Eco-Priest? A Clergy's Response to the Anthropocene.


A Letter to the Modern Church,

With the end of the semester, my seminary experience is entering into its last stage. In the 6 years of serving alongside folks in two congregations, and with most of that time being in higher education, I have been in a part-time or bi-vocational role. A major question that looms in my future is how will I transition from that role to one which is full time? I’ve received many solid recommendations at how to achieve this from other ministers and mentors I have surrounded myself with over the years. Churches often combine responsibilities which redefined associate pastors duties. A youth pastor might also oversee a young adult or a college age ministry. Someone gifted in administration might become a Minister of Administration or Education.  For churches with large Family Life Centers that host different basketball leagues, yoga classes, and avid walking clubs, wouldn’t be hard to convince anyone that a Minister of Recreation would be beneficial for scheduling events, dealing with insurance companies, and making sure all building requirements are meeting safety codes.

Yet, what if you don’t feel called to any of those areas?  Are these older titles limiting? Where is there room in the modern church for re-imagined possibilities? For someone like myself, I want to explore new ways to do life with parishioners. Notice I don’t use the term ministry here. I wouldn’t label what I do now as “ministry.” To say that I have a personal ministry sounds pretentious. I simply have a life, and this is a life I want to spend working, serving, and experiencing alongside people. I’ve thought about what I’d like to do and ways I’d like to see the church grow. And trust me; I’m not talking about growing our numbers. I’d like to see us grow in our compassion towards all of God’s creation. We do well at loving on each other most of the time, although there are some horror stories that take place in churches. The creation I’m referring to is something that we’ve separated ourselves from for far too long. By neglecting creation, humanity has allowed the world, God’s creation, to suffer in ways that have produced watershed moments. What’s a watershed moment? I’m glad you asked.

Marriage is a watershed moment. Having a child is a watershed moment. Moses standing in front of the burning bush and feeling God’s presence is a watershed moment. Such moments produce a turning point experience. You can’t go back and everything moving forward is completely new and different. From my own seminary experience, a watershed moment occurred when I began to see biblical reconciliation from an entirely different perspective. It was in this class entitled Field, Table, Communion and Tree of Life: Christianity, Climate Change, and Ecological Vocation that I discovered other “theologians” I had never experienced before. No Barth, Schleiermacher, or von Harnack. Instead, I was properly introduced to Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson, and Ellen Davis. In this space, I found myself eager to drink from a new perspective and source I hadn’t been privy to before while simultaneously being humbled that such a gaping hole was present in my theological education. These works wetted my appetite and I found myself wanting to learn more. I picked up books dealing with creation care and the intersection between humanity’s role as caregivers in this process. Issues surrounding “land and soil” became a focal point for me, and from there, the issue of humanity’s impact on the earth. In other words, what scholarly folk are labeling the anthropocene.  This realization that humanity has caused such offense to the other living species on the planet is not up for debate. Instead of co-creating with God, humanity has chased self-preservation and glorification which has led to the eradication of certain plants and animals.

A question which I believe when we come together as a church is what are we actually doing as God’s people about this? Should the church engage this differently than the rest of the world, or is the church simply playing catch-up? In the words of Wendell Berry, “The great question that hovers over the issue, one that we have dealt mainly by indifference, is the question of what people are for”. I hope the church can be a place where this question can be worked out.

Covenant language is nothing new to Christians. We often think of Jesus at the Last Supper giving his disciples a new covenant. We might also be familiar with the covenant that God made with Abraham. However, we often overlook the first covenant God establishes with humanity. Often referred as the Noahic covenant, God, after flooding the earth, speaks to Noah and his family and ensures them Godself will never raise up the waters to flood and destroy humanity again. “This is a sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you for all future generations. I have set my bow in the sky clouds and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.” (Gen. 9: 12-13) Kinda changes the notion of a rainbow in the sky doesn’t it? God essentially hangs up or lays down, a weapon. Humanity is now in covenant with God. This first relationship points humanity to practices socially and ethically appropriate with each other, but not only with each other, with every living creature.

If God laid down a weapon in Genesis, humanity seemingly has picked one up in its practices towards the environment. While guns might affect person to person relationship, modern farming techniques have decimated the soil at an alarming rate. This has not been without consequence. As industrialization has evolved into the 20th and 21st centuries, agricultural practices have adapted in order to adjust to issues related to climate change. In 2014 the US Global Change Research Program released an assessment through a series of reports dealing with modern climate change since the year 1990.  The report, “Observed changes over the last century include increasing average temperatures, increasing weather variability, warmer nights and winters, a lengthening of the growing season and an increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events.” Of course many view this through an apathetic lens. In certain parts of the world, the change seems so miniscule that a need for any sort of modification or new practices seems irrelevant. While a couple of degrees might seem small as far a climate change is concerned, it will impact the earth more than just people having to pay a higher electricity bill in the summer months and an applying an extra layer of sun block while resting outside the pool. While the current occupiers of this world might not see the direct impact of climate change our children and grandchildren most certainly will.

