Growing up in a conservative Christian family in rural Virginia, I witnessed more than a few conversations with churchgoing friends who could never understand why our family embraced health food, compost piles, and our dope-smoking hippie friends. In our home, there was nothing contradictory about being both a pro-life Christian and a good steward of our planet. But in recent years, it has become increasingly difficult to be accepted as someone who identifies as both.
I’ve seen environmentalists hold the Bible aloft to blame it for every polluted stream and destroyed landscape. Likewise, I’ve heard Christians ridicule environmentalists as anti-capitalist, un-American, earth-worshipping whackos. Just a week ago, I listened to a prominent preacher say he was an avid earth-firster: log the earth first, then log the other planets. The Christian crowd, laughing and clapping, thought it was a great broadside against the pagans.
When progressive environmentalists advocate abortion while simultaneously risking life and limb to protect trees and whales, the Christian community indignantly calls out the unspeakable hypocrisy. Rightly so: after all, we’re talking about ripping a thinking, feeling, hearing, responding baby from the womb. But the charge of hypocrisy cuts both ways. Why are we Christians eating Happy Meals that come from chickens raised in despicable CAFOs (confinement animal feeding operations) on our way to the sanctity-of-life rally?
When people visit my farm, do they see biblical truth? That is, do they see forgiveness, mercy, abundance, glory, and neighborliness?
Dr. Francis Schaeffer, the great Christian philosopher, famously asked: “How shall we then live?” If Christians actually embraced an ethic of creation stewardship, we would own the moral high ground. Our testimony to the gospel of life would become far more credible once our actions began to bear out what we say we believe. However, when Christians cavalierly embrace the mechanistic view of life instead of seeing it as the sacred handiwork of the Creator, we lower ourselves to the egocentricity of a godless culture.
The result of this failure is that environmentalists are the pioneers in earth stewardship while the Christian community has earned the dubious distinction of conquistador, pillager, rapist, and earth destroyer. This segregated and hypocritical thinking does not serve the gospel. Christians have latched onto a misunderstood version of the “dominion” mandate of Genesis 1, failing to realize that this scripture is really a caretaking mandate. If “the earth is the Lord’s” (Psalm 24:1), surely he doesn’t consider it a good return on investment to be presented a creation of eroded soil, unbreathable air, and polluted waterways.
The Bible is full of admonitions regarding earth stewardship. From Adam and Eve taking care of the garden, to God’s command to the Israelites not to chop down fruit trees when they entered the Promised Land, to Jesus’ words about his Father numbering the sparrows, godly living grows out of visceral relationships between people and the planet.
I believe part of the Christian mandate is to use our intellectual capacity and mechanical ability to be God’s hands and feet in redeeming the earth, remedying the devastation wrought by humankind. The principles and patterns established by God, clearly demonstrated through ecology, are not opposed to biblical principle; in fact, they corroborate it. The way that farmers large and small choose to farm impacts the way we eat. What’s on our plate is not just inert stuff. Shouldn’t food, and, by extension, farming, actually be a manifestation of God’s provision and grace in our lives?
As a farmer, I ask myself: When people visit my farm, do they see a physical representation of biblical truth? That is, do they see forgiveness, mercy, abundance, glory, and neighborliness? Or do they see an outfit that runs roughshod over its neighbors, creating stench and pollution thoughtlessly excused as “smelling like money”? If being a good neighbor means anything, it should include not stinking up the community with huge volumes of fecal waste from confined animal feeding operations. And what about pesticides and chemical fertilizers? It’s hard to see how we’re honoring the sanctity of life if most of what we apply to our food ends in the suffix –cide, meaning killing.
To help understand what’s at stake, let’s take a look at the word glory. Christians tend to assume that certain words in the Bible are spirit-speak, and glory is one such word. After all, who talks about glory in everyday conversation? Usually we restrict it to spiritual contexts such as the angels’ announcement of Christ’s birth: “Glory to God in the highest.” Glory, we think, belongs to the invisible spirit world, and we speak of it only in hushed cathedral tones; by contrast, we view physical, visible things as lacking a moral dimension.
What are the God-given talents of a pig? Unlike any other animal, it has a plow on its nose.
