“Thou hast given him dominion over the works of thy hands;
thou hast put all things under his feet,
all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the air, and the fish of the seas, whatever passes along the paths of the sea.” — Psalm 8
Environmentalists cite this biblical passage when discussing the church’s history of looking the other way as the Earth’s natural resources have been plundered by humans over the centuries. Since the founding of Earth Day 27 years ago, religious leaders quietly have supported efforts to clean up the environment, control the harvesting of the rain forests, and encourage recycling.
But the U.S. visit of His All Holiness Bartholomew I, patriarch of the Orthodox Church, along with the recent Kyoto Summit on Global Warming, put religion squarely on the side of environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club. Closer to home, the Maine Council of Churches has launched a new program titled, “Spirituality and Earth Stewardship,” designed to “reconnect people with nature at an emotional, intellectual and physical level.”
“To commit a crime against the natural world is a sin,” Bartholomew, leader of the world’s 300 million Orthodox Christians, stated Nov. 9 in Santa Barbara, Calif. His remarks were believed to be the first time that a leader of a major international religion has explicitly linked environmental problems with sinful behavior.
In 1971, the Anglican Church declared that environmental abuse was “blasphemy.” In December 1989, Pope John Paul II stated that answers to environmental destruction cannot rely solely on better management or a more rational use of the Earth’s resources. He called the environmental crisis a symptom of a deeper moral crisis, but did not go as far as Bartholomew did.
“For humans to cause species to become extinct and to destroy the biological diversity of God’s creation, for humans to degrade the integrity of the Earth by causing changes in its climate, stripping the Earth of its natural forests, or destroying its wetlands … for humans to contaminate the Earth’s waters, its land, its air, and its life with poisonous substances — these are sins,” he told his audience at a symposium on religion, science and the environment.
At the same conference, Carl Pope, Sierra Club executive director, issued a mea culpa on behalf of environmental activists.
“The environmental movement for the past quarter of a century has made no more profound error than to misunderstand the mission of religion and the churches in preserving the Creation. My generation of environmental activists, the Earth Day generation, is deeply implicated in this error,” he said. “… We ignored the fact that when Americans wish to express a sense of a community that is wiser and better than they are as individuals, they gather to pray.”
While environmentalists and church leaders have not been at odds, they have not worked as allies either. Until recently, organized religion has let activists, concerned scientists and political figures take the lead on environmental issues. Environmentalists have not actively sought the support of the religious community as it has other organizations.
However, many religious and secular groups joined together to urge President Clinton and Vice President Gore to strengthen the United States’ position on the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions that was presented at the Kyoto Summit on Global Warming in December.
The National Council of Churches produced a public service announcement for television on the summit. Narrated by poet Maya Angelou, the 30-second spot stated that the “richest nation on God’s Earth most pollutes the Earth … We are called to protect it so that we and our descendants may live.” Distributed through the Maine Council of Churches, the spot never aired on any of the three network-affiliated stations in Bangor.
Susan Sargent of Chelsea serves as spokeswoman for the National Environmental Trust-Maine. She welcomed the involvement of the religious community in environmental issues on a national as well as a state level.
“Churches represent another diverse group in the state,” she said. “Their involvement broadens the base of support for a particular issue. Members who discuss environmental issues from a religious perspective are very well respected. They are thoughtful, committed people who can bring a great deal of respect and credibility to the discussion of an issue.”
But Susan MacKenzie of Waterville was not thinking about political action when she began developing the MCC’s new Spirituality and Earth Stewardship initiative. She wanted “to give people an opportunity to gain a greater understanding of basic ecology; explore and strengthen their spiritual roots in nature; and consider how their lifestyle and society’s actions impede or advance their quest toward personal, social and ecological integrity.”
MacKenzie, who holds a doctorate in natural resource policy and management, realized in the early 1990s that academia did not allow her to deal with the environment from a faith perspective.
“My own sense is that many people feel a spiritual connection in nature,” she explained, “but they sit in pews to affirm that connection. … People are searching for ways to live balanced and meaningful lives as individuals, within communities, and on the earth. They are turning to the church for inspiration and guidance. [This] initiative is a strand woven in a rich tapestry which celebrates our connections with one another, with the Earth and with our faith.”
MacKenzie said that each year four watersheds will be chosen as the focus for the program based on local environmental issues, centers of population, and existing ties to the MCC. An MCC organizer will contact local churches and religious centers from all denominations, as well as environmental groups, civic groups, and educators in each watershed to plan local programs.
A pilot project, held March 9 in Damariscotta, was attended by 75 people. The day’s events included a nature walk, sledding and skiing, a light meal, a special water ceremony, a slide show and music by local musicians. MacKenzie said each subsequent program “would conclude with a worship service of celebration and praise for creation and praise for the Earth.”
While MacKenzie’s work on the program has been as a volunteer, she is seeking funding to allow the MCC to “become a clearinghouse for congregations that want to create earth spirituality programs; conducting ecumenical celebrations of God’s good creation; organizing study circles on environmental issues in Maine that bring a faith-based perspective to light; advocating for policies that protect and restore the integrity of the earth; and becoming part of a national network of like-minded, faith-based organizations.”
Tom Ewell, executive director for the MCC, is excited about the new program. He said that one of the results could be to help build a vision for preserving the environment that would include the efforts of the spiritual community, as well as political organizations. One way to accomplish this would be through a community study group, he said.
“The community of faith has a history of working for marginalized constituencies like the elderly, the poor, the mentally ill, the disenfranchised,” said MacKenzie. “We’d like to place the Earth alongside these constituencies.”
A national coalition of religious organizations also is working toward that end. Made up of the National Council of Churches, the Coalition for the Environment and Jewish Life, the U.S. Catholic Conference and the Evangelical Environmental Network, the organization has worked on national and international issues from the protection of endangered species to global warming to the reduction of auto emissions.
But the Rev. Vicki Woods, district supervisor for the Northern Maine District of the United Methodist Church, does not want the MCC to approach the issue with a sense of guilt because of past interpretations of the word “dominion.” She said that she and many current theologians interpret Psalm 8 to mean that “we join God as co-creator, partners in a sense” and “recognize that the earth blesses us.”
“Some people may feel they need to connect more with nature to deepen their spirituality,” she said, “but they need to be intentional about it. We need not just be ready to get our moose in the woods, but to experience something bigger than ourselves.”
Environmentalists hope that once individuals have had that experience, they will act to protect the environment on a both a personal and political level.