taking the words of Jesus seriously

EDITOR’S NOTE: In Juliana v U.S., young people have sued the federal government for violating the public trust and infringing upon their right to life by ignoring climate science for decades and investing in an oil-based economy long after we knew carbon emissions would make life on planet earth unsustainable. RLC is submitting an evangelical friend-of-the-court brief in support of this case and invites other organizations and faith leaders to support Our Children’s Trust as this case goes to court. This amicus brief must be filed by March 1, 2019, so contact Eowyn Soran ASAP to join this evangelical call to action: [email protected]


Amicus Brief from Evangelicals 

As teachers and preachers in the evangelical movement, we write in support of Juliana’s claim that a fundamental right to life has been violated by the United States government, both in its failure to address the threat of climate change and in its insistence on continuing to invest in the oil economy long after we knew it was a threat to life on earth. While a right to life is fundamental to the Constitution and the legal tradition of the United States, we understand the fundamental rights of the Constitution to be rooted in the religious traditions that inform moral discourse in our common life. As women and men who have taken vows to both receive and pass on that tradition, we consider it a vocational responsibility to support these young people in their assertion that their right to life has been violated.

The Right to Life in Creation

While the creation account in Genesis is not a modern scientific description of human origins, we understand it to be a revelation about both the source and purpose of life. God creates from nothing — ex nihilo — in Genesis. Life as we know it is not the demonstration of one god’s power over another, but is a gift from God, given in generous love. The source of human life is the source of all creation in the Genesis story.

When God creates the human being in God’s image, we learn that all human life is precious because the Creator of the universe has stamped the divine image on humanity. But if God is our source, God also defines our purpose. As creatures made in God’s image, we are called to live into the generous love that is our source as we “till the earth and keep it.”

Murder is presented in Genesis as a violation of the right to life. “Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made humanity” (Genesis 9:6). In the same text, God establishes a covenant with humanity, calling it an “everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth.” God promises to sustain the earth and entrusts humanity to this task in a covenant that precedes the legal code of ancient Israel. Acting to protect and sustain all life is a fundamental task of humanity in the creation story that Genesis tells.

The U.S. government’s failure to respond to climate science with a plan to address the adverse effects of carbon emissions is a violation of humanity’s fundamental responsibility to sustain life. Just as Noah’s generation was held collectively responsible for its sins against the God of creation, we are collectively responsible for the impact of society on the environment. To refuse to acknowledge this responsibility is to take life from future generations and from ourselves. It is not only tantamount to fratricide, but is also a suicidal assault on the environment that sustains our very life.

The Bible’s Concern for Creation

A growing body of biblical scholarship makes clear that God’s relationship with the land and creation is an enduring theme throughout scripture that has been overlooked and underappreciated by modern industrial and post-industrial society.[1] To recover a biblical concern for creation is to recognize that the prophetic witness of scripture testifies to the tendency of worldly governments to abuse power to benefit the wealthy and the few to the detriment of the poor, the immigrant, widows and children, and the land. These consistent victims of systemic abuse are also regularly imaged as the special concern of God.

The prophet Ezekiel uses the image of famine — a “natural disaster” in our modern imagination — to point out the connection between a land that cannot sustain its people and corrupt leadership. “You are a land that has not been cleansed or rained on,” the Lord says. “There is a conspiracy of her princes within her like a roaring lion tearing its prey… they shed blood and kill people to make unjust gain.” (Ezekiel 22:24-27) The absence of the rain that is needed to sustain life is not natural in the biblical imagination. It is, instead, the result of unfaithful political leadership. As religious leaders in this land, we cannot fail to note the warning that immediately follow this indictment on political leaders who do not protect the environment and serve life. “Her prophets whitewash these deeds for them,” Ezekiel says. Religious leaders who defend corrupt politicians and do not cry out on behalf of the land and the oppressed are as guilty as wayward political leaders in Ezekiel’s assessment. If we do not speak out on behalf of creation in the midst of today’s climate crisis, we too will be judged.

Creation in Redemption

As evangelical Christians in America, we believe that Jesus shows us what God looks like here on earth and that His resurrection from the dead is the ultimate statement of God’s power to redeem creation. When we worship Jesus, we worship a God who took on human flesh and lived life here on earth. Athanasius, one of the early teachers of the church, said that “God became like us so that we could become like God.” Elsewhere, in a reflection on the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River, he says that Jesus did not need the river’s water to make Him holy; instead, He made the water holy.

Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection are not a spiritual pathway out of our earthly struggle to a heavenly place, but God’s affirmation of our earthly home and its possibilities. Jesus taught his disciples to pray for God’s reign to come “on earth as it is in heaven” as an affirmation that the creation as we know it has and will be redeemed.

To confess Jesus as Lord, then, is to confess that all creation is holy now. This is why St. Francis preached to the birds, and it is why evangelicals today are concerned about biodiversity and endangered species, land conservation, and sustainability. To destroy our common home is to assault the earth that we believe Jesus Christ has redeemed. If we live as if we have no future on this planet a thousand years from now, then we deny the hope of the gospel that the death and resurrection of Jesus were for the redemption of this world.

[1] See Ellen Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture (Cambridge University Press, 2009) and Walter Brueggemann, The Land (Fortress Press, 2002).

About The Author


Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is a celebrated spiritual writer and speaker. Together with his wife, Leah, he co-founded the Rutba House in Durham, NC, where he also directs the School for Conversion (www.schoolforconversion.org). Jonathan works closely with the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, II to spearhead The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. Jonathan's newest book is "Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom from Slaveholder Religion" (InterVarsity Press).

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