Caring for Our Shared Places, with Tommy Givens

city collage illustration

Lauren Meares: An obvious question we could start with is, “Why should Christians care for the earth?” But what does it tell us that we need to pose this question in the first place? When we look at the church overall, we generally see a community that isn’t leading the way in environmentalism or is even opposed to environmentalism. How did we get here?

Tommy Givens: We got here in many stages, one of which was construing the Christian gospel in terms of the salvation of the soul to the neglect of the body and the manifold bodily relationships that make up the human. You hear this coming through when people say of their dead loved ones that they have gone home to heaven, as if God had given up on their dead body and salvation did not concern the earth of which their bodily life was made. Another stage in how we got here was modern industrialization, when, leaving agrarian economies behind, we grew even more estranged from land and our particular places than we already were. This happened at the same time that some of our modern ancestors were forgetting how the biblical story, including salvation, involves land and the healing of the earth. It has taken the intergenerational consequences of the industrial exploitation of God’s gifts throughout the earth, such as devastated landscapes and the pollution of our water and air, to begin to awaken us to our inherited, destructive habits. And these habits are much easier to charge to underserved parts of the human population, future generations, and nonhuman parts of creation than they are to repent of, at least for now.

It is also easier to seize upon the anti-Christian messages of some environmentalists, which are partly a reaction to Christian neglect of the environment, or to accuse Christian environmentalists of distracting people from the gospel, which supposedly has nothing to do with the environment, than it is to consider the clear biblical testimony to God’s eternal commitment to the earth and to healing the human’s relationship to it. Because of the way that the environment has been politicized in the last 50 years or so in the US, which is another stage in how we got to where we are, many Christians react negatively to expressed concern about the environment because of what is associated with that concern in our political options and discourse. In this, many of us find ourselves captive to current political divides instead of trying to promote political options and discourse that reflect the abiding emphases of biblical teaching.

I should probably say at this point that I’m not a big fan of the word “environment” because it suggests something too separate from and outside the human. In fact, our bodily life is made of soil and what grows from it, water that falls on it and flows through it, and of animal life that is sustained by it. Creation is not simply “out there” as environs around us but an immeasurable complex of gifts of which we ourselves are part, and not part only as individuals but together as intergenerational communities who share particular places and finally the whole earth. The “environment” also sends many of our minds to places remote from urban centers, places of “nature” that we are rightly encouraged to protect, but often with the unstated implication that we should not be as concerned with the natural beauty and sustainability of our urban centers. “Creation care” has provided a more friendly term for certain churches looking for something more politically palatable and perhaps more intuitive. It’s not bad but usually implies for people some “creation” that is separate from the human. I worry about focusing on “the planet” or even “the climate,” as necessary as that probably is given where we are, because the scale of such terms is so large and abstract, something not easy for actual people in their places to consider or to be committed to. No available terms are perfect, so I find myself relying on the language of caring for the shared places God has given us and for the earth only as the incomprehensible whole of our shared places.

LM: Yes, our language reveals our perceived disconnect to that which we are inextricably connected. And it’s no wonder we shut down when we’re faced with the “incomprehensible whole.” I’ve heard you often encourage people to read and interpret the gospel in relationship. It seems fair to say, individually and collectively, humanity has a literal toxic relationship with the rest of the earth, perhaps precisely because we perceive ourselves as separate. What does the gospel teach us about restoring relationships in this holistic way? What would it look like to interpret the gospel in relationship to the earth?

TG: The gospel is of course about Jesus, a Galilean Jewish man who caused such a stir in his place that he was executed by the governing authorities of his day, who in turn were helped by Jesus’ own closest friends’ deserting and betraying him. This tells us that what the gospel teaches us about restoring relationships holistically involves a dangerous confrontation of broken relationships and of those who are invested in keeping them broken. It also tells us that being close to Jesus or committed to Jesus does not immediately free one from the corruptions of the dominant; as disciples of Jesus in the webs of power of our world we are prone to betray him.

Portrait of Fuller Seminary faculty member Tommy Givens

G. Tommy Givens is associate professor of New Testament studies and has been a part of Fuller’s faculty since 2010. In addition to his expertise in New Testament studies and theological ethics, his research interests include Christian nonviolence, political theory, ecology, and scriptural reasoning for Jewish-Christian-Muslim relations. He is the author of We the People: Israel and the Catholicity of Jesus (Fortress Press).

Lauren Meares: An obvious question we could start with is, “Why should Christians care for the earth?” But what does it tell us that we need to pose this question in the first place? When we look at the church overall, we generally see a community that isn’t leading the way in environmentalism or is even opposed to environmentalism. How did we get here?

Tommy Givens: We got here in many stages, one of which was construing the Christian gospel in terms of the salvation of the soul to the neglect of the body and the manifold bodily relationships that make up the human. You hear this coming through when people say of their dead loved ones that they have gone home to heaven, as if God had given up on their dead body and salvation did not concern the earth of which their bodily life was made. Another stage in how we got here was modern industrialization, when, leaving agrarian economies behind, we grew even more estranged from land and our particular places than we already were. This happened at the same time that some of our modern ancestors were forgetting how the biblical story, including salvation, involves land and the healing of the earth. It has taken the intergenerational consequences of the industrial exploitation of God’s gifts throughout the earth, such as devastated landscapes and the pollution of our water and air, to begin to awaken us to our inherited, destructive habits. And these habits are much easier to charge to underserved parts of the human population, future generations, and nonhuman parts of creation than they are to repent of, at least for now.

It is also easier to seize upon the anti-Christian messages of some environmentalists, which are partly a reaction to Christian neglect of the environment, or to accuse Christian environmentalists of distracting people from the gospel, which supposedly has nothing to do with the environment, than it is to consider the clear biblical testimony to God’s eternal commitment to the earth and to healing the human’s relationship to it. Because of the way that the environment has been politicized in the last 50 years or so in the US, which is another stage in how we got to where we are, many Christians react negatively to expressed concern about the environment because of what is associated with that concern in our political options and discourse. In this, many of us find ourselves captive to current political divides instead of trying to promote political options and discourse that reflect the abiding emphases of biblical teaching.

I should probably say at this point that I’m not a big fan of the word “environment” because it suggests something too separate from and outside the human. In fact, our bodily life is made of soil and what grows from it, water that falls on it and flows through it, and of animal life that is sustained by it. Creation is not simply “out there” as environs around us but an immeasurable complex of gifts of which we ourselves are part, and not part only as individuals but together as intergenerational communities who share particular places and finally the whole earth. The “environment” also sends many of our minds to places remote from urban centers, places of “nature” that we are rightly encouraged to protect, but often with the unstated implication that we should not be as concerned with the natural beauty and sustainability of our urban centers. “Creation care” has provided a more friendly term for certain churches looking for something more politically palatable and perhaps more intuitive. It’s not bad but usually implies for people some “creation” that is separate from the human. I worry about focusing on “the planet” or even “the climate,” as necessary as that probably is given where we are, because the scale of such terms is so large and abstract, something not easy for actual people in their places to consider or to be committed to. No available terms are perfect, so I find myself relying on the language of caring for the shared places God has given us and for the earth only as the incomprehensible whole of our shared places.

LM: Yes, our language reveals our perceived disconnect to that which we are inextricably connected. And it’s no wonder we shut down when we’re faced with the “incomprehensible whole.” I’ve heard you often encourage people to read and interpret the gospel in relationship. It seems fair to say, individually and collectively, humanity has a literal toxic relationship with the rest of the earth, perhaps precisely because we perceive ourselves as separate. What does the gospel teach us about restoring relationships in this holistic way? What would it look like to interpret the gospel in relationship to the earth?

TG: The gospel is of course about Jesus, a Galilean Jewish man who caused such a stir in his place that he was executed by the governing authorities of his day, who in turn were helped by Jesus’ own closest friends’ deserting and betraying him. This tells us that what the gospel teaches us about restoring relationships holistically involves a dangerous confrontation of broken relationships and of those who are invested in keeping them broken. It also tells us that being close to Jesus or committed to Jesus does not immediately free one from the corruptions of the dominant; as disciples of Jesus in the webs of power of our world we are prone to betray him.

Written By

G. Tommy Givens is associate professor of New Testament studies and has been a part of Fuller’s faculty since 2010. In addition to his expertise in New Testament studies and theological ethics, his research interests include Christian nonviolence, political theory, ecology, and scriptural reasoning for Jewish-Christian-Muslim relations. He is the author of We the People: Israel and the Catholicity of Jesus (Fortress Press).

Given the way that Jesus died, we might be surprised to find that the gospel does not focus on public spectacles of confrontation, even if it includes some of these, especially at the end of the story. Jesus’ healing of broken relationships concentrated instead on local, mundane needs at a relatively small scale, needs for the healing of diseased bodies segregated from others by sickness, needs for daily bread, and needs for learning from God’s law how to love God and one another so that land would be shared, bread abundant, and life conditions conducive to bodily health. It was this small, rather unimpressive seed of Jesus’ life that took hold of people and places enough in Israel to become a threat to the authorities in the land, moving them to try to stem the tide with a horrifying public execution to ensure that Jesus and his ways would be forgotten. But then the way that Jesus was raised from that death signaled that the seed of his life would grow to touch and transform everyone and everything affected by the forces of death and decay, particularly by the injustice fueled by those forces. So restoring relationships in Jesus’ holistic way is not primarily about new decrees or laws or getting better people in positions of authority, as important as these measures might be. It is primarily about how common people in particular places continually work in community at repairing the broken relationships they have inherited and maintain.

Creation care collage

To interpret the gospel in relationship to the earth is harder if it is read in isolation from what Christians call the Old Testament, where the power of God in relationship to the earth is both assumed and taught more directly. The Old Testament presents the human in intricate relationship with land and knows of no hope for the human that is not the hope for healthy land and animals, the hope of the earth. In the soil of the Old Testament from which the New Testament grows, we can see that the gospel is not simply about rescuing souls from postmortem torment or fixing individual persons’ ethereal estrangement from God—this prevalent understanding of the gospel is among the causes of the unsustainable ways of living we have developed on the earth. The gospel is instead about the healing of the human as a creature of the earth, which involves peace rather than hostility among neighbors and between peoples, and corresponding ways of relating to the gifts of the earth that make for places of abundance and life rather than scarcity and deathly disease.

LM: I recently listened to a talk you gave at the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development, where you spoke about integrating ecological concerns into theological education—rather than simply tacking ecology on as a separate study—and how ecological matters impinge on the very questions we’re already asking, like “What is justice?” or “What is it to care for our neighbor?” Can you talk more about that?

TG: In the sort of economy and culture most of us have inherited, we have almost no idea where the food we put in our mouth comes from, other than “the store” or “the restaurant.” Similarly, we know next to nothing of the sources or channels of the water that comes out of our faucets. We think of the value of such precious gifts as our daily bread and water primarily in terms of how much money we pay for them and we use them accordingly, with no regard for the relationships among human beings, animals, and land at work in them for good or for ill. Not surprisingly, we consider what sort of consumption is sustainable or just only with respect to what we can afford monetarily, how many dollars our grocery or water bill or cell phone will be. This makes us oblivious to the actual cost of what we consume, the cost to people and places, and undermines our power to identify how people and places are being exploited to “serve” us and therefore our power to repent. This is the tip of the iceberg, of course, but I begin my response this way to signal how our economy and culture allow us to regard ecological matters, that is, the health of particular places, as a special interest separate from our everyday economic habits and social relations. This separation hides much of the cost of our habits from us as well as how ecological health is related to racial justice, warfare, and other such urgent concerns.

