Galled by Association

A good friend of mine recently posted to her Facebook page:

I’ve recently questioned why more Christians aren’t environmentalists…

She then included this link to some Louie C.K. comedy (in case you’re unfamiliar with him, this is going to have plenty of cursing, so proceed with your sensibilities forewarned):


I’d like to address this.

First and foremost: many, many Christians are environmentalists, although a lot of them will refer to themselves as being concerned about the “stewardship of the Earth” (“stewardship” being a Christian buzzword that means “I’m pro-environment, but don’t lump me in with those leftist nutballs”).

Second and almost as foremost: I do not claim to speak for all Christians. I am not even claiming that what I’m about to write is representative of most Christians. I couldn’t begin to estimate how many Christians have these thoughts and feelings on environmentalism, because as in most controversial issues the vocal minority bears more weight in memory and opinion than the silent majority. So it feels like a lot of Christians feel this way, but it probably isn’t as many as you might think.

Okay? Okay. On with it.

Speaking from my own experience growing up surrounded by conservative Christians, I can say with complete confidence that there is a significant percentage of Christianity that will reject an idea purely based on where the idea came from.

My own example, intended to exaggerate things slightly. An atheist sees a destitute, homeless man on the side of the road, looking as if he is about to die. He turns to you and says, “We can’t just leave him there; we need to help him!”
-The Christ-centered Christian rushes to help in any way he can — physical, tangible help as well as prayer and anything else he feels God leading him to do.
-The evangelist Christian rushes to help, thinking, “This is a great opportunity to bring the homeless man and the atheist to Christ!”
-The politically conservative Christian resists helping, because there are systems in place for that, and after all, Jesus said that the poor will always be with us.
-The religiously conservative Christian has disregarded this premise because he would not be out with an atheist.

(Important note: I know exactly how cynical that sounds about Christians. I know that I have implied that evangelists and politically or religiously conservative Christians are not Christ-centered. The cynicism, I believe, is warranted. The other suggestion is not exactly the message I intended and is there for illustrative purposes, but I’m sure not taking it back.)

The point is that because belief is central to the core of the very idea of Christianity — you can’t call yourself a Christian if you don’t believe in Christ — it logically follows that many Christians see belief as being inseparable from the person and the person’s actions. This is why you will frequently find Christians suggesting that other Christians aren’t “real” Christians, as if they had God’s power to see what is on the inside and cast judgement. Oh, this person can’t really be a Christian because he drinks, or because he lies, or because he’s gay, or because…

Many of these same Christians, however, can forgive themselves their own actions because they know their own remorse. This is not to suggest that there is anything intentionally disingenuous or hypocritical about these Christians (although I’m sure some of them are just smug dirtbags). This often means that they are judging themselves by the same standards, find themselves wanting, ask God for forgiveness, resolve to do better, and move on. And another thing that is crucial to the concept of Christianity is God’s grace and man’s unworthiness. We are all sinners, and we can do nothing good but by the grace of God. Some Christians take this to be a fundamental (heh) reason why many actions that seem good are not good — if God is not behind them, they are not “truly” good. In addition, since “the devil can quote Scripture to suit his own purpose,” it can become very difficult for a conscientious Christian to know for certain what is good and what is not good.

I could take this on a huge tangent to discuss whether or not altruism exists, but let’s save that for another time.

I’ve tried to explain all that to set the background for this.

If a Christian believes that only God can inspire truly good actions, then seemingly good ideas from other belief systems must be suspect.

When you combine the Biblical idea that man is supposed to master and subdue nature with the fact that many environmentalists are not Christians but are agnostic, or atheist, or Buddhist, or pagan… well, all of these are “very dangerous” worldviews, and by the logic of some Christians that means that their ideas cannot be good.

In fact, when the ideas of Christians and other belief systems overlap, a lot of Christians believe — whether consciously or subconsciously — that the Christian’s ideas are different simply because the originator or the vocal advertiser of the idea mentions Christian ideals within the idea. For example, I think it’s safe to say that most Christians believe that it’s a bad idea to knowingly pollute. So that I don’t expand my thought process too far and get into environmental issues from massive corporate pollution and the resulting debate on religious views of capitalism and socialism, let’s just say simple pollution, like throwing your empty soda can in a forest. Okay?

So the Christian doesn’t want you to throw your soda can in the forest. And the pagan doesn’t want you to throw your soda can in the forest. The actions are the same. The idea — don’t pollute — is the same. But a lot of Christians will tell you that the Christian is doing this because he is obedient to God, and that is good, while the pagan must be doing it because he believes that nature and god and the universe are one, or that the earth is a goddess, or that life is more important than afterlife, and whatever it is that they believe, it is not bringing glory to God and it does not rely on Jesus so it is not good.

