Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Thou Shalt Not Kill
distributed 9/29/06 - ©2006

Over the next few weeks, some 4,000 religious congregations in the United States will show the film An Inconvenient Truth to their members and communities. Hundreds of thousands of people will be challenged to address global climate change in a faith setting.

In most of those settings, the movie will be followed by some sort of discussion or class. (If these congregations simply show the presentation, and send people home, they are failing in their responsibility to do relevant ministry and to provide leadership.)

I hope and pray that the discussions in those communities goes deep, very deep. I hope that those conversations can avoid the trap of bickering about science, and I hope they do not move too quickly into plans for personal behavior and public policy.

I hope the churches, synagogues, mosques and other settings take the time, and the risk, of doing what Al Gore calls us to do: to see global climate change as a moral issue.

That is a very hard assignment. Our ethics and morality are not up to the immense challenge presented by these human impacts on the entire planet. We have never had to deal with such a thing before -- either as citizens or as people of faith. What moral frameworks and ethical norms can we draw on which will speak to an issue of such enormous scope? What wisdom will have the depth and resonance to engage us for the difficult, long-haul work that needs to be done?

For these October discussions -- when the folk gathered in a church basement may have all of 10 minutes on the agenda to deal with the theme of morality -- I suggest a blunt statement. I believe we need to go to the very center of our ethical tradition for the sort of guidance that will speak clearly and strongly enough to break though our defenses.

When I think about the values and teaching which guide my reaction to global climate change, I simply say this: Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt not kill the planet.

Yes, that is an overstatement. The planet will not die. The life-giving Spirit of God is persistent, and life -- in some form -- will continue on this orb. But there is much more than metaphor in saying that we are killing the Earth.

Humanity's impact on this planet -- with the combined effects of climate change, habitat destruction, pollution and slaughter -- is deadly. We are killing the earth, in the robust form in which it has existed for hundreds of thousands of years. We are forcing changes on the biosphere with a rate of change which does not allow for adaptation, adjustment and healing. (See a previous Notes, Rate of Change.)

Thou shalt not kill. The commandment calls us to accountability for our participation in this calamity. Humanity -- especially the affluent sections of humanity of which we are a part -- is causing this destruction. We are not simply witnessing changes to the earth. We are causing them by our emission of climate-changing greenhouse gasses.

  • We are killing the polar bears, whose icebound home is melting.
  • We are killing hundreds of species of plants and animals which depend on the tenuous moisture of desert streambeds, a habitat that will disappear in a hotter world.
  • We are killing the coral which are bleaching in warming seas -- and the multitudes of other species which depend on those reefs -- and in the process we are killing a geological force which builds islands and shorelines.
  • We are killing people and cultures -- on island nations which are disappearing under rising oceans, in regions where essential water supplies depend on glaciers that are disappearing, in urban settings where heat waves are especially deadly, and with prospect of spreading diseases, collapsing agricultural systems and mass migrations.
  • We are killing the forests which cannot spread quickly enough to move with the changing climate, and which are subjected to more extreme insect blights.
  • We are killing the species which have evolved delicate ecological relationships of place and time, relationships of pollenation or predation that are now being torn apart in this rapidly changing world.
"Thou shalt not kill" tells us that we are doing wrong when we set these destructive processes in motion. It tells us that we are doing wrong when we do not act quickly and decisively to stop the destruction.

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For the most part, mainstream Protestant Christianity has dealt with global warming as a matter of human justice. It has spoken of the way the worst impacts will fall on the people who have done the least to cause the problem. That is true, and those disparities must be addressed, but that approach is not enough. The ethical perspective of social justice hides the extinction of species and the disruption of natural systems.

In just the past few years, Evangelical Christianity in the US has risen to the crisis of climate change, and addressed it as a failure to exercise appropriate care and stewardship over God's creation. That is true, and it does call us to recognize our relationship with all of creation. But stewardship is an emotionally sterile framework, a matter of managing resources. That ethical perspective shields us from the explicit horror of the death that is caused by our individual and collective actions.

Thou shalt not kill. If we acknowledge a prohibition against taking a single human life, surely we must also avoid setting in motion the processes which will lead to the deaths of hundreds of millions, even billions of people in a climate-distorted world. We must avoid the destruction of the functional source of life, the complex biosphere which sustains all of God's creation.

Yes, it is about justice. And, yes, it is about stewardship. But those are complex statements. We must be able explain in a few short and persuasive words why people of faith must act now and act dramatically to slow the catastrophe of global climate change.

"Thou shalt not kill" speaks powerfully to me. Perhaps it speaks a clear and blunt truth to you, too. Perhaps those four words will allow you to explain to others why we must act now for the healing of God's damaged, dying creation.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

Eco-Justice Ministries expresses thanks to The Regeneration Project, and those who funded their project, for the remarkable outreach in making An Inconvenient Truth and related materials available to so many religious communities.

Eco-Justice Ministries has prepared a discussion guide for the churches which are showing An Inconvenient Truth. It may also be helpful to individuals who wish to reflect on the film. An expanded and revised version of the guide is posted on our website.

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