Jonathan Merritt hardly fits into the typical environmentalist package. Instead of crunchy dreadlocks, Merritt’s artfully gelled coif would leave any member of a boy band jealous. And while his bookshelf may house a dog-eared copy of Thoreau’s Walden, he prefers to turn to a different book for environmental inspiration: the Bible.
A lifelong Baptist Christian (his father is Dr. James Merritt, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention), Merritt grew up with virtually no interest in environmentalism. “I remember tossing crumpled fast-food bags out of the windows of my speeding blue Pontiac thinking I was being bold and cute,” he writes in his new book Green Like God: Unlocking the Divine Plan for our Planet (FaithWords 2010). But sitting in a seminary class one afternoon, an inspired professor helped open his eyes to Christianity’s deep connections to the natural world.
“When we destroy creation, which is God’s revelation, it’s similar to tearing a page out of a Bible,” that professor proclaimed. Those words were enough to change Merritt’s view of the faith he thought he knew. Since then, Merritt — a religion writer, environmental speaker and spiritual leader at Atlanta’s Cross Pointe Church — has repositioned care for creation at the heart of his theology and his lifestyle.
MNN: What did that first moment of “environmental awakening” in your seminary class feel like?
Jonathan Merritt: I felt a profound emotion that people who are new to environmentalism sometimes shy away from — guilt and remorse. I also felt a little bit of a shock. I was raised going to church my whole life and was in the seminary, but I had never even considered this profound truth. Somehow I had sat in church Sunday after Sunday and heard more sermons than I can count and never given a moment’s thought about how my faith might answer these questions.
Has your environmental outlook influenced your overall orientation to Scripture or faith?
Connecting faith to Earth care is a way to make it tangible. We can talk in generality about faith and God, but those are things that will not be fully grasped in this life. But when we talk about caring for the Earth, we can speak to faith in ways that are tangible. It gives faith a flesh it did not have before.
One of the major challenges of environmentalism is how overwhelming it can feel. How can a faith-based outlook address that?
Being an environmentalist has at times made me more cynical and depressed. Seeing the environmental challenges we are facing around the world is heavy and frustrating, and can lead to hopelessness. I was once in Tanzania near a river that was filled with garbage and chemicals. To my left a young boy was urinating into the river. On my right, a woman was getting a jug of water that she would likely take home and mix with baby formula. I thought, “If my faith doesn’t have an answer for this, what good is it?”
But being a Christian environmentalist allows me to pair the hopelessness with hope and the depression with joy, because I know our creator is capable of bringing healing to the Earth. I know the creator is able to move and stir people’s hearts, to cause people to gather in ways that would be critical to turning the tide of the problems we’re facing.
Honestly, I do not understand how someone can be a secular environmentalist and not fall into despair. You look at issues like global warming and realize it is going to take an act of God to bring healing.
The stirrings of conversation started in the 1960s, but the movement among Christians sputtered out in the 1980s and 1990s in response to the profound division in American public life. The political right claimed God and the political left claimed green. Only now are we seeing the Christian community come back and say, “this is not a left/right issue, this is a moral issue.”
If you go back and search for books from the late 1970s to early 1990s, you might find one or two explicitly environmental books that come from an evangelical perspective. But in the last year alone, I can name 10-15 titles that have come out. I’ve described it as a reawakening. Nothing I’m writing is new — it is embedded in our Christian heritage and Scripture. We are simply rediscovering it.
As a theologian, are there any passages from Scripture that you find particularly difficult to reconcile with an environmental lifestyle?
I find the Scriptures to be amazingly consistent when read properly. Honestly, I feel that you cannot read the Bible fully unless you have some understanding of environmental principles. People have forgotten that Christianity believes in three primary relationships: humans to God, humans to humans, and humans to nature. We have come to act like humans can only act toward God and others. But when you read the stories, God brings restoration and healing not just to humans, but also to the Earth. I can now say with confidence that I am not an environmentalist in spite of my Christianity, but because of it.
Your book focuses mostly on changing individual habits. Should Christianity play a role in advocating for green politics?
Absolutely. This book attempts to appeal to the right flank of Christianity — people who might not be otherwise amenable to the subject. When you talk politics, people become defensive and they never come face to face with the problems. Still, environmental problems are bigger than changing a light bulb or buying organic vegetables. We must work collectively as communities, churches and nations.
You have received some angry, even threatening, letters in response to your work. How do you handle that?
Now that the initial shock that I’m a “conservative evangelical Southern Baptist environmentalist” has passed, things have died down some. But I try to respond personally to every e-mail I receive, and I focus on my similarities with the writer. We read the same Scripture with a similar interpretive lens, now we just have to talk about the finer points. And they can’t deny it: If you claim to love the creator, you must love his creation. That is an undeniable fact if you claim believe the Bible is true.
You give some examples of churches working to green their communities. Do you think green living has the potential to be a defining issue for Christianity?
I think it could. In my church — a northeast Atlanta megachurch — around 2,000 people worship on a given Sunday. We just put in a nature trail, switched to fair trade coffee and compact fluorescent lights and installed eco-friendly air conditioning. We are trying to be good stewards, and it has become a point of pride. It’s part of our story, and we are not alone.