By Joshua Stewart
Over the past several years, as our world has witnessed far too many instances of people being abused by others, the verse in Scripture that has resonated with me is Genesis 1:27. “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (NRSV).
Last semester as we were studying the first handful of books in Scripture, we were challenged to discover how God calls on us to care for the creation around us. To me, creation includes the Earth and all its inhabitants. The human members of God’s created community bear the image of God to the rest of the global community. So, when we destroy our environment, we are not only causing harm to the ground, the water, the sky, and the wildlife, but we are also harming other human beings made in God’s image. This should grieve us.
Genesis 1 tells us that “in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (1:1). There was darkness and there was chaos, and God brought order to creation. He created the land, the seas, the sky, the birds, sea creatures, wildlife, plants, etc., and he saw that it was good. This is repeated throughout the creation narrative. God saw that it was good.
Again, God also created humankind in his image (1:27). God made human beings to represent his image to the rest of creation. He calls on us to take an active role in the created community. On the seventh day, creation stopped. It was finished. God brought order to creation. In honoring the Sabbath, we honor God’s work in bringing order, and he invites us to keep that order. For the Israelites, they were to rest and not work on the Sabbath. They were to allow their land, their livestock, and other people to rest. On Sabbath years (see Exodus 23), they were supposed to allow the land time to renew itself.
And in Genesis 2, God invites the first human to take part in creation by naming the animals. Whatever Adam named them, that’s what they were to be called. And so, God expects us to care for creation. That means caring for the land, what grows on the land, and the people and animals that need the land to survive.
Today, we see the ongoing threat of climate change. It is destroying the ozone (the sky), the seas (our water supplies), and it’s destroying the land (whether pipelines desecrating the land of Indigenous peoples and farmers and ranchers or the destruction of the Amazon). All of it contributes to a changing climate. This destruction of our planet brings chaos and disorder to what God has ordered and called good. The mistreatment of our planet violates a Sabbath meant to honor God by not allowing the land to rest and renew itself.
According to a document by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the Arctic Sea ice is shrinking, ice sheets are melting, the ocean is acidifying, and the ecological impacts of this are disastrous as organisms are struggling to adapt to the changing climate, leading many to extinction. Climate change is also raising issues with national security as climate change contributes to poverty and is harming the stability of weak governments. With climate change also comes food and water scarcity, as well as disease.
This reminds me of when David Beasley, the executive director of the World Food Programme, visited Truett Seminary at the Forum on Global Hunger. He emphasized how climate change leads to conflict and hunger, and it is wreaking havoc on others. Our actions—and by “our,” I want to emphasize developed countries—are having a detrimental impact to people in the Global South, such as those of the Carteret Islands. Island communities are on the brink of disappearing.
When it comes to the tragic effects on other human beings, the effects are most negatively impactful on disadvantaged communities. It’s not the rich and powerful who receive the worst of it. It’s the people of the Pacific Islands whose communities are disappearing. It’s predominantly Black and Brown communities whose health is being destroyed when they live next to waste dumps and poisoned pipes. Climate justice must be tied to racial justice. What we are doing by contributing to climate change is that we are not treating other people who are image-bearers of God well.
As I think of how we are mistreating other image-bearers, I think of Prophet Amos, speaking on behalf of God, scolding the Northern Kingdom by telling them how he abhors their assemblies and festivals because of their mistreatment of the poor, and that justice should “roll down like waters” (see Amos 5:21-24). I think of the Epistle of James when he calls on us to not be evil in thought and favor the rich over the poor (see James 2). I think Amos and James would be horrified by how we mistreat other image-bearers by desecrating this earth and contributing to climate change.
God invites creation to be in community with him. He invites human beings to help care for creation. If you look at the Book of the Covenant, you see community (see Exodus 20-23). The laws contained therein represent a community of God and his people.
The laws concern how to love God and love neighbors. This Book of the Covenant, which include the Ten Commandments, represents a community of God and his people. You shall only worship Yahweh and keep the Sabbath holy. You shall honor your parents. You shall not murder, commit adultery, steal, bear false witness, nor should you covet what your neighbor owns. These things help the people be in right community with God and with others.
We worship God by only worshiping him, and not making idols, not taking his name in vain, and honoring the Sabbath to help protect the rest of creation. We care for each other by not killing, stealing, coveting, etc. Connecting this with the climate change crisis, we worship God by caring for his creation. Putting God first should mean caring for his creation over profit. Not killing and stealing should translate into not stealing land away from Indigenous groups and tearing up their land, thus contributing to climate change. Not killing and stealing should translate into us not destroying our planet, thus leaving Black Americans or people in the Pacific Islands victims of the consequences of our actions.
Friends, the climate is changing, and Scripture provides so much to show why we should care and why we should help reverse climate change. Combatting climate change is worshiping a magnificent God who created us to be his image-bearers to the rest of creation. As followers of Christ, let us use our love for God’s Word and pursue a healthy environment so all his beautiful creation can thrive!
Joshua Stewart is a CBF Leadership Scholar and is currently pursuing his Master of Divinity at Baylor University’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary while working as a graduate assistant. He is also an active member at Seventh and James Baptist Church in Waco, TX.