In the song, “Peace on Earth,” U2’s lead singer Bono laments how these words sung by the angelic host two millennia ago to the shepherds “are sticking in my throat.” In the face of the violence and the victims of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, Bono mourns how “hope and history won’t rhyme.” The beautiful Emerald Isle is home of numerous “thin places” where the line of demarcation between heaven and earth is most gossamer and at the same time has been the setting of horrific acts perpetrated by neighbors against one another—often, sadly, in the name of Christianity. To be sure, the 1998 Belfast, or Good Friday, Agreement has done much to promote peace, even though some discontented extremists continue to pose a threat there. Still, many other conflicts are happening around the world as we find ourselves immersed in another Advent season. The peaceable reign of God, in history as in hope, or “on earth as it is in heaven,” inaugurated with the birth of that vulnerable and poor baby Jesus, is yet to be realized.
Elsewhere in this song, Bono observes, “Where I grew up there weren’t many trees. Where there was we’d tear them down and use them on our enemies.” In his World Day of Peace Message, “Peace with God the Creator, Peace with All of Creation,” issued on 1 January 1990, Pope John Paul II noted this connection between war and environmental problems: “Today, any form of war on a global scale would lead to incalculable ecological damage. But even local or regional wars, however limited, not only destroy human life and social structures, but also damage the land, ruining crops and vegetation as well as poisoning the soil and water” (no. 12). Of course, the pope also highlights other causes for environmental harm, including “indiscriminate application of advances in science and technology” (no. 6, italics his), “greed and selfishness… both individual and collective” (no. 8), and a demand for “instant gratification and consumerism” (no. 13). Nevertheless, war is a major threat to the environment. Conversely, “world peace is threatened,” the pope claims, “by a lack of due respect for nature” (no. 1, italics his). Our failure to respect “an order in the universe,” an order that “the earth and its atmosphere are telling us” our actions have disturbed, can lead to conflict between those nations and peoples especially responsible and those most affected.
As British Protestant theologian Michael Northcott puts it in his A Moral Climate: The Ethics of Global Warming:
The quantity of carbon now in the oceans and atmosphere is a physical footprint, a living memorial, to the industrial revolution and its many victims. These victims include the peoples and other creatures who lived and live in or on the terrestrial and subterranean forests which are being burned to sustain the fossil-fuelled era. They include car accident victims, the victims of fossil-fuelled aerial bombers, and the victims of the fossil-fuelled trains and ovens used in the Holocaust. They include those enslaved in fossil-fuelled industrial factories, first in Victorian England and now across many parts of the Southern hemisphere, where lives were and are foreshortened by industrial pollution and human dignity is degraded in servitude of machines. They include destroyed agrarian communities, lost topsoil, extinct species, wrecked ecosystems. They include flood and drought victims, and those who die, and will die, trying to escape from climate-stressed continents and inundated islands. (Northcott, 268)
Interestingly, both John Paul II and the Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder trace this victimization of both fellow persons and other things (living and nonliving) to the biblical account of Cain and Abel.
The pope and the pacifist each focus on Genesis 4:10–11: “And the LORD said, ‘What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground! And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand” (NRSV). In his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae (“The Gospel of Life”), John Paul II notes that the harmony that originally existed in our relationships with one another, with God, and with the earth has been disrupted by human sin, as manifest in this aboriginal act of fratricide. As a result, “the earth becomes ‘the land of Nod’ (Gen 4:16), a place of scarcity, loneliness and separation from God” (no. 9)—indeed, nature itself threatens us with “death caused by reckless tampering with the world’s ecological balance” and other sinful human activities (no. 10).
In his 1985 book, He Came Preaching Peace, Yoder similarly links the violent alienation between Cain and Abel with our estrangement from creation. The “harmony between humans and their natural environment has been disturbed,” Yoder writes. “It is from the soil that the voice of blood cries out” (Yoder, 58–59). Referring to examples from the desertification of some of Western Europe after the Thirty Years’ War to the US’s use of napalm and Agent Orange in Vietnam, he concludes, “Our violence toward one another also breaks our unity with nature” (61).
Ultimately, for John Paul II, both war and ecological destruction are the spoiled fruit of human sin. “When man turns his back on the Creator’s plan, he provokes a disorder which has inevitable repercussions on the rest of the created order,” he writes. “If man is not at peace with God, then earth itself cannot be at peace” (no. 5). Thus, as Paul noted in his letter to the church in Rome, “creation was subjected to futility” and is in “in bondage to decay” (Rom 8:20–21). The ecological crisis, in the pope’s view, is at root a moral problem. Rather than bearing the image of God by serving justly, we strive to dominate both others and creation. Rather than being treated with respect, both human persons and nature are subjected to a “reductionist vision” that leads to an array of ills, including war and environmental destruction (no. 7).
More recently, Pope Benedict XVI has raised similar connections. In his 2009 encyclical, Caritas in veritate, he emphasizes, “The way humanity treats the environment influences the way it treats itself, and vice versa” (no. 51, emphasis his). Both war and environmental destruction involve instrumentalizing something or someone that actually possesses intrinsic or inherent value. Merely using others—humans, non-human life, and nonliving nature—for our benefit is part and parcel of how we put ourselves in the place of God, which is the sin of idolatry. Again, war and environmental destruction are at bottom a moral-theological problem. In his World Day of Peace Message, “If You Want to Cultivate Peace, Protect Creation,” dated 1 January 2010, Benedict writes, in connection with the aforementioned Genesis accounts, “Human beings let themselves be mastered by selfishness; they misunderstood the meaning of God’s command” to exercise dominion, to “till and keep” the earth, and instead “exploited creation out of a desire to exercise absolute domination over it” (no. 6). Or, as the Lutheran Joseph Sittler, a pioneer in theology, ethics, and the environment once put it, “Today, man is no longer related to nature in God’s intended way…. That, fundamentally, is why he plunders what he ought to tend; why he finds in nature sardonic images of his own perversion, and at the same time cannot avert his eyes from his violated sister who is heard groaning ‘in pain and travail until now’” (Sittler, 18–19). A proper understanding of human dignity and of the goodness of nature, in Benedict’s view, will serve as “the foundation of respect for the human person and creation” (no. 13). Accordingly, he proclaims that “the protection of creation and peacemaking are profoundly linked” (no. 14).
Benedict’s call for the protection of creation is congruent with what a number of biblical scholars are saying about how Genesis 2:15 reveals humankind’s vocation: “The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it [‘abad] and keep it [shamar].” As a former law enforcement officer, I particularly appreciate how Reformed theologian Steven Bouma-Prediger, in his For the Beauty of the Earth: A Christian Vision for Creation Care (which I think is one of the best available books on this topic), translates “to till it and keep it” in line with a phrase that “is painted on the door of every Chicago police car,” namely, “to serve and protect” (Bouma-Prediger, 64). The Irish police, or garda, perhaps get at it better with their emphasis on guardianship. Indeed, Benedict posits that there is a “covenant between human beings and the environment, which should mirror the creative love of God, from whom we come and toward whom we are journeying” (no. 1).
To turn a line from a doxology on its head—in which we sing “world without end, amen, amen”—all creation, including but not limited to humankind, has an end, not a terminus but a telos, a purpose in God’s eyes. Everyone and everything has God-given and inherent value and meaning. Benedict warns against “[r]educing nature merely to a collection of contingent data [that] ends up doing violence to the environment and even encouraging activity that fails to respect human nature itself” (no. 48). Humankind and all other matter matters to and glorifies God. Thus the end or telos or purpose that God has in mind for everyone and everything is reconciliation, solidarity, harmony, restoration, re-creation, renewal—in short, the Hebrew biblical word shalom.
As a prophet once wrote: “I will make for you a covenant on that day with the wild animals, the birds of the air, and the creeping things on the ground; and I will abolish the bow, the sword, and war from the land; and I will make you lie down in safety” (Hosea 2:18). This echoes the covenant God made with all creation after the flood: “Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, ‘As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you…, that never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.’ God said, ‘This is a sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth’” (9:8–13). The bow was a weapon of war, but now it was planted as a sign of peace. Indeed, Bouma-Prediger often points out that such shalom for all creation is God’s aim throughout the Bible.
Moreover, as John Paul II reminds us in his World Day of Peace Message, Christ’s redemptive work has reconciled humanity to God and one another, but also has reconciled “all things” (no. 4, quoting Col 1:19–20; Eph 1:9–10). Benedict also notes this and adds that Christ has bestowed on us his Spirit and that we “have our own contribution to make” (no. 14) in the renewing of “the face of the earth” (Ps 104:30). Hence, for Christians to care for creation, writes John Paul, is a “serious obligation” and “an essential part of their faith” (nos. 15–16). Or, as Benedict states it, “Protecting the natural environment in order to build a world of peace is thus a duty incumbent upon each and all” (no. 14).
In contrast to what Bono sang, the Irish poet Seamus Heaney, in his play The Cure at Troy, writes, “History says, Don’t hope on this side of the grave. But then, once in a lifetime the longed for tidal wave of justice can rise up, and hope and history rhyme.” Advent is a season of hope, and there have been signs of such rhyming in the progress being made here and there in connection with both peacemaking and care for creation. The church, I believe, should live and exemplify a “thin place” wherein the peace that we pass with each other also extends to creation. So that we can let “heaven and nature sing,” perhaps we ought to sing “Glory to God in the highest, and peace to God’s people and earth.”
Tobias Winright is Associate Professor of Theological Ethics at Saint Louis University and recently authored (with Mark J. Allman) After the Smoke Clears: The Just War Tradition and Post War Justice (Orbis, 2010).
Benedict XVI. “If You Want to Cultivate Peace, Protect Creation.” World Day of Peace Message, 1 January 2010, available at http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/messages/peace/documents/hf_ben-xvi_mes_20091208_xliii-world-day-peace_en.html.
Bouma-Prediger, Steven. For the Beauty of the Earth: A Christian Vision for Creation Care. Second edition. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010.
John Paul II. The Gospel of Life (Evangelium Vitae). New York: Random House, 1995.
_____. “Peace with God the Creator, Peace with All of Creation.” World Day of Peace Message, 1 January 1990, available at http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/messages/peace/documents/hf_jp-ii_mes_19891208_xxiii-world-day-for-peace_en.html.
Northcott, Michael S. A Moral Climate: The Ethics of Global Warming. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2007.
Sittler, Joseph. “A Theology for the Earth.” In Worldviews, Religion, and the Environment: A Global Anthology, Richard C. Foltz, ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2003.
U2. “Peace on Earth.” All That You Can’t Leave Behind. Island Records, 2000.
Yoder, John Howard. He Came Preaching Peace. Scottsdale, PA: Herald Press, 1985.