Caring for Creation at 20

Caring for Creation: Vision, Hope and Justice

I) The Church’s Vision of Creation
God, Earth, and All Creatures
Our Place in Creation
II) The Urgency
Sin and Captivity
The Current Crisis
III) The Hope
The Gift of Hope
Hope in Action
IV) The Call to Justice
Justice through Participation
Justice through Solidarity
Justice through Sufficiency
Justice through Sustainability
V) Commitments of this Church
As Individual Christians
As a Worshiping and Learning Community
As a Committed Community
As a Community of Moral Deliberation
As an Advocate

Claiming the Promise (Conclusion)

Resources and ways to take action can be found at The social statement can be found at

Caring for Creation at 20

[1] ELCA social statements articulate a moral vision. As they address a particular social question, they serve goal-oriented and practical purposes within the life of the church. As teaching tools, they assist members in discernment and, as official documents, to guide the ELCA’s work of church in society. Yet, a statement’s broadest role remains setting forth a moral vision drawn from scripture’s intersection with contemporary life, one that inspires, challenges, and even goads us to action. This year’s 20th anniversary of the 1993 ELCA statement Caring for Creation: Vision, Hope and Justice provides a special opportunity to pull out that statement and become reacquainted with its sweeping moral vision. ( )

[2] This month, the first Journal of Lutheran Ethics article by Paul Santmire gives salutary attention to the statement as he explores American Lutheran engagement with ecological theology over the past 50 years. He describes the critical features of the statement’s vision, its theo-cosmocentric assumption and the description of the human being as embedded within the sweep of God’s activity in creation. That is, the statement asserts the biblical belief that the whole cosmos is the focus of God’s gracious activity and within that activity human beings emerge. Human beings are nature, through and through, and are given a role to serve and care for the rest of nature. That is, human beings should care about the rest of creation because that is our job–this is why God creates us. Ecological concern and efforts are matters of justice and deeply spiritual![1] Such a vision inspires, challenges, and even goads us toward a paradigm shift in our mindset, one that has not yet been broadly accepted as this society grapples with ecological crisis.

[3] As a supplement to Santmire’s reflections and in order to identify other features of the statement’s vision that deserve renewed awareness on its 20th anniversary, this brief essay provides a sketch of the primary “moves” made in Caring for Creation. While important as an introduction to the statement, the most important message remains: take the time to read it for yourself! The statement is less than six pages long, quite readable, and presents an overarching vision that should challenge all readers to reflect in fresh ways about the environmental crisis and our special responsibility as human beings within God’s creation today.

[4] The opening section, “The Church’s Vision of Creation,” begins with a pithy and radical announcement: “the despoiling of the environment [is] nothing less than the degradation of God’s gracious gift of creation.”[2] This announcement is explained by reference to scripture and the affirmation of the Nicene Creed that the Triune God, not just God the Father, is fully involved in creating. It reminds us that Jesus Christ is the one “through whom all things were made” and that Christians confess that “the Holy Spirit is the Lord, the giver of life.” The creation is God’s business and the whole creation was and is good, even before humankind is on the scene.[3] The earth’s despoiling is sin against God.

[5] To despoil the globe is not only contrary to God’s work of creating but it also is contrary to the human assignment! What makes humans special is not their technology or their ingenuity or their reason but their God-given task, a shared one, to care for the earth. We are to use gifts like reason and technology toward the same task God is about, caring for the earth and this is what it means to be made in the image of God.[4] Contrary to the operative assumption throughout most of the modern period and contrary to present day assumptions, human “dominion” in Genesis 1:26 does not mean human beings have a special opportunity to use or exploit the earth for ourselves as lords over it. Human dominion, biblically, means instead that we have a special responsibility to serve and keep the earth for the good of all–the way God keeps and cares as a servant king (Phil 2:7). Moreover, humans are to order our efforts according to God’s wisdom in creation, something that science and technology can help us discover.[5]

[6] The next section of the statement, “The Urgency,” describes the fundamental problem undergirding current environmental crisis: “Our sin and captivity lie at the roots of the current crisis.”[6] Human captivity to sin leads to and is expressed by exploitation of the earth as if it is “a boundless warehouse.” Two problems in particular jeopardize a sustainable future for all of nature:

  • Excessive human consumption; and
  • Relentless growth of the human population–a problem that springs from and is intensified by social injustice in the form of poor education, lack of employment, poor health care, and equal rights.[7]

[7] The statement’s subsequent list of specific environmental problems is somewhat dated but chillingly contemporary for a 20 year old list. It includes depletion of natural resources; loss of bio-diversity through rapid destruction of habitats; erosion through unsustainable practices; and the extensive pollution of air, water and land. “Even more widespread and serious, according to the preponderance of evidence from scientists worldwide, are the depletion of the protective ozone layer, resulting from the use of volatile compounds containing chlorine and bromine; and dangerous global warming, caused by the buildup of greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide.”[8]

[8] The environmental problem is worsened because each kind of environmental degradation feeds on others, magnifying them into a crisis threatening the whole earth. This section concludes by warning that the time for changing course “is very short.”[9] While called urgent in 1993, the sense of the statement suggests the problems should be called emergencies today, as contemporary scientific reports on climate change remind us.

