I’ve read a lot of books in the past year about going, being, living, embracing… green. I haven’t felt I’ve wasted my time reading any of them, but every so often one of them will stand out above the rest. I just finished reading J. Matthew Sleeth’s book Serve God Save the Planet, and it is one of those books.
For much of the later half of the 20th century, there was a divide between American Christians and environmentalists. There were individual Christians who were involved in environmentalism, but the mainstream church in America ignored the subject. Over the past decade that has been changing, and mainstream Christians are beginning to wake up and smell the shade grown, organic coffee. Books like Sleeth’s are much needed in explaining the hows and whys of it all to Christians who are trying to figure out their place in what to many of them is a new green world.
I found Sleeth’s book so engaging because he’s attempting to live the life that I am attempting to live, too. He and his family have considerably downshifted. They continually purge their lives of stuff, live more simply, grow their own food, and seek new ways to help the planet all while realizing that they have a responsibility to the people on the planet, too.
Early on in the book, Sleeth refutes many of the reasons he hears Christians and others using to not care for the planet – reasons from “God gave us dominion over everything.” (which some use to abuse the earth instead of care for it) to “I bought my SUV because its bigger, weighs more, sits up higher, and is safer in a crash. If I’m going to be in a wreck, I want my family to be safe.” to “Tree huggers worship nature. I don’t want to be involved with them.”
While the book gives specific Bible verses that make it clear to believers that the earth is God’s (and we are caretakers) such as Leviticus 25:23 and Psalm 24:1-2, I found his most inspirational and convincing reasons for caring for this planet to be the ones directly related to caring for people, or loving your neighbor if you want to put it in Biblical terms.
Love thy neighbor as thyself – one cannot claim to be a Christian and ignore the Golden Rule. It isn’t a suggestion or a guideline; it is a commandment from God. What is the connection between the parable of the Good Samaritan, the Golden Rule, and the environment? Isn’t our choice of homes, cars, and appliances just a matter of lifestyle, and therefore not a moral or spiritual matter? Does God care whether I drive an SUV, leave the TV on all night, or fly around the world skiing? The Bible doesn’t mention any of these things. They didn’t exist in Jesus’s time. Yet Jesus taught the spirit of the law, not the letter. From the spirit of the law, and from the example of his love, we can determine the morality of our actions. (p. 65)
Sleeth argues in the book that if the environmental toll of possessing something will harm other people, then possessing that item is not loving your neighbor. Therefore, in the spirit of the law, possessing that thing is wrong. I’m sure I’m not explaining it as well as Sleeth does so let me give you one of his examples.
Rural farmers in Central America, South America, Africa and Asia must abandon the land that they have worked for generations as their homes are destroyed when trees in the these countries are cut down to meet the demand for “deck chairs, plywood underlayment, disposable chopsticks, and teak furniture.” Since the farming families do not own the land they have worked, they gain nothing from the cutting down of the trees and they loose their livelihood. Cutting down the trees washes the topsoil away. Streams dry up. Storms destroy their land and their homes. They are forced to move to cities where they have no jobs and often must live in cardboard boxes because “their farms have become unlivable, often owing to the outside influences of the global economy,”
It seems, according to Sleeth, that the question a Christian must ask himself when considering buying a deck chair isn’t “are deck chairs against God’s will?” but “what consequences does the creation of this deck chair have on real living people?” If those consequences conflict with the Golden Rule, that deck chair now becomes a moral or spiritual matter.
Sleeth gives many examples like this throughout the book and ends the book with some practical things that people can do to start caring for the earth. There are also discussion questions at the back of the book for book clubs or study groups.
The subtitle of this book is “A Christian Call to Action” and while it is written by a Christian, I found that it isn’t very preachy or doctrinal, and I would imagine that people of all faiths or no faith would be encouraged to live a little (perhaps a lot) greener after reading this book. Christians are certainly not the only people who care for the earth or its people, and Serve God Save the Planet gives an interesting perspective on why and how to do so.
Image from Serve God Save the Planet website