In the past two years, several bills have been introduced in Congress which would weaken or even gut the Endangered Species Act. Meanwhile, the rate of species extinction accelerates here and around the world. Plants and animals are being lost at the rate of 50 species each day. Many of the best-loved animals that we see in zoos are listed as endangered. Some are already extinct.
This is not just an environmental issue. It is also a spiritual issue, since it concerns the permanent destruction of life forms created by God. It is not just a conflict between jobs and the environment, since many of the same underlying problems lead to both job loss and to environmental degradation.
In the midst of the confusion and controversy about these issues, can Christian faith help to guide our thinking about? Can we find a foundation for faithful action based on the teachings of our scriptures and traditions? I think we can.
Consider the ancient story of Noah. In faithfulness to God, Noah built an ark to preserve the endangered species of his day. Rabbi David Saperstein compares the Endangered Species Act to the ark. He says that if the Endangered Species Act has a few holes in it, we should patch it, not sink it. The Endangered Species Act needs to be strengthened, not gutted, in order to preserve the endangered plants and animals with which we share this land.
It is significant that in the biblical story of Noah, after the rains stop and the ark comes to rest, God makes a covenant with Noah and his family and with all the other creatures that were with them on the ark, saying, "This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living thing that is with you, for all future generations." The rainbow is the sign of God's covenant with all the creatures of the earth. God cares for all creatures, not just human beings.
Psalm 104 praises God for providing for all creatures:
You make springs gush forth in the valleys;
they flow between the hills,
giving drink to every wild animal;
the wild donkeys quench their thirst.
By the streams the birds of the air have their habitation;
they sing among the branches...
You cause grass to grow for the cattle,
and plants for people to cultivate...
The trees of the Lord are watered abundantly,
the cedars of Lebanon that [God] planted.
In them the birds build their nests;
the stork has its home in the fir trees.
The high mountains are for the wild goats;
the rocks are a refuge for the badgers...
The young lions roar for their prey,
seeking their food from God...
O Lord, how manifold are your works!
In wisdom you have made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures...
These all look to you to give them their food in due season.
Human beings are presented here not as masters of the created order, but as members of the community of life, dependent on God as are all other creatures. Although people in ancient times had no understanding of modern terms like "ecosystem," this psalm presents an image of a balanced ecosystem in which each creature is provided for by a loving and caring God. The psalmist praises God's loving generosity in making provision for all creatures. These and other scriptural passages support the point that the creation has value to God, because God loves and cares for all of God’s creatures.
If we look at the massive destruction of forests, coastal areas, and other ecosystems in light of such passages, it seems apparent that our destruction of the habitats of other species violates the integrity of God's creation. How can we lift up our voices to praise God for creating a home for each creature if we are in the process of destroying their homes? Other species, too, have a right to their habitats, since God loves them all and has created the means to provide for them. The Endangered Species Act as it stands helps us to fulfill our obligation to other species, by recognizing the importance of protecting their habitats.
In spite of such scriptural references, the dominant theological theme throughout most of Christian tradition has been the theme of human salvation. Creation-centered themes have certainly been present throughout the theology of the past 2000 years, but have been overshadowed by the emphasis on human salvation. The creation has largely been viewed as a backdrop for human salvation history. The created world has seemed to be a stage or a "set" for a drama played out between God and human beings.
But seeing the world in this way has not done justice to the value of the creation. Nor has it taken into account that human beings are part of the creation, and are interrelated with the rest of the created world. Human beings do not exist on a stage, but are intimately connected to the rest of creation and dependent upon the natural processes of the earth.
In looking back through Christian tradition, it is enlightening to explore what Christian thinkers have said about the creation, even through the theme has not been dominant. Creation-centered themes are present in the life and thought of St. Francis, who has been called the “patron saint of the ecological movement.” In his remarkable "Canticle of Brother Sun," he invites "Brother Sun," "Sister Moon," and the other parts of creation to join with him in praising God.
Thomas Aquinas, in his Summa Theologica, writes about the value of the creation, in all its diversity. He claims that the multitude of creatures that God has made reveals the "divine goodness" more completely than any individual creature could do. He wrote:
..since the divine goodness could not be adequately represented by one creature alone, He produced many and diverse creatures, that what was wanting to one in the representation of the divine goodness might be supplied by another. For goodness, which in God is simple and uniform, in creatures is manifold and divided; and hence the whole universe together participates the divine goodness more perfectly, and represents it better than any single creature whatever.
The idea put forward here by Aquinas is amazing in its relevance for the ecological crisis of today. He is saying not only that the "divine goodness" is represented by creatures, but that all are needed in order to more perfectly represent that divine goodness. If this is so, as human beings destroy other species, the creation's ability to represent the divine goodness is diminished.
Martin Luther, the great Reformer whose teachings about salvation were the foundation of the Protestant Revolution, nevertheless had many things to say in his commentaries about the value of the creation. He wrote: “The gospel is written not in the Bible alone, but in trees and flowers and clouds and stars.”
Themes which emphasize the value of creation are present throughout our scriptures and tradition. The Endangered Species Act is a vehicles for faithful action on behalf of God’s creation. It helps us to protect the other creatures with which we share this planet.
It also helps to protect us, and to ensure that our children and grandchildren will inherit a world of beauty and diversity. The real wealth of our nation is the natural wealth given by God: forests, meadows, wetlands, estuaries, lakes, and rivers, with all of the creatures of various kinds. This wealth is the only basis for healthy human life, and is the foundation of a healthy economy.
The government has a role in protecting the common good. This includes protecting our common heritage from corporate greed and irresponsibility. If we weaken the Endangered Species Act, we will be deciding to allow wanton destruction of species without regard for the effects such losses will have for present and future generations. Once a species is gone, it is gone forever.
We humans tend to forget that we are part of the created world, interrelated and interdependent with the rest of creation. We do not live in a separately-constructed human environment. That is an illusion. The loss of so many species is a bad sign for us, an early warning system that warns us that the earth is being degraded. If we relinquish our role as stewards, our children will inherit a wasteland. The damage we inflict on the web of life will catch up with us.
We have a moral obligation to preserve other species, for the sake of God's caring concern for all creatures and for sake of the human family. We also have a choice. We can choose to leave our children and grandchildren to bear the burden of our environmental debt, impoverished, with a degraded earth, with fewer frogs and songbirds and butterflies and mammals, with fewer plants for medicines or for the food supply. Or we can make choices which will help to preserve and restore the rich diversity of life with which we have been blessed. One such choice is to continue to reauthorize and strengthen the Endangered Species Act. Now more than ever, a choice is laid out before us, the choice that was given to Moses and the Israelites so long ago: “Choose life, that you and your descendants may live."
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