Burn, Baby, Burn! The Christian Silence around the Amazon Forest Fires
Updated: Sep 17, 2019
I don’t know about you, but I am smoldering over the fires burning in the Amazon rainforest. If you’ve been paying attention to the media coverage surrounding the fires, you are probably aware that these are not part of the natural burn cycle in the Amazon. Although the Amazon does catch fire naturally during the dry season, those fires tend to be rare. The current fires in Brazil are all man made. They were started by farmers who desire to clear the land for farming.
Although many of us are reacting to these fires with shock and awe, farmers have been setting fires to the Amazon for decades. Thanks to laws (it is a crime in Brazil to set fire to the rainforest) and conservation efforts, farmers have been clearing under 5,000 sq/km per year. However, the new president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, ran on a platform of fully exploiting the rich resources of the Amazon. Therefore, Bolsonaro has emboldened farmers to test his campaign promises, which is why the fires are so extensive.
The fires in the Amazon have garnered international attention because of their scope and size with international leaders bemoaning the destruction of one world’s most admired natural treasures. For instance, Jair Bolsonaro has been trading blows with French president Emmanuel Macron who has criticized Bolsonaro’s handling of the crisis. And yet, we’ve heard almost nothing from Christian leaders about the biblical reasons why these fires need to be prevented. With the exception of Pope Francis, who has been an outspoken leader in terms of promoting the environmental responsibilities of Christians, conservative evangelicals don’t really seem to care.
This is something of a paradox given the FIRST commandment God gives to humans in Genesis chapter 1 is that we are responsible for looking after the wellbeing of the earth. If you’re not familiar with the verse, it goes like this:
God blessed them, and God said to them, “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.” - Genesis 1:28 (NRSV)
In the United States, evangelical Christians have taken this scripture as a license to plunder the earth’s resources with impunity. In the 5th episode of the Restorative Faith Podcast, Destroying Creation, we interviewed Dr. Dixon Sutherland from Stetson University who talked about the origins of this perspective and their ramifications for the environment. Below is Dr. Sutherland discussing the political and theological origins of the anti-environmentalist movement among evangelicals.
In my opinion, this interpretation of Genesis 1 is possible primarily because of how we translate the original Hebrew into English. For instance, when God tells humans that they are to fill the earth and subdue it, the English word subdue has very specific connotations. When I worked as a chaplain intern at a psychiatric hospital, subduing a patient meant overpowering them, often with restraints or sedatives. Thus, the English meaning of subdue is to bring someone or something under your control.
However, the word we translate as subdue in Hebrew is kana. The original meaning of kana is to “be humbled” or “brought low.” To be humbled as a person means that we are knocked down a peg or two. We think we’re par excellence—smart, agile, strong, beautiful—but then something happens to prove we’re not as great as we once thought. Given that definition, what does it mean that we are supposed to humble the earth? How do we show the earth that it’s not as great as it thinks it is?
To answer this, we have to appreciate how the ancient authors of this text perceived the earth. At the time this text was written, the ancients believed the earth was governed by unpredictable and chaotic forces. One moment everything would be fine. Your family is happy and healthy. Your crops are growing on schedule for a good harvest. Then, out of nowhere, a hail storm comes along and decimates your crops. In the blink of an eye, your food source is gone.
You have to resort to plan B, so now you’re travelling through the woods with your child to pick some mushrooms and berries when, all of a sudden, your child cries out in pain. You run over to find two bleeding fang marks on his leg and a snake slithering away into the underbrush. You wrap a cloth around your child’s leg to stop the circulation, sling them over your shoulder and run back into town for help, but, unfortunately, you’re not quick enough. After the burial, you’re not feeling well. You’re running a high fever. Although you didn’t notice it at the time, when you were sprinting through the woods, you nicked your arm on branch and now the cut is infected.
In the ancient world, life happened to you and you often sat by helplessly with no corrective course of action. So the idea of subduing or humbling the earth is really about God giving us a directive to be smart enough to figure out ways to eliminate the chaos and regain control, which we have done in amazing ways in our modern world.
Today, we have the technology to grow crops under almost any circumstances. Thanks to anti-venom, the likelihood of dying by snakebite in the United States is almost nonexistent and we can manage most infections with antibiotics. We’ve accomplished all these things and improved our standard of living because we’ve taken the world’s resources and used them to our advantage, which is exactly the idea behind God’s command to subdue the earth.
All of this raises a very important question: how did we go from this very measured approach of using the earth’s resources as a means of improving our standard of living to viewing the earth’s resources as a right that can be used for our own personal gain no matter what the environmental cost? Clearly, something is getting lost in translation. Perhaps it’s because the very next phrase, after telling us to subdue the earth, is the commandment to have dominion over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and every living thing that moves upon the earth.
