Saving the Environment or Being Good?

© 2014 Robert Osburn

We hear it in America almost every day: “Save the environment lest we destroy ourselves.”

Because God has given us a creation and a cultural mandate in Genesis 1:26-28, I’m right there: Yes, we must take care of this world that God has given us.  But, then there is a gnawing thought in the back of my mind: “But, what if we have no world to save, given growing evils such as family fragmentation that threaten to shred our personal worlds?”  After all, the number one correlate with inequality in the USA is the likelihood that one is raised in a single family home. Stacks and stacks of empirical evidence demonstrate that family fragmentation (single parenting, out of wedlock births, divorce, etc) destroys character and undermines possibilities for social mobility.

Must I sacrifice personal morality in order to rescue the environment?  In fact, yes, according to the tone of almost all Western media presentations of the issue: “You are damned if you do not join the environmental crusade, but, oh, we really can’t judge how you live your personal life.”

Now, if I live in Beijing, that last question will not gnaw at me the way that the choking smog does.   In China, the media, especially that which is state-controlled, almost certainly avoids discussing the environment, and so the media message is something like: “We all know it’s bad, but we have no choice other than to suffer and shut up, even though something desperately needs to be done.”  Social harmony is the greater good that risks being harmed if we Chinese get honest about the smog.

So, which is it: the environment or the family and society?  We humans don’t like these binary trade-offs, nor should we.  Most of us know that it’s “both-and.” 

There is a fundamental principle that can help us straighten our priorities when we are pressured to either join a crusade to save the environment or zip our lips lest we destroy social harmony.  The principle is this: We must be good people if we are to do good. 

When the Rich Young Ruler came to Jesus (as recorded by Matthew, Mark, and Luke) his question was about what he must do in order to inherit eternal life, but note also that he addressed his question to “Good Teacher” (Jesus).  Rather than answering his question, Jesus, as he was wont to do, challenged his premise with another question: “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” (Luke 18: 19).

Jesus was intent on reminding the wealthy man that character precedes calling, attitude comes before action, and who we are undergirds what we are to do.  This theme pervades the Biblical text because we humans want to atone for all our evils by doing things such as saving our environment. (This desire to atone for ourselves is rooted in what Prof. J. Budziszewski at the University of Texas calls “the revenge of conscience.”) But, only One Man possessed the character by which He could atone for our evils and simultaneously make us new people with cleansed character sufficient to the calling to care for creation.  This is, in essence, the promise of what evangelicals call salvation: Jesus’ perfect character qualified Him to do what we could not, which is atone for our moral evils, including the evil of destroying our habitat, our environment. 

I believe this helps us to establish moral priorities in an evil world: Let us first attend to moral renewal, by trusting Jesus and by reforming the social environments that help shape our character, such as our families and communities. Thus, contraire to most Western media and many in the chattering classes, I claim that aggressively fixing our family fragmentation must be our first priority in the USA.  Fixing the physical environment rightly deserves our aggressive attention, but it must be the second (though never-neglected) priority.  Rules and policies for cleansing our environment must be calibrated in step with policies that restore US families.

My claim must be tested in Beijing, I know.  The principle remains true there as well as in the USA: Character precedes calling.   The character crisis in Beijing, it seems to me, is not family fragmentation, but, instead, dishonesty and corruption.  A true accounting of the actual levels of pollution and a resolute turn away from demanding bribes for services, combined with an embrace of our True Atoner (Jesus) will likely go a long way towards beginning the overdue cleanup of the air our Chinese friends breathe.    China has a massive calling to clean up its environment, but its first and simultaneous priority must be the renewal of character even while it promulgates good environmental laws. 

The renewal of character, which precedes calling, starts at the Cross.  It still is the first hope for our skies and streams.