Much transpired last week. Scott Pruitt, the Oklahoma Attorney General whose lawsuits previously sought to gut the Environmental Protection Agency, was approved by the Republican-controlled Senate to be its new head. The fox was given keys to the henhouse, as my environmentalist friends were wont to point out. Meanwhile, Rep. Gary Palmer (R-AL) found 121 co-sponsors for HR 637, the “Stopping EPA Overreach Act of 2017,” which would prohibit the EPA from regulating the specific greenhouse gases that fact-based science has proven contributes to climate change. Palmer’s colleague Matt Gaetz (R-FL) was even bolder. HR 867 succinctly states: “Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, The Environmental Protection Agency shall terminate on December 31, 2018.”
Also happening last week, I went on a long walk with an old friend in City Park. He and his wife had been faithful and generous financial supporters of our missionary ministry. They had continued to support us when we made the transition from being based in India to being based in the States. (Robynn and I lost some supporters then because we stopped making sense to them as “missionaries” if we weren’t on the “foreign field.”) This couple had also continued to support us when we made the transition from being traditional church-planting missionaries to launching a new category within missions: environmental missionaries. Others had dropped our support then because they disagreed with our environmental approach, but not this couple. Now however, they were troubled that Robynn and I were so publicly vocal about our resistance to Donald Trump. “We didn’t sign up for this,” he told me.
Yeah, I had to agree with him, albeit silently: I hadn’t signed up for being a missionary in the age of Trump either. We talked about how I’ve tried to publish The Liberator Today extra-curricularly. In other words, it’s never been an Eden Vigil or Christar newsletter. Nonetheless, once perceived a missionary, you are never allowed to take off that hat—and neither do I want to. I want to authentically speak out wherever I think the gospel needs to be applied, exactly like my hero, E. Stanley Jones, missionary to India and friend of Gandhi, once did. When my friend set up our meeting, I asked him what our topic was. He texted back: “wanted to talk with you about missions, political activism, etc.” Thus forewarned, I scanned some pages of my book and handed the photocopies to him. I feel I kind of pre-saged this moment here for myself. In this text (offered below), is where I wanted to build my integrity when it happened—as I felt in my bones that it one day surely would—that “missionary-ism” would clash with “political activism,” and Robynn and I would have to count the cost.
As one person asks in the text: “Why is Lowell [the missionary] getting involved in politics?” This is an excerpt (pages 227-231) from the chapter “Topics in Environmental Missions” where I also presume to talk about Poverty Alleviation, Refugees, Disasters (Natural and Man-made), and Population Growth. The book is Environmental Missions: Planting Churches and Trees (William Carey Library: 2013).
Environmentalism, like any other human endeavor, has its own folklore, and few parables are as famous as the tale that ecologist Garret Hardin told in Science magazine in 1968. He coined the term “The Tragedy of the Commons.” Hardin explains how each herdsman in a group that shares an open pasture will rationalize that the benefit of adding one more animal to his herd will outweigh the cost of overgrazing, since he alone gets the whole benefit of one animal while the cost of overgrazing is shared by everyone. “At this point,” Hardin writes, “the inherent logic of the commons remorselessly generates tragedy.” Since each herdsman makes the same calculation of maximum utility, it isn’t long before the field is grazed bare and all the animals—added or otherwise—die off.
The point of Hardin’s parable is not the tragic inexorability of exploitation; instead it’s the obvious need for the commons to be managed by the commonwealth. In other words, “in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessing of liberty to [themselves and their] posterity,” the herdsmen must come together to form “government” and submit to its policies. The herdsmen must see themselves as a polis. For the sake of their herds, wise herdsmen (stewards) must devote a portion of their time to politics.
The first time I ever presented my slide presentation about a missionary perspective on climate change, I did so to a small group at our church. Afterwards, a member of the audience went up to our pastor and asked, “Why is Lowell getting involved in politics?” I felt I had gone out of my way not to “be political,” but the assumption was that the topic of climate change automatically means politics. The second assumption was that missionaries shouldn’t involve themselves with politics. Now, five years after that first presentation, I have to admit that his first assumption may have been correct: not that environmental topics automatically mean politics, but they likely will end up there at some point.
The relief-and-development community also has a folklore, and one of its most famous tales is “The River.” As it goes, one day a man from a certain town went walking down by the river that flowed alongside the village. He spotted a distressed child, half-drowned, floating in the current, barely holding on to breath. The man dashed out into the river, rescued the child, and brought him to shore. He revived him and then brought him to the town’s only doctor. News of the rescue spread through the town, but the exclaim was even greater the next day when this man spotted—and rescued—not just one but two other children from the river. Drowning children soon became a regular occurrence, and the kind-hearted townspeople responded. They formed teams and specialties. They performed training drills. They built a new hospital. After a few months, they thought, “Surely we could do more and do it better,” so they called a town meeting. Committees of townspeople presented elaborate proposals to improve their practices. In the end, though, the meeting was disrupted by one small voice that asked, “Shouldn’t we send someone upstream and stop whoever is throwing all these babies into the river?” Environmental topics will likely end up at politics, but only if some brave voice pipes up and asks what’s going on upstream. Otherwise we violate Thoreau’s famous insight: “For every thousand hacking at the leaves of evil, there is one striking at the root.” Often the upstream root causes are discovered to be some systemic breakdown in the governance of the commonwealth. While the immediate problem on the commons is overgrazing, the root cause of the tragedy is poor organization of the body politic.
I would change my friend’s first assumption to sound something like: if we are going to pursue solutions for environmental problems with both integrity in our compassion and efficacy in our solutions, we will likely at some point have to become politically engaged. But if his first assumption is correct, what about his second: that missionaries should nonetheless not get involved in politics? My only answer to that question is to pose a different one, not to the general audience of North American Evangelicalism, but to the individual environmental missionary with his or her specific environmental issue: where do you sense the integrity of your compassion and the efficacy of your solution is leading you? In other words, how is God calling? Christendom has a long history of embracing a William Wilberforce, a Lyman Beecher, a Martin Luther King, or a Nelson Mandela, but only after years of first rejecting them. Or if not forcibly rejecting them, then at least advising them to the “gradualism” that Wilberforce lamented in a Lord Dundas, or MLK in the pastors mentioned in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail.
I once heard of a Catholic missionary in Latin America who said, “When I feed the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a Communist.” At the very least, environmental missionaries should be prepared to be called names. It’s been some time since North American missionaries have been called “the scum of the earth, the garbage of the world” (1 Cor 4:13)—these names hurled at the apostles (“sent ones”) as much by the sending church as by the pagans. If anything, we missionaries have been on a post-World War II, Jim Elliot pedestal. We have also been conditioned by the support structures of a “faith missions” model. Admittedly it’s hard to sit down and write a prayer letter without feeling like it needs to be a glossy public relations flyer. We don’t want to step on toes, alienate, or offend any of our supporters. My friend at my first presentation of a church planting missions perspective on global climate change was simply raising an eyebrow and raising a question. I’ve subsequently been lumped with “Communists, socialists, Al Gore-dupes, Eco-Nazis,” and something called “libtards.” Robynn and I have lost financial supporters. Most of this loss has been gracious, but it still hurts when those who previously “believed in you” no longer do.
In the end, environmental missionaries can take inspiration from E. Stanley Jones, who, for all the ways that he is currently honored as a towering figure in the history of twentieth-century missions, was a controversial figure to some in his time. He was a loyal friend to the Mahatma Gandhi and a vocal supporter of the nationalist movement in India. In 1944, trying to return to India, Jones, an American Methodist, was denied a visa by the British colonial government because of his support for nationalism. “It was a privilege to be kept out of India on that issue,” he later wrote. “I believed fundamentally in the method and motive of the struggle for political independence.” In his classic Christ of the Indian Road, Jones shares his personal philosophy of living within history. “Some time ago I got hold of a phrase that has been of incalculable value to me: ‘Evangelize the inevitable.’ Certain things are inevitable; no use to grumble against them—get into them and evangelize them.” As an example, he felt that much grief could have been spared in the church in England had sought to evangelize the labor movement there rather than help repress it. He saw Gandhi’s nationalist movement in India as equally inevitable.
---"You could not scatter as much education and Christian teaching through India without there being an uprising of soul demanding self-expression and self-control. It is as inevitable as the dawn. We could have felt that we had failed if this had not come. When I saw the inevitableness of it I felt there was only one thing to be done—get into the movement and evangelize it. Stand down in those national currents and put Christ there. This does not mean that we should get into the politics of the [foreign] country and become politicians, but it does mean that the Indian Nationalist senses at once that we are in spiritual sympathy with the finest and best in his movement. That is all he asks for, but he does ask for that."---
I have visited E. Stanley Jones’ beloved Sat Tal ashram in the Kumaoni region of the Himalayan mountains. I have even prayed at his graveside that the Lord might grant me a double portion of this man’s spirit. On his grave marker is an inscription from 1 Corinthians 3:22,23: “Everything belongs to you, yet you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.” You can turn from the white marble of his gravestone and contemplate the thinning forests of the Himalayas and the melting glaciers on the mountaintops. You can look down to the plains near Lucknow where Jones got his start and contemplate cycles of drought and flood. I can easily imagine that Jones, who courted controversy one last time in his life when he advocated a freeze on nuclear weapons, would consider the environmental movement to be one of history’s inevitabilities. It was not that Jones’ politics were liberal, but that his gospel was generous. His advice to us: evangelize it! “Stand down in those national currents and put Christ there.”