Unprecedented numbers of fires are now burning in the Amazon rainforest. The reason for the recent increase: an upsurge in intentional slash-and-burn land clearing techniques to allow more room for agriculture, primarily for beef cattle. The fires have some obvious immediate adverse effects, such as illness and death from air pollution and loss of land for indigenous people. Scientists also fear serious longer-term effects, including a significant loss of biodiversity and the degradation of an important buffer against climate change (the Amazon plays a big role in capturing atmospheric carbon and producing oxygen).
The upsurge in fires is almost certainly linked to the policies of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who strongly favours land clearing. Although the President has recently banned the slash-and-burn practices for 60 days, it’s hard to know how effective the ban will be. Work to fight the fires is going ahead, but it’s a huge operation and workers are spread far too thin. International aid has been offered, but much has been refused for political reasons. For example, the recent offer by the G7 nations of more than $32 million to “save” the Amazon was rejected by the Brazilian president, claiming it was a move akin to colonialism.
How should Christians respond to this situation? In this post, I’ll be taking some of the points from my book Is God Green? to show how the gospel of Jesus Christ can be brought to bear on the situation.
God, Humanity and Creation
First, we need to remember that human use of land—including for agriculture—is not wrong in and of itself. According to Genesis, we humans have been created in God’s “image”. This involves having “dominion” over God’s good world (Genesis 1:26), and it means we have a responsibility to “work” and “keep” God’s creation (Genesis 2:15). So it is right for humans to take an active role towards the world. We should both use God’s world for ourselves and our needs, and also care for the world, remembering that the world belongs to God. Ideally, then, the use of land for industry and agriculture, when done well and properly, under God, is good for humanity, and good for the world.
We should both use God’s world for ourselves and our needs, and also care for the world, remembering that the world belongs to God.
The Tragedy of Sin
In our world today, however, this ideal situation is often tragically marred. Genesis 3 describes how humanity disobeyed God and decided for themselves what was right and wrong. This is sin, and it has devastating consequences, not only for our relationship with God—i.e. death and judgment—but also for our relationship with our world. When God’s image-bearers sin, they fail to rule the world rightly (see e.g. Hosea 4:1–3). And tragically, we’re all caught up in it together.
Some of these devastating consequences are, it seems, being played out in the Amazon situation right now. Human sin is at work here—and it’s a disaster. Of course, it’s not easy to isolate the human sin to just one source in situations like this. There is always, in fact, a whole complex interconnected web of issues, with sin impacting each issue in some way. There will be greed on the part of industrialists who are clearing land for personal profits without regard to the consequences. There will be a lack of government regulation due to incompetence and (probably, inevitably) corruption somewhere in the chain. There will be political manoeuvring for personal power. There will be effects of past exploitation and injustice, creating situations where individual farmers need to clear land just to survive. And of course, there will be the collective habits of greed and haste and wastefulness—including those among you and me here in Australia—that demand cheap, fast, good food, year round, at any time of the day or night, thus creating markets where there is profit in relentless land-clearing.
Sin is devastating and tragic. It has awful effects. The most serious consequence of our sin, as we see in Genesis 3, is death and God’s judgment. But there are other, awful, effects of sin, played out in our world. This situation in the Amazon is one of them. So in fact, our first response to this situation should be to weep and mourn for our world and for the human sin (our sin) that causes such devastation.
Yet when we understand that human sin is at the root of these issues, we can also start to see where our true hope lies.
Our Christian Life and Hope
When we turn to the New Testament, we see the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus is truly God, and also truly human. In fact, Jesus is more truly human than any of us. We humans are supposed to rule the world rightly, in obedience to God. But when we look around our world, we don’t see humanity ruling rightly. What we see, so often, is humanity wrecking the world—in this instance our greed and waste and haste and incompetence all tied up together, creating situations such as this where fires are now burning out of control in the Amazon. But Jesus is the man who never rejected God: the man who always lived for God. He is the human being who rules the world rightly, under God.
Jesus is more truly human than any of us … the man who never rejected God: the man who always lived for God. He is the human being who rules the world rightly, under God.
And this man hasn’t left us to face death, God’s judgment, and the tragic effects of sin in our world by ourselves. Jesus has actually entered into our mucked-up, death-bound, world. He has become one of us. Why? “So that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone” (Hebrews 2:9). Our sin means that we are under God’s death sentence. But Jesus took that death on himself, though he didn’t deserve it. He suffered and died in our place. In dying and rising from the dead, Jesus took the curse of God upon himself and gave (and gives) us life, freedom and forgiveness.
This means that those who trust in Jesus Christ have a great hope. Most obviously, we have a sure and certain hope for the future. Revelation 21–22 gives us a picture of a new heavens and a new earth: a place where relationships are made right again, where there is no death or mourning or weeping, and where God lives with his people and people live in harmony with God’s world, rightly ruling the world under God. In our own world devastated by sin, where we might be tempted to despair, this hope of the gospel of Jesus Christ can and should sustain us and equip us to live.
Furthermore, the gospel of Jesus Christ affects our lives in the here and now—and affects the way we treat God’s world. For example, Colossians 3:5 tells us put greed to death, which will have an effect on how and what we consume. The Bible also calls us to respond to God’s love for us by loving our neighbour (e.g. Luke 10:27). Loving our neighbour isn’t something that is meant to be bound and limited. There is a wider sense to the command—a sense that bursts through the boundaries we like to set up for ourselves (e.g. Luke 10:29–37). And since we and our neighbours are not separate from the world, loving our neighbour will also involve doing what is right by the world. We Christians, who are forgiven and who have hope, also have a reason to love our neighbour.
How Can Christians Respond?
1. Pray. The first response is to pray. The issues here are so complex and interconnected that it could easily lead us to despair. We are weak. But our God is more powerful than the Amazon fires, and he hears us when we pray to him.
2. Repent. Another response is on an even more personal level, and involves repentance. When we hear about this tragic situation in the Amazon, it acts as a reminder of the tragic seriousness of human sin. It gives us a reason to examine ourselves, and to ask ourselves if we need to lament and weep over our own personal greed, to confess our sins to God, and to consider ways we ourselves could put greed to death. Are you living a lifestyle that’s fast and thoughtless, and so in need of fast solutions and fast food, that it might be contributing (even in a very small way) to the general malaise of greed and haste in our world that leads to such things as uncontrolled land clearing? Is there a way you could change your life, and put greed to death on a personal level?
3. Love. Another response you could make is on a community level. One way you could love your neighbour is to be involved in organisations that actively seek to promote the right use of God’s creation, including advocacy with governments. A Rocha Australia is an organisation with a strong gospel foundation. It’s relatively new, but is gaining ground and is worth checking out. There will be other organisations out there as well. Since the problems in our world are a mix of complex factors, it’s not always straightforward to know exactly what action will help. But it’s still worth seeking to make a difference.
What the world needs, most of all, is Jesus. When people come to trust in Jesus, the image of God is renewed, and the world is set to rights.
4. Proclaim. The final response might sound weak and ineffective at first glance, but in the end it’s actually the most powerful response of all. It’s to continue to share the gospel of Jesus Christ with your friends and family and neighbours. That’s because what the world needs, most of all, is Jesus. When people come to trust in Jesus, the image of God is renewed, and the world is set to rights. As people come to know and love Christ, they will put greed to death, and they will live in love for others and with regard to the good world God has made. They become people who, with Christ, will rule God’s new creation forever and ever.
For some more detail on how the Bible’s teaching helps us to understand environmental issues, you might like to check out: