In Christ the true image of God has appeared, the human person who corresponds to God's purpose in creation. With his resurrection the new world breaks into this world. In Christ are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Col 2:3). In the strength of the Spirit a new life becomes possible.

What then are we called to witness to? The primary task is to name the forces of destruction and to gain in this way new freedom. The spirit of Christ is diametrically opposed to the ideology of unlimited production and consumption of goods.

We are called to use God's gift with reserve. Though human life is only possible at the cost of the life of other creatures' human claim on God's creation must stay within reasonable limits. The intrinsic value of every creature must be recognized.This applies to the realms both of personal life and of society. The concern for the protection of the environment belongs to the guiding principles of Christian witness in society. As much as all people need to be assured of their 'daily bread' the goals which determine today's society, progress, acceleration and unlimited economic growth, are to be called into question in the light of the Gospel.

At the same it must be part of the churches' witness to identify with the disadvantaged and marginalized. Their place is on the side of the victims and they must not admit that the memory of their suffering is ever suppressed. They will seek to give a voice to those who have no voice and to recall those at the underside of history who tend to be overlooked and forgotten.

Against this background the importance attributed by the Jewish-Christian tradition to the fourth commandment becomes understandable. The Sabbath is more than simply a day of rest. The change from work to rest mirrors the rhythm which is inherent in creation. Like God who created in six days heaven and earth and rested on the seventh, we also shall behave likewise. The Sabbath thus also has social and ecological implications. It serves to build and to restore community. Creation shall be spared human activity on every seventh day. The laws concerning the Sabbath and Jubilee years are to be understood in the same perspective.

And why a common witness of the churches at the European level? The European Ecumenical Assemblies in Basel (1989) and Graz (1997) emphasized the common responsibility of the churches for the protection of the environment. Why?

In the first place because there is no way of meeting the ecological crisis except through concerted action. The destruction of the environment transcends national borders and can only be contained through common efforts. Numerous issues require joint analysis and co-ordination at the European level and in many cases solutions presuppose an attitude of solidarity. The church, as a community which transcends national borders, has the vocation to appeal to international and especially European solidarity.

The common witness of the churches at the European level is also necessary for the sake of the countries in the South. Today's ecological crisis with its world-wide effects has in many respects its roots in the industrialized countries. European countries bear therefore a responsibility which goes beyond the geographical borders of the continent. Together with other industrialized countries Europeans are, for instance, responsible for the largest share in CO2-emissions and therefore for the warming of the earth's atmosphere with its devastating effects especially on the countries in the South. The churches are to remind the European countries of their destructive role. The task is not only to work towards the sustainability of Europe. The question is how the countries of Europe contribute to the sustainability of the whole planet.

Christianity has a deep historical presence in European countries. The churches have therefore a special duty to remind them of their role in the world-wide horizon. The opinion is widely held that the Jewish-Christian tradition has contributed to legitimize spiritually and intellectually human domination over nature. Though this thesis remains controversial it is certainly true that the churches have been relatively slow in recognizing the destructive consequences of the scientific, technological and industrial conquest of nature. All the more they have today the task to remind themselves and the world of the critical potential of the Christian tradition. The Biblical witness teaches emphatically that nature is far more than an object of research and consumption. It is God's beloved creation. God does not invite us in the first place to conquer nature but to praise the name of the creator together with all creatures. Both the first and the last sentence of Psalm 104 which enumerates the wonders of creation reads: "Bless the Lord, O my soul"!