"Love thy neighbors' virtue is environmental impetus

Published April 17, 1999|Updated Sept. 29, 2005

(ran PC edition of PT)

The world may be on the edge of an environmental revolution as profound as the political revolution that restructured Eastern Europe in the late 1980s, wrote Lester Brown, president of the Worldwatch Institute, in the March/April issue of Worldwatch magazine.

"I believe that there are now some clear signs that the world is in the early stages of a major shift in environmental consciousness," Brown said.

While Brown identified governmental and corporate efforts as providing hope the world is shifting toward a sustainable economy, he gave little evidence for a shift in values that precede sustainable social change.

Twenty-nine years after the first Earth Day _ April 22, 1970 _ the environmental movement can claim many successes, having steadily progressed from the eddies of our society into the mainstream.

Yet the environmental movement lacks deep and widespread moral roots among American Christians. Church members may recycle newspapers, shop for chemical-free foods, express concern about overflowing landfills and worry about pollution. But their practices and concerns are informed more by social trends than by spiritual convictions, and trendy practices are rarely sustained.

Without a transformation of core values, a sustainable environmental revolution will falter.

Regrettably, Americans have not drawn on Christianity's most profound ethical teaching, love for neighbor, to nurture the development of a much-needed environmental ethic.

Instead, Christianity has had two tendencies on the environmental front.

One tendency slips away from bedrock orthodox Christianity. This approach relies on the biblical witness for some of its teaching, but it mostly draws from the wisdom of other religious traditions, such as American Indian spirituality. It produces a pantheistic-sounding ethic that makes many church folk suspicious about the moral imperative to care for the Earth.

The other tendency develops an environmental ethic mostly from the Old Testament. Such an approach says God created the Earth, and the Earth belongs to God. Since God made human beings responsible for creation, we are to be earth-keepers.

This theology of creation contributes much to mainstream Christianity. But it provides little compelling motivation for Christianity to make earth care part of its core convictions and regular practices.

The consequence of these tendencies is an undernourished environmental ethic within Christianity.

In contrast, by rooting environmental ethics in the mandate to show love for neighbor, Christianity draws on its most inspiring ethical teaching.

Jesus isolated and elevated love for neighbor as the primary commandment in human relationships. He demonstrated neighbor love in his own actions and illustrated it in numerous stories.

Christian action and inaction have been measured historically against the moral teaching of neighbor love. Love for neighbor propelled the civil rights movement in the 1960s, motivated efforts against world hunger in the 1970s and activated involvement on homeless issues in the 1980s.

These examples illustrate that love for neighbor has been defined almost exclusively in terms of space. Neighbors are those who reside on the other side of town, dwell elsewhere on the planet or live on our streets. Neighbors are those of different skin colors, nutritional requirements and shelter conditions.

Love for neighbor has compelling power _ power to change hearts and to transform lifestyles.

But if neighbor love is to become the commanding ethical force for a sustainable environmental movement, the definition of neighbor must be expanded.

Neighborhood may no longer be limited to spatial terms. It must embody time considerations. We must begin thinking about neighbors as those who live across time. Indeed our future neighbors include our children's children and their children.

_ Robert M. Parham is the executive director of the Nashville-based Baptist Center for Ethics.