Can We Separate Creation Care from Political Action?
I celebrated Earth Day by purchasing a plane ticket and reserving a hotel room. From May 13 to 15, I'm going to join other evangelical Christians who care for God's creation at the Flourish Conference in Duluth, Georgia.
The lineup of speakers is intriguing. It blends people who don't usually appear on the same platform because of their differing constituencies and mixes veteran environmental presenters with other well-known speakers who haven't addressed this issue with their publics. Add to that the symbolism of a Southern Baptist venue for an environmental conversation and the fact that several of the speakers are "professional Southern Baptists" (that is, their public face is linked with Southern Baptist institutions).
But what is most interesting about this conference is this:
In a recent e-mail, Flourish CEO Jim Jewell told me:
This is a conference about church ministries and personal faithfulness, not political action and global warming. This reflects the philosophy of the new organization, Flourish. The organization and the conference are not taking a public stand on climate change ... , because the heated rhetoric about global warming and disagreements on the role of government have paralyzed the church's consideration of deeper responsibilities to care for God's creation as a matter of Christian discipleship.
Making this distinction between church ministry and personal faithfulness on the one hand, and political action on the other may be a necessary strategy. Jewell cited a recent Barna Research Group poll that found that "90 percent of evangelicals believed Christians should be more involved in creation care - but most didn't know what next steps to take. The poll also showed that "most were not convinced about the dangers of global warming. This conference," said Jewell, "can be the start of the equipping and motivating of that 90 percent."
This separation of direct action from politics is part of a larger picture, of course. Many issues can be divided (though not always neatly) into their "political" dimensions and their "direct action" dimensions. Consider, for example, hunger. A huge number of American churches participate in local community food pantries, many of which are part of the organization Feeding America (formerly called America's Second Harvest). Church members are eager to volunteer nonperishable food items and hours of service to the direct action of feeding the hungry. The necessary political work on hunger issues gets much less support in our churches. Nevertheless, a significant number of congregations do participate in Bread for the World's annual Offering of Letters so that church members can tell their concerns to legislators about hunger-related items such as the Farm Bill (renewed every five years) and the aspects of international trade and foreign aid that affect hunger both at home and abroad.
On most issues, we need Christians to be involved in both hands-on action and on the political and policy front. But if you allow the two to mix, you will, frankly scare off those who become uncomfortable with the presence of the "political" dimension in the church context.
According to Princeton sociologist Bob Wuthnow, this is a sociological reality. I recently interviewed Bob about his new book, Boundless Faith, which surveys the tremendous range of connections U.S. churches have with people and projects in other countries. Wuthnow found that certain kinds of issues were perceived as "too political" for congregations to engage. If church leaders tried to get their congregations to address issues that were perceived as political, they would meet major resistance. Thus, whether the issue was HIV/AIDS in Africa or human trafficking, pastors needed to depoliticize the perceptions of the issue as much as possible.
The attempt of the Flourish Conference to separate the church ministry and personal faithfulness elements of creation care from the political action and global warming factors is a savvy strategy. Potentially, it can open the door to congregational activity that is not polarizing but which can still makea significant impact in a local community.
Big environmental problems may still require big solutions coordinated on a national or even international stage. But neighborhoods are also environments where more direct and manageable efforts can make a difference. One of the Flourish speakers, pastor Leroy Barber sees "greening the hood" as an integral part of caring for urban neighbors in need.
Flourish is all about finding the right way to integrate environmental care into Christian living and congregational life. According to Flourish president Rusty Pritchard, the organization "doesn't intend to create a cohort of prophetic single-issue advocates. Caring for creation is one theme in the church's mission, and when it finds its rightful place we can better teach ourselves and those outside the church what it means to be fully human."
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Photo: Fox's den near Jastrzebia G?ra, Poland, provided by Leafnode via Wikimedia Commons.