Our podcast this time features a talk from Peter Harris. He says he was born with a great love for nature, and a fascination with birds in particular. Following this ingrained concern for the environment, he co-founded A Rocha in 1983 when he and his wife Miranda moved with their family to establish a field study center and bird observatory in Portugal. In 1995 the work was given over to national leadership and they moved to France where together with national colleagues they oversaw the establishment of two other centers, while traveling to resource the growing global movement of Christians active in nature conservation. A Rocha field projects are now operational in twenty countries worldwide, each looking for creative and collaborative ways to engage in nature conservation out of love for God and His good creation.
Paul Dzubinski and Steven Spicer host this edition of the Creation Care Missions Podcast. Below is the full text of talk that Peter Harris gave at the Creation Care at the Frontiers of Mission conference.
It's a great privilege to be with you this morning and I'm aware that sitting here are many people who've given many years to this moment that Ed has outlined for us, and I feel humbled to be with you. I'm going to be looking forward to lots of conversations. I'm also going to evoke one of the fathers of the tribe, rather like you did. In fact, I'm going to follow your tradition because I'm going to put up grandchildren, a grandchild. Not mine actually- somebody else's grandchild is up second on my slides. It's John Stott who, as you know, I think was often here and whose approach to understanding the gospel is for all things guided us throughout our lives. But I think he is smiling as well, from a particularly ornithological place in heaven where he was going to take root, because we had an argument over two decades about where creation care—if that's the term we're landing on at the moment, and I hope we'll revisit it—where it fitted in Christian thinking. And I argued that it belonged within our understanding of mission—that we cannot proclaim that Jesus Christ is the Lord if we don't understand that he is the Lord of all things. And he felt it was more the cultural mandate, if you like, it was given to humanity just by the nature of being human. And of course we're both right, which is how Anglicans always resolve their arguments. So, I think he's having a little smile at the moment because we’re within this context of understanding missions assenting to proclaim that Jesus Christ is the Lord. And today we're giving particular attention to what that means for the whole creation.
Now Ed and the organizing team (thank you so much for your welcome and your work too Theresa, Paul, Mike, and I'm always forgetting people) gave me the task of grounding our understanding of creation can as mission and its biblical realities and that's what I want to do. And here we go to our first grandchild. So this is Simeon, who is the grandchild of good friends of ours, and as you can perhaps detect—I'm not sure if the U.S. term is the same as the British one—but he has Down’s syndrome. Is that the term you use? Simeon’s eyesight needed attention. And in his view, when you go to a shop, if you walk out with one of what they sell that's a good thing. But if you can walk out with three of them, it's far better. So Simeon went to get his eyes tested, and this was his plan—to leave with three pairs. And I want to suggest that one of the difficulties we've always had, the people of God have it all over the world as we approach the wisdom of God in scripture, is that we're wearing at least three pairs of glasses when we read the text. And I want to give you an example of the pairs of glasses that I grew up with as a British Evangelical Christian.
Reading Scripture: Beyond the Autonomous Individual
So here is the first covenant from Genesis 9. It's really the first thing that we read where God is committing himself and committing us, committing us to an agreement. There's only one phrase in there which isn't actually scripture and it comes from the editors of the New International Version, and it says at the top you'll notice, "God's covenant with Noah." But, I've outlined in yellow and put in bold what's actually the heart of this covenant, and it won’t take you long to see that this is a covenant that God makes with all of life on earth. It's not just God’s covenant with Noah. I'm sure they're very holy and godly men, and they shared the same tradition as me. They raided the scripture for what was in it for me and my life because that's what those who have inherited five hundred years plus of Western humanism do. The story is my story, it's not even our story. It's my story, the autonomous person. What's in the gospel for me and how can I get it? It's a kind of spiritual luxury project if you like. What do I need? We raid scripture for what's in it for me in our life, but actually the biblical story of salvation and of redemption has always been for all of life on earth. And you'll know, if you love your Hebrew text like I do, that seven is a big number in the scriptures. Seven times we read this. Seven times it's absolutely spelled out for us. And it's not even that we could think it’s about domestic animals. You'll notice that it's every living creature of every kind. It's the birds flying in the air. The stuff that's got nothing to do with us. Like Job says, "The flowers in the desert where there are no people."
