Category: Environment

Your Laudato Si’ crash course

The Pope’s latest encyclical, Laudato Si’ (or “Be Praised”), sparked a theological debate between Catholics, Protestants, and even many non-Christians about the environment, climate change, and the global market economy.

The papal letter isn’t for a quick read over your morning cup-o-joe. The pdf version from the Vatican’s website is 184 pages cover to cover, so I’ve rounded up the best videos and commentary on the web to get you up to speed on the eco-encyclical discussion. Consider this  your Laudato Si’ crash course.

Father Barron hits the highlights of Laudato Si’.

Dr. Samuel Gregg on the strengths and weaknesses of the eco-encyclical:

Though papal encyclicals are one of the most authoritative statements a pope can issue, the positions expressed are not a declaration of Catholic Church doctrine. This leaves a lot of room for debate!

What do you think about Laudato Si’?

*Originally published at the IFWE blog.

From a garden to a city

I live in Washington D.C., and I love the excitement and conveniences of living in a big city. But one of my favorite things to do on the weekends is escape to go camping in the Shenandoah Mountains of Virginia. There’s a peace in the wild that you can’t find amidst all the concrete.

Joni Mitchell has a song called “Woodstock” that reminds me of this desire to disconnect from the busyness of society (emphasis added):

I came upon a child of God/He was walking along the road/And I asked him where are you going/And this he told me/I’m going on down to Yasgur’s farm/I’m going to join in a rock ‘n’ roll band/I’m going to camp out on the land/I’m going to try an’ get my soul free/We are stardust/We are golden/And we’ve got to get ourselves/Back to the garden.

Mitchell’s song creates a visual of a very natural human desire to “return to the garden.” This desire manifests itself in different ways in different people, and it’s all tied back to the concept of human flourishing.

For many, it means a love for nature and a reverence for God’s creation. We plant gardens. We go on long hikes. We admire plants and animals. We discover new ways to farm more productively and sustainably. We strive to be good environmental stewards.

But for others, I’ve found that it means we should reverse human progress. Industrialization is sinful. Technology is evil. Humans are pillagers of the earth. And our only recompense is to return to the land and live a lifestyle of subsistence farming.

In the globalized economy we live in today, it’s easy to romanticize a simpler life without all the technology and pollution that industrialization brought us. Can’t we all just join the character in Mitchell’s song, go to Yasgur’s farm and camp on the land to get our souls free? That sounds like a lot of fun to me.

But what I find interesting is that the Bible only begins in the garden. It doesn’t end in a garden; it ends in a city. This has huge implications for human flourishing and the church’s dealings with poverty.

The Garden of Eden – Remade

God isn’t preparing for us to go back to the Garden of Eden. He has something better for us. He is preparing a Garden of Eden remade, a Holy City, the New Jerusalem.

Tim Keller says,

[W]hen we look at the New Jerusalem, we discover something strange. In the midst of the city is a crystal river, and on each side of the river is the Tree of Life, bearing fruit and leaves which heal the nations of all their wounds and the effects of the divine covenant curse. This city is the Garden of Eden, remade. The City is the fulfillment of the purposes of the Eden of God. We began in a garden but will end in a city; God’s purpose for humanity is urban! Why? So the city is God’s invention and design, not just a sociological phenomenon or invention of humankind.

Cities booming with commerce, trade, culture, art, technology amidst a thriving ecosystem of crystal rivers and trees bearing fruit and leaves—that’s God’s image of flourishing.

If our story starts in a garden and ends in a city, perhaps it means we are meant to move towards something greater, towards something more developed. Maybe it means, with a righteous human touch, the world can reach a better and more productive state.

God has given us resources—natural resources, science, art, architecture, economics, individual gifts and talents, etc.—to do something productive with his creation. He’s given us a mandate to fill the earth and subdue it. That means we have a huge job assignment.

The task at hand isn’t to figure out how to stop all human development to preserve nature, but to cultivate a world where humans and nature thrive together. God wants us to harvest crops. He wants us to build cities. He wants us to enjoy the great outdoors. He wants us to create culture. He wants us to develop economies and lift full nations out of poverty.

If God’s plan for his people is flourishing here and now—for his will to be done on earth as it is in heaven—that means we aren’t meant to stay in subsistence poverty. It means we are to leave our community, our world, better than how we found it.

