Volume XIII, Number 6
November-December 2002

Stewards of the Earth
The religious mission to protect the environment is growing rapidly to encompass the world’s major faiths

By Jim Motavalli

When conservative evangelical Christians call for action on global warming, Hindu holy men dedicate themselves to saving sacred rivers and Buddhist monks work with Islamic mullahs to try to halt the extinction crisis, boundaries are clearly being redrawn in the ongoing struggle for the political hearts and minds of the world’s believers. Faith-based environmental activism is soaring, and with it comes new criticism that some religious leaders are straying from church doctrine. Many of the arguments hinge on a seemingly simple point: Did God give human beings “dominion” over the Earth, to control as we see fit, or did God give us “stewardship” of creation as a sacred trust?

Devout Hindu women praying in the Ganges River, whose growing pollution is stirring some of the faithful to environmental action.
© Reuters New Media/Corbis

One factor in the resurgence of faith-based environmentalism is the 1993 founding of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment (NRPE) by a former radio talk show host and spokesperson for New York City’s Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine named Paul Gorman (see sidebar interview). NRPE quickly proved its effectiveness by joining together and helping educate such disparate and mainstream bodies as the U.S. Catholic Conference (the policy agency for all Catholic bishops, clergy and parishes), the National Council of Churches of Christ (a federation of Protestant, Eastern Orthodox and African-American denominations), the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL, an alliance across all four Jewish movements) and the Evangelical Environmental Network (a coalition of evangelical Christian agencies and institutions).

With such dynamic leadership, churches are moving environmental concerns to the heart of their ministry, and they are calling on their congregants to take increasingly radical action. “A child born in a wealthy country is likely to consume, waste and pollute more in his lifetime than 50 children born in developing nations,” said the Archbishop of Canterbury in a New Year’s address on the eve of 2001. “It may not be time to build an ark like Noah, but it is high time to take better care of God’s creation.”

In 1997, the Patriarchate of the Greek Orthodox Church, Bartholomew I, used strong language against polluters. “To commit a crime against the natural world is a sin,” he said. “For humans to cause species to become extinct and to destroy the biological diversity of God’s creation…for humans to degrade the integrity of [the] Earth by causing changes in its climate, stripping the Earth of its natural forests or destroying its wetlands…for humans to contaminate the Earth’s waters, its land, its air and its life with poisonous substances, these are sins,” he said.

In a 1990 World Day of Peace message, Pope John Paul II emphasized that Christian responsibility toward nature is an essential part of faith. Statements like these are common across many denominations, but it’s the concrete actions and growing faith-based activism that represents an important change. The impassioned Earth Charter, which grew out of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, calls for an ethically based “global partnership to care for the Earth and one another.”

Last June, Patriarch Bartholomew and the Pope issued a strong “Common Declaration” that affirmed their environmental commitment. “God has not abandoned the world,” it said. “It is His will that His design and our hope for it will be realized through our co-operation in restoring its original harmony. In our own time we are witnessing a growth of an ecological awareness which needs to be encouraged, so that it will lead to practical programs and initiatives.”

The declaration can be read as a call to action. “It’s one thing to have theological arguments, but the average congregation needs to connect those with their own lives,” says Rebecca Gould, professor of religion and environmental studies at Vermont’s Middlebury College. “Environmental issues are a reminder that there is a connection.” According to Gould, congregations are beginning to step forward and say, “Our house of worship should reflect our beliefs for creation.” Some, like Ursula Goodenough, a professor of biology at Washington University, go even further and say that we may, indeed, need new houses of worship. “There are two ways the religious project can move forward,” she says. “One is working within the traditions and greening them, and the other is trying to articulate new religions where environmental transformation is the whole point.”

Reverend Nancy Wright’s Earth Ministry leads cleanups like this one on the Duwamish River in Seattle.
© Pete Dorman

The religious reawakening has rippled across faiths, creating unlikely coalitions. NRPE’s priority is to “weave the mission of care for God’s creation across all areas of organized religion.” Since 1993, it has incorporated environmental activities into already established social programs. Habitat for Humanity, a Christian housing organization, began identifying chemical threats in construction and promoting environmentally friendly materials; the United Jewish Appeal underwrote curricula for environmental education. The Association of Evangelical Relief and Development agencies prepared field staff to become environmental and anti-hunger campaigners.