Ed spoke so powerfully about that glorious diversity of life which we have wiped out. And I could tell you personal stories. Miranda, sitting at the back praying that her husband makes some sense today, is somebody who partly grew up in East Africa, and she used to snorkel, and watch fish on those East African coasts. And, this was in the early 60's I think, when there were fish everywhere. And as we go back there now to visit the A Rocha project on the coast there is plastic everywhere, and there are very few fish, and the coral reef is bleached. And it's happening all over. In Europe now, we've had two major studies recently that have really been reaching the whole of wider society. On the German nature reserves they discovered we've lost seventy-five percent of flying insects in the last twenty years. We lived for fourteen years in France. The French are not particularly noted—you could say, or haven't been, but it's changing very rapidly—for tremendous sensitivity to the environment. There is a very strong hunting and shooting tradition, but yet they've lost thirty percent of their farmland birds in the last fifteen years. And I know this because I was surveying birds for a study that was done on bird populations. I would sometimes go half an hour in a study transect without seeing a single thing flying because of pesticide use, because of intensive agriculture, because of the destruction of the soil, and so on, and so on. And yet this covenant that God makes with us is not just God's covenant with the person in the story. It’s the covenant with the whole of life and we've got to reestablish ourselves in a biblical framework to begin to get that. So let me lay a few biblical foundations for this calling which we have as human beings, and which we particularly have as the people of God, to care for creation.
Biblical Foundations: Creation is Waiting for the People of God
First of all, what's the reality? What's the context? Creation is groaning. We'll hear about that from Katharine. We've heard about it from Ed. You probably have many of your own stories to tell from the parts of the world where you are working. Creation is groaning. But, it's waiting for the people of God to show up. I sometimes think about the different contexts of medicine and creation care. It would be the case that medical thinking has always been something that grew out of the Christian understanding of the person and the Christian understanding of the world. It was hardwired, if you like, into compassion, into the care of the dying, into all kinds of things that make no economic sense, but we do them because of this deeply Christian understanding, whether or not the practitioner is a Christian. The environmental movement, certainly the contemporary environmental movement, if you want to date it from Rachel Carson in Silent Spring in the 1960s, or whatever benchmark you take, it actually goes, even the contemporary one, way back beyond that but Christians were largely absent from that movement. And so the fundamental driving concepts have not been framed by Christian thinking at all. And creation has literally been waiting for the Christians to show up. It's been waiting conceptually because the environmental movement has enormous difficulty, at the moment in framing an answer to the question, "Why does nature matter?"
There are two ruling ideologies, if you like, which are in a fairly bitter civil war which is coming towards some kind of healing. There is those who argue creation matters because we need it. And we have only got limited resources at our disposal, so we will prioritize those species which we need for our salvation. It's essentially an anthropocentric argument for nature. And you hear it in the church too. Why should we care for creation? Because of the poor. It's not actually the biblical answer. But that, me first, I need nature, let's look after it [attitude], is out there. It's scientifically extremely difficult. Fifty percent of the ocean, of the oxygen we breathe, is produced by tiny organisms which we've only fairly recently discovered in the oceans. We have no idea how to protect them and if you put an economic value on it, it reaches seventy trillion. It invalidates all the budgets you throw at it. It's really difficult to know what we need from nature.