Flourishing in a Globalized Society

Last summer, I spent four days camping on a farm in Tennessee. I was excited to get away from the city and experience the peace of simple living, if only temporarily. I had a great time on my trip, but imagine if that was my permanent lifestyle. I would only have access to the few resources within walking distance of my campsite and the limited skills of my fellow campers to survive. Would I be fulfilling my calling by cutting myself off from a global community?

God created us dependent on him and dependent on one another. That means we need each other to flourish, and we flourish more in a global community.

He has also given us the tools to flourish and alleviate extreme global poverty: our minds to understand how prosperity is created, our bodies to carry out the work of his hands, and our souls to enter into loving relationships with our neighbors. We are far more effective when we come together and leverage the resources God has given us to fight poverty as one global church.

The church has an enormous challenge and incredible opportunity to give the world a glimpse of heaven, where poverty is no more. Will we take this challenge and opportunity seriously? Will we long for the days of Eden, or will we move forward to an even better garden, the New Jerusalem?

*Originally published at the IFWE blog.

Foreign opinion on American government, economy, and religion

AmericaAmerican image abroad is a topic we seem to be obsessed with as a nation. What do other countries think of us? Do they think we are greedy, wasteful, or individualistic?

Thought Catalog’s recent article 16 People On Things They Couldn’t Believe About America Until They Moved Here features observations about America by U.S. transplants from all over the world. The comments cover everything from the immaculate conditions of our public toilets to the disappointing quality of our chocolate. But what I found particularly interesting is how they view our government, economics, and religion after experiencing American culture first-hand.Even though outside perception isn’t everything, and some opinions should be taken with a grain of salt, foreign insight can help us recognize areas for improvement and areas where we are blessed as a nation.

Here are their observations about the United States:

Government

“People really are afraid of socialism.” – Olof Åkerlund, Sweden

“[A] majority of things in the US aren’t controlled or regulated by the government. […] Every state has a lot of autonomy.” – Natalia Rekhter, Russia

“Bureaucracy really is kafkaesque at times. But most of the time, it’s just that there are over 300 million people and the manning for a certain department is limited to two guys in Kentucky who have to answer every request by snail mail. This is probably the real reason people say government is evil.” – Olof Åkerlund, Sweden

Economics

“Incredible wastefulness – I was aghast at the amount of stuff people wasted every single day. Food, electricity, water, paper…in India, we reuse stuff until it can only be thrown away. But on the positive side, recycling is big there, so I guess it is mitigated in part.” – Triya Bhattacharya, India

“The amount of food Americans waste. My grandma to this day remembers a story about when she came to teach in California in the 1970s. The students used to get apples along with their lunch. Nobody ate them, so they’d just throw them away or leave them at the tables. My grandma was shocked at how they were able to just throw out good food like that, and that no other teachers cared.” – Britt Smith, Guyana

“Philanthropy. There is no culture of philanthropy in Russia and many view American philanthropy either as a waste of money or as some intricate plot to get some additional benefits.” – Natalia Rekhter, Russia

Religion

“Religion – I always thought that America must be very laid-back about religion, like Europe, but that was not true.” – Triya Bhattacharya, India

“Religion being an actual thing. Prayer breakfasts in the White House. Educated people believing in creationism. The number of churches and denominations. People actually going to church.” – Riona MacNamara, Ireland

“In spite of the society being openly hedonistic and liberal, the social norms and standards still have very strong conservative religious influences.” – Rakib Islam,

Though some observations may be less surprising than others, there are three important points to takeaway:

  • Our society is still perceived as exceptionally free, but even those from more socialism-friendly countries notice the problems of our growing bureaucracy.
  • Even though our nation has a good reputation for recycling, we do not have a reputation for being good stewards of our resources.
  • Philanthropy and religion are flourishing in the United States, unlike many foreign countries.

It’s easy to either focus only on our nation’s faults or blessings, but let us remember both equally. Let’s be thankful for our freedom without forgetting the threat of a growing government. Let’s continue to give generously without throwing away wastefully. Most of all, let’s remember the influence that faith has and can continue to have in all areas of American society.

*This blog was originally published on the Creativity. Purpose. Freedom. blog.

Tree-Hugging, the Christian Right, & Joel Salatin

Alongside a recent trip to Polyface Farm, I had the chance to interview farmer Joel Salatin. He had much to say about faith, politics and environmental stewardship.