Congregation-based projects were soon born as well: Jesus People Against Pollution in Columbia, Mississippi has surveyed 20,000 citizens affected by the chemical dioxin and forced Superfund clean-ups. The Sisters of the Immaculate Heart in Detroit, Michigan have turned a former crack cocaine house into a community garden and cleared 120 lots for planting trees and flowers. The Hamburg Presbyterian Church in upstate New York adopted a nearby creek, monitoring pH levels and winning it state designation as a protected habitat.

Since pollution concentrates in poor and often non-white neighborhoods, many churches see the struggle for environmental justice as ideally combining the twin missions of concern for the world’s disadvantaged with concern for the Earth itself. The United States Catholic Conference’s Environmental Justice Program awards grants to help parishes develop reuse plans for abandoned brownfields, educate communities about the health problems of toxic emissions, and train teachers in land stewardship and ethics. According to Program Director Walt Grazer, some 20,000 environmental justice resource kits have been distributed to every parish in the U.S.

Target Earth, a national Christian group, has activities in 15 countries, including field stations, hands-on service projects and conservation programs. Particularly active on college campuses, Target Earth educates students and sends them on green-themed alternative spring break programs.

The environmental work of Christian churches extends far beyond the U.S., to include such exemplary projects as the tree planting organized by Zimbabwe’s African Independent Churches (AIC) that has transformed what were once barren landscapes. Working with the indigenous Shona people of Zimbabwe, the churches’ ZIRCON environmental arm plants more than one million native and non-native fruit trees per year.

Jesus People Against Pollution, based in Columbia, Missouri, has spurred cleanup of dioxin-contaminated Superfund sites.

Ultimately, the care for creation agenda will be advanced congregation by congregation, at the grassroots level. That’s just the approach taken by Seattle-based Earth Ministry, which has recruited what it calls colleagues in 90 mainline Christian churches in the Puget Sound area. According to Nancy Wright, a Congregational minister and program associate with Earth Ministry, the colleagues lead book discussions, organize hikes and stream restorations, promote community-supported agriculture and conduct top-to-bottom “greenings” of church facilities.

Wright is optimistic about the chances for spreading this new gospel, but she’s also realistic. “Unfortunately,” she says, “the churches are declining in membership, and that is a factor. But I see wonderful developments like the Patriarch’s statement and it makes me hopeful. It’s not really a new thing that fellowship with God includes care for creation—it goes back to scripture. But we’re awakening to new possibilities.”

Science and Religion Meet

There is an uncomfortable moment during the film Contact in which the scientist Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) is asked if she believes in God. Never having been confronted with this question before, the usually voluble scientist answers evasively, and it temporarily sinks her mission as Earth’s representative to other worlds.

Many of today’s scientists would be more prepared for religious questions. In 1995, for example, Heinz Award-winning marine biologist Jane Lubchenco was a participant in a conference organized by the Greek Orthodox Church that marked the 1,900th anniversary of the Book of Revelations and focused on “The Apocalypse and the Environment.” She says, “There’s a reawakening in many different faith groups, and it’s informed by science but certainly not driven by it.”

In 1937, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Max Planck wrote in his essay “On Religion and Science,” “Man needs science in order to know; religion in order to act.” In their book The Good in Nature and Humanity, Stephen Kellert and Timothy Farnham talk about the need for “a common vocabulary, a language that allows thoughtful people to cross over safely and share ideas about science, religion, spirituality and the natural world.”

Mary Evelyn Tucker of Bucknell University organized the “Religions of the World and Ecology” conference series at Harvard.

Science and religion were once more intimately connected. Mary Evelyn Tucker, the Bucknell University professor of religion who (with her husband John Grim) organized the “Religions of the World and Ecology” conference series at Harvard (see sidebar), says, “All of the religious traditions, from those of the indigenous peoples to Taoism and Confucianism, have had a sense that we live within a larger cosmos. They saw a bigger frame of time and space, with us dwelling in what you might call ‘intimate immensities,’ that recognized not only the vastness of the universe but also the intimacy of natural processes. For example, the beauty and mystery of a sunset will stop us all, and science alone cannot fully explain all the incredible complexity at work. For that, we developed liturgical celebrations of the solstice and equinox, but much of this fell into disuse as religions became more human-centered and neglected the connection to the Earth.”

That may now be changing, in part because of the immensity of the environmental crisis we face. In a lecture delivered as part of the Harvard series in 1996, religious historian Thomas Berry noted hopefully that “perhaps a new revelatory experience is taking place, an experience wherein human consciousness awakens to the grandeur and sacred quality of the Earth process. Humanity has not participated in such a vision since shamanic times, but in such a renewal lies our hope for the future for ourselves and for the entire planet.” Berry’s idea of renewal is reflected in a 1992 warning signed by 1,670 scientists, including 104 Nobel laureates, that called for “a great change in our stewardship of the Earth.”

George Fisher, a professor of geology at Johns Hopkins, asks, “How do those of us living in the western world share resources with the other 90 percent of the Earth’s population? These are scientific questions in part, because we need to know how the Earth works, but science doesn’t tell us what we should do. Those are moral and ethical questions.”

Writing in a special issue of Daedalus magazine edited by Tucker and Grim, Columbia University Professor George Rupp notes that humanity has developed the capacity to alter the Earth, its climate and its biodiversity in a profound way, and that “the critical question is whether we have the wisdom and ethical maturity to employ our scientific and technological skills with discretion. We need to step back and take stock if we are to avoid serious mistakes.” John Cobb, Jr. of the Claremont School of Theology calls for an engaged Christian church that “finds it way between leaving all to God and celebrating the human ability to create.” In 1972, he wrote a book called Is it Too Late?, and he’s still asking that question.

“It is we who belong to the Earth,” says influential Indian thinker Vasudha Narayanan.
© University of Florida

Religion offers a framework for that kind of analysis. And it is becoming increasingly clear to many religious denominations that environmental issues are intruding on what have traditionally been their concerns, such as alleviating the suffering of the poor. As Pennsylvania-based environmental attorney Donald Brown writes in Daedalus, climate change acquires a clear ethical dimension when, despite the disproportionate generation of global warming gases by wealthier nations, its biggest impact is on the health, food supplies and well-being of the world’s poorest people.

NRPE’s Gorman points out that the Biblical story of Noah’s ark is a powerful prophetic argument for preserving biodiversity. “Noah’s covenant is with all creation for succeeding generations,” he says.

One of the world’s most prominent scientists, entomologist E.O. Wilson of Harvard, has written eloquently about the extinction crisis, and he is heartened by the growing alliance between religious groups and scientists. “I like to think that the environmental values of secular and religious alike arise from the same innate attraction to nature,” he writes in The Future of Life. “They express the same compassion for animals, aesthetic response to free-living flowers and birds, and wonders at the mysteries of wild environments.” Marc Bekoff, the author of Minding Animals and a professor of animal behavior at the University of Colorado, also sees a growing concern among faith communities about the importance of preserving species. “It’s amazing to me the number of religious scholars who want to know about animal behavior and animal ecology,” he adds.

Energy and Climate: Galvanizing Issues

The religious community is joining a growing movement against global warming that is determined to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by building support for sustainable energy. Against a vacuum of leadership from the federal government, it is building from the bottom up.

Meeting in Oxford, England last July, a landmark gathering of environmental scientists, theologians and policymakers issued a declaration stating very firmly that global warming is real, and that it is the duty of committed Christians to do something about it. “By reducing the Earth’s biological diversity,” their statement said, “human-induced climate change diminishes God’s creation….The call to ‘love the Lord Your God and love your neighbor’ (Matthew 22:37-39) takes on new implications in the face of present and projected climate change.”

“This was an important breakthrough,” says Climate Forum 2002 participant Reverend Jim Ball, the American Baptist minister who heads the Evangelical Environmental Network. “The meeting brought together senior climate scientists and Christian leaders, and it really helped us understand this crucial issue.”

It helped that many of the participating scientists were themselves evangelical Christians, including co-convenor Sir John Houghton of the John Ray Initiative, a former science advisor to Margaret Thatcher who edited the first and second assessment reports for the UN-sponsored Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Sally Bingham of the Grace Cathedral in San Francisco organized California Interfaith Power and Light to promote energy-conscious thinking on the local level.
© Rick Johnson

Among the declaration’s signers was Reverend Richard Cizik, vice president of the National Association of Evangelicals, an influential body that represents between 25 and 40 million churchgoers. “Many evangelicals have been led to believe that the challenge of global warming is simply fiction, but I don’t see how they could take a look at the evidence of these scientists—many of whom are also Christians—and not be convinced. The church community is challenged to examine the evidence for global warming, and to respond to the fact of it,” Cizik says.

