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Stewards of the earth

Religious groups becoming increasingly environmentally minded

Would a good Christian drive an SUV?

Insert any religious believer in place of Christian and you get to the crux of the question. Or, as Bill Moyers of Public Broadcasting System (PBS) might ask, ‘Is God Green?’

Well, God is getting greener for the majority of religious folk in the United States.

And in Hawai’i, though behind the national curve, faith-based groups are beginning to forge cautious partnerships with environmental groups.

At one point in the U.S., the religious right was squarely behind the Bush administration and didn’t balk at a roll-back on clean air and water protections, increased commercial logging and drilling on public lands, and a withdrawal of support for the Kyoto Treaty on global warming.

Recently there’s been a change afoot. In February 2006, a group of 86 high-level evangelical Christian leaders signed on to the Evangelical Climate Initiative. The group called on all Christians to push for legislation and individual action to reduce global warming.

The group wrote, ‘The same love for God and neighbor that compels us to preach salvation through Jesus Christ, protect the unborn, preserve the family and the sanctity of marriage and take the whole Gospel to a hurting world, also compels us to recognize that human-induced climate change is a serious Christian issue requiring action now.’

Then, on May 25, 2006, Bob Edgar, secretary-general of the National Council of Churches (NCC) said, ‘I believe the life issue of our time is global warming. I believe that God is calling us to attention on the issue. I can find no place in any of the scriptures, whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim or others where God is calling us to participate in destroying the planet. Every place I look, God says, ‘Be stewards of the Earth.”

The NCC represents 45 million Americans.

This change in course for American Christians comes after a long history of hostility toward the environmental movement. For years, many Christian leaders had been preaching that environmentalists worshiped the earth instead of God and hence were idol worshipers and pagans.

Many Christians still feel that religion and environmental causes should not go hand in hand. Another group of high-profile evangelicals, including James Dobson of Focus on the Family, have come out against the Evangelical Climate Initiative creating a rare split in the Evangelical church. But, even the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has noticed an upswing in interest in global warming issues among the faithful.

‘What we see now is a country that’s more divided on political lines. But people are putting differences aside and saying that this is an issue that we can come together on. Partnering with religious leaders in communities has been quite remarkable. The trend is especially noticeable in the South,’ says Julia Bovey, NRDC spokeswoman.

In Hawai’i, on April 13 and 14, members from the United Church of Christ, other churches and faith-based groups, joined together with the Sierra Club, Earth Justice, school groups and native Hawaiian organizations for Step It Up, a green-focused educational event.

But deep faith-based environmental activism is still percolating in Hawai’i. Katy Kok is the executive director of Nani O’Wai’anae, the Keep America Beautiful chapter in O’ahu. She says, ‘There is a little more interest from faith groups. And, recently the Baptists from Wai’anae and Makaha have adopted highway sections.’

Though when asked why she thought interest had inched up recently, she conceded, ‘We’re doing more networking and trying to contact groups, inviting them. Maybe we’re doing a better job.’

Indeed, informal research showed that most religious congregations have had an event cleaning up a beach or highway section, but not much more.

From Hawai’i’s Christian Scientists to Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons to Jews, a similar consensus was found: the story of Genesis from the Old Testament says that man is steward of the earth. But this consensus may result in individual action more than church-based activism. (Native Hawaiian groups, of course, have been particularly active in conservation efforts.)

Burrows, a former science teacher at Kamehameha Schools, explains an irony in the current relationship between Christianity and the environmental movement: ‘It’s very difficult for Christian churches to become environmentally minded because they haven’t been involved.’

He explains that Christian missionaries first came to Hawai’i with an industrial-world mindset, one that said man should have a dominion over the resources of the earth. ‘That’s now changed to an understanding that all things are related and man doesn’t have a dominion over all,’ Burrows adds. ‘It is now very important for Westerners to understand indigenous concepts because these groups have always had a closer relationship with the environment.’

So, does this answer the original question? Would a good, say, Buddhist drive an SUV?

As a selfless man, the Buddhist Minister Shoji Matsumoto of the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawai’i says he doesn’t speak on behalf of all Buddhists. But when asked if people should drive fuel-efficient vehicles he answered, ‘Not a question of being good Buddhist. That’s a question of being smart.’

For more information on what’s happening around the country, or how you or your group can get involved, try these websites:

Step It Up 2007

[www.stepitup2007.org]

National Religious Partnership for the Environment

[www.nrpe.org/index.html]

Evangelical Climate Initiative

[www.christiansandclimate.org]/ action

Re-energize America

[www.reenergizeamerica.org]

National Churches of Christ Eco-Justice Program

[www.nccecojustice.org]

God, Humanity, and Nature:

Comparative Religious Views of the Environment (2006)

[www.csa.com/discoveryguides/envrel/review.php]

Is God Green? By Bill Moyers

[www.pbs.org/moyers]/ moyersonamerica/green/[index.html]