Sunday, 5 June, is World Environment Day: the day of the United Nations to emphasize attention to the environment.
However, some Christians (myself included) find ‘environment’ rather vague. Caring for the planet is really about caring for creation.
Other Christians ask, “Why bother to take care of the planet? God is going to make a new heaven and earth.”
Let me tell you about the amazing work of a Melbourne missionary agronomist and why he thinks Christians should take World Environment Day seriously.
The Story of Tony Rinaudo, the Forester
At ISCAST (Christians in Science and Technology), we are excited to publish a Christian story that finds its way into the hands of people who never come near the doors of a church. It is the story of Tony Rinaudo, a missionary agronomist from Myrtleford in northeastern Victoria, whose work has revolutionized reforestation in Africa and beyond.
In his 17 years in Niger, Tony discovered a simple method to regreen land by breathing new life into damaged trees rather than planting new ones. This technique not only alleviates poverty and absorbs carbon but also costs a fraction of the cost of planting trees from scratch.
There are now more than six million hectares of regenerated African landscape thanks to Tony’s method, which he called Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR). With World Vision Australia, Tony promotes FMNR as a key climate change mitigator, with the potential to be deployed on more than a billion hectares of the planet. But for Tony, it’s not just about climate change; it’s about the holistic view of restoring the landscape, increasing agricultural productivity, rebuilding livelihoods, and, ultimately, giving people hope.
The book featuring this inspiring story was launched last week at St Paul’s Cathedral in Melbourne after an online launch attended by people from 23 countries. The book is The Forest Underground: Hope for a Planet in Crisis.
So, what would inspire an Aussie Christian to dedicate his life to restoring the sub-Saharan landscape and reforesting the desert? Here are four reasons.
1: It’s from God! It is not “environment”; it is “creation”.
The psalmist reminds us that “the earth and everything in it belong to the Lord (Psalm 24:1). When we as Christians talk about ‘the environment, we mean ‘creation’, the works of God’s hand. God, the Almighty Lord, has absolute sovereignty over everything as Creator and Lord of the universe.
Think also of the words of the apostle John or the writer of Job. John tells us that all things were created by the Word (John 1:1-3), and God reminds Job of the vast gulf between humans and the creator of all things: “Where were you when I established the earth?” (Job 38:4-7)
For Tony Rinaudo and Christians throughout the ages, caring for the land and for creation was part of recognizing and worshiping the Creator.
2. Creation is valuable in itself
God affirms in Genesis 1 that “it was good” six times before the creation of humanity. It’s not just good because it can serve another purpose; it was well explained. It’s not good just because people can use it.
Likewise, when it comes to redemption, the biblical picture is of universal redemption, not just the saving of individual souls. Romans chapter 8 tells us that “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay.” (Rom 8:21)
According to the Apostle Paul, creation will be liberated: God has a plan for it. Design is important and will be redeemed.
3. People should exercise responsible rulership
In Genesis chapter 1, God instructed humanity to fill, subdue, and rule the earth. But what do fill, subdue and rule look like?
The biblical concept of stewardship is relevant: the steward takes care of something on behalf of the owner. Humans are called to participate as stewards in the divine order for the flourishing of all creation.
For Tony Rinaudo, his calling as a missionary was to care for the planet in the name of the Creator and teach farmers to be good stewards.
4. It is about justice: love your neighbor
Perhaps Christians do not need to be reminded of the Old Testament commandments to care for the stranger in the land or of the message of Jesus’ most famous story. Loving our neighbor is our calling, and Christians have never wavered in their responsibility to care for those in need, whoever they are.
Sea level rise has already caused some villages in the Pacific to be relocated. Pacific Islanders are our neighbors; what does it mean to be a neighbor to them?
Africans suffering under the encroaching Sahara are also our neighbors. Tony Rinaudo has been close to them, their children, and the generations after them. An African chief in Ghana told Tony: “This is a gift from Almighty God. Everywhere you go, you bring life and joy.”
Australians are privileged – by some measures, we are the richest country in the world and have survived COVID better than any other country. We can afford to build higher sea walls, and buy more air conditioners; we produce enough food for our population. It is all too easy for us to ignore our neighbors’ problems and plight.
It cost the Samaritan to care for the man in need: it cost him time and expense, and he put himself in danger. It took Tony Rinaudo and his family to live in Africa for 17 years. It will take the rich of the world to make the changes needed to care for the world’s poor in this century of climate change.
Christians have good reason to celebrate today’s creation and to be at the forefront of providing hope for a planet in environmental and spiritual crisis.
Chris Mulherin is the Executive Director of ISCAST-Christians in Science and Technology. Tony Rinaudo’s book, The Forest Underground: Hope for a Planet in Crisis, can be purchased directly from ISCAST or Koorong. Proceeds contribute to Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration.