The world is burning.
As I am writing this, Cheryl’s brother and sister-in-law have evacuated their house near Vernon, BC due to wildfire sweeping through the area. They have left a lovely home filled with most of their earthly possessions, and have no idea what they will find when they return. Sadly there have been many houses, even entire communities, that have been ravaged in every Canadian province.
In one sense we can literally say that the world is burning right now. There is unprecedented destruction in the U.S., Europe, Russia, Turkey, Greece where wide swaths of land and entire villages are literally disappearing under the flames. Thousands homeless; wildlife eradicated; vegetation destroyed.
A UN study study was released today confirming that temperatures around the globe are rising faster than predicted and that it is “unequivocal” that humans are responsible. People increasingly see this as evidence of climate change and I suppose the deniers will continue to see it as just a natural cycle.
But regardless of your position on climate change we can agree that most of our planet’s ills are caused by poor human management. It is even getting dangerous in space now because of all the man-made debris orbiting our planet.
Pollution and human interference negatively affect countless resources every year and endanger wildlife and vegetation. Think about it – we know that plastics, chemicals, air pollutants, poisoned soil, poisoned water and more, are the result of greed and selfishness. There is even a name for it … ‘ecocide’.
But to me the issue isn’t as much about evidence as it is is about responsibility: how should we, as humans and as christians, treat the land, the beasts, the helpless?
on a 45
When I was a teenager I was a big fan of The Carpenters and I bought their hit single ‘Superstar’. The B side of that recording held a sleepy song called ‘Bless the Beasts and the Children’. As I recall it took awhile for me to appreciate the song but in the end the core idea gives it privileged status.
Bless the beasts and the children
For in this world they have no voice
They have no choice¹
As it turns out, it was the theme song for a movie of the same name, which in turn was based on the novel by Glendon Swarthout. In simplest terms, it is the story of a group of adolescent misfits who are sent to a summer camp where it is hoped they will become more manly and socially adept.
The boys remain awkward outsiders at the camp but circumstances lead them to discover something more important: their compassion for some helpless buffalo and their attempt to save the herd from slaughter.
In the process the reader discovers the heart-twisting truth that the best virtues aren’t discovered in power or strength or success. Instead, the purest good is found wherever there is humility, weakness, helplessness.
Wait. Isn’t that a christian principle?
Most people don’t realize how ecologically conscientious the Bible is.² In it we are reminded that God is the landlord of the land Israel (we) lives on and they (we) only have it as a gift from him. Conversely, if God is ignored there is a price to be paid.
From God’s initial declarations that creation is good to the final promise of a new creation at the end of time, there is constant respect given to ‘the land’. There are passages that are possessed by the beauty and complexity of the skies, the waters, the weather, the mountains and valleys, and the creatures that inhabit them. And all through the Bible God is intimate and interactive with what he has made.
In Deuteronomy there are numerous verses for the practical care of the resources God has shared. Israel was commanded to rest their work animals and they are told elsewhere to rest their fields. They are told to leave part of their crops so the poor could have food. There are instructions about protecting trees, “You shall eat from them but you shall not cut them down” (C.20). Even a clear mandate to protect nesting birds, “…in order that it may go well with you…” (C.22)
That it may go well with you … that’s ominous. Especially when you consider that many governments and businesses have ecological blood on their hands. You might recall for instance, that the previous U.S. administration intentionally rolled back a shocking 112 rules protecting virtually every area of the environment and wildlife.
There is another strong theme through scripture: protecting widows, strangers, refugees, and orphans. The weak, the vulnerable, the innocent. Isaiah gets right after it in the first chapter: “Learn to do good; seek justice. Reprove the ruthless; defend the orphan; plead for the widow.” (v.17)
Children are the most vulnerable demographic, even in the richest countries in the world. On our continent, one in five children suffer from poverty due to low family income and almost 90% of those are black, native, or hispanic. Children are always at the bottom of the ladder when there is poverty, resulting in poor housing, security, nutrition, healthcare, education, and accompanied by emotional trauma.
They have no voice.
Did all the wildfires stir me to write about these topics? Was I inspired by hearing the Carpenters’ 1972 song? No, what got me thinking was some news about Noah’s ark. The one that saved all those people and animals.
The ‘Ark Encounter’ features a big boat and it is the heavily-taxpayer-funded centrepiece of the evangelical organization Answers In Genesis. To celebrate the pandemic not being over, they are currently hosting the world’s largest christian music festival! The festival will last forty days (and forty nights?) and will feature lots of christian music acts I’ve never heard of. As if that’s not enough, what christian music festival would be complete without lots of famous pastors being paid to show up and, you know … preach sermons?
One of the sponsors of the festival was to be Holt International, a christian organization that arranges foster care and adoptions. Yes, quality, safe care for children who have no parents.
At any rate, Answers In Genesis boss Ken Ham (no relation to Noah’s second son) wrote an angry blog when he learned that Holt had a policy he didn’t agree with. Ham (possible relation to Noah’s second son) had a problem with Holt’s policy of considering qualified applicants regardless of marital status, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender identity.
Ham (the person, not the smoked meat) chose to refuse the sponsorship because he believed that Holt’s policy was allowing LBGTQ ‘leaven’ inside their organization. In addition to leaven, he also used words like ‘Marxist’, ‘heritage’, ‘slippery slope’, ‘critical race theory’ and reminded us that God’s Word never changes. Oh, and he also said that, “once the door is open, the cancer will spread”.
Look, there’s too much to unpack but I draw the line at the use of ‘cancer’. Is he saying that sexual identity can be as awful as cancer, or that cancer is as insignificant as sexual identity?
(By the way, Answers in Genesis has announced plans to build a Tower of Babel. Apparently building big bible props is an important work for christians to do.)
I understand this is a complicated discussion for some, and that’s fine. But regardless of what holy spin we put on it, the irony is that once again the orphans are voiceless.
They have no choice.
How should we treat the the helpless, the vulnerable? What truth do we choose? What effort do they deserve from us?
The Bible also talks about a little something called “The Day of the Lord” which is basically a purification; comeuppance for those who do evil without concern for good. Lots of evangelicals like to believe the DOTL is some Armageddon-like idea but often the DOTL has to do with the inescapable punishment for our actions (or inactions).
What if our short-sighted treatment of the voiceless and choiceless actually has real world, real time consequences? It very well might, because they matter most of all to God.
I found a place last week where I could easily slide my kayak into a quiet river. Why, there was even free parking and a portable toilet nearby!
It was a beautiful day for a paddle. The morning water was glassy smooth and wisps of fog hovered over the surface like a swamp scene from a fantasy film. A bass jumped and splashed to my right, a heron flew across my vision and landed in parched tree roots to my left.
As I glided past a floating field of lily pads I saw something move in the water ahead of me; a little black head. Then another. And another. Three otters swam, dove, and swirled in the water, oblivious to the human sliding toward them.
Otter #3 saw me first, stretching its head vertically above the surface to eye me quizzically, then slipped into the darkness below. Otter #2 popped upright to stare at me a bit longer, then disappeared like the other.
Otter #1 was a different matter. This one stopped, head and neck periscoped above the water, and refused to move. It chattered loudly in my direction, perhaps as a warning to the others, perhaps as a war cry to me – I didn’t know which.³ The black head submerged at the last minute only to reappear off my starboard bow (a nautical term we kayakers use). It began chattering again.
Anticipating an attack, I raised my paddle to a defensive position to protect my neck and face (my other important assets were tucked safely inside the kayak). The beast screamed at me, dove under water, then reappeared to one side. It chattered (or laughed) again, then finally slid beneath the water.
I sat and waited. The river returned to its morning calm.
I realized that I missed those little otters, their chattering voices, and the playful energy they had given my day.
I would have given anything to have them reappear.
But they didn’t.
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¹ Bless The Beasts And Children lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC; Songwriters: Barry De Vorzon / Perry L Botkin
² For an excellent synopsis of the biblical position on ecology, Sandra L. Richter‘s slim book Stewards of Eden is easy to read and full of practical information.
³ I mean, what do I know about otter behaviour?