Many people often and all of us sometimes find such dire predictions and problems so overwhelming that we feel immobilized. The next section of the statement responds by reminding us that by the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God frees us from our sin and captivity, and empowers us to be loving servants to creation. We are not in this problem alone and God’s work in Christ comes with the gift of hope and, by that gift, we are called and empowered to act. Even when the prospects for improvement look bleak, God’s promise means we no longer are captives of demonic powers or unjust institutions or immobilization. Rather Christians have become captives of hope (Zechariah 9:11-12). The statement notes that examples from the Lutheran heritage and scripture offer many glimpses of hope triumphant over despair and thereby goads us to action.[10] The nature of our action is to be directed by justice.

[9] By justice? Here again the statement challenges prevalent ideas that somehow justice is a human matter due only to other human beings. The statement’s sections on justice insist that humans owe justice to other creatures, plants and the earth itself. Nature has moral standing! This insistence follows from the theo-cosmocentric vision expressed above. These sections do not neglect justice due other human beings, especially those whose lives are highly impacted by environmental degradation. But the environment itself, like other people, is to be a recipient of our faith active in love seeking justice.

[10] The lengthy section entitled “The Call to Justice” identifies four principles that can direct action in the face of the intricate complexities of the created order and the social order embedded within creation[11]

  • Participation — God’s covenant with all living things (Genesis 9:12-17, Hosea 2:18) means that animals and the land are entitled to have their just interests considered when decisions are made regarding the use of resources. Human beings should be advocates for non-human creation.
  • Solidarity — the fact that God is the Creator of all leads us to acknowledge our interdependence with all other creatures. In so doing we are to act in solidarity both locally and globally on behalf of all creation, especially for those members that are at greatest risk, human and non-human.
  • Sufficiency — God’s Spirit is actively creating every moment and so we know there is enough to meet the needs of all creatures. Because the world is finite, though, this has implications for limits upon human acquisition and consumption.
  • Sustainability — God intends for creation to last a long, long time. Therefore, until the day of Jesus Christ humankind must strive toward an acceptable quality of life for present generations without compromising that of future generations.

[11] Guided by these four principles, the final section “Commitments of This Church” rededicates the ELCA to live into the challenges and to act in ways that genuinely impact personal habits and social structures.

  • It calls for commitment by members to personal life styles that help heal the environment.
  • It encourages creation emphases in the church year and the development of liturgical, preaching and education materials that celebrate God’s creation.
  • It calls for congregations to have an environmental audit and to incorporate principles of sufficiency and sustainability in their building, budgeting and investment.[12]

[12] On practical questions such as nuclear and toxic waste, farming practices or population growth,

  • It invites the interaction of differing convictions and experiences.[13]
  • It calls upon the ELCA to play a role in bringing together parties in the conflicts over these issues, both within the church and outside.

[13] In public debates,

  • It invites all people to direct our advocacy with government, private entities, and internationally (advocacy is speaking out for the earth and for others) according to the principles of participation, solidarity, sufficiency, and sustainability,
  • It commits the ELCA to dialogue with corporations on promoting justice for creation and to seek public policies that allow people to participate fully in decisions affecting their own health and livelihood.

[14] Caring for Creation: Vision, Hope, and Justice relies upon a biblical vision of the promise of wholeness for creation while asserting the big, huge!, vision missed by many people today, that God is at work throughout the entire cosmos and humans are to be caretakers above all. The statement urges a Christian recommitment to the principles of justice–participation, solidarity, sufficiency, and sustainability — as we serve in creation, and are inspired with a hope grounded in God’s faithfulness. It leaves no question, God is at work seeking wholeness and justice for the creation and God calls us to be hands in that work. On the 20th anniversary this theo-cosmocentric moral vision needs to be embraced and lifted up more urgently than even in 1993 by all who are “captives of hope, and vehicles of God’s promise.”[14]

[1] Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Caring for Creation: Vision, Hope, and Justice (Chicago: ELCA, 1993), 8.

[2] Ibid., 2.

[3] Ibid., 2.

[4] Ibid., 2.

[5] Ibid., 3.

[6] Ibid., 3.

[7] Ibid., 4.

[8] Ibid., 4.

[9] Ibid., 5.

[10] Ibid., 5.

[11] Ibid., 6, 7.

[12] Ibid., 10.

[13] Ibid., 10.

[14] Ibid., 12.

Roger Willer

Rev. Dr. Roger Willer serves as Director for Theological Ethics on the Theological Discernment Team in the Office of the Presiding Bishop. He also serves as Publisher for the Journal of Lutheran Ethics.