The ideals are different, which defines the goodness of them for many Christians.

And within the environmentalist movement, you will find a lot of people who do not agree with Christian ideals — for any number of reasons, both religious and secular. I mean, let’s face it — Christians don’t have the greatest track record on a lot of important issues. Their beliefs don’t necessarily reflect well in their actions.

So Christians look at environmentalism and see people who either don’t care about Jesus or who are actively opposed to some of Christianity’s actions or ideals, and they see “the enemy” — and agreeing with the enemy is just not okay, because the ideals are more important to these Christians than the resulting actions.

The idea of working side-by-side with “non-believers” repulses these Christians. And in the more vocal minority that I like to think of as the “wackmobile contingent,” it’s actually sinning to be too similar to those who don’t believe in Christ in the same way.

To build off of a short bit in a prior “randomosity” post… sometimes it’s not the popular thing that’s so repulsive or inherently terrible, but the people who support it. I said that to explain why it’s easy to hate “Justin Bieber, or the Oakland Raiders, or Jesus” — because so many of the fans of those things are just unbearably obnoxious, whether intentionally or not. To many Christians, this thought applies to environmentalists. It’s not that Christians are careless about the environment, or actually anti-environment (some radicals are, but by and large this is not representative of the religious views of most Christians); it’s that “environmental causes” have become linked in these Christians’ minds with so many things that they can’t support — anti-religious or pantheistic or in any other way non-Christian issues. And as many environmentalists are politically on the left, it is often true that those environmentalists support other causes that don’t align with the politically right-oriented evangelistic and fundamentalist movements.

In fact, all too often Christians will automatically align with right-wing politicians because of one or two particular beliefs (say, for example, anti-abortion stances or a belief in teaching creationism alongside evolution) and characterize the left-wing as inherently opposed to Christianity. And since environmentalism has been positioned, politically in America, as a left-wing cause, it must be inherently other and unacceptable to these particular Christians.

Many of these same exact Christians who are not environmentalists will say they intend to be “stewards” of the world, which — as I’ve mentioned — may have the same ideas and actions, but it’s different professed ideals that motivate the “save the world” mentality.

My final thought on this: talk to a hundred Christians. (Note: don’t actually do this. I’m a Christian myself, and this exercise is either depressing or maddening.) Ask them what they believe. Then ask them how they live it. Insist on more than vague platitudes. Ask them what specific actions they take. My guess is that you’ll find two major categories. The minority will be able to answer your questions and give you concrete examples of how they live their beliefs — strongly, wholly, and with passion and devotion. (Whether those are good things or bad things is open to your own interpretation.) The majority, though, will be nominally Christians, but it doesn’t really affect how they live their lives beyond “I go to church. I usually give money in the offering. I pray before meals.” In other words, they allow themselves the luxury of believing in their own righteousness due to faith but not due to actions. Many of these exact people will believe in “stewardship” — so in theory, their ideas and actions will be similar to environmentalists even though the ideals are different. However, their actions will be like the rest of their Christian actions — minimal effort to cover guilt or to achieve a bit of self-satisfaction.

I repeat: I am a Christian. I do not exempt myself from many of these shortcomings that I am describing of lukewarm activity and token beliefs. I fail this way a lot, and I know a lot of others that do too, so I know what I’m talking about. I’m not separating myself from other Christians and saying, “Look how stupid and bad they are!” That’s not at all my intent.

But this I do believe: if Christians could be less concerned with keeping their actions and ideas separate from others’ and still be confident in their ideals, we might be able to realize that we’re all in this together. We are commanded to be in the world, but not of it. Being in the world doesn’t just mean that we have transactional relations with non-believers. God is a relational God, and we need to be relational with everyone. If that’s the case, there’s no reason we can’t share goals like the preservation of the world — whether it’s because we think God wants us to, or because we believe the world is a goddess. Let God worry about the motivation. Get His work done.

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3 Responses to Galled by Association

  1. sinwi says:

    I agree!
    One other area that environmentalism has gotten tied in is w/ global warming. So some people seem to believe that if you try and reduce your carbon footprint, reduce consumption, eat local, it is only because you believe that it is causing global warming and the Godless scientists that are conspiring to lie to us all. But maybe we can all agree that dumping coal ash into rivers is maybe not the wisest idea, burning up an increasingly expensive resource to drive around a mall parking lot is kinda silly, and supporting the local farmer that goes to your church is a good thing?

  2. Kendra says:

    This attitude has been present in this history of Christianity from the beginning: “Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?'”

    Humans are slow to learn.

    Excellent post. I plan to share.

  3. Pingback: in the beginning | Eating the Elephant with a Spoon

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