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How China's Christians Can Heal China's Environment


The Beijing Olympics provided an opportunity for the world to learn more about two seemingly unrelated aspects of life in China: the environmental challenges that China must confront and the challenges facing Christians in China. Images of the polluted skies of Beijing tell only a small part of the story of China's environment.

Many Chinese cities suffer from the world's air pollution, and polluted water has sparked protests in cities and villages throughout the country. At the same time, Christianity is experiencing an unprecedented flourishing in China. The new Christian believers thus have an opportunity to help address the pollution and other environmental problems that are so harmful to many people in China. In this article, I would like to describe the state of China's natural environment, what Christian teaching says about God's creation, and how Chinese Christians can respond to those who are suffering from the environmental harms in their midst.

China's Environment

China is blessed with abundant natural resources. Over 100,000 species of animals and nearly 33,000 plant species exist in 460 different types of ecosystems. Those ecosystems include forests, grasslands, deserts, wet-lands, seas and coastal areas, and agricultural ecosystems.

However, China also has the world's worst pollution. In recent years, lists of the 20 cities whose air is most polluted typically contain 16 or 17 cities in China. I experienced that one morning in March 2002 when I left my windowless office in the Tsinghua University School of Law for a short break. Looking outside, I saw a bright orange sky. What I was seeing was dust. Lots and lots of dust. So much dust, in fact, that two days later the United States Environmental Protection Agency reported that the permissible particulate level had been exceeded in Aspen, Colorado because of the millions of dust particles that had been carried from Chinaand, it was Mao's fault. The grasslands several hundred miles west of Beijing had remained stable for countless generations as local herders grazed livestock on the rich grasses. Then, in the 1950s, Mao Zedong moved thousands of native Chinese to the area to increase agricultural production and to repopulate the region with people more loyal to his regime than the traditionally Mongolian local culture. The orange sky that I saw from my office in Beijing was the predictable result of overgrazing and its resulting desertification.

Water pollution is another crisis. China's fisheries suffered $130 million in losses from 941 water pollution in-cidents in 2004 that affected 211,000 hectares of freshwater ecosystems. The quantity of water is often a problem as well as its quality. Efforts to move freshwater to places where it is scarce, such as Beijing, include such controversial projects as the Three Gorges Dam in central China, which many environmentalists believe will destroy many of the nearby ecosystems. Further south, the planned damming of the Mekong River could destroy a lot.

Pollution is not China's only environmental problem. Forests have suffered an especially devastating toll throughout China. Mark Elvin's book about China's environmental history describes "the destruction of the old-growth forests that once covered the greater part of China" as "the oldest story in China's environmental history." The story unfolded because "the original core of classical Chinese culture was hostile to forests, and saw their removal as the precondition for the creation of a civilized world." Trees were cut for fuel, to provide building materials, and as obstacles to farms and other human projects. However, the disappearance of the forests caused other, albeit predictable, problems. Deforestation increased erosion, which resulted in huge amounts of sediment collecting along the coasts and the sides of lakes and rivers. Wood became scarce as early as 600 B.C. in some parts of the country. During the twentieth century, China encouraged the wholesale destruction of forests for their timber which was the country's primary fuel until coal recently replaced it, or simply the removal of trees to facilitate agricultural crops. Trees were cut indiscriminately in a planned effort to generate revenue for local education, health and infrastructure needs.

Christians and the Environment

Christian environmental thinking begins with the innumerable biblical texts involving the creation of the earth and all of its creatures, the relationship of the people to their often hostile environment, the rules for treating animals and the land, and the rich imagery contained in the Psalms and other books. Eight themes about God's creation emerge from the Bible's teaching.

  1. God created the world. The opening sentence of the Bible states that "in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth" (Gen. 1:1). The balance of the first chapter of Genesis records how God created all living things and also describes how God brought order to the world by separating light from darkness, land from water, and the earth from the heavens. The way in which God did all of this is notable in two respects. First, God created the world out of nothing. As the apostle John later wrote, "through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made" (John 1:3). Second, God created by his word. The creation story repeatedly describes how God spoke and "it was so" (Gen. 1:7, 9, 11, 15, 24).
  2. God pronounced the creation to be good. When God created each part of creation, he "saw that it was good" (Gen. 1:10, 12, 18, 21, 25).These statements suggest three interconnected explanations for the goodness of creation: creation is good because God created it; creation is good because God proclaimed that is was so; and creation is intrinsically good as shown by God's response to it. Creation reflects God and it honors God. Today creation suffers the consequences of the entry of sin into the world; thus, the current state of creation does not reflect the original goodness that God saw.
  3. God is the owner of all creation. David wrote that "the earth is the LORD's, and everything in it (Ps. 24:1). The idea of God as the owner of creation pervades the creation account, the Old Testament saga of the people of Israel and the parables that Jesus told in the New Testament. God charges humanity with certain responsibilities for creation, but God's authority and control over his creation supersedes both the creation itself and humanity's role in it.
  4. God gave humanity dominion over creation. The most controversial verses in the Bible for environ-mentalists appear at the end of the first chapter of Genesis where God gives men and women "dominion" over all other creatures and commands humanity to "fill the earth and subdue it" (Gen. 1:26, 28). Historically, these commands have been cited to justify actions that treat the provision of resources neededor wantedby hu-manity as the only purpose of creation. Much of recent Christian environmental scholarship questions that understanding. Indeed, the word "dominion" is used elsewhere in the Bible to describe a peaceful, servant rule (Leviticus 25:43; Ezek. 34:4; 1 Kings 4:24). Moreover, God exercises dominion himself, and the examples of God's ruleand his rule of creation in particularbelie any suggestion that dominion equals exploitation. Three models of dominion, servanthood, kingship and stewardship, support a Christian obligation to actively care for creation.
  5. God charged men and women with the responsibility of caring for creation. God placed Adam in the Garden of Eden so that Adam could "tend and keep it" (Gen. 2:15). What it means to "keep" creation is illustrated by the priestly request that "the LORD bless you and keep you" (Num. 6:24) and by God's placement of an angel at the east of Eden to "guard" the garden after the fall (Gen. 3:24). The obligation to care for creation is further demonstrated by the understanding of the command to exercise "dominion" described above. Conversely, the Bible teaches that God will judge those who injure the earth (Rev. 11:16-18).
  6. God alone is worthy of worship. The first commandments that God gave to Moses on Mount Sinai were "you shall have no other gods before me," and "you shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them" (Ex. 20:3-4). The scriptures then recount numerous instances where people violated those commands by wor-shiping a variety of other beings: golden calves, Baal, silver and gold gods, angels, the starry host and unknown gods. In short, people "exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles" (Rom. 1:23). The consequences that befell the people who worshiped the creation instead of the creator demonstrate the seriousness with which God takes these commands.
  7. Creation has suffered the effects of the entry of sin into the world. The fall of humanity that occurred when Adam and Eve sinned affected the rest of creation, too. The immediate result was God's curse of the ground so that it produces thorns and thistles requiring much more work to obtain food from the land. The fall also alie-nated people from other creatures, with later passages describing how God used animals to exercise his judgment against humanity (Lev. 26:22; Num. 21:6; Ezek. 5:17). Animals, plants and the rest of creation suffer because of human actions and because of God's judgment against human sin.
  8. God will redeem his creation. The entire creation is included in many of the covenants that God announces throughout the Bible. For example, God established a covenant with Noah, his descendants and every living creature on earth that never again would a flood destroy all life on earth (Gen. 9:8-11). In his letter to the Romans, Paul writes that:

The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time (Rom. 8:19-22).

Other passages describe how this earth will be destroyed in the day of judgment only to be replaced by a new earth (2 Pet. 3:7, 10; Rev. 21:1).

This is far from an exhaustive list of themes relating to creation that run through the Bible. They give a sense, though, of the premises from which Christians approach environmental issues. To be sure, the details of God's relationship to creation "past, present and future" have prompted debates between Christian traditions, and they continue to do so. Nonetheless, the biblical account of creation contains abundant instruction for those who seek to fulfill God's purposes for his creation today.

Image credit: Fenghuang County by Tim Zachernuk, on Flickr

John Copeland Nagle

John Copeland Nagle is the John N. Matthews Professor at Notre Dame Law School. View Full Bio