Faith in Focus

CHRISTIANS AND THE ENVIRONMENT


God blessed them and said to them, "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground." Gen 1:28

The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. Gen 2:15

Do not pervert justice ... Follow justice and justice alone, so that you may live and possess the land the Lord your God is giving you. Duet. 16:19-20

These three verses sum up three key concepts that should direct our view, attitude and responsibility towards the world around us. In these verses we are instructed to 'subdue and rule over' God's creation (have dominion over it); we are to 'work it and take care of it' (exercise stewardship) and we are to do so 'justly'.

Christians have traditionally been familiar with the first of these instructions and Christendom has received it's fair share of criticism for contributing to the environmental degradation we see around us. We hear less about our stewardly responsibility towards the environment, but how many of us have thought and been challenged about our responsibility for exercising dominion and stewardship in a just manner? Following the standard evident in the life and death of Christ as an example of how we should exercise our lordship over creation?

Before we can be stewards, we need something over which we can exercise stewardship, something sufficiently within our control, or the call to exercise stewardship becomes a hollow one. Yet the reality is that while we can all exercise stewardship over our time and our talents, there are millions of people who lack 'stewardly possibilities' over creation - so much so that many cannot prevent their own and their children's starvation. Although all men are equal, it is abundantly clear that not all are equally blessed with the same share of the earth's resources.

In this country we are blessed with many natural resources and we know it. We enjoy it and we take pride in it when we show others - particularly friends and relatives from the 'old country' who, we know, do not enjoy the rich diversity and unspoiled beauty we enjoy. This should and does make us thankful. But it also sets us apart from our neighbours in Asia, Africa and South America who do not enjoy the same share of the world and access to its resources that we do.

Those of us of European descent do well to remind ourselves that we live in Polynesia and number a mere twenty million (mainly New Zealand, Australia and South Africa) amongst billions of people from other races in the Southern Hemisphere. We traveled past some very populated and impoverished countries on our way here. The inequality in access to resources is close by and we can't ignore it. Given the education, communication and travel revolution of the past few decades, how long can this situation continue?

I believe this is an area we will be challenged in at some stage in the next few decades - at least intellectually if not physically. If so, we should consider what Scripture has to say about this issue so we can shed light and give clear direction on how we as a nation should deal with such a challenge.

At the heart of any debate on the matter will be the question of the 'justice' of the existing distribution of resources amongst the world's people. As a nation we have been forced to face this question head-on through the claims for the return of land and other resources from our indigenous population. Given that there is a direct relationship between our access to natural resources and our state of nutrition, warmth and shelter, the fair sharing of natural resources is an important matter. Who should use how much of what? Who 'owns' what? How, in short, may the goods of the world and the opportunities to use them be distributed justly?

We talk often of the just distribution of goods, services and burdens such as meat at the dinner table, hospital services within a community and jobs around the home. We have rules, policies and scales to ensure everyone gets a fair share of such things. But what is a fair share? As a general rule, goods are shared fairly when all that are equal are treated equally and those that are different are treated differently in proportion to their relevant differences. In other words, when the meat is cut and distributed around the dinner table, fourteen year old Mary going through a growth spurt gets more than Dad who gets the same as Mum, but less than seventeen year old Ben who shovels coal in a coal mine all day. The relevant difference here is the energy and nutritional needs of each person. An irrelevant difference would be the fact that Ben was better looking than Mary and if he got more meat as a consequence of that difference, the family would be at war.

So it is with the distribution of natural resources amongst the world's population. If the existing distribution is based on relevant differences, it is fair. If not, it is unfair. What then is a 'relevant difference' when considering the distribution of the earths resources? Clearly there is no universally accepted answer to this question, hence we have wars. Before examining what Scripture says in answer to this question, lets look at how the world views it:

Worldly Principles

1. To each according to national, racial or social status.

An extreme form of such a relevant difference is slavery, where slaveowners see nothing wrong with using resources on a grander scale because it is 'what they deserve'. Similarly, the caste system in India results in the distribution of resources on the basis of class. In both examples the accident of being born into a particular society or class within a society is seen as justification for receiving a greater or lesser share of the earth's resources.

2. To each according to contribution

The more you actually contribute, the more you get. Labour unions and profit-sharing schemes within businesses use this view of relevant difference as the basis for their claim to a fair distribution of profits.

3. To each according to effort.

The effort you expend is more relevant than the actual contribution you make, according to this view. Because we are all created differently, we cannot control our actual contribution so much as our individual effort, hence our fair share should be based on effort. Who deserves more - a farmer in Ethiopia who spends sixteen hours a day ploughing a field with his oxen or the New Zealand farmer who can plough the same area in half an hour with his tractor?

4. To each according to need

Once one has determined what a person needs, it is unjust (in this view) to deprive a person of it. Hence poverty, starvation or illiteracy are 'unjust'. Those with great need should receive more than those with little need.

5. To each the same

Those who hold to this view consider there are no relevant differences amongst the world's people that could justify some having more than others. Each should receive an equal share of the world's resources.

6. To each the same unless an inequality benefits the poorest in society.

This view says that if you buy an estate in remote South America and become rich, but in doing so you give jobs to the locals so they also raise their standard of living, that justifies your getting the larger share of the wealth created. It is a view gaining increasing popularity in recent years.

Biblical Principles

Having touched on the variety of views the world holds, what does Scripture teach us about the fair distribution of the earth's resources? A good place to begin is with the Laws given to the nation of Israel setting out how, amongst other things, they were to allocate resources.

