Christianity and Stewardship, North and South

The popularity of Lynn White’s argument shows that it is too easy to think that Christianity is inevitably opposed to an environmental perspective or that evangelicals will reject mainstream climate science. In a previous post, I looked at some American evangelicals who sought to counter the Lynn White thesis by creating a theology that encouraged environmental responsibility. These people are part of a large evangelical movement promoting what some have called Creation Care. To understand more about these people, I point you to works such as Between God and Green by Katharine K. Wilkinson1 and to evangelical scientists like Katherine Hayhoe.2

So why is there still such strong resistance among American conservative religionists to environmentalism? Both Hayhoe and Wilkinson explain that much of the reason for this has to do with political choices that were made back in the 1970s and 1980s when many conservative evangelicals made alliances with political movements on the American far-right. These were political decisions, not primarily theological ones, and they were decisions made in an American context.

To see just how different the shape of religious movements can be in a new political context, we need to step outside of the United States. In South America there is a completely different theological perspective, and this is due in great measure to the fact that political, social, and economic conditions are very different there. In both Catholic and Protestant circles in the South we find prominent men and women who hold conservative theological positions, yet who are deeply concerned with environmental stewardship.

Consider the Argentine Jesuit Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis. His stance on most theological issues remains unquestionably orthodox, but he also has spoken out strongly against the sin of exploiting the Earth, and he calls environmental problems one of the greatest challenges of our time, urging us to learn to respect Creation. He expresses all this in theological language.3

In Brazil, we have just witnessed the rise to prominence of Marina Silva, an Amazon-born environmentalist and Pentecostal Christian, the first evangelical to have had a possibility of winning the presidency. Although last week, she was defeated in the three-way race that would have allowed her to move forward, her role in previous Brazilian administrations and her leadership on environmental issues testifies to her importance. In 1995, she drafted a law that would regulate access to genetic resources and protect indigenous knowledge. She is a strong advocate of sustainability and protecting the rainforests. These ideas stem in part from Catholic Liberation Theology, which she embraced before she became an evangelical. She is now a member of the Assembly of God church and believes in faith healing, yet like Pope Francis, she strongly supports sustainability and defends environmental action.4

In both cases, these two figures have espoused a type of Christian theology compatible with a strong environmental mission. As these examples illustrate, the American stereotype of the anti-environmentalist Christian does not hold everywhere. Religious beliefs are highly local phenomena, and the way that they get expressed on different issues varies dramatically from place to place. (A marvelous article by David Livingstone illustrates this phenomenon among nineteenth-century Presbyterians who had completely different views on Darwinism because of the different political struggles that they faced in Edinburgh and in Belfast.5)

Since 1994 there have been at least nine major statements by evangelical activists, mostly in America, calling for action on global warming. These have been attempts to counteract the largely antagonistic stance of most conservative American evangelicals. As you read these statements, you find that they consistently turn to the principle of stewardship as the means by which they make the case for the environment. (Stewardship is a principle that has strong resonance with the notion of habitability as we talk about it in this blog, insofar as both terms presuppose that humankind has an effect on the world we inhabit; stewardship goes further than habitability by claiming that we have a moral responsibility to take care of it.)

One thing that I have noticed in all of this literature, be it from South America or from Creation Care environmentalists in America, is that the stewardship argument often entails a strong concern for the poor. The theologians who have drafted these statements are worried about how the environment effects the poorest among us. This immediately brings up the notion of social and economic justice. (See Noah’s post, where he talks about the Climate Justice Movement.) When environmental activism comes to be associated with social and economic activism, it is no wonder that the right-wing politicians in the United States get so worked up about climate change. For years they have identified their Christianity closely with free-market economics, and economic justice theories tend to oppose out-and-out laissez-faire that is now so commonly promoted on the right. This is not the case in the South, which is why I believe that Christianity has come to be expressed so differently down there.

Context makes all the difference.


  1. Katherine K. Wilkinson, Between God & Green: How Evangelicals Are Cultivating a Middle Ground on Climate Change (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012). 
  2. Bill Moyers and Katherine Hayhoe, “Climate Change—Fact and Faith,” Moyers & Company, September 12, 2014. URL: http://billmoyers.com/episode/full-show-climate-change-faith-and-fact/
  3. Tara Isabella Burton, “Pope Francis’s Radical Environmentalism,” The Atlantic (July 11, 2014). URL: http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/07/pope-franciss-radical-rethinking-of-environmentalism/374300/
  4. “News: Political Science & MIT Brazil Welcomes Marina Silva, Ex-Minister of the Environment, Brazil to MIT,” MIT Political Science, http://web.mit.edu/polisci/news/2012/dss.msilva.html
  5. David Livingstone, “Re-placing Darwinism and Christianity,” pp. 183-202, in David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers, When Science and Christianity Meet (University of Chicago Press, 2003). 
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2 thoughts on “Christianity and Stewardship, North and South

  1. Here’s a question about the relationship between stewardship and habitability, in the spirit of exploring the resonance you see between them. I’d always thought that stewardship is, in a way, a self-effacing notion–in the sense that it implies a kind of moral subordination: we are to take care of Creation because it is not properly speaking ours, but rather God’s, for whom we are tending it. I can see that this modesty might also be a kind of self-assertion–we represent ourselves as God’s agents, so claim a peculiar closeness to the divine, specifically in comparison to that which we tend. And, I’d say the demand on the steward is actually to leave Creation as little modified as possible–otherwise we are not able to return it to its Creator as it was left to us.

    By contrast, if stewardship looks outward (beyond human life) for moral grounding, I’d say that habitability looks inward, and is self-justifying; in this respect it is not self-effacing at all. That is, it takes as its moral standard not the maintenance of Creation in some state acceptable to the Creator, but rather the standard is the achievement of a state which provides for a good life for its inhabitants. And while I in fact do mean its human inhabitants (the addressees of this moral language), I surely hope that a good life for human beings involves a good habitat for other creatures as well. But the basis of the moral responsibility to care for the world on this view is not that we might convey it back to the Creator as we found it, but that it be habitable according to our standards of habitability.

    Now there is another sense of stewardship that might bring these ideas into closer contact–the sense in which we are not stewards for God, but for our own descendants. Or rather, it can be thought that that is precisely God’s charge to humanity: not that we give Creation back to Him, but that we pass it on to our children. I think this was Locke’s view, in fact. But this vision of stewardship is certainly not a preservationist one–rather it mandates (through the injunction to labor) quite substantial transformations of the Earth. The steward on this vision is not a caretaker but a manager–dedicated to producing a harvest on the owner’s behalf, where the harvest is the good (for Locke I imagine godly) lives of human beings.

    So let me pose this as a more direct question: is the notion of stewardship you discuss more like the first version I present, whereby our mission is to tend to the Earth for God’s sake, or is it more like the second version, whereby stewardship just means ensuring that the Earth supports good human lives?

  2. Both interpretations seem to be in play. The two notions that you outlined are not necessarily at odds. To be a good steward of God’s creation is very much to be submissive. Stewardship is a reaction to the notion of dominion, which entails absolute control and is associated with the ravaging of nature. As a result there is a tendency to embrace strong conservation measures and respect for something that is not of our making.
    However, humanity has a special place in the Christian worldview, and we are not solely caretakers of nature. We also must take care of our own. I don’t think that most Christians see Creation Care and stewardship theologies as “back to nature” arguments. Stewardship primarily asks men and women to focus on their responsibility toward nature. The strong connection between stewardship theology and social justice that I outline in the post strongly suggests to me that this theology is one that encourages the responsible use of nature in order to support good human lives.

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