Reflections on the Environmental Task Force (1991-93), The Caring for Creation Statement, and Subsequent Events

[1] As 16 invited individuals gathered in Chicago in autumn of 1989, it soon became apparent that this group of Lutherans was very special. Several members of the Department for Studies selected members of the task force for the Division for Church in Society based on prior knowledge of potential candidates, telephone interviews, and recommendations from a variety of sources. Representing diversities in geography, disciplines of learning, gender, and race, we constituted a disparate assemblage.

However, we had several very important shared characteristics: being Lutheran; unquestioned dedication to our Lord Jesus Christ; a deep and passionate commitment to environmental restoration; and searching for ways in which our stewardship of nature intersects with our spiritual and theological understandings. At our first meeting I was elected chair of the task force – a distinct honor. My experiences of the task force gatherings were possibly the high point in my professional career. The passion and commitment of this group were exemplary, personal relation-ships were forged, and the memories of our discussions, arguments, debates, and the importance of our final statement I will carry throughout my life.

[2] In 1989 the Churchwide Assembly had authorized a study of the degradation of the environment and how the ELCA might respond as a result of a number of memorials offered by synods. Some of these memorials reflected grow-ing alarm from the constituent congregations who wanted immediate action. The 1980s were marked by a number of startling discoveries — holes developing in the stratospheric ozone layer, escalating global warming problems, society’s cavalier attitude toward diminishing petroleum supplies, population growth in lesser developed countries, and the increase of hunger and poverty. Each of these was quite serious, but in concert they offered a daunting challenge. Overlaying all these problems was the simple fact that persons of faith needed to step forward to change the massive forms of environ-mental destruction being wrought on God’s creation.

[3] Members of the task force had ideas borne of their experiences and education about what the statement should say. Yet I am not sure that any one of us had sufficient oversight of the totality of issues or what should be included in the statement at the beginning of our meetings. Fortunately, ELCA staff provided critical services. I want to celebrate clearly the input and direction offered by key staff members of the Division for Church and Society including those of the Reverend Larry Jorgenson, the Reverend Dr. John Stumme, Dr. Job Ebenezer, and the Reverend Dr. Karen Bloomquist. They contributed freely of their time, knowledge, and skills in leading and directing us. They were able to move us from disparate points of view to a decidedly holistic position. We all were extremely appreciative of their hard work, motiva-tion, and dedication to the work of this task force; without their input the statement could not have been presented as an important document in the life of our church.

[4] An antepenultimate draft of the statement, along with a narrative booklet, was sent to about 50 parishes for small group discussion and reflection. These were sent in autumn of 1992, and the Department for Studies requested responses and comments in the very early spring. We did get some responses (perhaps 40 to 75), and the staff and the members of the task force read each. Many were complimentary of the proposed statement and its urgent request for our Church to become more involved. Many offered specific suggestions to be considered by the task force. And a few responses were less than complimentary. One writer’s comments I remember vividly; he indicated that the church ought to deal with faith issues only (sin, salvation, the Resurrection, etc.) and leave secular issues like the environment alone since they were not the business of the church. The task force took all comments seriously, made some changes in the proposed state-ment, and was appreciative to all who participated in the study. A copy of the penultimate draft of the statement was mailed to each delegate to the assembly, all pastors and bishops, and to other interested persons. Now the statement was ready for presentation at the Churchwide Assembly.

[5] In 1993, I was one of six people on stage representing the statement at the Churchwide Assembly in Kansas City as our final version was presented. The proposed statement was not read verbatim but was presented in sections or blocks. As each section was presented, there were questions, proposed amendments, and comments from assembly dele-gates. Points and counterpoints and votes on amendments were made in the several-hour debate. As I remember what happened in Kansas City that day, seven changes were made from the floor in the text of the statement but there were no substantive alterations. Finally, the vote was taken: Yes – 838; No – 118, and Abstain – 9; almost 87% of the votes were for approval of the social teaching statement – far more than the two-thirds majority required for adoption by the assembly. I have always wondered why 118 delegates voted negatively and nine simply abstained. Was it the wording, the progression of ideas, was it that the thrust of the statement was not clear or necessary, or simply denial of the salient points made in the statement? Nevertheless, it passed! The euphoria and relief that permeated all of us who had worked on the statement was palpable.

