Easter, Earth Day and Arbor Day mark a time when many contemplate the fate of their soul and the planet. This year, all three fall in the same week, with Earth Day on Monday (what some know as Easter Monday) and Arbor Day on Friday.
Environmental scientists warn that the window in which humanity can reverse or mitigate climate change is rapidly closing. Yet, remarkably little cooperation exists between these scientists and the millions of Americans who self-identify as Christians.
This must change, or I fear for my grandchildren’s future. As someone who has a foot both in the environmental and the evangelical worlds, I see the barriers to cooperation all too clearly.
Many Christians who claim to believe in the Bible’s inerrancy have little or no knowledge, regard or awareness of what it says about trees and the environment. Likewise, many environmentalists have failed to heed Alexis de Tocqueville’s early 19th-century warning about underestimating the role of faith when interacting with Americans.
With this in mind, I offer a few suggestions.
Christians must recall the wisdom of an odd authority on climate change. His name is Joe, and he is in prison for assault and attempted rape. His father has children by four different women. Joe’s mother is a thief who once traded her husband’s sexual attentions for drugs. Joe’s brothers are guilty of human trafficking, maiming animals for sport, and conspiracy to commit fraud. Christians are instructed in the Bible to learn from this character, for he is Israel’s son Joseph, imprisoned in Egypt.
If you pick up Joseph’s story in Chapter 41 of Genesis, you will see that his rise to power results from God giving him the ability to predict a 14-year climate cycle, which started 1,300 miles south in the Ethiopian highlands.
Scripture is a story of the way things are, not what we wished they would be. And although it could be argued that Joseph was dealing with weather and not climate, a precedent is certainly established. Joseph’s applied wisdom for the Egyptians has nothing to do with libertarianism or God shielding humans from consequences. Rather, it is in keeping with the sage advice: When praying for a good crop, farmers should do so with a hoe in hand.
Next, Christians should get busy planting and protecting trees worldwide. However, most Christians have never heard a sermon on trees. This was not always so. Over the last 75 years, trees have been subtracted from Christian sermons, theology, art, poetry and even the text of the Bible. The words tree, seed, leaf, branch, root and fruit have been subtracted more than 200 times from virtually every modern Bible translation. The result has been a growing apostasy and neglect of something that matters to all humanity.
Trees are mentioned more times in the Bible than any living thing other than God and people. There is a tree on the first and last page of the Bible, and one stands by every important character and theological event in scripture.
Even if you are unfamiliar with Charles Spurgeon, Martyn Lloyd-Jones and others from the last generation who taught on the Bible’s trees, you may have encountered the fictional works of George MacDonald, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Their tree theology is derived from the Bible. Good guys plant and protect trees. In contrast, bad guys are clear-cutters of ancient forests.
For those willing to bet their grandchildren’s futures on Jesus’ imminent return, recall that the trees of the forest shout for joy when God returns to “destroy the destroyers of the earth” (Revelation 11:18). When Jesus does return, trees will finally get their day in court, and they know the judgment will come down in their favor (1 Chronicles 16:33, Psalm 96:11-13).
Non-Christian brothers and sisters, it is time to begin welcoming your Christian siblings to the table. They have more to offer than they are aware of. Help them rediscover that theirs is the most forested of sacred texts. Invite them to explain why the only thing Jesus ever harmed was a tree, and the only thing that could harm Jesus was a tree. Ask them why heaven is a place where gold is used for asphalt, but a leaf from the Tree of Life “heals the nations.”
Invite a Christian to come to your tree planting, and say a prayer like Abraham (Genesis 21:33). Ask who the “apple tree in the wood” is (Song of Solomon 2:3). Let them tell you why Job said there is hope for a tree, and why Isaiah tells us to be “oaks of righteousness.”
None of us has any idea if citizens 100 years from today will be living in blue states, red states, green states or some altered state that we cannot yet imagine. What we do know is that the next generations will need clean air to breathe, clean water to drink and green trees to walk under. And if we get this wrong, there will be no history to judge us, or any holidays to celebrate.
Matthew Sleeth is the executive director of Blessed Earth and author of “Reforesting Faith: What Trees Teach Us About the Nature of God and His Love for Us.”