We all depend upon the earth for our survival—for the air we breathe, the food we eat, and the water we drink. For thousands of years, religious traditions have provided guidance on how we should use those resources. Today, news about environmental destruction and its effects on the air we breathe, the food we eat, and the water we drink abounds and Coloradans of faith and conscience are awakening to the understanding that these issues have religious implications.
As we discuss environmental problems, evaluate their causes, and consider solutions, it is important for religious communities to reflect on scriptural interpretations of justice, the importance of God’s creation, and our sacred trust. Over the last 30 years, Coloradans of all walks of life have become more concerned about human impacts on
the environment. Increasingly, stories about environmental destruction and its effects on human health dominate the news and people are feeling those impacts in very real ways—in bans on fishing due to mercury contamination, in increasing asthma rates, and in ozone pollution days in Denver, Grand Junction, and Colorado Springs, for example.
To fuel our modern lifestyle, forests are cleared, toxic waste dumped into rivers, and chemicals spewed into the air. We are using the earth’s resources faster than they can be replenished, and scientists tell us that climate change is the biggest environmental crisis that we have faced not just in our time, but in the entire history of human civilization.
Religious leaders tell us that this crisis can be understood as the physical manifestation of our distance from God, from creation, and from each other. “When man turns his back on the Creator’s plan, he provokes a disorder which has inevitable repercussions
on the rest of the created order,” Pope John Paul II said. “If man is not at peace with God, then earth itself cannot be at peace…. The seriousness of the ecological
issue lays bare the depth of man’s moral crisis.”
The teachings of our diverse religious traditions offer compelling visions for how we can relate to God, nature, and each other with compassion, respect and love. Faith is the voice that warns us when we take a wrong turn, but also guides us toward a new path.
Creation is Sacred The Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions share several important truths about the nature of creation.
God created the world with purpose. “O Lord, how manifold are your works! In
wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures… When you send forth your spirit, they are created.” (Psalm 104)
“By him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible… all things were created by him and for him.” (Col. 1:16)
Creation is balanced and intrinsically good. “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.” (Gen. 1:31)
“He created everything and determined it most exactly.” (Qu’ran 25:2)
Creation belongs to God.
“The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it.” (Psalm 24:1)
“The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants.” (Lev. 25:23)
God can be found in creation.
“Ever since the creation of the world, God’s eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things God has made.” (Rom. 1:20)
“Ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds of the air, and they will tell you; or speak to the earth, and it will teach you, or let the fish of the sea inform you. Which of these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this? In his hand is the life of every creature and the breath of all mankind.” (Job 12:7-10)
In the Hindu tradition, everything in the universe is a manifestation of the divine life force, or Brahman. The Isa Upanishad teaches, “Everything in the universe belongs to the Lord. Therefore take only what you need, that is set aside for you. Do not take anything else, for you know to whom it belongs.”
Native American traditions share an understanding that the world is sacred. In the Okanogan Creation, “All living beings came from the earth. When we look around, we see part of our Mother everywhere.” Black Elk, the Lakota leader, expressed a similar
understanding when he said, “The earth is your grandmother and your mother, and she is sacred. Every step that is taken upon her should be as a prayer.”
“We will not save what we do not love.
And we will neither love nor save what we do not experience as sacred.” –Rev. Fr. Thomas Berry
“Everything that lives and breathes is sacred and beautiful in the eyes of God.
The whole world is a sacrament.” – Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew
We Are God’s Trustees
The Hindu, Buddhist and Jainist traditions share the concept of ahimsa, Sanskrit for “do no harm” in thought, word and deed. This is a practice that extends not just to people but also to animals and plants.
In the Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions, humanity’s role as trustees of creation is set forth in Genesis 2:15, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till and keep it.” Many scholars, reexamining the original meaning of the Hebrew words ‘abad and shamar, now interpret this as a commandment to “serve and care for” creation.