For many environmentalists, the phrase “evangelical Christian” is likely to conjure an implacable enemy who supports Jerry Falwell, the Christian Coalition and the polluters’ lobby in Congress. But in fact there is a wide spectrum of opinion—and a growing activism for the environment. “Our purpose as an organization is to help evangelical Christians understand what the Bible says about caring for all creation,” says Ball, another Oxford signatory.

The Oxford Declaration was not a shot in the dark or an isolated incident. “The involvement of the religious community is growing quickly—and is essential,” says climate journalist Ross Gelbspan, author of The Heat is On. “When I talk about the climate crisis to policymakers, I cast it in terms of bottom line thinking because that’s their vocabulary. But, at root, climate change is a moral and ethical issue.”

Sally Bingham, the environmental minister at the Episcopal Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, cites the second chapter of Genesis as a motivation for her work. “God put Adam in the Garden to till it and to keep it. We haven’t done a very good job of that. Christians are commanded to love their neighbors, and you can’t do that by polluting their air and water.”

The Dalai Lama, seen here with native South Americans, has been an outspoken voice for the environment.
© Reuters New Media / Corbis

Bingham formed California Interfaith Power and Light to convince the state’s 50,000 religious congregations to become more energy-conscious. Bingham, who was briefly jailed for a nonviolent protest against proposed oil drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, has recruited Jewish and Muslim congregations. Members are asked to sign “covenants” committing them to improving the energy
efficiency of their buildings, to creating global warming education campaigns, and to using renewable energy when possible. There are now solar panels on the roofs of Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in Sacramento and Congregation Shir Hadash in Los Gatos, for instance. Volunteers like Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown have helped more than 150 member parishes install compact fluorescent lights and make other energy-saving changes. An action guide for this kind of hands-on reform, Responsible Purchasing for Faith Communities, is available from the Center for a New American Dream (www.newdream.org).

In 2001, the U.S. Catholic Bishops said in an unequivocal statement: “While some uncertainty remains, most experts agree that something significant is happening to the atmosphere. Human behavior and activity are, according to the most recent findings of international scientific bodies, contributing to a warming of the Earth’s climate….Consequently, it seems prudent not only to continue to research and monitor this phenomenon, but to take steps now to mitigate possible negative effects.”

That same year, Congregational minister Dan Smith took to his pulpit in Lexington, Massachusetts and asked, “What Would Jesus Drive?” Such questions are rooted in evangelical tradition, where “What Would Jesus Do?” is a common query. With help from environmental writer Bill McKibben, Smith crafted a campaign that included demonstrations at sport-utility vehicle (SUV) dealerships. “I wanted to encourage faithful people to consider how their daily decisions were either contributing to healing God’s creation or to the destruction of it,” Smith told his congregants. In an interview, he added, “I felt compelled to say something about global warming, but our church parking lot is usually half full of SUVs. For me to be involved in an activist rally surprised some people, but the congregation has been supportive.” The Evangelical Environmental Network hopes to launch “What Would Jesus Drive?” as a national campaign.

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs (representing 13 national and 122 local Jewish public affairs organizations) adopted a resolution advocating that Congress move toward a clean and sustainable energy system that will diminish reliance on imported oil and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. COEJL director Mark Jacobs testified before Congress in support of increasing vehicle fuel economy standards.

Interfaith global climate change campaigns have formed in 18 states, educating congregations and organizing visits with elected officials. The National Council of Churches (NCC), working with COEJL, created the Interfaith Climate Change Network, which describes global warming as “a matter of justice…for future generations who will inherit an unstable climate.” Bob Edgar, the Methodist minister and former Congressman who is NCC’s general secretary, says, “We’ve led efforts on climate change, and we’ve educated people about energy efficiency.”

Active for Islam

Especially in light of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, it’s important to point out the deep ecological teachings inherent in Islam, and the very real on-the-ground projects that have developed from them. Although high-impact environmentalism is still not widespread in Islamic societies, some efforts have taken root. The Sultan of Oman, for instance, has worked with the World Wildlife Fund to successfully reintroduce the native oryx (an antelope that had disappeared from the wild in the 1970s). And in Saudi Arabia, King Fahd established research centers to breed endangered species, coupled with a network of nature reserves and a public education campaign.

