Care of creation – this quintessentially human vocation is summed up in Eucharistic Prayer D: “You formed us in your own image, giving the whole world into our care, so that, in obedience to you, our Creator, we might rule and serve all your creatures” (BCP, p. 373). Our relationship to the created order is not uncomplicated, however. Sometimes the material world can strike us as alien. Hurricanes overwhelm us. Viral and bacterial infections invade our bodies. Hills slide. Nature is not always obviously our friend.
Care for creation must never be a substitute for care for people. Nor can care for people be an excuse for environmental degradation
Then again, sometimes our genuine desire to care for creation competes with other urgent goals. For instance, the Episcopal Church has been following Native American resistance in South Dakota to an oil pipeline being routed through sacred tribal land. Meanwhile, Native American tribes dependent on coal mining are hoping that President Trump will reverse President Obama’s curbs on the extraction of coal and gas. In one case, the protection of a fragile eco-system, fraught with spiritual meaning, takes center stage. On the other, economic survival is the major driver. Our own diocese is no stranger to the tension between conservation and economics. For instance, we have experienced passionate disagreement around fracking.
What can we learn from these tensions? Care for creation must never be a substitute for care for people. Nor can care for people be an excuse for environmental degradation. We are rediscovering that love of neighbor includes love of the created order of which we are a part, and love of the created order is deeply connected to our love for one another as human beings. God’s justice demands that we attend to both categories of neighbor at the same time, not as competing claimants but as a single whole. That is to say, caring about restoring wetlands and reforestation is not unrelated to getting jobs for ex-offenders, or extending health care for the poor. Why? Because creation care is about connection. It’s about what we are connected to in our environment, and therefore it’s about how we are connected with each other, as fellow beneficiaries of God’s grace in creating us in the first place.
Mainstream Christianity has always affirmed this, inasmuch as it has said yes to our having bodies and to our being completely grounded in a material universe. We acknowledge the danger that our embodiment exposes us to, and we give thanks for the doctors, nurses, scientists and first responders whose work is to address that danger. But we regard that danger not as something to be escaped from but to be redeemed. The reign of God is about reconciliation, not escape; connection, not separation. So we pray for restored community at every level, from the subatomic to the global. This is why we can offer prayers for healing without implicitly rejecting our bodily vulnerability, and pray for peace without disdaining the dynamics of realpolitik. We are always involved in a complex array of relationships, all of which must be managed in a situation of sin and dysfunction, but all of which can be entrusted to God’s charity.
This year, Easter and Earth Day coincide. This conjunction is an opportunity for us to see how resurrection, care for our fellow humans, and care for the creation go together. Easter offers the promise of a new life, but not a life in isolation. We are raised with Jesus into a deeper engagement with one another forever. But this is not just about the relation of human beings to human beings. It is about human engagement with the whole creation. Love of neighbor includes love for the deer, the spiders, white butterflies, cardinals, muskrats and dandelions (to name a few of the neighbors sharing the Breidenthal home’s narrow footprint).
There is an ancient Easter hymn that brings this home: Salve festa dies, known to most Episcopalians as “Hail thee festival day” (Hymnal 1980, H175). The original Latin text was composed in the sixth century by Venantius Fortunatus. This hymn reflects on nature as she responds to Jesus’ rising from the dead, and in so doing provides a powerful witness to early Christianity’s commitment to creation care. It is, after all, a two-way street: if Easter matters to the natural order, then the natural order should matter to us. What binds them together? Love of neighbor – our connection to one another as members of the human race, and our further connection to the world that God has made.
The Rt. Rev. Thomas E. Breidenthal is the Bishop of the Diocese of Southern Ohio. Contact him at email@example.com.