In the Qu’ran also, humans are designated trustees: “It is He who appointed you Khalifs
(guardians) on this earth.” (6:165) This stewardship role required moral responsibility: “We offered the Trust to the heavens, the earth and the mountains but they
refused to take it on and shrank from it. But man took it on.” (33:72)
About Climate Change
Scientists around the world overwhelmingly agree that the Earth’s climate is warming and that human activity is largely responsible. We are already seeing some of the effects of a warming planet: glaciers around the world are melting, the polar ice cap is thinning, coral reefs are dying, plant and animal species are threatened with extinction. We are also seeing changes in the growing season and in migration patterns of animals. Weather patterns are becoming less stable and scientists tell us that a warmer planet means more extreme weather events, including droughts, floods, and more intense storms.
We witnessed in the chaos of Hurricane Katrina that extreme weather events disproportionately affect the poor and vulnerable among us. Many of the other changes that global warming will bring will also more keenly affect our most vulnerable populations.
Scientists now believe that the seas will rise at least 3.25 feet and possibly several times that by the year 2100. A rise of this magnitude will swallow some islands and change coastlines around the world. Half of the world’s population lives within 50 miles of a coast. In crowded regions like Bangladesh, millions of people will be displaced as saltwater moves inward. Arid regions are expected to become drier, and freshwater
will become more scarce due to melting glaciers.
“If future generations are to remember us more with gratitude than sorrow, we must achieve more than just the miracles of technology. We must also leave them a glimpse of the world as it was created, not just as it looked when we got through with it.”–Lyndon B. Johnson
“I believe in my heart that faith in Jesus Christ can and will lead us beyond an exclusive
concern for the well-being of other human beings to the broader concern for the well-being of the birds in our backyards, the fish in our rivers, and every living creature on the face of the earth.” –John Wesley
Mending the World One Step at a Time
More and more religious congregations and their members want to know what they can do to care for the creation, but starting an environmental project can seem like a daunting prospect.
Many congregations establish green teams: small groups of committed individuals
who plan projects and monitor environmental aspects of congregational life. Some
denominations have green team structures in place that local congregations can tap into, as well as resources for projects.
Your environmental focus shouldn’t be separate from the rest of the life of the congregation—it should be woven into all aspects of congregational life and
involve as many members as possible. We outline below six common areas of environmental concern and four common areas of congregational activity.
To get your environmental project started, choose one activity under one area of environmental concern.
Once you complete that activity, choose a different kind of activity under a different area of environmental concern.
SWIM-ming to Success
To help make your environmental ministry congregation-wide, remember the acronym SWIM: Stewardship, Worship, Instruction and Mission.
Just as you move from one type of environmental concern to the next, make sure that your projects involve all four SWIM areas. Remember to involve the whole congregation. If you get stuck on one project, move on to another one. And don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Six areas of concern for your environmental ministry may want to consider:
Energy and climate impact
Manage Climate and Energy Impact
S- Meet with your local government officials, who oversee the local franchise agreement with your utility, to insist on a schedule for closure of coal plants over the next decade and transition off of fossil fuels (to affordable renewable energy) by 2035. Email email@example.com with your concerns. Change light bulbs. Install automatic light shut-offs. Insulate your building. Reuse structures. Install on-site renewable generation.
W- Consider the role energy plays in your worship service.
I- Watch a movie like “Kilowatt Ours” or “An Inconvenient Truth,” or sponsor a panel on energy issues in your community.
M- Weatherize homes for low-income members of your community.
Manage and Reduce Water Consumption
S- Reduce water use on your property through low-flow faucets and toilets or drought-tolerant landscaping (xeriscaping).
W- Many faiths use water in their sacraments or liturgies. If your faith uses water for baptism or other sacraments, include water facts in your bulletin or use water from a
specific source. Consider holding a “water communion”—find out more at www.txipl.org.
I-Hold a religious education program on water issues.
M- Help clean up a local body of water or raise money for water justice programs that your denomination supports.
S- Get rid of toxic cleaning products, and use low-VOC (volatile organic compound) paint.
W– Switch to flowers and plants that are organically and locally-grown. Doing so will decrease your pesticide, water, and transportation impacts and will boost the local economy.
I- Offer a class about making non-toxic cleaning products for use at home.
M- Sponsor household hazardous waste collection for church members and the neighboring community.