The other argument is, if you like, in shorthand, the kind of intrinsic value argument. Why does nature matter? It just does. We can't say why, but it just does. Some will say because its holy. You're in a wonderful rain forest and you sense that you're in some kind of a temple. There is something holy about life and we just have to look after it. But these arguments can't be synthesized. And there's a real problem, and I would argue that the lack of Christian presence within the environmental movement has led to this tremendous confusion about why nature matters. And it’s one reason why we need to show up, because we know very clearly why we should care for creation. Because God made it and he entrusted it to our care. And, in caring for it, what we're doing is worship. We're probably not saving the world. It's probably not possible. I sometimes feel this ministry is akin to when I was a pastor and I was sitting at the bedside of a dying friend, as the presence of Jesus. Much of what A Rocha people do around the world, in all their different cultures and in their places, is bear witness to loss and live lament. And it's a good calling, and it's lived in the hope of the resurrection. But we carry on doing this with great joy because we're doing it first and foremost for the Lord, towards the Lord, in worship. It's offering up. It's not that kind of activism that says, “We've got to do this people, and we'll get it done”, because we probably won't, I don't think. But we're called to this faithful witness to a loving God, who has made it in all its glory.
Biblical Foundations: A Spiritual and Theological Crisis
So creation is groaning, and we could talk about that for a long-time. Why should we particularly care? Because it's not ours. The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it. It's the Lord's. It's very clear why we should care. We say, "We love the Lord." I think it was Cal DeWitt who first said to me years back, "You cannot say you love Rembrandt and then you trash his paintings." We cannot say we love the Lord Jesus, the Lord of creation, and be party to this extraordinary destruction, this casual trashing of the handiwork of God. There is a lot of anguish in the contemporary conservation movement about how we’re in this situation because, as Katharine will tell you, climate science has been established for well over one hundred years. We've known what's going on through data for decades and decades, but data is not transformative.
So why is this happening? As Ed says, it's a spiritual crisis. The prophets said it a long-time ago. Again we've read the scriptures for their personal consequences. This picture from Hosea [4:2-3] of a society in deep trouble, where human relationships are broken down in violence and bloodshed, always extends to the wider creation. Therefore, because of this, the land mourns. Think of the emotional language Hosea is using there. All who live in it waste away. The beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea are dying. We sometimes forget how extraordinary the prophets are. This was three thousand years before the term "marine crisis" was ever heard. When the sea went on forever and ever and ever and ever and Hosea says, no, the fish of the sea are going to die because human beings have a broken relationship with their creator. So the problem is us. Sadly the us is not just the us—that is, people who aren't Christians. The indifference of the Christian Church to its own gospel is a global problem. And it's a global problem that's well-understood by the conservation movement.
I once met with probably the most high-profile conservation leader of your country and maybe globally and I said to him, so what are the issues? He said there are really two issues: uncontrolled capitalism and evangelical theology. For him, evangelical theology was the biggest threat because, in his understanding, we have been teaching all over the world, in ecologically fragile places, that it's all going to burn when Jesus returns, so why bother doing anything meanwhile? Somebody said to me in a church once, "If the rivers are going to turn to blood, why bother cleaning them up?" So we are understood by many of my secular environmental friends to be the problem, to be the plague. We need to repent and get our own house in order and teach and believe and live the bible. We are the ones who have drifted from the gospel. I see often more gospel life, and sacrificial living, and Jesus shaped behavior, among my friends who would never darken a door of church. And A Rocha globally has had far more issues with our Christian brothers and sisters than we've ever had with our fellow conservation professionals. It's a very strange thing.
Biblical Foundations: Stewards of Creation
Finally, this is just so fundamental to who we are as people. What's the first thing we know about being people, is that we should—okay, there's a big debate about "rule over", but talk to me afterwards. It doesn't mean dominate. It’s in continuity with God's loving creation purposes. But the first thing is, look after all of this. Just being human is to do that. Yet, we live in what's called the Anthropocene, the time when we have had the most impact on everything. As was pointed out, I ran a bird observatory. That means I personally handled one hundred thousand birds in my life, but you can shake my hand quite safely. I've sterilized them. This is a red-tailed hawk coming in unsuspectingly and about to get banded on the Appalachian Trail. If you want to know what is a predator and what is a prey species you essentially look at where the eyes are on the head. If they're on the side it means they're looking behind at what's going to drop out of the sky and annihilate them, annihilate you. If they're in the front, you really don't care. You're just out for breakfast. And, as you'll see, the red-tailed hawk is not bothered about what's chasing it. It sometimes should be. Incidentally, golden eagles can give these guys a very bad time. But they're just looking forward. I just want you to think, where are the eyes are on your head?
