Monday, March 10, 2008

Declaration on the Environment and Climate Change: More About Contacts than Contents

Today, a new movement within the Southern Baptist Convention was launched. As a former Southern Baptist activist, it caught my eye.

Jonathan Merritt, son of former SBC President James Merritt, a student at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, has organized a “climate change” movement to evidently by-pass the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), one of several Southern Baptist entities, and the one specifically charged with environmental issues.

Sometime over the weekend, the young Merritt offered several news releases and full blown website (very well constructed, I might add) and several influential names attached to his Declaration on the Environment and Climate Change.

Friday, all was well within the SBC[i]. Today, an entire movement has been strategically launched, causing no small uproar. Picking up on the Associated Press story, the New York Times writes the event is “signaling a significant departure from the Southern Baptist Convention’s official stance on global warming”, A CNN headline reads: “Southern Baptist Leaders Shift Position on Climate Change”. The Kansas City Star chronicles "Baptist group rethinks climate change".

Sadly, when you get past all the glitz, there just ain’t much there. The document seems more about connections and contacts then it does about content. I have tried (unsuccessfully) to reign in my sarcasm which will be obvious in my retitling of the Declarations various sections, if not in the commentary itself.

Let’s consider the actual document, which you can read [here].

“Introductory Remarks” or “We want the limelight”

We believe our current denominational engagement with these issues have often been too timid, failing to produce a unified moral voice. Our cautious response to these issues in the face of mounting evidence may be seen by the world as uncaring, reckless and ill-informed. We can do better. To abandon these issues to the secular world is to shirk from our responsibility to be salt and light. The time for timidity regarding God’s creation is no more.
The 1970 and 1990 resolutions notwithstanding, the Southern Baptist Convention has spoken to the environment in each of the past 2 years. In this past year’s meeting in San Antonio (2007), resolution No. 5 “On Global Warming” couldn’t have been more direct. The previous year’s meeting in Greensboro (2006) produced Resolution No. 8 “On Environmentalism and Evangelicals”.

I would hardly call these back-to-back resolutions “timid” or a “cautious response”. Just try getting a resolution or motion voted on by the SBC and you’ll see why. I was present for both meetings and am admittedly a bit sketchy on the disposition of these resolutions, but I don’t recall any of the signatories offering amendments to toughen up the “timid” language. Maybe the signers have had a sudden epiphany on issues of the environment. But many of us in the SBC have been addressing these issues formally and (even more forcefully) informally for several years.

Southern Baptists, through the very excellent work of the ERLC, have hardly “abandon[ed] these issues to the secular world.” I cannot believe the above mentioned reference is anything but a slam on the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. These signers are notable leaders within the SBC and know well that the ERLC is charged with environmental issues.

I distinctly remember these signatories did NOT publicly support my motion during the 2005 Southern Baptist Convention Annual Meeting to increase funding for the ERLC. If they are serious about Southern Baptists addressing environmental issues, they should realize that Southern Baptists are not adequately funding the entity we’ve charged to handle this (and other) issue(s). I would ask them to make increased funding for the ERLC part of their agenda.

I doubt even the ERLC could accurately record the volumnous times its staff or publications have spoken to environment issues in the past 5 or 10 years. I personally sat in a meeting with other State Ethics Leaders in November 2005 and listened to ERLC Vice-President Dr. Barrett Duke speak of the need for us to be more involved with issues of the environment, both as leaders and as a denomination. Dr. Duke is often eclipsed by the ERLC’s President, Dr. Richard Land. Few Southern Baptists realize Duke’s work and influence on our behalf in Washington, DC, but he is one of Southern Baptist’s brighest thinkers and was a signer of the 2004 Sandy Cove Covenant on the environment.

Ironically, Jonathan Merritt has launched a website using the namesake of the organization that issued that covenant. They are Merritt’s new organization uses

I cannot help but to conclude, based on the provocative language of the "Introduction" that those involved with this Declaration are newcomers to the environmental cause and woefully ignorant of the past involvement of the SBC and its ethics leaders on this issue. I welcome them to the fight to be good stewards of God’s earth. I just wish their entry into this battle was a bit more gracious.

Frankly, Southern Baptists do not need an independent entity. They need to adequately fund the entity (read ERLC) they have charged to promote this issue. Organizers of the Declaration should be fully supportive of the ERLC—at the very least with their verbage if not with their money.