Manage and Reduce Waste
S- Offer the full gamut of recycling, composting, and trash. Recycle as much as you can and eliminate Styrofoam use.
W– When it comes to worship supplies and materials, think about the 3 R’s: Reduce, Re-use, and Recycle.
I- Offer a small group session in which people watch “The Story of
Stuff” and then share their ideas for reducing waste at home.
M- Sponsor recycling collection for church members and the
Manage and Nurture Wildlife
S- Establish a butterfly garden and consider leaving some “wild” spaces on congregational grounds.
W- Hold a blessing of the animals service—whether you invite real animals or just photos is up to you.
I- Go on a field trip to a nearby park or preserve, or invite a speaker.
M- Volunteer. If a specific animal is in need of support in your area, consider ways to help—for example, building, distributing and helping to hang simple bluebird houses could boost the local population and help people connect with nature.
Manage Food and People Impacts
S- Serve locally grown organic snacks and fairly traded coffee at coffee hour.
W- If you use food in worship, switch to locally-grown and organic.
I- Publicize through signage, communications and educational events that the
congregation has switched to local, organic, and fairly-traded foods (and
why it matters).
M- Help start, support or volunteer at a local neighborhood or school
We Are Interconnected
We are dependent upon the earth and its bounty for our survival. “The advantage of the land is paramount; even a king is subject to the soil.” (Eccl. 5:8) When the air and water are not clean, we get sick. When the soil is poor, we cannot grow food. Take the case of mercury, for example. When we burn coal to produce electricity, mercury is
released into the air, falls to the earth in rain, then flows in rivers and streams into lakes and seas.
Mercury in the water is absorbed by small fish, which are then eaten by larger fish. When we eat the fish, we ingest all the stored mercury, which is especially harmful for children and pregnant or nursing mothers.
We cannot remove ourselves from creation—we are part of it. “The creation of the heavens and the earth is far greater than the creation of mankind. But most of mankind do not know it.” (Qu’ran 40:56)
The stories of humanity and of creation are inextricably linked. “For the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and humans have no advantage over the animals…. All go to one
place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again.” (Eccl. 3:19-20) In the story of Moses, God speaks through a burning bush and miracles involve water, rivers, and natural disasters. God speaks to Job out of a whirlwind. Psalm 104 shows God as active in creation: “He waters the mountains from his upper chambers; the earth is satisfied by the fruit of his work.” (v.13)
In God’s commandment to observe the Sabbath, the interconnectedness of humans, nature, and God is revealed, for all are to observe the Sabbath. “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall do no work…. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day.” (Ex. 20:8-11) In addition, on every seventh year, the land is to rest: “every seventh year you shall let [the land] rest and lie fallow, so that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the wild animals may eat.” (Ex. 23:10)
Our actions and choices affect the earth. In Isaiah, humanity’s bad choices are made manifest in the environment: “The earth lies polluted under its inhabitants; for they have
transgressed laws, violated the statutes, broken the everlasting covenant.” (24:5)
The ancient law of give and take, action and reaction, and cause and effect is explained by Paul in Galatians 6:7: “You reap whatever you sow.” In the Qu’ran, a crisis in creation is shown to be an opportunity and a call for humanity to change its ways: “Corruption has appeared in both land and sea because of what people’s own hands have brought about, so that they may taste something of what they have done, so that hopefully they will turn back to the right path.” (30:40)
Buddha taught that relationship to others and to the world—even to animals and plants—should be based on compassion. “The goal is to develop genuine compassion, this genuine wish for the well-being of another, in fact for every living being throughout the universe,” the Dalai Lama said. “Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive.”