To think that we could promote justice by guaranteeing a living wage while we poison the air and water of those working for that wage is one example of our ecological blindness, especially when we “create jobs” for people whose places, if not those of other people they don’t know, are destroyed by doing those jobs. The quality of people’s lives cannot be reduced to one measure (e.g., whether they have a job), thus hiding and justifying unnecessary sacrifices. A couple of generations ago we destroyed the tree canopy of the river basin of Los Angeles in order to provide more housing and businesses fast, but in doing so we set our urban place on a course of desertification that does a terrible injustice to all who will or would inherit it from us. It is desertification that taxes remote places, especially needy people in them, for water and other goods that are not plentiful enough for the population of Los Angeles. Justice must consider human communities and persons in the complex ecological relationships in which they actually exist, and over generations, not address their immediate needs in one way by sacrificing their needs in another or by sacrificing the needs of people of the future. The law and the prophets are most attentive to this, as is Jesus in the way he teaches and heals. One cannot love one’s neighbor when destroying her land or the animals by which she lives, however nice one is to her along the way. Jesus teaches us to live without hoarding, the way birds and lilies do, so that we might enjoy the fruit of our places equitably rather than at one another’s expense, sustainably rather than exploitatively.

LM: We started by asking how we got here, so I’d like to end with, Where do we go from here? I imagine it’s counterintuitive to give general advice for what needs to be, as you said, the work of actual people in their specific places, but is there something tangible you can leave us with to encourage or challenge us on the path? Do any specific practices come to mind? Has anything given you hope for what’s possible?

TG: You’re right that steps forward should reflect the needs of particular places and the different kinds of power and passion that people have in those places. But it’s still good to offer some rules of thumb. I tend to look first to something we all do in all our places—eat. It is not incidental that the revelation of God in the Bible has so much to do with food, which comes from land, including animals the land feeds. We have come to rely on the availability of food on shelves or in restaurants and the adequacy of our money to buy it as the main ways we decide what to put in our mouths, typically with little idea of where our food comes from or how it has come to the place where we’re eating it. This is not a good plan. Much of what is sold in grocery stores, especially what is sold cheaply, is in fact bad for our bodies and bad for the places it comes from, not to mention the effects of its transportation on all our places. So we must start to relate to our food differently, prioritizing healthful food that is produced near to us and minimizing consumption of food that destroys our and others’ places (e.g., in light of the damage done by most of the beef industry, saving beef for special occasions or ensuring it comes from a more sustainable beef operation). This is very hard for people who live in so-called food deserts, and where money is tight, but even in such situations there are steps forward. One way to eat healthful food produced nearby is to grow some of it yourself, even if that means a few tomato plants on an apartment balcony. The experience of cultivating ourselves what we put into our mouth teaches us to relate to food and the people and places that produce it differently, and it can educate our appetites as well as the way we negotiate current political economic policy struggles.

Besides relating to food differently, we should get to know the places where we live, and a good framework for that is to study our watersheds and their history. It is hard to care for a place that we do not love, and we cannot love a place we know nothing about in particular. When our bodies grow in the knowledge and delights of the places where we live, we develop desire and energy for caring for them. In my case that has involved learning about the history of the LA River and the harm done to my place by the infrastructure to prevent its flooding and the urban development on and around it. That has invested me more meaningfully in efforts to restore it. Related to this is learning about the destruction of the tree canopy that used to shade and nurture the whole LA Basin and efforts to recultivate it instead of hastening the desertification of where I live. This learning led me to redo the plumbing of my home to deliver gray water to tree basins where we live, with the help of our public utility, Pasadena Water and Power.

Generally, we need to start thinking about what enhances or harms the integrity of the places where we live in light of what we consume and how we live, and to invest ourselves in the move toward the ecological health of our places, which includes the manifold ways they’re related to other places.

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