You resonate with the Christian right on economic freedom and deregulation, but you also call yourself an environmentalist. What do you think about the way the Christian right engages, or does not engage, issues of environmental stewardship?

Interview with Joel Salatin

When Rush Limbaugh laughingly discharges his machine-gun into jungle monkeys or Sean Hannity disparages the notion of animal rights because the animals can’t write a constitution, Christians should be appalled at such an egocentric, disrespectful, sacreligious view toward life. […]

Nothing less than Christian authenticity is at stake when we cavalierly dismiss environmentalists as a bunch of tree-hugging idiots.  The fact that creationworshippers have taken the high moral ground of stewardship while the Creator worshippers have accepted the low moral ground of manipulators, dominators, and pillagers should be cause not for gaiety and jokes, but for deep repentance in sackcloth and ashes.

Isn’t it just like Satan to turn something as noble and righteous as creation stewardship—which includes nutrient density, animal respect and soil building—into a hippie, beaded, bearded, nut movement as perceived by Christians? What if our side had owned stewardship? What then? We’d own the high moral ground.

In your opinion, what is the number one way the agriculture industry is failing to steward the earth’s resources today?

The number one problem is carbon cycling. Some 80 percent of all material filling landfills in the U.S. is biodegradable biomass. The way God set things up, the Sun [obviously an interesting permutation on Son] provides all the energy for the whole program. Plants capture sun energy through photosynthesis and build carbon material. Out of 100, roughly 95 pounds of all plants is sun energy; only 5 pounds is soil.  In other words, the earth is supposed to be getting heavier and fatter every year.

This carbon drives the cycle of life, death, decomposition and regeneration. Everything living must die, and the deaths provide the fertilizer for the next generation. This life-death-decomposition-regeneration cycle is, of course, a beautiful picture of the spiritual regeneration that happens when we voluntarily die to self so that our sacrifice may live in others. Ultimately, to live is to die to self. Anyway, the idea that chemical fertilizers can replace this cycle strikes at the very basis of this creation truth and leads people to believe we can have life without death. A bag of chemical fertilizer has no life; a compost pile brims with life.

In a creation economy, therefore, the carbon cycle is fundamental to proper function, and by extension, to proper appreciation of spiritual law. That we have squandered life by burying it in landfills where it cannot be regenerated into anything is an assault not only on creation’s balance sheet, but also on the object lesson God intended to keep us apprised of—life’s value and death’s temporality (if it’s used correctly). To deny solar energy its rejuvenating capacity and substitute it with inert lifeless chemical material disrespects all parties to the plan. If all this buried material—which we’re still burying, by the way—had been and were currently used to feed the soil, it would drop our petroleum use some 25 percent and reduce the toxicity that is leaching from our landfills.

In your book, “Everything I Want To Do Is Illegal,” you talk in great length about how ridiculous it is to have a state ban on the retail of raw milk. What is it about your Christian faith that drives your passion for food freedom?

The idea that each of us is an asset or liability to the state creates an economic imperative to deny risky behavior through patronage, like not vaccinating our kids, drinking raw milk, fertilizing with compost or choosing herbology over pharmaceuticals—you get the picture.  The bottom line is this: what good is it to have the freedom to worship, assemble or speak if we don’t have the freedom to choose the food (fuel) to feed our 3 trillion member internal bacterial community to give us the energy to go pray, preach and congregate?

Joel Salatin on Economics, the Environment, and God

Economists and environmentalists generally stand on opposite sides of the aisle in Washington. But one of the most fascinating lessons to learn from Virginia farmer Joel Salatin is how to apply theology to the environment and economics to see both as inseparable and in need of each other.

Why do you think so many Christians don’t care about economics?

Our Greco-Roman, Western, linear, reductionist, systematized, compartmentalized, segregated, linear parts-oriented approach loves separate boxes. We put theology in one, economy in another, ecology in another, and so on. This is patently unbiblical; every thought and every action is to be brought under the authority of God. For too long, the Augustinian idea of spiritual goodness and physical badness has allowed us to escape the relatedness of things—which, by the way, you don’t find in Eastern thought, where everything is about holism, oneness, community, and we’re all relatives. Israelites are Easterners, just for the record.

Why should Christians care about economics?

Truth is truth, and it all lines up across all spectrums: ecology, economy, theology, society.

Why should Christians care about economic freedom?

Freedom is freedom. You can’t have a religiously free society without freedom in other areas…What good is it to have the freedom to worship, assemble, or speak if we don’t have the freedom to choose the food (fuel) to feed [ourselves] to give us the energy to go pray, preach, and congregate?

In an interview you said “Amoral, unbalanced capitalism is no better than amoral, unbalanced communism.” What did you mean by this?

Amoral anything is without constraint, and in the end, freedom without constraint is just as tyrannical as socialism without constraint…Giving Monsanto everything they want is just as culturally devastating as giving the poor everything they want.

What about your Christian faith has influenced the way you interact with the environment?

I believe the environment is better with a righteous human touch. The human touch can bring on sickness or wellness; knowing the difference and doing more of the latter is a good thing. I want to caress creation as a loving steward, knowing that such an attitude and action helps me understand everything: death before life; Jesus’ parables; redemption; the new earth.

Why do you think there is such a perceived division between the economy and the environment in politics and in our culture today?

First, the Augustinian notion that the physical universe is bad and the spiritual is good (I know that’s oversimplifying, but that helps make the point) created a lethargic interest in creation stewardship. Second, an inordinate importance on other-worldly thinking—after all, it’s all going to burn up anyway—gave an excuse to abdicate our visceral responsibilities to creation. Third, the modern environmental movement grew out of the pantheistic writings of romanticism into creation-worshipping and finally the hippie movement of the 1970s. Christians, unfortunately, found it much easier to lump environmentalists into anti-capitalist, anti-American commies than to wrestle with thornier questions like whether pesticides that make infertile frogs and 3-legged salamanders really glorify God. Out of this political context came the universal principle that what was good for the environment was bad for Wall Street, and what was good for Wall Street didn’t damage the ecology irreparably.

What paradigm shift needs to happen in our culture to erase the division between economics and the environment?

The paradigm shift for this to change is for Christians to realize that creation has a profit and loss statement just like Wall Street. Furthermore, the invisibles—like the 50 billion bacteria in a handful of healthy soil or the 3 trillion bacteria in the human gut—are more foundational than the visible. In other words, what the business plan does to earthworms, soil, and water is as important as what the business plan does for jobs and return on investment. Even a good idea or good service potential must be balanced with its effect on the greater invisible life community surround us.

How should Christians view the connection between economics and the environment from a theological perspective?

Christians should understand that without a functioning ecology, you don’t have an economy. Ultimately no civilization can be healthier than its soil and no people can be healthier than the food they eat. With each mouthful of food and each touch of the earth we are creating the landscape our children will inherit. We’re also describing, one action and attitude at a time, our view of God’s creation. Are we first seeking to understand creation’s patterns rather than first seeing what we can manipulate? Are we first seeking to understand what make the human body as the temple of the Holy Ghost healthy and functional rather than what can be ingested so cheaply that we can put more money in the offering plate for missions?

Tensions between economic productivity and environmental integrity persist in Washington, but not at Polyface Farm, according to Salatin:

On our farm, we’ve found that when we function with ecological integrity, we also function with economic integrity. The only tension between the two is created when we take short-term views. If we take long-term views, then the tensions vanish.

Salatin’s long-term, eternal vision of work drives him to respect the earth and steward his resources, which allows him to run a more productive business.

*This interview was originally published at the Creativity. Purpose. Freedom. blog. 

Forgiveness Farming

Here’s part 2 of 3 of my interview with Joel Salatin. Can’t get enough of this fella!

My dad used to always admonish us: “Remember, machines don’t forgive.” – Joel Salatin

Inanimate things—objects, systems, social structures—are not forgiving. If you mishandle a chainsaw, says Salatin,

[I]t can cut your arm off and no amount of apologies to the chain saw for mishandling it will make it remorseful. It’s inanimate, inert, a pile of unfeeling, uncaring metal and plastic.

That’s the difference between the living and the non-living: inanimate objects cannot forgive, but living things are created to forgive. Salatin further explains this concept:

Any living thing, plant or animal, can be abused or mishandled. If we show enough remorse and ask enough forgiveness, healing will set in and things can be made right. That’s the fundamental difference between the biological and mechanical world.