Rajah Koravya had a king banyan tree called Steadfast, and the shade of its widespread branches was cool and lovely. None guarded its fruit, and none hurt another for its fruit. Now there came a man who ate his fill of fruit, broke down a branch, and went his way. Thought the spirit dwelling in that tree, “How amazing, how astonishing it is, that a man should be so evil as to break off a branch of the tree, after eating his fill. Suppose the tree were to bear no more fruit.” And the tree bore no more fruit. —Anguttara Nikaya
“All of you must clothe yourselves with humility in your dealings with one another, for ‘God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’” (1 Pet. 5:5)
“The first law of our being is that we are set in a delicate network of interdependence with our fellow human beings and with the rest of God’s creation.” –Desmond Tutu
A Call to Justice & Respect for Life
The religious call to work for justice is strong. Many different traditions affirm that people are created in the image of God and that we should treat people the way we would like to be treated. Climate change will disproportionately affect vulnerable populations such as the poor and the elderly because these groups will be less able to adapt to the changes in their environments. Already, marginalized communities in the United States are more affected by climate and pollution: African-Americans and Hispanics are more likely than whites to live in areas with bad air quality, are twice as likely to die in heat
waves, and are three times as likely to be hospitalized because of asthma.
Environmental degradation increases suffering, sickness and death for God’s
children, especially the young, elderly, minorities and the poor. Pope John Paul II said,
“Protecting the environment is first of all the right to live and the protection of life.”
Jesus instructed his followers to care for the less fortunate: “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” (Mat. 25:45)
It is estimated that every year, 300,000 people die due to climate change, mainly from worsening floods and droughts in the developing world. We also see increased mortality from malnutrition, the spread of disease and heat-related illnesses.
Although the U.S. accounts for just 4 percent of the world’s population, it produces 25 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases and uses 25 percent of the earth’s natural resources. We have disproportionately contributed to problems that are causing global
suffering both here and abroad.
The call to help our neighbors comes not just from a sense of fairness and justice. It
also comes from compassion and love. Jesus told his disciples, “Just as I have
loved you, you also should love one another.” (John 13:34)
Jewish teachings illustrate our responsibility to ensure that the world we bequeath to our descendents is a bountiful, sustainable one. “Be careful that you don’t spoil or destroy my world—because if you spoil it, there is nobody after you to fix it.” (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:13)
The command to “be fruitful and multiply” was given first to fish and fowl, not humans. Birds and animals are full partners in the covenant God establishes with Noah: “As for Me, I am going to establish My covenant with you and with your descendants after you, and with every living being in your care—the birds, the beasts, and all the land animals in your care—all who have gone out of the ark, all earth’s animals.”
Global warming is already underway. Scientists tell us that some changes are, at
this point, inevitable. But they also urge quick action to reduce human behaviors that
are causing climate change such as emissions of greenhouse gases and the
clear-cutting of forests. Still, the problems are myriad and, taken together, can seem overwhelming. In the face of it, there is a human tendency to wonder, “What could I possibly do? The problem is just too big.”
And yet, as the prophet Mohammed said, “If the Hour (Day of Judgment) comes
while one of you holds a palm seedling in his hand and he can cultivate it, he should
“Therefore choose life, that you and your descendents may live.” (Deut. 30:20)
“What we call Man’s power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as an instrument.” –C.S. Lewis
“When a group of people are sailing in a boat, none of them has a right to bore a hole under his own seat.” -Rabbi Yisroel Meir HaKohen
Finding Our Way
In the scriptures, God’s vision for the earth and humanity is revealed.
• “They shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid.” (Micah 4:4)
• “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.” (Isaiah 11:6)
• Jesus tells his disciples, “I came so that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10)
We have not yet lived into God’s vision, or into the promise of abundance. And yet the best-known and most often-recited Christian prayer seeks an earthly transformation: “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
Expressing gratitude to Rev. Dr. Janet Parker, Dr. Catherine Keller, and John Hill for generously sharing with us their wisdom and insight on the role of religious communities in the care of creation. Cover photo by Carlo Abbruzzese.
Throughout history, people of all faiths have led great, transformational movements in their communities. Today, global environmental challenges offer our diverse faith traditions the opportunity to join hands in shared effort. The Rig Veda counsels, “Let your aims be common, and your hearts of one accord, and all of you be of one mind, so you may live well together.” (10.191.2-4)
People of faith can proclaim again that the right path is one that leads us closer to God’s promise: “Thus says the LORD: Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask
for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.” (Jeremiah 7:16)
“Grandfather, Sacred One, teach us love, compassion and honor that we may heal the earth and heal each other.” -Ojibway prayer