Drawing closer in unity with God and drawing closer in unity with fellow Christians also means drawing closer with all aspects of God’s creation. If the body of Christ, God’s church in the world, is bound up in relationships with God and all Christians with each other, it is important to also pay attention to the relationships God has with creation and that human beings have with creation.
Here is one of the places where, especially since the Industrial Revolution began in the 18th century, human beings have done poorly. Instead of looking at the broad themes that show God’s concern and care for all of creation, those seeking to make themselves rich by means of exploitation without care and balance generally relied upon one biblical instruction — to “[. . . ] Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Genesis 1:28 English Standard Version). It was the quickest way to run right over the needs and considerations due to other inhabitants of creation. Minerals and living resources were harvested with little or no regard to the long-term impact such extraction and slaughter would have. In the Americas, vast continental forests have been cut away. We see just such activity going on still in what remains of the Amazon rain forest. The catalogue of consumption of earth and creatures is enormous. If God created with a sense of balance and abundance for all of creation (as I believe God has), humans, on the whole in recent centuries, have acted as though they alone matter.
One of the basic problems is that we have separated ourselves from a healthy sense of relationship with creation. We have turned creation from a partner in life into an object of our self-enrichment. We have not looked at creation as being populated with creatures that are also loved by God; but have treated it as a dead world (and, in so doing, we have been casting death across the breadth and depth of the world).
Just as we were made as creatures for relationship with God and with each other, so were we made for integral relationship with the creation of which we are a part. When the list of schisms in which humans have participated is reckoned truly, one of the worst separations we have propagated has been between ourselves and the rest of God’s creation. To faithfully cultivate a healing of the unity of our relationships with God and each other, we need to likewise cultivate a renewed sense of unity with all that God creates and calls good.
Among Christians, some have imputed to the world a fallenness on account of human sin. Some theological worldviews blame all creation for the rebellion against God that scripture attributes to the deeds of people. When I hear these arguments, I sometimes think of small children playing together. One begins to behave badly. Perhaps they start breaking things and yelling. An adult notices that there is a commotion and comes to see what is going on. Seeing the misconduct of the one child, they point it out to him and insist that he stop misbehaving. But, instead of stopping, that child begins blaming all the other children around him for the damage that is done. In spreading the blame far and wide, he then claims the right to dominate his peers, to bully them, and, perhaps, to blame them for having driven him to such misconduct in the first place. When the adult has gone back from offering an admonition, the one who started it all continues the destruction by asserting that the other children are “bad” as well.
One of my first paid jobs as a young adult was as a grass roots organizer working for an advocacy group that was active in my state at the time. We had a short list of key topics we were to speak about. The summer that I worked with them, we worked for a ballot initiative to help the elderly keep their heat on during the winter if they could not pay their bills. We also spoke against the nuclear arms race (this was during the closing years of the Cold War with the Soviet Union). My job was to be dropped off in fairly wealthy suburban neighborhoods and go from door to door to speak with whomever would listen. I had no idea of what I was getting myself into, of course. It is no surprise that most of us were under the age of twenty. During my first week on the job I had one man open the door and persuade me, by aiming a revolver at my face, to leave his property and never return. But the most horrifying experience I had that summer came to me in the guise of a sweet-looking woman who opened her door, welcomed me in, and had me sit at her dining room table to tell her all I had to say.
She looked to be in her early forties. All around the house were pictures of her children, she and her husband, and other smiling people who looked healthy and prosperous. Everything about the house was beautiful. She was a true artist at arranging and decorating her home. I told her how pretty everything was. She admitted that one of her great pleasures was decorating and making a comfortable space for her family. She gave me a glass of water and offered me cookies. I could smell that they were fresh from the oven, the room being perfumed by the warm and alluring treats she’d made to have ready for her children when they got home. She sat and smiled as I told her everything I was working for that summer. Surely, I said, we all care about the world in which we live. We all want there to be peace. We all want people to have enough to live. We all . . . my list went on. I said everything with passion. I was eighteen.