“Allah entrusted man with the guardianship of the Earth,” says the Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environmental Sciences, founded in the mid-1980s. “We have to fulfill that ancient trust now, before it becomes too late.” The foundation has set up an extensive training program in environmental teachings based on the Qur’an. It promotes self-sufficiency in farming through organic agriculture and permaculture, and it serves as a demonstration center for solar technology, water wheels, waste recycling and wind power. The foundation distributes a teaching pack entitled Qur’an Creation and Conservation, and it is setting up the Muslim Alliance for Conservation as an international grassroots organization.

Richard Foltz, an Islamicist who teaches in the religion department at the University of Florida, says the strongest environmental activism in the Muslim world occurs in Iran, which also has the most direct Islamic rule. Although the mullahs are not themselves sponsors of green initiatives, the revolutionary constitution adapted in 1979 asserts that protection of the natural environment is “a public obligation,” and that “all activities, economic or otherwise, which may cause irreversible damage to the environment are forbidden.”

Rabbi Arthur Waskow says that modern plagues involve corporate pollution of the Hudson River, not clouds of locusts.

Despite the strong words, however, Teheran, Iran’s capital city, has some of the worst air pollution in the world, killing an estimated 7,500 people a year from related illnesses. The country also faces water and population crises, and some 149 independent Iranian environmental groups have been launched in response. Among the most active is the Green Front, established by four medical students in 1989. In 1999, it organized hundreds of volunteers in a cleanup of the Caspian Sea coast.

Although many Muslim countries campaign against women’s reproductive rights, Iran’s Islamic government has one of the world’s most extensive birth control programs. Family planning courses are mandatory for engaged couples, and birth control devices are free and widely available. According to the Population Reference Bureau, an annual growth rate of 3.9 percent in 1976 has been slashed to 1.2 percent today.

“Iran shatters all the stereotypes about Islam and the environment,” says Foltz. This is due at least in part to pioneering work done by Seyyed Hossein Nasr of George Washington University, author of the influential Man and Nature. The environmental crisis, he says, “is in reality a spiritual and religious crisis.” Unfortunately, while Iran is a role model for much of the Islamic world, it has found few adherents on the environment. In most Islamic countries, population control is a taboo subject, and rigid centralized control stifles grassroots movements. Women’s rights and, by most measures, freedom, are the lowest in the world in Arab societies, according to the United Nations’ Arab Human Development Report 2002.

The Buddhist Way

There is a strong tradition of respect for nature in Buddhism as well. As Nick Wallis of the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order explains, “All the most significant events [of Buddha’s life] occur in the countryside and are associated with trees.” Buddha was born as his mother grasped the branch of a sal tree, and he achieved Enlightenment beneath the Bodhi tree. “Studying Buddhism, I was taught the importance of a caring attitude toward the environment,” writes the Dalai Lama. “Our practice of nonviolence applies not just to human beings but to all sentient beings or any living thing.”

In practice, environmentalists face an uphill battle being heard in societies that are authoritarian and rapidly industrializing, but religious faith has manifested itself in courageous ways. Some 700 Thai monks and nuns are united in Sekiya Dhamma, a network that has fought logging and other environmental exploitation. One such monk is Pha Pachak, who in order to protect forests from loggers wrapped saffron monk’s cloth around imperiled trees and blessed them. The tactic worked, since killing an ordained being is a dangerous undertaking for people of Buddhist faith. But Pha Pachak was beaten and thrown in jail for his obstruction of the powerful lumber industry. Pachak’s work is carried on: in 1999, an International Solidarity Walk through Thailand ended with an Interfaith Tree Ordination.

The monk Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, who died in 1993, was a kindred spirit; he was very politically active and a strong environmentalist. “The greedy and selfish are destroying nature,” he declared. Also in Thailand, writer and activist Sulak Sivaraska has helped form a number of groups, including the International Network of Engaged Buddhists. Like Pachak, he has been arrested for his work. “Not only our traditional culture, but our natural environment is in crisis,” he says.

A modern Buddhist philanthropic organization, Tzu Chi, has promoted recycling efforts in Taiwan and Malaysia. Americans, too, have promoted their own form of socially engaged Buddhism, through the work of pioneers like poet Gary Snyder, author Joanne Macy and Swarthmore Professor of Religion Donald Swearer.

Hinduism’s Green Tradition

Although Hinduism expresses a reverence for nature, imbuing rivers, forests and mountains with divine significance, India today is in its worst environmental crisis, facing 2.5 million premature deaths annually from air pollution alone. As Hinduism Today points out, “Most economic advancement during the last half century has come at severe environmental cost: falling water tables, soil loss, air and water pollution, forest degradation, overgrazing, loss of species and unmanageable municipal waste.”