Statement 1: “Humans Must Care for Creation and Take Responsibility for Our Contributions to Environmental Degradation.” or “DUH”

There is undeniable evidence that the earth—wildlife, water, land and air—can be damaged by human activity, and that people suffer as a result. When this happens, it is especially egregious because creation serves as revelation of God’s presence, majesty and provision. Though not every person will physically hear God’s revelation found in Scripture, all people have access to God’s cosmic revelation: the heavens, the waters, natural order, the beauty of nature (Psalm 19; Romans 1). We believe that human activity is mixed in its impact on creation—sometimes productive and caring, but often reckless, preventable and sinful.

God’s command to tend and keep the earth (Genesis 2) did not pass away with the fall of man; we are still responsible. Lack of concern and failure to act prudently on the part of Christ-followers reflects poorly to the rest of the world. Therefore, we humbly take responsibility for the damage that we have done to God’s cosmic revelation and pledge to take an unwavering stand to preserve and protect the creation over which we have been given responsibility by Almighty God Himself.
This section is one of the best of the entire documents. It is standard, yet essential, language for any conservative Christian in the environmental movement. Creation can be, and often is, damaged “by human activity.” But what’s this statement of “we humbly take responsibility for the damage that we have done to God’s cosmic revelation”?

I never cared for the corporate repentance language of the SBC during the Resolution on Racial Reconciliation of 1995; yet I got it. Even though a lot of current SBC-ers were northerners and even had abolitionists in their family tree, the SBC itself was formed in a climate of pro-slavery. So even though I had neither a personal nor a geneaological history of racism and no personal need to “apologize to all African-Americans for condoning and/or perpetuating individual and systemic racism in our lifetime” I understood what the SBC was saying.

But I’d like to know what damage the SBC has caused the environment. If this is intended to be a corporate document, I’d like “the damage that we have done” as Southern Baptists to God’s earth to be documented, listed, cataloged, inventoried, litanized, published and otherwise proclaimed.

But if the signers are being personally penitent, I’m not so sure we need clarification. The confession of Jack Graham pee-ing in a stream spoiling the spawning pools of trout; or of Johnny Hunt using hairspray—that’s spray not pump—sending fluorocarbons into the ozone; or Danny Akin tossing out Diet Pepsi cans along Interstate 440, well let’s just say, some things are better kept to oneself.

I may apologize for the racist past of the SBC, but here I draw the line. The first full chapter of the Bible I memorized was Psalm 19 “The heavens declare the glory of God…” I’m no litter bug. Periodically, I recycle and participate in community litter collections. I always bring out more than I take in on every hike. I was not driving the Exxon Valdez in 1989. And while I don’t chain myself to trees, I love God’s earth and care for it as much as possible.

Statement 2
“It Is Prudent to Address Global Climate Change.” or “Do something, even if it’s wrong!”

We recognize that we do not have any special revelation to guide us about whether global warming is occurring and, if it is occurring, whether people are causing it. We are looking at the same evidence unfolding over time that other people are seeing.

We recognize that we do not have special training as scientists to allow us to assess the validity of climate science. We understand that all human enterprises are fraught with pride, bias, ignorance and uncertainty.

We recognize that if consensus means unanimity, there is not a consensus regarding the anthropogenic nature of climate change or the severity of the problem. There is general agreement among those engaged with this issue in the scientific community. A minority of sincere and respected scientists offer alternate causes for global climate change other than deforestation and the burning of fossil fuels.

We recognize that Christians are not united around either the scientific explanations for global warming or policies designed to slow it down. Unlike abortion and respect for the biblical definition of marriage, this is an issue where Christians may find themselves in justified disagreement about both the problem and its solutions.

Yet, even in the absence of perfect knowledge or unanimity, we have to make informed decisions about the future. This will mean we have to take a position of prudence based partly on science that is inevitably changing. We do not believe unanimity is necessary for prudent action. We can make wise decisions even in the absence of infallible evidence.

Though the claims of science are neither infallible nor unanimous, they are substantial and cannot be dismissed out of hand on either scientific or theological grounds. Therefore, in the face of intense concern and guided by the biblical principle of creation stewardship, we resolve to engage this issue without any further lingering over the basic reality of the problem or our responsibility to address it. Humans must be proactive and take responsibility for our contributions to climate change--however great or small.