Salatin believes physical principles should show what we don’t see spiritually. This means creation can reveal a lesson of spiritual truth and vice versa, even in forgiveness.

Convicted that his work as a farmer should somehow reflect Christ’s forgiveness, Salatin implements a model of “forgiveness farming.”

How do you develop a forgiving farm? Salatin summarizes seven different ways:

Eliminate Flooding and Drought

“Nature is not always kind. Floods and droughts come as part of creation’s fallen condition. Our job as stewards is to massage the landscape so that when these assaults come, it is more resilient, more forgiving. On our farm, we have built and continue to build many ponds to hold surface runoff that floods the downstream neighbors, and hold it for slow release during a drought to maintain springs and creeks, again to help our neighbors downstream.”

Build Soil

“Fertile, rich soil is the basis for all productive plant life. The story of civilization and agriculture is the story of desertification and erosion, unfortunately. But with perennials, predators, and herbivores, God’s design builds soil. Mimicking that design through an herbivore-perennial base using electric fencing as a predator, we can actually better duplicate the soil-building patterns so that the human footprint builds soil rather than depleting it. That’s fundamentally healing rather than sickening.”

Maintain Symbiotic Order Through Relationships

“God has orders of church government, civil government, gifts and talents—lots of permutations on order and relationship. A farm that exemplifies this principle, therefore, should have an intricately-choreographed dance of multi-speciation rather than growing only a single crop or simplified corn-bean rotation.”

Recognize the Pigness of Pigs

“If we’re going to respect the unique gifts and talents of human beings, we start by respecting the physiological distinctiveness of the plants and animals. It’s how we respect and honor the least of these that creates an ethical framework in which we honor the greatest of these. That means our farm provides each plant and animal a habitat that enables it to fully express its gifts—like the ‘pigness’ of pigs. That certainly means we do not feed dead cows to cows, and we don’t lock animals in concentrated confinement factories. Animals are free to move, to express their individuality, and to eat a diet they were designed to eat. They aren’t machines; they are biological life.”

Be Sun-Driven

“The energy source for the farm is the sun, preferably in real time. Clearly, God intended that the land would become more and more productive under proper stewardship. He gave the Israelites a clearly-marked boundary called the Promised Land, and then told them to be fruitful and multiply. This was before petroleum, chemical fertilizer, Faber-Bosch, pesticides, herbicides, and genetic modification. Our farm, then, leverages the carbon cycle for fertility and energy rather than chemicals and petroleum. Just like we’re supposed to be Son-driven spiritually, our farms should be sun-driven physically.”

You Cannot Have Life Without Death

“Perhaps one of the biggest travesties of the chemical fertilizer industry is to encourage the notion that life can spring from inanimate products, that life does not require sacrifice. The foundation of all ecology is the cycle of life, death, decomposition, and regeneration. A farm without a compost pile is a farm without a demonstration of that fundamental physical principle, which is a basic spiritual principle. Sacrifice precedes life. If you want to fully live, you die to yourself, to your spouse, to your classmates.

Disturbance creates succession. We live in a time of environmentalism by abandonment. To many, the environment is too sacred and special to be touched by human breath. But in fact, all innovation requires disturbance. All change requires disturbance. Repentance is disturbing, but it’s the precursor to spiritual growth. Disturbing the landscape–temporarily–to move it to a better state is one of our human mandates. Our big brains and opposing thumbs are not bestowed on us to make us more efficient pillagers of creation, but rather to massage this ecological womb so that it can be more productive and beautiful than it would be if left in a static state. That is our mission.”

Redemptive Work

Salatin is driven by his God-given calling to understand the intricacies of creation in order to steward all of the resources that God has given him. His faith motivated him not only to work more productively, but also redemptively. He says,

Part of our redemptive imperative is to extend our spiritual forgiveness to the physical universe around us, to show through physically healing our soil, air, and water the incredible capacity of a loving caress and sacrificial devotion to turn hurting landscapes into beautiful, productive areas.

Salatin passionately believes that his work in redeeming the earth with his gifts and talents puts flesh and practicality around the theological concept of Christ redeeming the soul.

Want to see what God can do for a person? Come and see our farm, and I’ll show you what God can do.

Next week, in the final part of my interview series with Joel Salatin, he will explore tensions between economic, environmental, and theological principles.

*This interview was originally published at the Creativity. Purpose. Freedom. blog.