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Over the decades, Christian environmental exploration and activism have focused on some issues far more than others. Interest in international missions, the continuation of farming as an honored profession in many Christian communities, and the availability of clear Biblical guidance have driven a solid and thoughtful presence in the realms of food production and sustainable agriculture. The response to climate change has been both theological and practical, spanning from a multi-denominational wave of publications to church and school projects: installing solar or geothermal, constructing LEED buildings, or taking steps to energy retrofit. Christians have, however, remained surprisingly disconnected in some critical environmental spheres. From a scientific perspective, Christians’ sporadic engagement with the myriad of chemical pollutants and the disinterest in marine ecosystems, despite their essential role in food production, is notable. The complex of anthropogenic compounds and debris entering the oceans from the world’s rivers and coasts is critical within this context.

A possible root of these oversights is Christian unwillingness to open ethical inquiries when the issues lie somewhere between economics and quantitative science. Today, Christian academics, much less Christian activists, remain barely engaged with issues such as the release of endocrine disrupters via sewage and run-off, or the exposure of coral reefs to human transmitted bacteria and viruses. Our ethical response to emerging pollutants is negligible and delayed until they are no longer “emerging.” From an ethical standpoint, we have not developed an adequate definition of waste or the responsibilities it may entail, nor have we drawn firm boundaries concerning what defines purity versus pollution or cleanliness versus contamination.

Interestingly, the essential definition of pollution was contested among the founders of the early church. A potential source of confusion for Christians in discussing waste and contamination is the struggle reported in the Book of Acts to allow the predominantly Jewish founders to eat and worship with uncircumcised Gentiles who did not follow Jewish purification rules. When the other apostles criticized Peter for eating with Gentiles, Peter reported he had a vision of a sheet descending from heaven with animals, including beasts of prey and reptiles on it. A voice spoke to Peter and instructed him to “kill and eat.” (Acts 11:7, all quotes RSV) The voice declared: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” Peter’s vision ultimately eliminated Jewish laws concerning purity from Christian consideration and diminished concern for pollution via foods or materials. Christians shy away from identifying specific substances or elements of the greater Creation as “pollution” because all that God has created is good.

An alternative way to investigate anthropogenic ocean pollution, though, is not by categorizing substances or chemicals but by classifying the human actions causing them to be manufactured and released. A widely applicable concept is the implementation of intentional lethal agency – such as cases where people intended the substance or object, like anti-fouling paints containing tri-butyl tin, to kill marine life. While the goal of keeping barnacles and algae off ship hulls is reasonable and not intended to harm the greater good, the long-term deposition of the TBT in sediments continues to poison invertebrates and inhibit reproduction in mollusks, including useful species like oysters and clams. Investigating Biblical texts concerning food production, land management, and respect for neighbors offers applicable ethical insights. The Hebrew Scriptures generally hold the agent introducing the risk responsible for the damages caused, including in cases where the purpose is agricultural. Exodus 22:6 advises: “When fire breaks out and catches in thorns so that the stacked grain or standing grain or the field is consumed, the one who started the fire shall make full restitution.” Though intentional field burning to remove stubble or weeds is a legitimate agricultural activity, the damage caused by an escaped fire is a counter process limiting food production. Contaminating entire estuaries with a biocide or an accumulating toxicant like TBT similarly damages the interests of the neighbors and should be contained or eliminated.

Among the applicable texts is the goring bull or ox in Exodus 21.  A bull or an ox is not maintained for the purpose of lethal agency but is necessary to pull plows and carts or for providing food. Exodus 21:28 advises: “When an ox gores a man or a woman to death, the ox shall be stoned, and its flesh shall not be eaten; but the owner of the ox shall not be liable.”  If the ox became a lethal agent, it countered its productive value, and the community symbolically eliminated it via stoning rather than one person nullifying the threat. The owner could not draw any additional benefit from the accident by preparing the carcass for consumption. If the owner, however, knew the animal was inclined to gore, and knowingly ignored the hazard, the owner’s life would also be forfeited. Exodus 21:29 advises: ”If the ox had been accustomed to gore in the past, and its owner has been warned but has not restrained it, and it kills a man or a woman, the ox shall be stoned, and its owner also shall be put to death.” The owner could ransom his life by paying a sum set by religious courts.

The case of the goring bull addresses the responsibilities of productive agency where there is no intent to harm people or useful ecosystem functions like food production, but damages do occur. Today, confusion over the responsibilities of productive agency in combination with its collateral impacts is contributing to the most wicked and recalcitrant marine environmental management dilemmas. Among them are the expanding dead zones at river mouths, the growing prevalence of red tides killing marine life, the death of corals due to warming events and ocean acidification, and the rise of sea level threatening to drown coastal cities and many island cultures.

The question of whether it is ethically justifiable to wait for widespread and evident damage in the case of newly patented chemicals, materials, or technologies requires Christians to carefully consider their responsibilities for identifying and monitoring emerging pollutants. These chemicals and substances may directly or indirectly threaten human and ecosystemic health. If human death can result from careless deployment, the responsibility is even greater. In the case of emerging pollutants, environmental toxicology and chemistry investigate the chemicals or materials that can cause harm. The documentation of an emerging pollutant is like a report that a bull has already gored someone. The owner must take these events seriously the first time they occur and protect other community members. A model of response where the bull must kill ten people before it is restrained is not justifiable. The intent of the Biblical codes makes it clear that acting in a timely fashion is both the responsibility of—and a demonstration of care for—all members of the community. The applicable virtues are prudence, vigilance, and accountability.

One of the reasons that Christians have difficulties addressing oceanic pollution is the sources of the toxicants and stressors are often far from their points of impact. For example, carbon dioxide released in the US Midwest effects water temperature and pH for Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, where warmer and more acidic seas are damaging corals and causing mass mortality events. As in the case of the rampaging ox, the entire Christian community is accountable for the health and safety of their neighbors, and for acting to eliminate the damage done by elevated levels of CO2 in the atmosphere and oceans. Trained scientists, however, must take the lead in ensuring vigilance as the threats posed by marine contaminants are often less obvious than the injuries inflicted by goring. Christians should support scientific efforts to monitor negative changes in ocean ecosystems, identify the causes, and propose mitigation.

Within our Christian colleges and universities, we tend to view the  preparation as medical practitioners as a fulfilling a specifically Christian calling, while studying other areas of chemistry and life science is inherently less worthy if necessary to societal progress. In light of the biblical principles discussed above—I propose that we expand and enrich our environmental chemistry, toxicology, marine science, and management curricula, affirming them as fields that equally fulfill the call to advance human health and welfare. In doing so, our campuses will acknowledge the way these fields honor God’s design by caring for the earth’s oceans.

Source: This blog is drawn from a presentation prepared for the conference, Virtue, Vice, & Ecoflourishing: Multidisciplinary Christian Perspectives, Yosemite, CA, October 21-24, 2021, organized by Steven Bouma Prediger, Hope College, MI, and Nathan Carson, Fresno Pacific University, CA, who plan to release the conference papers as an edited volume.

Susan Bratton

Susan P. Bratton is a Professor in the Environmental Sciences Department and a Scholar of the Institute for the Study of Religion at Baylor University, Waco, Texas. She is a Fellow of the Institute for the Study of Science and Religion and author or editor of ten books.    

One Comment

  • Jeff Greenberg says:

    Nicely stated Susan. I’d add that The “Geosciences”, including Geology/Earth Science, Atmospheric Sciences, Hydrology, Mineral/Energy Resources, Physical Geography/GIS, Ocean Sciences, Geophysics , and Geochemistry, Soils Science, etc. are badly under appreciated and undervalued by the general public, academia, and Christians. To understand the Creation that God loves and that serves Life, should lead to its sustainable stewarding. The applied sciences are essential and not just peripheral.