But the Bible does not make this modern distinction between the spiritual and the physical. In fact, in Scripture the word glory describes terrestrial things more often than celestial ones – it speaks, for instance, of the glory of nations, kings, old people, and young men and women. In biblical usage, glory means the true essence of something: its distinctiveness and uniqueness. Accordingly, when we bring glory to God, we recognize and accentuate the virtues that make him divine: we recognize that nothing else in the universe is immutable, sovereign, without beginning, omniscient, omnipresent, holy, and perfect.
These are lofty thoughts. But I propose that the best way to appreciate God’s specialness is to first appreciate the physical specialness of his creatures. To give a flesh-and-blood example: by learning to appreciate the pigness of the pig we will understand how to appreciate the Godness of God. To say this isn’t sacrilege. Instead, it means humbly recognizing that how well we honor the least of these is linked to how well we are able to honor the greatest of these. It’s the moral framework that teaches us to honor and respect the Tomness of Tom or the Maryness of Mary.
Today’s industrial food system treats pigs as mechanical objects – as mere inanimate protoplasmic structures to be manipulated in whatever clever ways human hubris can think up. Once we find the pig’s stress gene, for example, we extract it from the pig’s chromosomes to enable us to demean the pig’s habitat even more – after all, now the pig won’t care. Can you imagine having that kind of thought toward another living creature – for example, a cat or a dog?
A pig is a living being created by God. Life, as we know, responds to life. Plants respond to human touch – and to music! – and this is even truer of animals. When I step into my pig pasture, the pigs naturally come toward me, warily at first, and then more boldly if I stay quiet and sit down on the ground. Within a minute they’re snoodling on my shoes, chewing on my belt, and looking for a belly rub.
I’ve never washed my car and had it snoodle on my shoes. The steering wheel sure doesn’t ask for a belly rub. That’s the point: mechanical things have no personality, no communication. To think that we can treat living beings like so many machines, to grow them faster, fatter, bigger, cheaper without moral thought or consequence, is to demean this magnificent creation God made as an object lesson of spiritual truth.
Christians preach about the importance of finding and using our God-given talents and gifts. What are the talents of a pig? Unlike any other animal, the pig has a plow on its nose. Denying the pig a habitat that allows it to dig, to gambol in sunshine, and to have enough space and stimulation around to express its innate curiosity violates the very essence of its being – its glory. What kind of Christian witness is it to choose food that inherently demonstrates an anti-glory way of thinking and acting?
Imagine parents telling their children that the reason they were eating humanely raised pork instead of industrial meat was because they wanted to honor the pigness of the pig. These are the ways we can put ourselves in a frame of mind in which we give God all his due. If we can’t even respect the parts of creation we see, how will we be able to respect what we don’t see?
By learning to appreciate the pigness of the pig we will understand how to appreciate the Godness of God.
The sun shines on the earth to grow plants that inhale carbon dioxide and exhale oxygen, splitting off the carbon to form their vegetative bodies. Much of it gets sequestered in the soil. Chemical fertilizer destroys the wondrous community of microbial beings and larger critters (like earthworms) that inhabit the soil, trading in an amazing underground café of nutrients. To assault this community of beings with simplistic chemicals and harmful tillage is to spoil God’s stuff. And all of it is God’s stuff.
Are we leaving the soil richer, the water purer, and the air cleaner, as a result of our food and farming system? Are we respecting and honoring the distinctiveness, gifts, and talents of the plants and animals in this divine choreography? Or is our attitude one that says food and farming are just mechanistic parts of amoral enterprises?
Most pastors and church leaders will not touch this issue because to do so would mean dropping their hostility to environmentalism, and in many cases it would jeopardize their own political reality. What does a pastor do when, after a sermon on sustainability, his lead elder, who happens to grow Monsanto genetically modified corn and soybeans or who has a Tyson factory farm, becomes miserly at putting money in the offering plate? What about Christians who work for outfits dedicated to nutrient deficiency, junk food, and a mechanistic view toward DNA and life?
This is a real tension, but it is the tension of truth breaking into spiritual consciousness. Repentance is not a one-shot deal; it’s ongoing spiritual disturbance, which creates fertile soil to germinate new seeds of understanding. The parallels between creation care and spiritual faithfulness are both profound and myriad.
The sooner the Christian community dares to converse about how belief permeates food and farming, the sooner its credibility in the culture will increase. Without that conversation, and without that conversion, the creation worshippers will retain the high road, and the creator worshippers will retain their image as conquistadors.
Dear God, help me to honor and steward your stuff not because I worship it, but because in doing so I express worship toward the One who owns it all.