A Plea For Green Discipleship

by Brian Frost

from Signs of the Times, No. 16 - Jan 2005

Archbishop William Temple once observed that 'Christianity is the most materialistic of all religions'. Many have since quoted his words about the Incarnation and its significance, for God taking on our human nature is the core Christian conviction. Now we assert that this same God comes to us through the waters of baptism and the bread and wine of the Eucharist. How­ever, some Christian traditions-most notably the Society of Friends (the Quakers) and the Eastern Orthodox Churches-see the whole earth sacramentally, almost as an outward and visible symbol of God's presence and, in a certain understanding of immanence, as the very garment of God.

Moreover, in the biblical tradition creation itself, and redemption, are inextricably interwoven so that it is not possible to have one without the other. Indeed, we know of the final revelation of God in Jesus in the Spirit only through culture, language and the faith history of the New Testament as the disciples accompany Jesus through Galilee to Jerusalem. Here Jesus seems to reflect this sacramental view as he uses his spittle for healing and demon­strates by his touch of people's bodies how belief for troubled spirits can come. Even the wood of his cross, it seems to some, has healing power. In all this Jesus is a good Jew, who does not split off body and spirit, nor for that matter person and community.

So how did the damage come about? Perhaps it was the influence of Greek thought on Christianity, which tended to see the real world as in the heavenlies, of which our poor creation here and now was only a foretaste and a pale imitation. Perhaps also it was a tendency to exalt one strand of Scripture to assert that we can find no final resting-place on earth which produced this mindset. Whatever the cause, after centuries of thinking that we can treat the physical world just as we wish, without any damaging consequences, plainly now we have received our 'come-uppance'.

Across all continents we have seen the 'fruits' of our disregard of God's creation. Surely the culminating point came on August 6, 1945, when the Baptist American President, Harry S. Truman, sanctioned the dropping of the atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima. Now August 6 is the day on which the Eastern Orthodox Churches celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration of Jesus, when light seemed to stream from the whole of his being and matter was transformed. What an irony it is then that a Western Christian should have selected that day, or agreed to that day, to be the fateful one when a weapon was to be unleashed showing not God's glory but the power of humans to destroy God's creation.

However, time has run out for this approach to creation and we must all act. Perhaps most importantly we must encourage people and create communities of Christians who for the rest of their lives on earth will respond to the physical world in a radically different way from previous centuries. My plea, therefore, is for the concept of 'Green Discipleship' to emerge in every congregation in every part of the planet to help train and shape us to become new disciples of Christ, with appropriate joining with others in the world faith communities who are equally concerned to live in our God's world in more reverential ways.

There are three things which I believe we need to do specifically. First we need to ensure that in our baptismal liturgies we link baptism to creation as well as to redemption. Secondly we need to make it clear in our Eucharists that creation itself is God's. And as we share bread and wine we need to pray for the whole creation, breaking our bread for the weeping creation itself, for the animal world we so abuse, for the plants and all other living things. We need also to intercede for the other world faith communities and for our very brokenness, too. We need to implore God in Christ in the Spirit to help us become more reverent and see the universe itself as the primary sacrament. Surely if we so see the Eucharist as the place where we learn to treat all life sacramentally, this will have repercussions in our Monday to Friday living? The third thing we must do is to establish in each congregation as a regular and accepted form a Green Discipleship Group, whose task will be to explore the theology of such a concept and recommend action for the whole congre­gation. Often large changes in society do not start at the top. Indeed, history records again and again how small groups, loyally bonded together, have in due course as their vision has been accepted, shaken the very foundations of society and moved it into a different gear.

Had we listened sufficiently to earlier generations we might not have been so dilatory. Had we, for example, paid more attention to Dr Albert Schweitzer, the great Protestant medical missionary to Lambaréné (in what is now Gabon) who had pet animals and conserved old envelopes on which to write in his own handwriting his ethics and civilisation philosophy, instead of regarding him as a crank, we might decades ago have begun to change our ways. We might even have lived out his conception of reverence for life. But we did not. Had we sufficiently inwardly digested Vance Packard's The Waste Makers as decades ago he exposed American consumption rates, we might have begun also to change our ways. But it was only a few who responded to his prophetic voice when he first spoke.

Of course we sensed then, and do now, that if we take the Christian doctrine of Christ's presence through bread and wine in the Eucharistic celebration seriously, and realise that Christ is now ascended over all creation, drastic alterations to our whole lifestyle must emerge. This in turn will have repercussions on our hard-pressed economies, for inevitably daily assumptions and politics, too, will be drastically challenged. We ought not to find this surpris­ing, for Christianity itself applies drastic solutions to problems on all levels. To try to do this in our own strength alone would be counter-productive of course. That is why we need Green Disciples rooted in the life of God the Creator and Redeemer if we are to sustain the struggle against the modern principalities and powers, which often we ourselves have allowed to hold us in their grip.

We need to be delivered from simple matters like the millions of elastic bands dropped in British cities and towns each year by careless post employees, from paper not recycled, or items not yet recycled at all because it is too costly; from over-consumption because clever advertisers have whetted our appetites to our search for even faster forms of transport; from using and abusing the plant and animal world. For when we abuse creation we fail to be followers of Jesus of Galilee who loved nature.

Certainly, Green Discipleship concepts imply a different form of economics and new ways to be God's good stewards of creation. But the time surely has arrived as all creation clearly travails and groans as a result of our activities-the ozone layer depleted and even penguins in the Arctic with lead in their bodies - for both our repentance and a new pattern of servanthood. And such repentance, if it comes, has to be in both little and large things as each Sunday we try to learn while we worship how to gain insight into how to share in a creation and its life with our Creator. For it is our very God who wants us to act responsibly and be co-heirs using the power we have to treat creation as God's sacrament.

A very big revolution in our thinking and acting is needed, yet some of us know deep down that there is no other way and that we stand at a pivotal point in the history of the planet itself. If my diagnosis is correct how dare we draw back in fear and trembling?

Brian Frost is a Methodist lay preacher and writer.