Blog: March 18, 2018

A Blog is an opinion rather than an article. While CSM teaches through its articles and books, the CSM Blogs are efforts by CSM consultants to struggle with difficult ideas in Christian education and move to some kind of clarity. Please read any CSM Blog in that light.

The Environment and the Christian School

I have just finished reading Strangers in Their Own Land by Arlie Russell Hochschild. The subtitle is “Anger and Mourning on the American Right”. I recommend it as a first-class piece of sociology written accessibly and notably without jargon. For a sociologist, that is quite an achievement! Hochschild has an amazing pedigree with books on working parents, on time and working, on the nanny and workers in a global world, on mothers in 3rd world countries who carry babies for women in the west. She works out of Berkeley and would agree that she is a liberal. This book comes out of a desire to understand the Tea Party – as I read it, I found it hard to imagine that it was written before Trump became President but it was. She writes: “You might say I’d come to Louisiana with an interest in walls. Not visible walls…. It was empathy walls that interested me. An empathy wall is an obstacle to deep understanding of another person, one that can make us feel indifferent or even hostile to those who hold different beliefs or whose childhood is rooted in different circumstances…Today we need to find new ways to get acquainted across our differences.” She visits with people in their kitchens, attends worship at their churches, eats at their cook-outs, listens to them argue with each other at meetings. She, a liberal, tries to bridge the empathy wall with the Tea Party. I say it again – I recommend it.

She chose Louisiana, if I understand her correctly, because it is an epicenter of oil and gas production, one of the most highly polluted states in the country, and one of the poorest states in the country. The people that she interviewed had been deeply impacted by the massive pollution of bayou and marsh and shore. They had lost their houses, lost their jobs, even lost their lives. They had not benefited as much economically as one might have imagined. They were stagnating along with people like them in other parts of the USA. They felt the American Dream was not theirs and that there were people cutting in line ahead of them who were not as deserving. The paradox is that Hochschild found in her data analysis (Appendix B) that “as the relative riskiness of the county a person lived in increased, the more likely that person was to agree with the statement ‘People worry too much about human progress harming the environment’.” She continues that” Those who identified themselves as male, high income, conservative, Republican, Christian, and strongly religious were also likely to believe that air and water pollution were not a danger.”

Now I am moving to my area of expertise – Christian schools. That last statement made me wonder what, if anything, was being said by those in Christian schools. If we look at Catholic schools, there is significant clarity. Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato si (2015) says the following: “This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail” (Rom 8:22). We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.” If I am a Catholic Christian school, my way forward is pretty clear – the environment matters, we are to care for the earth, now figure out what that means in practical terms.

But what if I am an evangelical Christian school? What if my major donors are the people that Hochschild discovered – human progress and economic prosperity are key, they believe, and the environment is not as big a problem as everyone says (and certainly not something we want government mixed up in). Not that there aren’t important organizations of evangelicals who take the environment very seriously such as the Evangelical Climate Initiative (http://www.christiansandclimate.org/). But if my social context and donors are dubious about the value of teaching about the environment, environmental change, global warming (that only 22% of Republicans find convincing), then what is my responsibility? A research paper in 2015 (https://tinyurl.com/y7ohttrz) showed that evangelical leaders have even become hostile to environmentalism and organizations like Climate Care. The writers of Spreading the Gospel of Climate Change note: “First, evangelicals’ political partners saw Creation Care as a menace for economic conservatives and opponents of environmental regulation, and did not hesitate to let evangelicals know it. Second, the evangelical old guard saw the Creation Care activists as threatening their role as the arbiter of evangelicalism’s political engagement.” Frankly, care of the earth has ranked low compared with issues such as abortion, homosexuality, and religious liberty.

Evangelical school organizations have also not taken any kind of lead when it came to the care of the earth. ACSI, for example, maybe the largest group of evangelical schools in the USA, has an enormous Legal Legislative and Advocacy area on their website. They “identify a broad array of national, legal, and legislative issues”. It is primarily concerned with religious liberty and sex.

What’s an evangelical school to do? CSM doesn’t believe that it makes faith-sense to ignore the Genesis creation narrative and what it means to be the arbiter of creation: “Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals,[a] and over all the creatures that move along the ground”. 27 So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. 28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground” (Genesis 1). CSM believes that it is a central issue for today and schools have a responsibility to struggle with this issue and its aligned issues of business, economics, power, and people.

A recent issue of Christianity Today (January/February 2018) had an interesting article by Thomas Ackerman, a geophysicist and evangelical. He also comments: “the reception I get from my tribe (i.e. evangelical Christians) is worse than the reception I get from other tribes”. He continues: “We should care about creation – water pollution, air pollution, soil degradation. I could list 55 other things. The Christian church leads on none of them.” This is another example of the poor leadership we have currently from the church. But the Christian school can follow the lead of its children who are so closely and intimately tied to the earth in their thinking and actions. It must not be dissuaded by the politics of power and influence. It must not even be dissuaded by its major donors. Christian school leaders must be convicted by their five senses as they examine their neighborhoods, their local forests and streams, their mountaintops, their rivers and neighborhood habitats. We are a creation of God and we are told by God to look after (love) each other and the rest of creation. We cannot either ignore or duck the environment / climate / creation whatever we want to call it. Our children will hold us accountable.

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