Buddha attained enlightenment under a Bodhi tree like this one.
© Lindsay Hebberd / Corbis

P.R. Trivedy, chairman of the Indian Institute of Ecology and Environment, says, “In the Vedas and other religious books there are detailed discussions and descriptions on nature and how to protect it. There is an urgent need to have a competent cadre of Hindu leaders educated and trained in religion, culture and the environment.”

Suman Sahai, who campaigns for farmers’ rights, points out that the 5,000-year-old Hindu tradition respects all forms of life. “Religious leaders can do wonders, but we are forgetting our traditions and have done nothing so far,” she says.

Perhaps “nothing” is a little strong. Through the work of the Institute of Himalyan Environment and Development, Hindu pilgrims to mountain provinces ravaged by clear-cutting have been convinced to plant trees in God’s name—with dramatically successful results. One sadhu, or holy man, 80-year-old Swami Vankhandi, personally replanted 15 acres of deforested land and fought off loggers. India’s wealthiest Hindu temple, Tirumala Tirupati in Andhra Pradesh, has organized the planting of several million trees across the country. Another temple, Venkateswara, has encouraged pilgrims to plant 2.5 million trees.

One of India’s foremost environmentalists, Vandana Shiva, predicts that the country will be in a severe food and water crisis by 2020. But she also points to some points of light in the form of faith-based activism. “Swami Chidanand of Hardiwar blessed the struggle against Tehri Dam [in the hills of Uttar Pradesh, the dam will submerge 100 villages and damage the Ganga River] and the Chipko movement [Indian “tree huggers” who have blocked loggers],” Shiva says.

Vasudha Narayanan, in an eloquent essay entitled “One Tree is Equal to 10 Sons: Hindu Responses to the Problems of Ecology, Population and Consumption,” summed up the reformists’ message. “It is we who belong to the Earth,” she wrote, “and by wrongly usurping what is not ours and what should be shared with future generations of human beings, we are indulging in adharmic, or unrighteous behavior.”

Jewish Reverence for Life

Arizona State Professor Hava Tirosh-Samuelson cites the Jewish ideal of tikkun olam, or “repair of the world,” as helping to promote a new Jewish concern for the environment. “The Talmudic sages express great concern about preserving the environment and preventing pollution,” writes Richard Schwartz in his book Judaism and Global Survival. “It is forbidden,” he quotes, “to live in a town which has not garden or greenery.” And he cites an ancient Jewish story, in which two men who are quarreling over ownership of a piece of land go to see their rabbi, who puts his ear to the ground and proclaims, “Let us ask the land.” As the rabbi straightens up, he announces, “Gentlemen, the land says it belongs to neither of you but that you belong to it.”

In what has become something of a Jewish Earth Day, congregations plant trees and pursue agricultural projects on Tu B’Shevat, the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat. On that day, observant Jews believe, God decides how bountiful the fruit trees will be in the next year.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, who founded and runs the Philadelphia-based Shalom Center, writes of such traditions in books like Trees, Earth and Torah. “We are reviving ancient harvest festivals and integrating concern for the Earth into the fabric of Jewish life,” Waskow says. “Instead of simply asking God to protect us from famine and locusts, we’re asking to be saved from General Electric’s pollution of the Hudson River.”

The Shalom Center is on the front lines. “Focusing on the Jewish heritage of protecting trees,” Waskow says, “we joined with such groups as the Redwood Rabbis and brought people to Maxaam shareholders’ meetings to protest against logging ancient redwoods. We held a ‘plant-in’ on company land and were nearly arrested.” The Redwood Rabbis also sponsored the “National Forest Protection and Restoration Act” to safeguard all national forests from commercial logging, a piece of legislation spearheaded by Christians Caring for Creation, and by the Religious Campaign for Forest Conservation.

The Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life has 26 member organizations. Formed in 1993, the group states forcefully that “the ecological crisis hovers over all Jewish concerns, for the threat is global, advancing, and ultimately jeopardizes ecological balance and the quality of life.”

A religiously inspired campaign in Muslim Oman has successfully reintroduced the native oryx into the wild.
© Corbis

Energy security, global warming and forest protection are primary COEJL concerns, and members conduct letter-writing campaigns and other actions. COEJL Chair Sharon Bloome blasts efforts to drill for oil in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). “We do not need to drill in ANWR to maintain our capacity to ensure Israel’s oil supply,” she says. “Israel’s oil use is less than two percent that of the United States.”

Another Jewish activist, Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb of the Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Maryland, is a co-chair of the Massachusetts-based Religious Witness for the Earth (RWE). RWE has called for religious witness against ANWR drilling, and organized a prayer vigil and nonviolent protest outside the U.S. Department of Energy resulting in 22 arrests. “The prophets weren’t always popular,” says Dobb, “but their calls to justice became the enduring voices of their generations.”

The increasing momentum on domestic environmental issues is unfortunately not mirrored in the Middle East. Tragically, one casualty of the intifada in Israel and the West Bank has been environmental partnerships between Jews and Muslims. For instance, a university-led project on air pollution receiving Palestinian cooperation collapsed after the recent conflicts. Nevertheless, there is a strong tradition of interfaith work on issues ranging from water distribution to pollution.

Theological Dissent

If religious campaigns for the environment were ineffective, they probably wouldn’t generate much opposition. But, perhaps sensing a gathering consensus, some groups have been critical, particularly the Michigan-based Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, headed and co-founded by Catholic priest Robert A. Sirico.

Sirico denounces “this ongoing alliance between the radical environmental movement and the faith community” as “tragically unreflective.” In a written response to E questions, he invoked the pastoral division between God’s mission for humankind: stewardship or dominion. “In the first chapter of Genesis,” he argues, “man is given dominion over the Earth. This clearly specifies that man—not the birds or cows—is responsible for the world and enjoys a large degree of prudential discretion in how he uses his authority.”

Iran-born Seyyed Hossein Nasr of George Washington University campaigns for a greener Islam.
© Ibrahim Kalin

Sirico strikes out at what he calls “the New-Ageist neo-paganism in which people ascribe divine status to animals and plants,” though a huge amount of religious activism has been coming from mainstream denominations. The Acton Institute was inflamed by a television advertisement jointly sponsored by the Sierra Club and the National Council of Churches that attacked President Bush’s proposal to drill for oil in ANWR as incompatible with “caring for creation.” It was further incensed when the Wall Street Journal quoted Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope as saying “the relationship with the churches gives him new clout on Capitol Hill.” According to Sirico’s associate, Phillip DeVous, “That kind of activist campaign serves the interests of the Sierra Club more than it does Christianity. The nuanced church message is lumped in with the green political agenda.”

By being out front on a number of issues, NCC has become a lightning rod of criticism for conservative theologians. “The NCC is in the pocket of a lot of those environmental groups,” says Michael Cromartie, vice president of the Washington, D.C.-based Ethics and Public Policy Center. Because he signed the Oxford Declaration on global warming, Reverend Cizik of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) worries that “friends at the Heritage Foundation and on the political right” will now think him a candidate for NCC membership. But Cizik isn’t going that far. “The NAE is the conservative alternative to the National Council of Churches,” he says. “We represent mainline Christianity today, which the NCC does not.”

Bob Edgar of NCC says the group earned its scarlet letter from conservatives 50 years ago, when it translated the Bible from the original Hebrew and Greek and helped to foster the idea of stewardship, rather than dominion, over the Earth. “We were also part of the civil rights movement, working with Martin Luther King, so that was a factor in our liberal reputation,” Edgar says. “We don’t agree with the Sierra Club on everything, but on some issues we have like-mindedness,” he says.

Conservative theologians formed their own coalition, the Interfaith Council for Environmental Stewardship (now dormant, it spoke out against “a romantic view of nature”). In 1999, 25 of them got together in West Cornwall, Connecticut and drew up what’s known as the Cornwall Declaration. This document praises advances in human health, nutrition and life expectancy, and says that economic progress shouldn’t be traded for environmental goals. “Many people mistakenly view humans as principally consumers and polluters rather than producers and stewards,” the Declaration states. “Consequently, they ignore our potential, as bearers of God’s image, to add to the Earth’s abundance.”

Paul Gorman of the National Religious Partnership says that, despite the rhetoric, it’s not accurate to see the current struggle as one between the concepts of stewardship and dominion. The evidence of humankind’s dominion is all around us, in our warming atmosphere, polluted seas and deforested plains. An increasing number of the faithful see that evidence, too, and that—rather than an excess of romanticism or mistaken neo-pagan beliefs—is what’s turning believers all over the world into activists for the Earth.

JIM MOTAVALLI is editor of E.