The Joyful Environmentalists: Eugene Peterson and Peter Harris
Creation care is a hot topic among Christians, but it is nothing new for longtime friends Eugene Peterson and Peter Harris. Peterson's recent memoir The Pastor (HarperOne) is saturated with environmental themes and metaphors, grounded in his annual visits to the family cabin in the highlands of Montana, where he now resides. In 1983, Peter and Miranda Harris and a few friends founded a Christian ecological study center in Portugal called A Rocha (Portuguese for "the rock"). It is now an international conservation organization that has recently expanded its work in the United States. Christianity Today editor at large Andy Crouch spoke with Peterson and Harris on the banks of the Frio River in Texas at a conference on faith and technology at Laity Lodge.
Eugene, how did you come to be so involved in conservation and environmental issues?
I grew up in a very sectarian world. There was no explicit care for creation. My parents were indifferent to it, and my church was indifferent. Hunting was the closest my family or my church ever came to being involved in the world around us. But after they killed their deer or their elk, they were done.
In some ways, that indifference was good for me and for our family, because our kids discovered environmental concerns as we hiked, fished, gardened, harvested, and canned fruits. It was more of a discovery and enjoyment. When I met Peter and saw him at work and listened to him, I realized this really was something significant and biblical.
Peter Harris: It's important to understand that A Rocha, as a movement, is driven by biblical theology. It's not a Christian attempt to "save the planet." It's a response to who God is. Therefore, the role of people like Eugene has been to help us lay that foundation.
Many people—and many Christians—would be happy just to say they are "saving the planet." How would you distinguish a biblically formed movement?
Harris: We may do many of the same things as do secular environmental organizations, but we do them for very different reasons. One question for any kind of activism is, how long are you going to be able to keep doing it? If you believe you're going to be able, by technology, by political force, by whatever means, to save the planet, you may well get exhausted and disillusioned and depressed. These are genuine problems within the environmental movement.
If, on the other hand, you do what you do because you believe it pleases the living God, who is the Creator and whose handiwork this is, your perspective is very different. I don't think there is any guarantee we will save the planet. I don't think the Bible gives us much reassurance about that. But I do believe it gives God tremendous pleasure when his people do what they were created to do, which is care for what he made.
There are some obvious biblical texts to which Christians tend to turn when they think about creation—Genesis 1 and 2, and maybe Romans 8:22. Are there any others?
Peterson: The book of Exodus and the Egyptian plagues. Those 10 plagues are all exorcisms of specific aspects of Pharaoh's control over the world. For eight months, the whole country of Egypt was turned into a theater of exorcism, item by item by item. Pharaoh was unable to do what he had done to creation, and the evil was exorcised by the command of God.
It's extraordinary, taking away the authority of the powers that be and demonstrating that to the whole nation, maybe most of all to the Hebrews, who themselves had been under Pharaoh's power. Here is a huge wrecking ball: smash, smash, smash, smash, and after eight months there's nothing left of Pharaoh's power.