Orthodox Christians are called to take good care of God’s earth. This is the message of Scripture, the saints, and perhaps most eloquently the Patriarchs of the Orthodox churches speaking in one united voice. They call us to repent of whatever ways we have abused the earth and, in their words“we urge all the faithful to respect and protect the natural environment….”
This should not be seen as anything new. Christians from the beginning have received this same commission. In the Book of Genesis, Adam, and his successors are called to take dominion over the earth (Gen. 1:26; 28), to replenish it (Gen 1:28), and to dress and keep it (Gen. 2:15). Dominion means to be like the Lord, and therefore to treat the earth as the Lord would treat it, with love, care, service and concern for all that it is in it. The command to replenish (or fill) provides the biblical basis for recycling. We are to put back what we take from the earth. The word “dress,” from the Hebrew avad, is to raise up, similar to the raising up of crops. In this context it means to raise up the whole world; the word “keep,” from the Hebrew shamar, means to protect from harm, particularly to hold off anything which might corrupt or defile or pollute the earth.
During the 1980s it became apparent that people were forgetting these ancient commands. In response HAH Ecumenical Patriarch +Dimitrios, Archbishop of Constantinople, in 1989 issued a landmark letter which he called “An Encyclical Letter on the Day of Protection of the Environment.”
His All-Holiness writes, “The abuse by contemporary man of his privileged position in creation and of the Creator’s order “to have dominion over the earth” (Genesis 1.28) has already led the world to the edge of apocalyptic self-destruction…. Scientists and other men of learning warn us of the danger, and speak of phenomena which are threatening the life of our planet, such as the “phenomena of the greenhouse” whose first indications have already been noted.
“In view of this situation, the Church of Christ cannot remain unmoved. It constitutes a fundamental dogma of faith that the world was created by God the Father, who is confessed to be ‘Maker of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible.’ According to the great Fathers of the Church, Man… was created in order to refer creation back to the Creator, in order that the world may be saved from decay and death.
“Unfortunately, in our days under the influence of extreme rationalism and self-centeredness, man has lost the sense of the sacredness of creation and acts as its arbitrary ruler and rude violator. Instead of the eucharistic and ascetic spirit with which the Orthodox Church brought up her children for centuries, we observe today a violation of nature for… man’s endless and constantly increasing desires of lust, encouraged by the prevailing philosophy of the consumer society.
“But creation “groans and travails in all its parts” (Romans 8.22), and is now beginning to protest at its treatment by human beings. Man cannot infinitely… exploit the natural sources of energy. The price of his arrogance will be his self-destruction, if the present situation continues.
“In full consciousness of our duty and paternal spiritual responsibility, having taken all the above into consideration and having listened to the anguish of modern man, we, together with the Sacred and Holy Synod surrounding us, declare the first day of September of each year… – to be the day of the protection of the environment.
“Therefore, we invite through this Patriarchal Message the entire Christian world to offer together with the Mother Church of Christ (the Ecumenical Patriarchate) every year on this day prayers and supplications to the Maker of all, both as thanksgiving for the gift of creation and as petitions for its protection and salvation. At the same time we paternally urge all the faithful of the world to admonish themselves and their children to respect and protect the natural environment, and on the other hand all those who are entrusted with the responsibility of governing the nations to act without delay, taking all necessary measures for the protection and preservation of the natural creation.”
The following year, HAH Ecumenical Patriarch +Dimitrios issued a second letter. “A year has passed since we issued our message declaring September 1st as the day of prayers for protection of the environment. In that message we called the Orthodox faithful and every man and woman of good will to consider the serious problem generated as a result of the abuse of material creation by human beings. On this day, which for the Orthodox Church is the first day of the ecclesiastical year, the Orthodox faithful are invited to offer prayers to the Creator of all, thanking Him for the good of His creation and beseeching Him to protect it from every evil and destruction.
“Beloved brothers and spiritual children: Use the natural environment as its stewards and not as owners. Acquire an ascetic ethos, bearing in mind that everything in the natural world, whether great or small, has importance for the life of the world, and nothing is useless or contemptible. Regard yourselves as being responsible before God for every creature and treat everything with love and care. Only in this way shall we prevent the threatening destruction of our planet and secure a physical environment where life for the coming generations of humankind will be healthy and happy….”
In 1991 HAH Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew succeeded Patriarch +Demetrios. HAH convened a historic conference of Orthodox patriarchs. After several days of prayer and deliberation, they issued a joint statement on behalf of All the Canonical Churches. Their statement, abridged, follows:
“Gathered together in the Holy Spirit in consultation, on the Sunday of Orthodoxy 1992, by the initiative and invitation of the first among us, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, after the expressed will of other brother Primates, we, by the mercy of God, the Primates of the local Most Holy Patriarchates and Autocephalous and Autonomous Orthodox Churches:
Bartholomew, Archbishop of Constantinople and New Rome, and Ecumenical Patriarch
Parthenios, Pope and Patriarch of Alexandria and All Africa
Ignatius, Patriarch of Antioch and All the East
Diodoros, Patriarch of the Holy City of Jerusalem and All Palestine
Alexiy, Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia
Paul, Patriarch of Belgrade and All Serbia
Teoctist, Patriarch of Bucharest and All Romania
Maxim, Patriarch of Sofia and All Bulgaria
Elias, Archbishop of Metschetis and Tiflis and Catholicos, Patriarch of All Georgia (represented by the Ecumenical Patriarch)
Chrysostomos, Archbishop of Neas Justinianis and All Cyprus (represented by the Patriarch of Alexandria)
Seraphim, Archbishop of Athens and All Greece
Wasyli, Metropolitan of Warsaw and All Poland
Dorothej, Metropolitan of Prague and All Czechoslovakia
John, Archbishop of Karelia and All Finland
have conferred in brotherly love on matters preoccupying our One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Orthodox Church and have concelebrated the Holy Eucharist… in the Patriarchal Church of the Ecumenical Patriarchate on this Sunday which for centuries has been dedicated to Orthodoxy. On this occasion we wish to declare the following:
“The Most Holy Orthodox Church… finds herself confronted with severe and urgent problems that she desires to face as one body…. Moreover, we observe the following:
“The rapid progress of technology and the sciences… has not always been accompanied by analogous spiritual and ethical foundations…. In social life, only a section of humanity accumulates the privileges of this progress and the power proceeding from it exacerbates the misfortune of other people and creates an impetus for agitation or even war…. The coexistence of this progress with justice, love and peace is the only safe and sure road, so that this progress will not be transformed from a blessing into a curse in the millennium to come…. Similar are the dangers for the survival of the natural environment. The careless and self-indulgent use of material creation by humanity, with the help of scientific and technological progress, has started to cause irreparable damage to the natural environment. Unable to remain passive in the face of such destruction, the Orthodox Church invites all the Orthodox to dedicate the first day of September of each year, the day of the beginning of the ecclesiastical year, to the offering of prayers and supplication for the preservation of God’s creation.
“The Church also entreats all the Orthodox to adopt the attitude to nature found in the Eucharist and to the ascetic traditions of the Church. This, in the love of the Lord, we proclaim on the Great and Holy Sunday of Orthodoxy, urging pious Orthodox Christians to be united around their pastors and calling all those who believe in Christ to reconciliation and solidarity in confronting the serious dangers threatening the world at this time.
“May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God the Father and communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.”