Noting the deep concern about urgent environmental challenges expressed by many commissioners at the 220th General Assembly (2014), chief executives of the six agencies of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) appointed a working group to develop a joint response. The group—consisting of at least one staff member per agency—was asked to craft a positive statement of what each agency, and the agencies together, have done and plan to do regarding environmental stewardship. This document is designed to call attention to ongoing efforts by the PC(USA) to confront the underlying causes of climate change, and to resources available through the six agencies to congregations, mid councils, and other mission and ministry groups wishing to join in the effort. The working group, meeting together regularly over a period of nine months, has produced the attached document—the “Collaborative Agenda on Environmental Stewardship.” It has been endorsed by each of the agency boards and the 222nd General Assembly (2016) as a helpful resource to the whole denomination. This effort is particularly noteworthy as it is unusual for an item of business to come to the Assembly from a collaboration of all six agencies.
Our Common Call to Care for God’s Creation
“The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it; for he has founded it on the seas and established it on the rivers.” (Psalm 24)
Every reflection on our care for the world we inhabit must begin with this fundamental principle. The earth is a gift from God, the Sovereign Creator, and we, God’s creatures, are called to celebrate and honor its manifold glory. Our Westminster Shorter Catechism begins with the question: “What is the chief end of man?” The answer is: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” There is no more visible way for us to glorify God than in caring for the creation we see all around us, and of which we are a part.
Stewardship & Sustainability
“And God said, ‘Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky’…And God saw that it was good . God blessed them, saying, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth…Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.’ And it was so…And God saw that it was good…And let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’ So God created humankind in his image…God blessed them and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” (Genesis 1)
Not only are we called to give thanks for God’s glorious creation, we are given the task by God to oversee what God has created. We are, according to scripture, God’s overseers and caretakers of the whole creation, which includes ourselves.
Unfortunately, we have too often misconstrued God’s call to “subdue” and to “have dominion” as license to exploit the manifold gifts of creation. The sad results of our exploitation are all around us. As God’s agents, rather than owners of the created order, we must understand that these two notions of “subduing” and exercising “dominion” derive directly from the sovereignty of God, and therefore must reflect the kind of just, loving oversight that is the very nature of God’s “dominion” over us and the creation.
We are, at the most basic level, called to be just, loving stewards of all creation, serving and preserving the earth. (Gen 2:15). Our commitment must be to the sustainability that God has willed for God’s creation, which means ensuring that all people and all of creation experience sufficiency in the resources they need to thrive, not only now, but for generations to come.
God’s Concern for The Poor
“Give the king thy justice, O God, and thy righteousness to the royal son! May he judge thy people with righteousness, and thy poor with justice! Let the mountains bear prosperity for the people, and the hills, in righteousness! May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor!…For he delivers the needy when he calls, the poor and him who has no helper. He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy. From oppression and violence he redeems their life; and precious is their blood in his sight.” Psalm 72:1-4, 12-14
“If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill.’ And yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what good is that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” James 2:15-17
A central theme which runs throughout Scripture is God’s concern for the poor, the most vulnerable, the ones Jesus called “the least of these my brothers and sisters” (Matthew 25:40). It is central to God’s mandate for earthly rulers and a “bottom line” issue for God’s people. We cannot faithfully address environmental concerns without acknowledging the disproportionate impact of environmental degradation on those least able to defend themselves from the pollution of our air and water, the impact of many extractive industries and the unjust distribution of wealth derived from the exploitation of our global resources.
Whatever plans we devise for addressing our environmental concerns, we must begin by asking how our actions will affect the most vulnerable of God’s children and maintain our commitment to stand with them in the decisions we make.
Justice & Judgment
“Now the Lord is about to lay waste the earth and make it desolate, and he will twist its surface and scatter its inhabitants…The earth dries up and withers, the world languishes and withers; the heavens languish together with the earth. The earth lies polluted under its inhabitants; for they have transgressed the laws, violated the statutes, broken the everlasting covenant. Therefore a curse devours the earth, and the inhabitants of the earth dwindled, and few people are left.” (Isaiah 24)
The Scriptures are clear. There are consequences when we forget our role as God’s agents charged with care for the earth and we exploit the riches God has given us. It is no coincidence that the condemnations by the prophets in the face of the unfaithfulness of God’s people and their leaders often include God’s promise of terrible judgment made visible in the destruction of creation and the created order.
“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” (Revelation 22)
In contrast to the terms of judgment in the prophetic warnings, God promises both a “new heaven” and a “new earth,” indeed a full restoration for all who have sought to be faithful in the stewardship of what God has created. That includes both our care for all sorts of human communities and individuals but also the created order that God declared good at the beginning.
It is this vision of God’s future that sustains us and moves us forward in our caring for others and for the whole earth.
As the people of God, we are therefore called to work, in response to God’s calling, to see that all of God’s creation is protected, nurtured and enabled to reach the potential for which God has created it. The concrete implications of that for those of us who are a part of God’s family in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) include a call to prayer, education, advocacy and other forms of direct action to glorify God in our care of creation.
What follows are theological and pragmatic guidelines that have been embraced over many years to guide us in our efforts to be God’s faithful stewards. Also included are descriptions of some of the concrete ways that we who represent national agencies of our church have attempted to be faithful to our calling in this regard.
We urge all who are a part of our great church to join us in strengthening our witness to the world and in working for greater change in the care and keeping of the earth we inhabit.