“How wonderful,” she said, “that you care so much to work on a day in the 90 degree heat for all these great causes. You are a very fine young man, I can tell.” She offered me another cookie. Finally, after nearly a whole week of getting doors slammed in my face and being threatened with great bodily harm, I had found someone who listened to me.
Feeling certain I was going to get a positive response, I asked her if she wanted to help. Perhaps she would sign a petition to keep utilities on for the elderly during the winter. Maybe she’d even like to make a donation to support the overall program of good causes I’d explained to her during the preceding half hour. “Would you be willing to help?” I asked her.
With a smile, she told me, “No, I would not.”
I stammered in confusion. I noted that she’d listened to everything I had said. She seemed to sympathize.
“I do sympathize. You want to do good. I understand that. But, I am a Christian. I know that we are merely passing through this place. It is a fallen world, under Satan’s control. We all come here to make the best life we can — given the circumstances. We each have the chance to confess Jesus as Lord. Those who do will leave this place and join him in his heavenly kingdom.”
“But what about God’s world?” I asked her.
“The best chance for the world — and for everyone — is Jesus’s second coming. When he comes everything will be straightened out again.”
I stammered some more.
“You see,” she said in a tender and motherly tone, “Jesus won’t come back until things get as bad as they can get. The more people suffer, the more the world is torn apart, the closer the time he will come back and fix things.”
“So the old people freezing to death in winter, the people starving, the wars . . .”
“All very sad.” She paused and smiled again. “But necessary. The more things fall apart, the closer He gets to coming to make things right. If I sign your petition or give money to your organization — or if I vote for the ballot initiative your campaigning for — I’ll be doing a bad thing, really. I’ll be delaying Jesus’s return. I’ll be helping a fallen world stay fallen for a longer while. Letting suffering happen now means that fewer will suffer in the long-run.”
She glanced at the clock ticking loudly on the wall. I was stunned to silence.
“Well, if you will excuse me. My children will be home in about fifteen minutes. Would you care for some cookies to take with you? Or maybe you’d like to freshen up in the bathroom before you head out for the rest of your afternoon?”
She never stopped smiling while she was with me. But I did.
I could not comprehend — indeed, I still can’t — how this kind and generous person could draw a boundary around her hospitality so that it began and ended at the threshold of her home. She was willing to be kind to me as a stranger who rang the doorbell on a hot day; but she not only was fine with the suffering beyond the boundaries of her front door — she thought the truth of the matter was that, if she enjoyed comforts of her own prosperity and ignored the suffering of those outside, she was somehow doing what was moral and in line with her religious convictions.
This woman is an extreme — if not horrific — example of how human beings can divorce themselves from the suffering of others and the suffering of the whole of creation. But, as the years have taught me, she really is no worse in this regard than many (if not most) of us.
A lot of us make grand statements about how we care for other people, how we care for the multitude of creatures that inhabit the earth with us, how we are concerned for the generations to come. But then, like this woman, many of us mostly live in the comfort of our homes, of the safe spaces around us, and let the world go through hell. When our sight is limited to our immediate surroundings, which many of us (though not all) are able to shape in such a way as to keep out the ugliness of suffering, exploitation, and decay, we are participating in a separation from the concerns of God and the concerns of our fellow beings that brings disunity, disease, and death to the very heart of God’s beautiful world.
When looking at the ecumenical movement of the past two centuries, it is significant to note that the importance of the peace and well being of creation has many times risen as a concern among the Christian churches striving for unity together. The unspeakable destruction and horror of World Wars One and Two, followed by the threats of annihilation posed by nuclear war, placed strong convictions upon the hearts and minds of many ecumenical leaders at various levels of society and the church to realize that unity means care for creation as well. Being one with God, one with each other, and one with all God creates means that there is no room for exploitation and degradation of anyone or anything. More than this, it means that we need to rediscover, and learn to practice, our role as God’s co-laborers who help to nurture and bring the whole of creation to flower and fruitfulness.