We are those who are really having this impact on creation and this is where it gets very practical. Biodiversity: the glorious diversity of God's creation, is on roughly two percent of the planet's surface only. And this was well-known. These are the so-called biodiversity hot spots. But what nobody had done until it became rather clear that it mattered what those people believed and what they thought, was map who was living there and what they believed. So we put some money into mapping where evangelicals are on earth because we were concerned with those who really accept that scripture is authoritative, because if we can recover this fully biblical understanding of the gospel, it's going to have a big difference to make - for better or worse. The blue marks are where over ten percent of those living there are Evangelical Christians. This isn't counting even the Orthodox or the Roman Catholics, who were far more important in terms of numerical presence and footfall. And you will see that it is quite literally true that what Christians think matters is going to matter for the well-being of life on earth. And this is why it is absolutely essential that our understanding of mission, of why the people of God are sent into God's world to bring God's good news, extends to the whole of creation. It's vitally important. Probably, if the Christians of the world do not rediscover the biblical understanding of the gospel, we are all in trouble. We're all in this great difficulty.
Christians Should Bring Life, to the Glory of God
It's a vitally important practical task, but we've talked about hope so I would just want to, in one sense, give a little trailer for the workshop tomorrow on how this works out in practice in different places by showing you what happens when there are Christians in places and what happens to the places. So what you're seeing there is the estuary where we lived in Portugal for twelve years and where the A Rocha team has been now for nearly thirty-five years, carrying out more studies, bird surveys, working with the local schools, working with local business owners to get them to find other solutions apart from just building all over it. Over ninety-five percent of the south coast of Portugal now lies under concrete for tourist development. And this, in the foreground, is where Christians have been, who know that the gospel makes a difference to the place and not just the people. We've led a coalition of environmental organizations to fight for and protect that place. And when a journalist came recently he said, "This place is a miracle." If you look at the background, you'll see what's become of the rest of it. This is looking the way it is because Christians are there. This is the gospel written in the landscape as it is supposed to be according to the prophets, where things flourish because of the people of God, rather than fade away. And it's been very practical. We've had all kinds of issues. We've reluctantly, and for the first-time anywhere in the A Rocha world, gone to law over it and had a series of court cases, as people burnt the habitats to show there's nothing there so that they can build, and so on, and so on. It's been very practical, but it looks the way it looks because Christians were there, and that's how the gospel is intended to take hold of our imaginations and our lives.
This is Lebanon. Ed was mentioning this commitment from Cape Town that the Lausanne movement did. We were working that up in Lebanon the year before, in the theological group. And I was able to take that group to stand on the top of the Chouf looking over the Beqaa Valley, over towards Mount Herman. And when we first started working there in the 1990s it looked like that, and now it looks like that. And that's because Christians were there. It's a very beautiful thing. We stood there and said, this is our gospel. This is the gift to the world that Jesus has put in our hearts, by his Spirit in power, to bring real transformation, not just to my personal life, not just to the community which I'm inevitably within, but to the whole creation. Do you see how practical this is? Where there are churches in the street, the sidewalk should be hopping with insects and birds because everybody's not drenching us in chemicals. Not trying to make it look like Britain when it's in the tropics, or whatever myth garden designers get up to.
When Christians come to a place it should come to life, to the glory of God. People should know we've been there because it looks beautiful, it flourishes, the community is healthy. That's what this gospel is. People have over the years sometimes said to us, "But you're threatening the understanding that personal salvation matters." I sometimes tell them about my son-in-law who is from the U.S.A. and he lets us tell this story. He didn't know his father. His mother had all sorts of issues. If he had not become a Christian in his late teens I don't know what would've happened to him. I really believe in salvation, personal salvation. It's our gift to offer that. It's our wonderful gift this morning to know the Father in Jesus Christ. But it's simply much bigger than that. Do you remember that verse from Romans, that the glorious freedom of the children of God is extended to the whole of creation to help it from, to cease from groaning? It's what we're on earth for, all of that - it's a much, much bigger gospel.