I once read a story about a German farmer from the upstate New York area, Klass Marten. Marten had been a farmer his entire life and because of the constant need to produce bigger yield year after year, turned to many different pesticides in order to ensure his crop output was optimal. One day Klass's right arm stopped working. After visiting a doctor who only seemed to want and prescribe muscle relaxers and other forms of pain medication, Klass and his wife Mary-Howell knew that medications weren’t the answer to the problem; it was the stuff they sprayed on their large farm in order to control the weeds. Klass stopped using chemicals on his crops and became a pioneer in the field of organic growing. Once during a gathering of those who consider themselves part of the sustainable organic farming guild, Klass posed a question which he himself had heard from a Mennonite bishop; when do you start raising a child? The answer is a hundred years before they are born because that’s when you start building the environment they’re going to live in.

I sat in class at the beginning of the year and heard Dr. Miles Silman of Wake Forest University, biology professor and self-described forest ecologist, as he shared with me and my classmates that the shoreline of North Carolina was going to look drastically different in the next one hundred to two hundred years. The outer banks will be submerged under water. Think about that for a second. No more Kitty Hawk the place where aviation was born. No more Ocracoke, the Lost Colony story will include a lost land that now exists underwater. These places will exist in memory, just stories where our descendents can hear and read about but be unable to visit. I remember Professor Silman and his map showing the projections of the coast line. Raleigh and the rest of Wake County would become ocean front property. My wife and I spent several years in the Raleigh area, the idea of stepping out onto Hillsborough Street, the few miles of pavement that runs through the North Carolina State University campus, and being within walking distance of a beach is mind boggling. Losing landmarks is one thing, but the other side of this climate change coin is just as severe; it’s going to affect what we eat, how much we eat, and what we can grow. That is where we are heading and I admit with data looking this way I start to feel a sort of helplessness with what I could possibly do to help change our current course.

Environmental issues are rarely spoken of from a pulpit, usually listed as being more political than anything else. I want to help change this notion. As my studies have progressed I, like Miles Silman, Klaas Marten, and Laura Lengnick, see the need to lend a voice as to why this deserves our utmost attention. While the individuals I just mentioned are scientists, farmers, and activists, I wish to represent the faith element of this conversation. I am not the first person who has wanted to do such work. Saint Francis of Assisi, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, and Pope Francis have all declared the need for those claiming a Christian faith to be advocates of the natural world. Pope Francis in his encyclical letter entitled Laudato Si’ informs his readers, “Humanity still has the ability to work together in building our common home.” This language, our common home, brings up a shared commonality missing from the current culture we presently reside in. Like the Pope, I believe humanity still has the ability to make a positive difference towards creation.

By now you may be thinking, sure, the church should take steps in helping. However, where would we as a community even start? The realization that climate change is real and its impact on all of creation, humanity included, is the mindset we must come to. Humanity, and the church has abdicated its position as stewards of this land to other entities. In the book of Ephesians, the apostle Paul instructs the young church that they're not fighting against an enemy or problem of flesh and blood; their fight is with powers and principalities. (Ch.6:12) We must not reduce climate change and the influence it plays in our treatment and care of the natural world to nothing more than a mere spectacle instead of the arduous issue it is really is; a deception that we have allowed ourselves to be subjected to by powers and principalities.

I do not presume the neglecting of the earth is something humanity set out to do intentionally. I often imagine in these instances a sailboat on the waters. One must be in a constant state of engagement with the steering wheel which moves the rudder and navigates the ship's destination. When a sailor lets go of the wheel for a long enough time he or she might end up in a place they never intended to be. This is what I speculate has happened concerning climate change. In the last century with the advancements of technology and the need to produce more and more at the most efficient rate, humanity lost control over the wheel and now we are just starting to realize how far off course we have gone.

To correct our mistake we must first acknowledge, or in other words, repent of what has been allowed to take place in the name of progress. Only then can we begin the process of dialoguing with others who have realized the same in hopes of implementing positive changes on both an individual and collective level. This is where I feel as a faith leader I am called to act. If the church wishes to reclaim its identity as being a moral compass in the community, what better way than recognizing and appointing someone to engage this issue directly? We have leadership in different areas already, such as a minister of music, education, and children. Why not have a minister of ecology or creation care? In a time where the church is trying to figure out what she is to a postmodern society this could be a step which actively addresses an important issue, and given the very nature of such a calling, this work would need to be conducted outside of the buildings and walls which have led to estrangement with those who don’t attend our weekly functions. Doing this work, serving as a steward, would mean we would connect with our community and have the opportunities to truly know our neighbors and them us. Would this manifest itself in a community garden? Perhaps. Or would this change start there and move into different parishioners backyards? Instead of inviting folks to the church to see our garden which might become another jewel in the crown for us to feel good about, wouldn’t it be better to invite people over to our homes to sit at large farm tables right outside gardens that families and friends helped construct?

 What I am proposing is something new, and yet it is a call to do something very old. Others are doing this work already, both in and outside of the church. My hope is you are moved enough to see the need for change yourself and for our church. Google some of the names I mentioned and began reading what is being said concerning how climate change affects all forms of agriculture and what we as people can do about it. Lean into our identity in Christ. It was Christ, who taught in the Temple, yet often ended up in the wilderness when he wished to pray and connect with God the Father. Entering the wilderness and engaging with nature, we, like Christ, have the ability to enter holy spaces. This is the promise of authentic freedom one can find in God’s creation. In some ways, it’s like going home.

From the wilderness,