[6] The statement affirms that God’s good creation is in peril in a variety of ways. It also offers a vision of God’s intentions for both humanity and creation and salvation for caregivers. Thirdly, it acknowledges humanity’s separation from God and from the rest of creation (sin) as the central cause of environmental problems. And lastly, the statement expresses hope, and calls for us to attend to the cause of justice and commitment. The statement also proposes almost four pages of commitments to reform our habits and social structures. Strong and clear directives are offered for individ-ual Christians, congregations, synods, regional, and churchwide levels, and in our advocacy efforts. The statement calls for fundamental (some say even radical) changes in our societal mores speaking to excessive consumption (materialism) and the ways we have historically treated nature in our avarice. All the proposed alterations in our life styles are designed to attain a more sustainable environment within the context of our faith and for all who love our Creator.

[7] We left the Churchwide Assembly buoyed by the affirmation of the church toward the concept of caring for creation. We left thinking idealistically that now ELCA Lutherans were on the road toward restoration of God’s creation and the environment. Now it was time for the church at all levels to accept the concepts articulated in the Statement. One synodical bishop in attendance at the assembly told me he predicted that caring for creation would be the most important new thrust for the ELCA in the 21st century! That sort of prediction should be motivational for everyone affiliated with the Statement, the assembly, and the church at every level.

[8] In the intervening decade, numerous events have occurred – some for the better. Pollution, for example, has been alleviated in some instances, and for that we are grateful. But other dimensions have worsened, and there are no workable or convenient solutions in sight. I will discuss briefly three important examples: global warming, ozone depletion, and depletion of petroleum energy. Global warming had been discovered by the mid-1950s, but the scientific assumptions about its progression were very shortly clear and compelling. Society’s use of such fossil fuels as gasoline, heating oil, and kerosene are the principal causes of the increase in greenhouse gases. Carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels have increased in the atmosphere about 300% in the past 50 years. Concomitant with this dramatic increase in atmospheric C02, ambient global temperatures have risen about 1.2o C (about 2o F). Should this pace continue, fundamental changes in our climate and society will ensue. If this rate continues over the next 40-50 years, we could possibly lose our earth as a habitable planet, and therefore humankind would have destroyed God’s good creation.

[9] Holes in the stratospheric ozone layer were discovered in 1984, but the full significance of these holes was only later explicated. Now we realize that synthetically manufactured chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) are the main culprit. They were initially used widely as refrigerants, cleaning of microchips, sterilization of hospital instruments, and the list goes on. Only in the past two decades have global efforts have been made to completely ban the use of these harmful CFCs. In fact, a United Nations Global Conference was held to come to grips with this phenomenon, and about 150 or so nations signed a document to ban CFCs. The U.S. chose not to sign! The effects of depletion of the ozone layer and global warming are inexorably woven together, and changes in one can affect the other. These are very disturbing trends, and if they are allowed to continue, our planet and our society will be doomed.

[10] Petroleum energy is THE vital force that powers our engines of commerce, transportation, interior heating, and electrical generation. As mentioned above, combustion of these fossil fuels contribute greatly to global warming and to depletion of the ozone layer. Americans (and persons of other well-developed nations) are the chief culprits in adding materials into the atmosphere. Americans have treated fossil fuels as though the sources are infinite. But we now know that supplies are finite. It is estimated that our supplies of petroleum will be exhausted 60 to 120 years in the future. This means that in the lifetimes of our children or grandchildren, supplies of petroleum will be mostly used up. Of course one way to extend the life of our supplies is conservation, but today that seems to be a “dirty” word. About 50% of our energy could be conserved by extensive use of efficient energy opportunities. There have been few massive efforts to help us to use energy more efficiently. These three issues of global warming, holes in the ozone layer, and petroleum energy are fertile areas for actions by individual citizens, groups, and certainly the faith communities.

