The next JustFaith material for examination is “Keeping the Earth:Religious and Scientific Perspectives on the Environment,” a video produced by Union of Concerned Scientists in cooperation with the National Religious Partnership for the Environment (NRPE). It’s undeniably pushing an agenda throughout: images are used manipulatively. Animals are depicted as cute or majestic, scenery is awesome, and the accompanying narrative is often a Bible verse, read in the thrilling basso profundo of James Earl Jones. In stark contrast are pictures of human overcrowding or environmental destructiveness, such as the bulldozing of saguaro cacti, with text telling the listener that humans are “overstepping” their place, “violating” the Earth…and “going too far.”
The video’s opening concept is the need for human “reconciliation” with other species of life. One early scene takes place in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, which houses NRPE, and shows a procession of animals and plants - including an elephant, goats, and birds of prey - down the central aisle of the church nave. NRPE Director Paul Gorman describes the reactions (which the viewer doesn’t see) of the humans participating in this “spiritual” event: “People wept…They were experiencing a moment of reconciliation.”
The speaker continues, “The challenge of the churches and synagogues is to open their doors more fully to the life…what’s “out there” belongs inside our congregations and inside our hearts.” By implication, the video is saying that the churches and synagogues have not been open to welcoming life, failing to recognize that the fullness of Life, in the person of the Creator of Life, through His Word and His Presence is, indeed, in those places that worship Him. Creatures are a poor substitute.
Of particular concern is the video’s subtle but unmistakable message about the need for human population control. In fact, the Union of Concerned Scientists is grounded on this message.[i] For example, the Union issued a statement called “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity” in which it states: “The earth is finite. Its ability to absorb wastes and destructive effluent is finite. Its ability to provide food and energy is finite. Its ability to provide for growing numbers of people is finite. And we are fast approaching many of the earth’s limits. Pressures resulting from unrestrained population growth put demands on the natural world that can overwhelm any efforts to achieve a sustainable future. No more than one or a few decades remain before the chance to avert the threats we now confront will be lost and the prospects for humanity immeasurably diminished.”
Calvin DeWitt of the Au Sable Institute, a partner of the Evangelical Environmental Network (itself a NRPE partner), speaks of the “immense cost” of preserving the species. The video shows scenes of crowded city, and then draws back to show an image of North America at night as seen from a satellite. “That’s the planet at night, dotted with light,” the commentator observes. “The lights are human presence. How much light can the planet tolerate?”
The video also espouses revisionist scripture. The story of Noah is retold in such a way that the flood is not a punishment of God to personal sin but an environmental issue concerning “preservation of the species.” Calvin DeWitt translates a passage in Genesis as: “Adam was asked to serve the garden” and proceeds to interpret this as meaning that as the garden served us with its fruit and we in turn are to serve garden. Between the garden and mankind there is to be a “con-service,” that is, conservation. One must note, however, that the actual Hebrew verb used by the scriptures is “keep,” not “serve.” According to Genesis, Man was put in the garden to “keep” it (רּ מּ ש – sh’mar: keep, preserve, or guard). Genesis says nothing about “serving” the garden…for a good reason: we cannot “serve” what is impersonal.
Another speaker on the video, Fr. Drew Christensen SJ, who at the time of the video’s preparation directed the United States Catholic Conference’s[ii] Office of Peace and International Justice and co-edited the USCC collection of environmental essays, “And God Saw that It Was Good,” stated that this command to keep the garden (he gets the correct verb) was the first and most fundamental command, coming before the Decalogue. That’s a problematic exegesis, too, because before Man is given the garden to “till and keep” (Gen. 2:15), he is told to “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” (Gen 1:29). One might further argue that this “keeping” of the garden isn’t a command but a statement of purpose: the garden of Eden was created for Man to tend, as a creative pleasure – any gardener who is not dependent on garden for his sustenance understands the distinction. The first command, per se, recorded by Genesis follows immediately, in the next verse, when Adam is told he may not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. (Gen 2:16-17)
Other speakers say their pieces – legitimately concerned about humans polluting or damaging the environment to the point where it is unhealthful, unsustainable, and unpleasant for human life – but the most troubling is clip comes near the end. The viewer sees the planet Earth at night, from the perspective of a satellite. There are points of light defining the major land masses and the speaker tells us that those lights are where there’s a human presence. “How many lights can the planet tolerate?” he asks. “If we succeed in lighting up the planet at night, will we have done good for the earth or will we have destroyed it?”
The viewer is meant to sympathize with the idea that that much “human presence,” as reflected by the lights, needs to be stopped – though the video doesn’t say that directly. Instead, it introduces the notion of a “Sabbath rest.” Michal Smart, then-director of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL), explains: “Rather than creating unceasingly, the Sabbath teaches us to say: enough, to stop creating. Leave the world as it is.”
It’s not a long video – about half an hour – and JustFaith only allots half of session 14 to view and discuss it. Participants are asked what “touched” them about the opening images of the video, to discuss what in their community “has the character of Sabbath practice” as described by the film, and to think about “what it would mean to be a missionary for the planet.” “What would you preach?”
But a seed has been planted, so to speak. The message is not simply that we must be thoughtfully responsible in our use of the environment – for our own sakes. That would be an entirely valid position.
But there is another, very delicately broached, point being made: the earth can’t continue to sustain us. That’s a problematic position for a “Catholic” social justice program to forward.
Spero columnist Stephanie Block also edits the New Mexico-based Los Pequenos newspaper and is a founder of the Catholic Media Coalition.
[i] A somewhat dated but excellent overview of the Union’s position about population control was prepared by David Morrison, “Misplaced Concerns: The Union of Concerned Scientists advise on population,” Population Research Institute Review: 1996 (v6, n1-2) January/April.
[ii] The United States Catholic Conference (USCC) merged with the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB) in 2001 to form a single bureaucratic body, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). Fr. Drew Christiansen, S.J. has been editor-in-chief of America Magazine since 2005.