Editor’s note: “Look Back” is a series designed to highlight articles from the Good Faith Media archives that remain relevant or historically interesting. This article is being reposted to call attention to Earth Day 2022 (April 22). This article first appeared at EthicsDaily.com on June 16, 2006. At the time of publication, Parham (1953 – 2017) was executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics and executive editor of EthicsDaily.com.
The Bible is God’s green book, staking out the divine imperative for earth care.
Even the red-lettered Bible, the one that has what Jesus said in red letters, is really a green Bible. In fact, Jesus’ Great Commandment has green all over it (Matt. 22:37-40).
Jesus told us to love our neighbors: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (v. 39). Christians have interpreted this commandment in exclusive ways to refer only to those who live next door, across town or overseas. Christians have traditionally defined neighbor in terms of geography. That definition is too limiting, however.
One way to expand the definition beyond geography is with chronology. We would do well to see those across time as our neighbors for whom we have a moral obligation. Out of his Jewish heritage, Jesus surely had a more inclusive concept of neighbor than one rooted only in geography.
Jesus cited Leviticus 19:18: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Knowing Hebrew scripture, he also was familiar with the text immediately following it: “When you come into the land and plant all kinds of trees for food, then you shall count their fruits as forbidden; three years it shall be forbidden to you, it must not be eaten. And in the fourth year all their fruit shall be holy, an offering of praise to the Lord. But in the fifth year you may eat of their fruit, that they may yield more richly for you” (Lev. 19:23-25).
This text is about nurturing nature and practicing consumer restraint for good benefits in the future.
Consider these texts that share much of the same context.
Deuteronomy 22:6-7. “If you chance to come upon a bird’s nest … with young ones or eggs and the mother sitting upon the young or upon eggs, you shall not take the mother with the young; you shall let the mother go, but the young you may take to yourself; that it may go well with you.”
Deuteronomy 20:19-20. “When you besiege a city for a long time, making war against it … you shall not destroy its trees … for you may eat of them, but you shall not cut them down.”
These texts instruct the Hebrews to guard nature—no obliteration of species, no destruction for short-time gain, no short-sightedness about immediate need, no justification of greed. The texts have an eye on today for the sake of tomorrow.
Given Jesus’ engagement with Sabbath teaching and practice, he surely knew the Sabbath’s broad application. The Sabbath was a time for work animals to rest, according to the fourth commandment (Ex. 20:10).
A workweek had six days. The seventh day was a time for human beings and farm animals to rest, to catch their breath (Ex. 23:12).
The sabbatical year was a time for the earth, vineyards and olive orchards to rest (Ex. 23:11), what Leviticus 25:4 called “a solemn rest.” It was a time that benefited “the wild beasts.”
These texts underscored the divine value of the animal and material world, albeit with positive consequences for human inhabitants and their offspring.
From the biblical perspective, we should see future generations as our neighbors across time. Indeed, we love our neighbors in the future with what we do in the present, or we damn them with what we fail to do or do wrongly.
The green Bible is an inconvenient truth for too many conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists.
Too many of them read Scripture through their preexisting ideological lenses—lenses of unfettered free-market capitalism as divinely sanctioned and blind exploitation of natural resources as fulfillment of the command to have dominion over creation. They inexplicably believe the Bible validates unrestrained consumerism and negates government regulation for the common good. They believe the end is soon so caring for creation doesn’t matter.
Sadly, the Southern Baptist Convention adopted a resolution in Greensboro that slams thoughtful evangelicals who have committed themselves to working on global warming. The resolution rightly criticizes the worship of nature and wrongly ignores the worship of the American marketplace. It offers not a word of admonition about our materialistic culture and scientists who do the bidding of greed driven corporations. As bad as those failures of moral reasoning are, an even worse mistake is in a false choice.
The SBC resolution warns that environmentalism may divide and distract the evangelical community from the Great Commission.
Good theology refuses to engage in an either/or framework about missions and moral action. Good Baptist theology values both the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20) and Great Commandment (Matt. 22:37-40). Good theology does not play one off against the other.
Most often Great Commission work takes places where environmental degradation is profound, causing widespread human suffering, in the very places where Great Commandment work is critical.
If we really want to be faithful to both the Great Commission and the Great Commandment, we need to protect Planet Earth for our neighbors in time and across time.
A good beginning place with this cause is reading from the green Bible.