[11] There are other important issues that the world faces. In the poorest countries explosion in numbers of people, hunger and malnutrition, poverty, poor living conditions, gender inequity in hiring, expectations of what women are to do (or not do), incidence of infant mortality, and other issues all cry out for help from religious communities.

[12] Months and years went by without my discerning any new major initiatives in Chicago deriving from the statement. After a period of time, there was but one person (Dr. Job Ebenezer) whose responsibilities were to oversee the church’s progress on environmental issues as well as education for the hunger program – an impossible assignment for one person. It would appear that things had gone very wrong with the clarion calls of the statement for the church – at least the national and synodical offices – to be actively engaged in caring for creation. Undoubtedly, partial answers to these inactions were based on financial problems, the church needing to move on with other theological issues, reassign-ments of staff, and new priorities of the church. Despite the lack of institutional support, I believe the exhortation to care for creation bolstered the personal commitments of many individual Lutherans across the church. I know that grassroots efforts were springing up all across the church and all across our nation. However, interest in caring for creation by the ELCA was rekindled recently due mostly to the dedicated efforts of Danielle Welliever of the Division for Church in Society.

[13] Danielle has really made a difference!

[14] I personally lobbied three different bishops in the N.C. Synod for some synodical action as called for in the statement. The third (and current) Bishop, the Reverend Dr. Leonard Bolick, was very receptive and enthusiastic when I first spoke to him about some positive actions of our synod toward caring for Creation. During 2001, he and I planned for the formation of a group to direct and promote the ideals advocated in the statement. For most of that year, we planned retreats, talked about membership, and mutually developed a passionate concern for the far-reaching directives in the statement. What was finally brought into being was the Caring for Creation Task Force of the N.C. Synod, a group of 14 persons from varied backgrounds. We have assembled a committed and dedicated group to work on behalf of the synod.

[15] Our task force made a concerted effort to have all congregations celebrate a Caring for Creation Sunday at a time convenient to individual parishes (i.e., Second Sunday after Pentecost [called for in the statement], Earth Day, Rogation Sunday, blessings of the plantings of crops, etc.). We are currently emphasizing energy conservation in parish buildings, and we are encouraging parishes to conduct an energy audit. We are offering financial assistance (from the ELCA) to several congregations who needed to hire an energy consultant in this critical process. The task force thinks that energy costs saved can be used for other vital activities of the parish as well as to motivate members of the parish to do the same at home. We have had a display booth and conducted a forum during each of the past two Synod Assemblies. We like to think of ourselves as proactive, aggressive, and passionate and will talk to anyone who will listen to us about caring for creation. We are also open to cooperation with groups of other faiths that share similar concerns for projects.

[16] The work for caring for creation has only just begun. I believe that society has perhaps 40 years left – 40 years to initiate substantive, perhaps even radical, changes before it is too late. After about the year 2050, scientific prognostica-tors say that if certain processes and events go unchecked, they will, at that time spin out of control! Prime examples of out-of-control cycles are global warming, ozone depletion, persistent hunger and malnutrition, and general degradation of God’s creation that likely will doom us.

[17] I believe that this time is very propitious in environmental restoration. There are numerous technological ad-vances that aid society in combating environmental degradation. There are devices that can effectively control many of our problems. But the ultimate changes that must be made are in the behaviors and actions of individual persons who commit themselves to saving God’s Creation. We cannot rely exclusively upon science and technology to solve all of our problems. What will turn things around is when all citizens begin to alter their lifestyles and their behaviors to preserve the environment. The organized churches have a powerful influence over human tendencies and behaviors and outlooks. We can only hope that all religious groups will commit to preserving God’s wonderful Creation

[18] This is a clarion call for all Lutherans to rise to the challenges and become very proactive on behalf of God’s creation. The ELCA is in a position to become the denominational leader in advocating caring for creation and for social justices. Better still, we can join forces with other denominations to make synergistic efforts together. With all denomi-nations joining in our aggressive efforts, we will not fail!

[19] Wouldn’t it be wonderful in 1000 years (if we have 1000 years left) if history would reflect upon the Christian community and what success they made toward environmental restoration. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if history would acknowledge how much we Lutherans must have loved our Creator to have made such a difference!