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
Saving More Than Souls: Religious Groups Seek “Renewal” for the Environment
A Little Q&A on Christian Ecology
The Sensibility of Sabbaths for Sustainable Living
I think it makes perfect sense for environmental activists and the religious community to come together. I’ve been lucky to work on this great campaign that incorporates faith, art and the environment. It’s pretty awesome http://www.irreplaceablewild.org because so much is irreplaceable that we take for granted.
To Psalms and Leviticus I would add Rev. 11:18 – “The time has come for judging the dead . . . both small and great and for destroying those who destroy the earth.”
As our natural resources run out, become scarce or even species extinct, it seems clear that we need to take a closer look and reexamine out lifestyles. It sounds as if this author has attempted to do so with a biblical approach. This represents a book that I certainly feel will change minds and make an positive impact for now and generations to come. Even simple changes can make a difference. Let’s hope it is not too late.
You have shortend Rev. 11:18 for effect. It actually reads:
“And the nations were angry, and thy wrath is come, and the time of the dead, that they should be judged, and that thou shouldest give reward unto thy servants the prophets, and to the saints, and them that fear thy name, small and great; and shouldest destroy them which destroy the earth.”
It is speaking of bringing destruction to the enemies of God’s people, not some poor sap who purchased a wooden chair.
Danielle – You are absolutely right. It’s time for those of all faiths to work with the environmental community. It’s always been the time, just took some in those in modern times little while to realize it. I’ve booked marked the link to your site and I will take a look when I have more time.
Makarios – I am slowly working my way through the Bible – begnning to end – reading it with an environmental eye. It will be quite a while before I hit Genesis, but I’ve made a note of the verse. I always like to take a verse within its complete context. But, as a general principal, I believe I am accountable in the end for my environmental choices now that I am fully aware.
Andrea – I don’t think it’s too late. I might be opening a big can of worms here, but I don’t believe man can literally “save” the planet (at the same time I don’t have a beef with the title of this book) nor are we called to. We are called to care for it and the saving of it is in God’s hands. Keeping that in mind always, I am not afraid it is too late.
Bobby – as I said above – context is always important. Thanks for expounding.
Green Sustainability Advocate
What an inspiration. I too have been working to downshift my life, get rid of stuff, and simplify. I don’t have any particular Christian beliefs associated with it – it is just the responsible thing to do. But I am all for any and everyone joining in – religion may matter to the individual but it should not matter in terms of helping to become more green.
I am inspired to read this book! I have unconsciously been relating the environment and God by coming to the destination of simple abundance; that all we have is all we need. We just don’t more stuff like we thought we did in the 80’s My own household has been downsizing, taking serious consideration that we do not need all the stuff we have but also how to make use of things without throwing them out. Recycling, re-using, appreciating what we have and that God has provided and acknowleging that we as a society, we have not been the best caretakers. A simpler generation has been born.
I, also, read this book and felt it is an excellent book with a lot of great points about why Christians should help the environment. I am trying to get my church to be more environmentally friendly, like not using disposables at church socials.
Quite good. Thanks!
Green – glad you are inspired.
Liz – I hope you are right about a simpler generation. We’ve got a lot of bad habits to break.
Sally – I think that many churches are ready to change, to be more environmentally friendly, if only someone is willing to take the lead. So I’m encouraged that you are taking the first steps. Another simple step might be a paper recycling box at the doors for bulletins and such.
Alexa – glad you liked it.