One final story from where the U.K. team is working. This was a big area of waste ground. We got a million of public money and now it looks like that. It used to look like that. Now it looks like that because Christians were there. It's a primarily Muslim, Sikh, and Hindu community, and we all worked together for what the community said they wanted. We asked twenty-five thousand households what they wanted, and they said green space, because these are mostly people who have come from rural areas in Asia, and this is the most polluted and crowded borough of London. And this is what Christians did, with everybody else, to show the love of Jesus. Don't you think it's a beautiful thing? And of course it doesn't extend just to the people like me who love birds, or the guys who love frogs, or the tree huggers or whatever—it's for everybody. I want to just show some of the more lovely manifestations.
Creation Care is for Everyone
[Looking at the next slide] How appropriate it's a butterfly. We're running a beautiful project led by a Taiwanese American artist on butterflies, and the work of the artist and the work of musicians. We're trying to change the music of the church, so we don't just sing we're going somewhere else and we could forget all of this, and creation is wallpaper, which is what I normally have to sing when I show up to preach. They look for a creation hymn, and they put this stuff out there. So we're writing new music for the church. We're inspiring our brothers and sisters who are artists to reach the hearts, because data is not transformative, and the church speaks to the heart.
I'm working a lot with investors and business people. Unless we believe in the redemption of money we are never going to get anywhere because the dominant thing that's driving all of this is economic. I often get wheeled on as the religious guy in conferences where it's about religion or faith and the environment. And we always say, well, the leading faith hasn't turned up. And that's the faith that the more stuff you have, the happier you're going to be. It's a religious faith and it's completely nonsense but that's the faith of our times, and that's what's trashing the earth. So please could they show up and defend their faith? Unless we can redeem the Christian imagination for investment—that it is possible to live reasonably on the earth economically without destroying God's creation—we won't win.
I really think that this is the critical issue—you [Ed Brown] talked about main streaming. This isn't going to be a job for the creation enthusiasts in the church. Unless we all get those glasses on and understand that the gospel is for everything—it's for the way you do business, it's for how you live as an artist, it's for how you cook, it's absolutely for how you eat. The gospel is about everything, and unless we understand the scope of this gospel, we're not going to make a dent. And I really do believe that our conversation with our friends in business and finance is the critical conversation, because I go to talk to people and they say, "But Peter, in the real world I just have to look at a profit." But the only profit they're looking at is financial and there are six possible profits flowing out of a business including human well-being and creational well-being. Business is multi-capital according to scripture, not single capital. Christian investors, institutional investors, churches will say to me, "Peter I have to pay your salary, and I have to pay your pension, so I can only track the money." And I want to say "What if you ask me, do I want you to make your money by ruining God's creation and making the poor even poorer?" I don't. I'd rather have a lower salary and a lower pension and be a blessing in the world.
Conclusion: We Need a More Holistic Gospel
Our worship, and work, and witness will be incomplete until our responsibility to conserve the glorious God-given diversity of earth's creatures becomes second nature. And that is as true for the mission community, which incidentally I don't believe in that, the people of God are missional, there are no professionals in this job. It's got to be second nature. Do an interesting thing: next time you hear a Christian message, just listen out for the “so what” for creation in it. I'm afraid I can pretty much guarantee that in the Western world you'll hear the “so what” of the gospel for people, but you won't hear it yet for creation. And when it becomes second nature then things will start to really look different. And again, why are we doing this? Why are we all here? We're here to worship the Lord of all creation. We're here to be faithful to this gospel. And we're here out of tremendous gratitude for all that creation does give us, and what it needs to give to the poorest on earth who are the least protected from all that is happening. Mr. Brown, I am two minutes late. Amen.