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Should Evangelicals Forgive the Environmental Movement?--Skeel

Last week I finished reviewing the coverage of environmental issues in Christianity Today over the past forty years (for an article described in this post), and in Sunday school heard a discussion of Christ’s warning at the end of the Lord’s Prayer that “if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matthew 6:14) Forgiveness and evangelicals’ stance toward environmentalism don’t seem to have a great deal in common. I wonder if perhaps they should.

In the late 1960s, at the advent of the environmental movement, a famous article by Lynn White in Science magazine blamed Christianity for the perceived environmental crisis, claiming that the Christian doctrine of man’s dominion over nature was responsible for spoliation of the earth. Other environmentalists picked up the theme, some calling for a new pantheism. Judging from Christianity Today’s coverage, many evangelicals seem to have been sympathetic to environmentalism in those early years, but in the 1970s and 1980s the perception that environmentalism was anti-Christian contributed to the growing hostility to environmentalism.

Christ’s statement that those who forgive others will be forgiven has individuals in mind, of course, but I think he is also talking about the church, and its need to forgive corporately. (The “you” in the passage is plural in the Greek). I don’t mean to suggest that if we truly forgave the potshots at Christianity evangelicals would all become environmentalists. (Nor do I mean to suggest that evangelicals have only been sinned against, rather than sinning). Many might still conclude that, say, the costs of addressing climate change are too great and the prospects of success too small to justify major governmental initiatives. And some might question the value of taking steps in our own lives to reduce energy consumption or waste.

But I think that a conscious effort to forgive the baggage of the past might change the debate, at least a little. And given the insistence on the need to forgive (which I’d never noticed before is Christ’s single emphasis at the end of the prayer), surely it can’t hurt to look for opportunities to put forgiveness in action, both in the church and in the world.


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Comments ( 4 )

Dear Mr. Skeel,

Greetings, and thank you for this post.

I have struggled all my adult life with environmental guilt: I have been at times almost paranoid as I've picked trash from the roadside or failed to recycle a newspaper. My guilt has made me sensitive to the health of the planet, even to the point where I've enjoyed fantasies limned with spiteful misanthropy. But I remember my anger when I heard the obscene charge against Christianity in general, claiming that the descriptive "dominion over the earth" was really callously prescriptive, full of hubris, a harbinger of heartlessness and toxic abuse.

You have raised a curious question, one I've not ever considered: Do I forgive those who brought such a severe charge against my religion? I wonder.

I have often wondered what Jesus might have meant in the passage you cited. If I am to forgive as God forgives, then I must ask, "How does God forgive?" Does God forgive unconditionally and we merely accept or reject that kind gift, or does He forgive conditionally; is His forgiveness contingent on our contrition, our repentance, even our asking? If the latter, then can I forgive the environmental movement, since the movers in that movement do not seem particularly contrite? Can I forgive those who do not ask for forgiveness?

One wonders. I have never really landed on a solid answer when I ask myself such questions. Perhaps this is one of those things, like the writer of Proverbs might have said, that is just too glorious or too transcendent for me to apprehend.

But you have got me thinking -- again -- and I thank you for that.

Peace and mirth,

Bill Gnade

Dear Professor Skeel,

You know, it just struck me that we know of at least one condition that must be met before God forgives us. That condition is right there in Jesus' own words: IF we don't forgive others, then God will not forgive us. Put in a more positive tone, the conditional would sound like this: If you have forgiven others, God forgives you. Or is that a corruption of what Jesus is saying?



I think the question whether forgiveness assumes that the other person or group first asks for forgiveness is a difficult and important one. Although Jesus asked the Father to forgive those who persecuted him, despite their lack of remorse, most of the time Scripture seems to me to contemplate forgiveness in response to a request for forgiveness. But Jesus is so insistent on our need to forgive that it seems to me that we should always err on the side of forgiving.

To Bill's question:
At the point of belief in JC and salvation, all sins past, present and future, are already forgiven. Belief is the only condition. If we were asked to be contrite, sorry, or heartily sorry, or to say "mea maxima culpa", etc., in order to receive forgiveness from God - that would be a work of ours. Even contrition is a work of God in one's heart, not something one offers to God in exchange for forgiveness. Just my two cents.
Will we apprehend totally the mystery of God's forgiveness so we can apply it in like manner to others? I don't think so. The point seems to be awareness of where our hearts stand in relation to God. With unforgiveness in our hearts to anyone, we can't be in close fellowship with God, so forgiveness is not an option or dependent on whether someone asks for it. It's a matter between us and God.
PS - There are a lot of green Christians in today's youth, I've found, who aren't even aware of the any animosity/dichotomy between evangelicals and environmentalists.