DULUTH, Ga. — Jonathan Merritt says he was both disappointed and pleasantly surprised by the response he received after organizing several hundred Southern Baptists in 2008 to issue a statement identifying the environment and climate change as moral issues.
“I was disappointed at how those who claim to represent us on political issues resorted to tactics that resembled Washington far more than Nashville,” said the 27-year-old national spokesman for the Southern Baptist Environment and Climate Initiative, referring to the headquarters city of many Southern Baptist agencies. “Few things are more un-Christian than threats and bribes.”
“On the other hand, I was pleasantly surprised at the positive reaction I received from so many average, everyday Christians who are grateful that someone is breaking the wall of silence on this issue,” he said.
The faith-and-culture writer, who has been featured in national publications including USA Today and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, added that he hopes his first book will be an encouragement to the latter group.
Green Like God tells the story of Merritt’s green awakening in an unlikely setting — a theology class at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest. The official Southern Baptist Convention seminary is known more for theological and social conservatism than for issues, like environmentalism, typically associated with the political left.
Merritt, son of former SBC president James Merritt, also works on the staff of his father’s suburban Atlanta megachurch. He said it saddens him that the issue of stewardship of God’s creation has become so partisan and divisive for people of faith. “Quite frankly, one of the reasons that liberals have claimed the moral high ground on this issue is because conservative Christians abandoned it long ago in their exclusive pursuit of other issues,” he said.
Merritt said that is beginning to change, as Christians across generations wake up to the responsibility to be instruments of God’s grace on a variety of issues. Christians in rising generations, he said, are particularly energized by interaction of the Bible’s message with what is going on in the daily news.
In the book, Merritt argues that caring for creation is not a right-left issue but rather a moral issue that God’s people have been called to address.
“If we remain true to God’s Word, Christians must with equanimity redeem the cause and make it our own,” he writes. “To leave these issues to secular environmentalists is to abandon our God-given responsibility to care for his planet.”
Merritt writes that forcing environmentalism into a left-right dichotomy harms both sides.
“If you consider yourself a conservative, you can remain a solid supporter of biblical values like the sanctity of life, but you should expand your political interests to include historically progressive issues like global poverty, human rights and aggressive care for God’s creation,” he counsels. “If you consider yourself more progressive, you can continue to support the political goals you find important while working with conservatives of mutual goodwill on issues like this one.”
He also challenges an objection sometimes voiced by Christians that devoting energy to “secondary” issues like the environment detract from the church’s main task of saving souls. “We aren’t forced to choose between sharing the gospel and creation care,” he writes. “It is a false dichotomy. Both are possible.”
“The very fact that the Bible tells us to do both indicates that evangelism and creation care can simultaneously be done well,” he writes. “A vital part of the Great Commission reaches beyond making converts to making disciples and teaching them to observe all God commands, including the very first commands to steward the Earth.”
Merritt said in an e-mail interview that Christians who claim fidelity to the Bible do not have the luxury of picking and choosing which parts to obey. “I am shocked that so many people who claim to ‘preach the whole Bible’ have sheepishly avoided the many passages that address creation,” he said. “It’s shocking really. You have people who would die on the sword of biblical literalism but refuse to acknowledge the clear stewardship mandates given by God in the Bible.”
Merritt acknowledges that the Bible doesn’t offer a Good Housekeeping-style list of everything a good Christian should do to protect the environment — recycle, drive a hybrid vehicle, support a specific piece of legislation and so forth — but he argues that every Christian should be on a journey toward a greener lifestyle. In an appendix, he offers several specific tips for energy reduction, simpler living, consumption, transportation and advocacy.
Merritt says one surprise he received after releasing the statement on creation care is that he started hearing from missionaries who said it helped them in parts of the world where they begin evangelistic conversations not with Jesus, whom the people there know little about, but with the creation and its Creator, which everyone understands. “Creation care speaks to people in developing nations where people have a greater connection to nature in everyday life,” he writes.
“Creation care is a bridge to the gospel in these places.”
Merritt says Christian lifestyles related to the Earth also affect an evangelical witness to the secular world.
“When the world sees the Christian community perpetuating systems of wealth and waste, it damages our witness,” he writes. “When they see us living compassionate, sustainable lives, our witness becomes authentic and convincing.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Allen is senior writer for Associated Baptist Press.)