Again, our English understanding of dominion makes a big difference. We tend to think of dominion in negative terms. For instance, when we say, “LeBron James dominated that basketball game,” what we mean is that he crushed his opponents. But that’s not what dominion means in this context. Humans are not supposed to crush the fish of the sea or the birds of the air or everything that walks along the face of the earth. For the ancient Hebrews, your dominion was your territory. It’s your home where you lived and the expectation was that you were responsible for everything under your dominion. In this way, God is really saying that we are to care for the well-being of the birds, the fish, and the animals on the ground.
Why are we supposed to care for them? Because we need them. We depend on them. If we overfish the oceans and fish populations plummet, then a major source of the world’s food supply will be gone. But beyond our food, these fish contribute to a finely balanced ecosystem. If we “dominate” the fish of the sea, then that ecosystem will collapse, which will negatively impact all life on earth. Therefore, God’s commandment of dominion is rooted in preservation and care. Our job is to create an equilibrium with the earth where we can thrive and they can thrive.
All of this brings us back to the Amazon rainforest and why evangelical Christians are silent. As Dr. Sutherland explained in his interview, evangelicals hold a belief that they do not need to care for the earth because, in their opinion, it can’t be destroyed. From their vantage point, since God is in control of the earth, our actions are inconsequential. This belief is heavily influenced by their eschatology (or belief in the end times). Since they believe that Jesus will return one day and completely renovate the earth, environmentalism is a moot point.
I experienced this first-hand on a mission trip I led to Haiti. On our last night before returning home, we pooled our money and bought a feast for the entire village. Unfortunately, they served this meal on Styrofoam plates. Since there is no real waste disposal system in Haiti, most of the villagers dumped their plates into the fields where they grow their crops. When I approached the leaders of the trip asking if we could collect the garbage and transport it somewhere less hazardous to their food supply, they were defiant. Their argument for why it didn’t matter is because Jesus would be returning soon and everything would be overhauled, so why waste our time?
I’ve made this clear in my book, but I’ll say it again: I don’t think Jesus is coming back. I know such a statement is heresy, particularly to evangelicals, but if you read Paul’s letters (especially his earliest letter, 1 Thessalonians) he was telling the members of his churches that Jesus was going to come back literally at any moment. Paul was so sure Jesus’ return was imminent, he was encouraging them to not make any major plans because it would interfere with the second coming. Well, here we are, nearly 2,000 years later, and Jesus still hasn’t come back. I’m open to Jesus proving me wrong, but I’m not holding my breath. Therefore, I think it’s irresponsible for Christians to sit back and wait for Jesus to clean up our mess.
I understand why those Brazilian farmers set fire to the Amazon. With a growing global population, they want the land to grow crops, not just for themselves, but to help feed the world. They are doing what is economically expedient for themselves and everyone else in the short-term, but disastrous for the ecology of the planet and our survival in the long-term. However, the purpose behind the commandment in Genesis chapter 1 is to provide us with guidance in situations just like this. When given a choice between our immediate needs and the long-term well-being of the earth, we should always choose the earth. Put another way, when our use of our planet’s resources negatively impacts the planet’s ability to sustain life, we need to intervene and choose a different path.
The earth will continue spinning around the sun for billions of years. If we want to continue to being passengers on this planet, then we cannot rape and pillage the planet of resources without paying attention to the consequences. If we don’t, then within a few generations we will find ourselves in a situation where the earth is no longer habitable for human beings. In my opinion, the course correction is much easier than it sounds.
There are currently 2.2 billion people who claim the title of Christian. If even a fraction of those people made God’s commandment from Genesis chapter 1 a priority in their lives, then we could reduce our carbon footprint significantly. For instance, one of the greatest contributors to climate change is eating red meat. A lot of those farmers down in Brazil are clearing trees to make room for more cattle to graze. If we made a pact to eat less red meat, the effects on the climate would be enormous.
Not only does it take lots of grass (it takes 31.5 kWh of energy to product 1 pound of beef) and water (it takes 1,799 gallons of water to produce 1 pound of beef) to grow cattle, but cows emit methane, which is 30 times more heat trapping than carbon dioxide. Just choosing a plant based alternative (like the Impossible Burger!) every time we feel a hankering for red meat will help to save the planet and our health (since red meat has so many negative health consequences).
I’m not saying you have to become a vegetarian (although that would help), but I am saying a bunch of small changes by everyone can make a big difference, particularly in the area of diet. Therefore, I want to end this post with a plea: if you feel helpless, like I do, and you want to do something to stop what’s happening down in the Amazon rainforest, then just stop eating red meat. If demand drops enough, then Brazilian farmers will have less incentive to start fires and cattle ranchers will look for alternative sources of income.
Wouldn’t it be amazing if future generations of humans said of those alive today, “Those were the people who sacrificed their freedom of choice so we could have the freedom to continue living on this planet!” We only have one earth. Let’s live into God’s commandment in Genesis chapter 1 to make sure it’s viable for the next generation.