Should Orthodox Christians Care about the Climate?

by Mark Roosien

Climate Change

While the Orthodox Church has gained a reputation internationally as a “green” church, largely due to the environmental initiatives of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the reality is much more complicated on the ground. The science behind the human causes of climate change and its catastrophic consequences is settled, but the issue unfortunately remains a sharply divisive one among Orthodox Christians in the United States. American Orthodox acceptance of climate change falls largely along familiar dividing lines—liberal and conservative—as they have come to be defined in 21st-century US politics.

The political divisions among us are toxic, not only for church unity, but also because they allow us to be complacent, remaining stuck in intractable debates about the legitimacy of scientific data and the shadowy powers supposedly funding climate science, hurling accusations of “fake news.”

But the Orthodox tradition does not permit us to stand on the sidelines of the climate debate. Rather, it demands that we accept responsibility for the plunder of creation, work to restore equilibrium to our environments, and hold accountable those responsible–ourselves included–for the current crisis.

The Orthodox imperative for climate justice is rooted in Scripture and Tradition. The writings of the Hebrew prophets abound with declarations and warnings about the human causes of what we today would call environmental catastrophe. The Old Testament book of Amos, for example, links the earthquake that struck Palestine in the mid-8th c. BC with the oppression of the needy and disenfranchised. The prophet declares,

Hear this, you who trample upon the needy,
And bring the poor of the land to an end…
Shall not the land tremble on this account,
and every one mourn who dwells in it,
and all of it rise like the Nile,
and be tossed about and sink again, like the Nile of Egypt?(Amos 8: 4, 8 RSV)

The prophet Amos and other biblical authors envisioned a world in which human actions and relationships are profoundly connected not only with divine judgment but also with the harmony–and disharmony–of the natural world. Today, too, it is a fact that human actions and relationships correlate increasingly with environmental catastrophe. Our world no longer seems so distant from that of the ancients.

The church fathers took up the environmental vision of the prophets and ran with it. Preaching during a drought and famine in fourth-century Cappadocia, St. Basil the Great echoes Amos, locating the cause of the catastrophe in the hoarding of resources by the wealthy among his flock:

Our uncontrolled and culpable behavior is manifestly obvious: seizing on behalf of others, we do not share…The storehouses are crowded with narrow corridors with abundant reserves, yet we have no mercy on those who mourn. For this cause the righteous tribunal threatens us. For this cause also, God will not open his hand, because we ourselves shut out brotherly love. For this cause, the farmlands are dry: because love has fled (Hom. 8 (PG 31.309) trans. Holman).

St Gregory the Theologian, preaching a homily during another fourth-century Cappadocian famine, remarks that natural disasters of various kinds are the result of humans’ fundamental ingratitude for the gift of creation:

Whence come famines and tornadoes and hailstorms, [and] our present blow of reprimand? Whence come plagues, diseases, earthquakes, tidal waves, and frightening things in the sky? And how is creation, fashioned for the enjoyment of human beings–the equal delight of all–quickly changed for the punishment of the ungodly, in order that we may be disciplined through the very thing for which we are ungrateful after being honored with it? (Or. 16 [PG 35:940])

Standing squarely within this prophetic stream of patristic thought, St. John Chrysostom called out those he saw as most responsible for the suffering caused by natural disasters. Preaching after an earthquake in the year 400 in Constantinople, home of the rulers and barons of the Roman Empire, the Golden Mouth did not mince words:

Where are the rulers?…If someone should be asked why the city was shaken, even if he wouldn’t say [it], it has been agreed that it was because of sins, because of acts of greed, because of injustices, because of acts of lawlessness, because of acts of arrogance, because of pleasures, because of deceit. Whose? The rich (Terr. Mot. (PG 50.716) trans. Sewell).

According to these church fathers, we are all responsible for environmental catastrophe; we must all repent for our ingratitude for the gift of creation, which lies at the heart of the problem. However, some of us are more responsible than others and must be held accountable: namely, as St John says, “the rulers” and “the rich.”

Today, we are realizing that creation is not simply an endless cache of resources to be extracted and exploited. Its fate is directly tied to our own. While we might find some of biblical and patristic assumptions about the divine causes of natural disaster difficult to accept today, the main point I want to highlight is that, within the Orthodox tradition, human history and natural history are intertwined along with divine providence. Creation responds to God’s outrage at various kinds of sin and injustice with outrage, lament, and wrath of its own.

The theological reality is that our reprehensible treatment of creation is inextricably linked with the desecration of human dignity. The trauma and rootlessness that result from forced migration due to lack of resources, the diseases that result from polluted water and food–these are our responsibilities as the Body of Christ in the United States, the wealthiest and most destructively complicit country in the world.

As Orthodox Christians, we are called to repent collectively for our failure to live up to our high calling: to embody the self-emptying compassion of the Creator for those most afflicted by the degradation of creation. At the same time, we need to take the St. Basil and St. John Chrysostom as our examples and rediscover our prophetic voice, and call to account–with one voice–a political and economic system that turns a blind eye to the suffering of our brothers and sisters here at home and around the world due to the abuse of creation.

Mark Roosien holds a PhD in Theology from the University of Notre Dame, and is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music and Lecturer at Yale Divinity School. He is a deacon of the Orthodox Church in America.

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.