In Leviticus we read of the 'Law of Jubilee', requiring the return of land to the owners originally given the land when the nation was established. In Exodus the 'Law of the Sabbath Year' is set out, requiring the resting of land every seventh year. The poor could eat whatever grew in that year. In Dueteronomy we read of the 'Law of the Tithe', requiring a tenth of the harvest to be set aside for the Levites (who were not given land) and travelers, widows and the fatherless. The 'Law on Gleaning' set out in Leviticus required that fields not be completely stripped of all their produce by their owners, but some be left for the poor and sojourner.

What principles can we deduce from these Laws? The one that stands out most clearly is that everyone should have access to resources based on their need. Note the word access - three of the Laws required work on the part of those receiving the benefit. However, the Law of the Tithe also guaranteed that those who could not work (or, in the case of the Levites, were required for other duties) still had their needs met. Everyone else shared not only in the productivity of the land but also the burden of creating that productivity.

To summarise therefore, access to a country's resources should not be determined in the first place by social status, contribution or effort; rather it should be determined by need. That is a minimum requirement and should guide us when considering access to the world's resources by the world's people.

This immediately raises two questions. Firstly what is need; secondly how do we distribute any surplus (over that required to supply need) in a just manner?

We have probably all heard of the three basic needs of man - food, clothing and shelter. But Christians know that man's needs extend to more than just that required to feed and keep him warm. Created in the image of God, we also need time to express our creativity; to love and be loved; to serve God and our neighbor; and take care of creation. Yet these needs are very much secondary to the first basic needs - I've heard it said for example that caring for the environment is a rich man's hobby. We thus end up with three levels of resource use:

1. That required to supply man's basic needs;

2. That required to allow us to be all that God intended us to be; and

3. That required to supply our wants.

As a minimum, I believe the Biblical principle of justice requires that everyone in the world has enough access to the world's resources to meet their basic needs. I also believe that if this principle was applied by the governments of each nation, everybody within that nation would have their basic needs met. Hence I don't consider this an issue in terms of resource allocation amongst nations - rather one of resource allocation amongst the peoples within each nation.

In my view the principle extends equally to man's 'non-basic' needs. Although the poor and the widows had to work, there is no suggestion that they had to work so much harder or longer than others, certainly not to the extent that they could not develop into all God intended them to be. This creates somewhat of a challenge for us, because the farmer spending sixteen hours behind his oxen will have a lot less time to be creative and serve God and his neighbor than the farmer who can cover the same area in half an hour. Yet not all the extra time we enjoy since the industrial revolution has been spent on serving God and our neighbor and carrying out our stewardly responsibilities towards creation. Much of that extra has been spent satisfying our wants.

Which brings us to the crunch question, the justice of some people having access to more resources than others, allowing them to satisfy more wants and provide more luxuries for themselves than others. The issue is not so much one of satisfying one's wants at the expense of another's needs - we have a clear answer for that one; rather one of the justness of you and I living in this resource-rich land being able to satisfy more of our wants than our neighbors in Asia, Africa and South America. And how we deal with any future requests for a more equal share of our resources so they may have an equal opportunity to satisfy their wants.

When we analyse why we are blessed with living in such a beautiful and resource-rich country, we soon come up against the twin issues of property rights and historical opportunity. When God made the world he told Adam and Eve to "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth.. " and following the flood He "scattered them (those building the Tower of Babel) over the face of the whole earth". Since that period of historical opportunity when men could wander across a piece of land and claim it as their own, ownership has changed hands either because it was traded or because weaker occupiers were pushed off, with a range of alternatives in between.

Periods of opportunity have cropped up on a regular basis since that time - such as the mass emigration from Europe to this side of the world over the last few hundred years and the more recent wave post World War II. Although we or our forefathers may claim credit for being clever enough to come here during that period, we also enjoyed opportunity that many living in Asia and Africa do not enjoy even today - such as knowing that New Zealand exists, where it is and what resources it has to offer; transport from wherever we lived to the Coast; passage for the trip here; and a country willing to accept us.

Therefore we enjoy a greater than average share of the earths resources for historical reasons as much as any other. How should we react to this, and what should guide us? May I suggest the following:

1. Firstly we should be thankful to God for all we have. We should marvel at His Creation and thank Him for it daily. "The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of His hands" Psalm 19:1.

2. We remind ourselves that all men are equal and precious in the sight of God. "And even the very hairs on your head are all numbered. So don't be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows". Matthew 10:30-31.

3. We should be guided by the desire to see justice done - both in the future allocation of the earths resources and as we examine past wrongs. We should not do this out of any sense of guilt, rather because we are commanded to "not pervert justice ... Follow justice and justice alone, so that you may live and possess the land the Lord your God is giving " Duet 16:19-20.

4. We should recognise that because we have a larger than average share of the worlds resources, we also have a larger than average share of the responsibility for exercising stewardship over it. This extends to global environmental issues - we have a greater understanding and can exert far more influence than someone living in a remote village in South America, hence we should.

In doing so however, we should be mindful that many industrialised nations have used up many of their own natural resources such as minerals and forests and become wealthy from doing so. If we ask the Amazonian Indians to refrain from cutting down their forests for a global environmental benefit, are we prepared to compensate them from the benefits we have received from our past use of our own forestry resources?

5. As I write this article, representatives from a number of nations are meeting here in Christchurch to discuss the formulation and signing of a treaty covering issues such as resource use in the Antarctic. The nations represented seem to have at least one thing in common - they are already blessed with more than their average share of the world's resources. Should the resources of the Antarctic, if they are to go anywhere, go to those with the technology (and power to secure access) or should it be used for the benefit of those who have historically missed out?

We worship a sovereign God who takes a deep interest in his creation and his creatures.

Mr Leo Fietje is a member of the Reformed Church of Bishopdale in which he currently serves as an elder.

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Faith in Focus /NZ Reformed Church / gmilne@ihug.co.nz / revised August 97 / Copyright 1997