Well, yes we can make SOME wise decisions about environmental issues. See the DUH statement 1. Don’t litter. Don’t dump your oil in the lake (or even in your yard). Don’t burn old tires. There is a lot we can do using common sense to protect and care for the earth.

But this section is on “Global Climate Change”. This declaration is for something much bigger than recycling aluminum cans and the signers want action, even if that action is wrong. They don’t tell us what action to take, though they hint at following the crowd: “There is general agreement…”

In fact, there is no such general agreement. The Declaration admits “A minority of sincere and respected scientists offer alternate causes for global climate change other than deforestation and the burning of fossil fuels” but then it continues the drumbeat of action, do something NOW, we can’t wait.

The Washington Post carried an excellent article just a few shorts days ago entitled “Global Warming Skeptics Insist Humans Not at Fault”. This argument, too long dominated by Al Gore and his think-a-likes, is beginning to shift. And thoughtful, serious Christians ought to pause and cerebrally weigh the arguments before they act, not after.

If the logic of the Declaration is followed in other fields, then children ought to be educated about the value of homosexuality as the majority of the NEA says; and surely the earth has evolved over millions of years as the majority of biologists say.

The global warming argument has been one-sided, dominated by people with clear agendas. True, objective science is beginning to speak on this issue and what it is saying should slow us down on the issue of global warming, not provoke his to frenzy.

Statement 3
"Christian Moral Convictions and Our Southern Baptist Doctrines Demand Our Environmental Stewardship." or "DUH (part 2) and Ooops".

While we cannot here review the full range of relevant Christian convictions and Baptist doctrines related to care of the creation, we emphasize the following points:

· We must care about environmental and climate issues because of our love for God—“the Creator, Redeemer, Preserver and Ruler of the Universe” (BFM 2000)—through whom and for whom the creation was made. This is not our world, it is God’s. Therefore, any damage we do to this world is an offense against God Himself (Gen. 1; Ps. 24; Col. 1:16). We share God’s concern for the abuse of His creation.

· We must care about environmental issues because of our commitment to God’s Holy and inerrant Word, which is “the supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds and religious opinions should be tried” (BFM 2000). Within these Scriptures we are reminded that when God made mankind, He commissioned us to exercise stewardship over the earth and its creatures (Gen. 1:26-28). Therefore, our motivation for facing failures to exercise proper stewardship is not primarily political, social or economic—it is primarily biblical.

· We must care about environmental and climate issues because we are called to love our neighbors, to do unto others as we would have them do unto us and to rotect and care for the “least of these” (Mt. 22:34-40; Mt. 7:12; Mt. 25:31-46). The consequences of these problems will most likely hit the poor the hardest, in part because those areas likely to be significantly affected are in the world’s poorest
regions. Poor nations and individuals have fewer resources available to cope with major challenges and threats. Therefore, “we should work to provide for the orphaned, the needy … [and] the helpless” (BFM 2000) through proper stewardship.

Love of God, love of neighbor and Scripture’s stewardship demands provide enough reason for Southern Baptists and Christians everywhere to respond to these problems with moral passion and concrete action.

I sense the influence of David Copperfield (the magician, not the Dicken’s character). How did we move from a very excellent statement on Baptist doctrines regarding “issues” to the “problems” of the concluding paragraph? I’ve watched Copperfield’s prestidigitation enough to transport such trickery into my logical thinking processes (and they say you can’t learn from a magician!). No léger de main in cards or logic will get me to buy into “problems” with global warming. To unilaterally proclaim there are “problems” in the climate change/global warming issue without any offer of proof may illicit some more signatures on a website, but it won’t hold up to logical scutiny.

Statement 4
"It Is Time for Individuals, Churches, Communities and Governments to Act." or “Well…time to at least think.”

We affirm that “every Christian should seek to bring industry, government and society as a whole under the sway of the principles of righteousness, truth and brotherly love” (BFM 2000).

We realize that we cannot support some environmental issues as we offer a distinctively Christian voice in these arenas. For instance, we realize that what some call population control leads to evils like abortion. We now call on these evironmentalists to reject these evils and accept the sanctity of every human person, both born and unborn.

We realize that simply affirming our God-given responsibility to care for the earth will likely produce no tangible or effective results. Therefore, we pledge to find ways to curb ecological degradation through promoting biblical stewardship habits and increasing awareness in our homes, businesses where we find influence, relationships with others and in our local churches. Many of our churches do not actively preach, promote or practice biblical creation care. We urge churches to begin doing so.

We realize that the primary impetus for prudent action must come from the will of the people, families and those in the private sector. Held to this standard of common good, action by government is often needed to assure the health and well-being of all people. We pledge, therefore, to give serious consideration to responsible policies that acceptably address the conditions set forth in this declaration.
Maybe I’m getting tired of my critique. On this statement I say “Here, here.” Though, the declaration might have catalogued more than just the "abortion" problem within the mainstream environmental movement. There are many practices and/or conclusions most conservative Christians would find objectionable.


We the undersigned, in accordance with our Christian moral convictions and Southern Baptist doctrines, pledge to act on the basis of the claims made in this document. We will not only teach the truths communicated here but also seek
ways to implement the actions that follow from them. In the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, we urge all who read this declaration to join us in this effort. Laus Deo!
This effort is needlessly confusing. In a time when Southern Baptists need more unity and less division, it is unfortunate this entire episode was not worked out in conjunction with the ERLC.

I am glad for Jonathan Merritt’s passion. Southern Baptist’s need many, many more like him who will move beyond shallow evangelicalism into assertive application of biblical values. And particularly in less popular but equally biblical arenas like creation stewardship/environment (as well as poverty, hunger, persecution, welfare reform, etc), the church needs more, not fewer voices.

I’m glad his father and many of his father’s friends have affirmed this passion. They should have been more discerning of the political fallout this is causing around the nation.

I have no commendation for the SBC’s current President Frank Page. For a sitting president to undermine the work of the convention and of a convention agency, in this case the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, is inexcusable and shameful.

In the end, this blurp has caused more confusion than clarity to the issue of environmental stewardship. It will continue to do so in the days ahead as a great distraction to the work of Southern Baptists.


[i] With the exception, of course, of declining baptisms, inflated membership numbers, personal attacks on denominational leaders, division over charismatic issues and doctrine, a growing acceptance of alcoholic consumption, unspiritual leadership, turmoil over missionary appointment policies at the International Mission Board, influence of Emergent doctrine, ecumenism and a recalcitrance of biblical separationism. Otherwise, all was well in the 16.5 million 8 million member denomination.


Kevin P. Larson said...

So, who or what would be an example of the so-called influence of "emergent" doctrine?

Scott Weldon said...

Kevin, Oh my goodness! Out of this extensive, well researched, and well thought out post all you took away from it was the one throw away line about the emergent church. Please! How about the merit of the rest of this post; the matter at hand.

BTW, Rod, excellent post. I had just had a church member come into my office and ask about this based on an article in the Springfield paper. I hadn't heard about it yet and while reading some things on BP and last year's resolution I jumped over to your blog and lo and behold, you're all over it!!
Hope you don't mind but in addition to the other material I gathered for that church member, I copied off your blog for them as well. Good work, my brother.

Kevin P. Larson said...

Maybe we shouldn't "throw away" lines.

scott said...

Pardon my phraseology, but you're still missing the point. You're over-reacting to one comment and missing the entire post. I hope you read it again and gain the wisdom here.

And as to the comment itself, brother go to any pastor's meeting and hear folks talk about Rob Bell, Mark Driscoll, and even Brian McLaren. I know not all those "emergent" guys are the same, but they are influencing our churches, and not all in a positive way. We had some college students in our church Sunday who were talking about how all their friends are looking up to these guys and their "generous orthodoxy," and how it's the subject in church, on campus, etc. No doubt we can learn some things from the "emergent" concerns, but we ought to be discerning as well.

(and not that I speak for Rod, but I might suggest that the alcohol consumption mentioned would be one of those things that seems to have been sparked by much of the emergent debate. Just my opinion)

Rod said...

I won't own my emergent doctrine statement as a throw away line, but thanks for your defense and your even kinder words about the post.

You'll understand why I won't least not here, not now. The post is about environmentalism, not emergent issues and I'm guessing you're asking more for polemical reasons than for genuine inquiry.

But I'll humor you with one example: consider Youth Specialties--dominated by Emergents--used by SBC churches.

Desana said...

Good post.