The poor or the planet: which comes first?
Forty years ago there was a huge debate amongst evangelical Christians. Is the gospel simply about ‘spiritual’ matters or does it include care for the poor and oppressed? That debate was won by the power of scripture. Both the Old Testament prophets and Jesus unite in saying that we cannot love God without loving and serving our neighbour in need.
Today there’s renewed debate. Is the Gospel – God’s good news – only for people, or is it good news for all creation? Take a practical example: if a rare species of frog is threatened by a poor community chopping trees for firewood, should Christians support the wildlife or the humans? Put so starkly, most Christians would say ‘people come first’. After all, didn’t Jesus say we are ‘worth more than many sparrows1’? Didn’t he make us uniquely in his image and give us ‘dominion’ over other creatures? Anyway, isn’t going green just a luxury for the rich?
It’s not that simple! Human ‘dominion’ is not power to do as we like, but responsibility to be ‘servant Kings’ within the community of creation. As for the rich, the real luxury is not going green but surely the opposite – over-consuming resources at terrible cost to both poor and planet, and forgetting our utter dependence on God’s provision in nature!
And sparrows? God’s care for the humble Passer domesticus should not be underestimated. Whilst Jesus clearly says individual humans are of greater significance than individual sparrows, he’s also showing that each individual of every species is valuable to God in itself. Not a single sparrow falls (or is caught) ‘without your Father’ – emphasising God’s protection and oversight of even the smallest and cheapest creature.
Elsewhere, the bible repeatedly affirms that non-human creatures matter to God. Noah’s ark shows God’s passion for biodiversity conservation – preserving species ‘so that their kind might continue upon the earth’, irrespective of their usefulness to us. Jesus may not give out proof texts about creation care but it’s woven through his parables, teaching and lifestyle (as I hope to look at in a future post).
Psalm 36:6 sums it up: ‘You save humans and animals alike, O Lord’. The choice of ‘poor or planet’ is false and dangerous. God created both, God cares for both, God saves both, and God calls us to work for the flourishing of both people and wildlife. If we stop caring for the planet it’s the poor who suffer first and worst. If we stop caring for the poor they have no choice but to live less sustainably. The biblical vision is of ‘shalom’, God’s peaceable Kingdom, where relationships between God, people and other creatures are restored, and poverty is no more. Whether it’s frogs or A Rocha’s work with elephants in India and elephant-shrews in Kenya, they all matter to God along with the human communities around them. The gospel is God’s good news, even for sparrows.