Green for God: Religious Environmentalism

Two llamas, four months and 1,000 miles. That's all it took to turn Peter Illyn into an evangelizing environmentalist. Illyn embarked on the llama-supported trek through the Cascade Mountain Range, having spent nine years as a minister in several churches across the Northwest. He finished reinspired by the wonder of the wilderness he had crossed. All he wanted to do, he says, was work to protect the Earth—a mission he sees as firmly rooted in his Christian faith.

Why have relatively few evangelical Christians embraced environmentalism as an outgrowth of that faith? Because, all too often, Illyn says, the green movement is spearheaded by liberal figures long considered opponents (think Al Gore) in the culture wars that have so defined conservative Christianity in this country. Illyn has attempted to bridge that divide with Restoring Eden, a grassroots faith-based organization that makes the case for environmentalism in evangelical terms. By infusing some green thinking into the gospel, Illyn hopes to offer evangelicals a new message—one he first discovered on that long walk through the Cascade woods. Right before Earth Day, he shared his ideas with NEWSWEEK'S Kurt Soller. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: If Christians believe we should respect all creation, why has the environment been largely ignored?
Illyn: The good and bad with the environmental movement was that Christians were first introduced to environmentalism through climate change. That may have been a bad place to start because there was a lot of skepticism. It may have been too atmospheric, too faith-based, too "Do I believe, or do I not believe?" For the average pastor, that's a problem. He says: "I don't want to be wrong. I don't really have time to do all the research to know what's right, so I'm just not going to engage that conversation with my congregation."

Given that problem, what's the best way to evangelize the environmental movement?
We look at the church and the core conversations that they're having. The church talks about ideas of justice, building faith and trying to live a life that's somewhat sacrificial. We look at that and think, how can we weave the environment into the conversation the church is already having? We ask, how do we get the church to adopt a brand-new, somewhat controversial, conversation?

Tell me about the strategies you've developed.
We try to connect it to … actions. We took college kids to Appalachia to look at mountaintop removal (mining). If you stand on a mountain, it's a gut punch. If you meet people whose health is degraded by the pollution, that connects to Christian ideas of justice. So, for example, instead of building from climate change down, we talk about coal-mining up. It's more tangible. We can also look at issues of abolition, human sex-trafficking, even blood diamonds. If we educate Christians, they say, "Wait a minute, that engagement ring I bought could have enslaved a person in Africa." Or realize that what you buy in Wal-Mart might have an impact on someone in China who works in manufacturing.

In the past, Christians may have avoided these conversations. Is that changing with younger believers?
We go to Christian colleges because we want to raise up a new generation of grassroots activists. There's a lot of "me-me-me" even … with younger generations in the church, so it's hard for people to think about the collective good, and that's the perspective it takes to think globally about the environment. We try to show them the problems they can help fix: when we took college students to Appalachia, there was no "Do I believe, or do I not believe," because they could see the destruction.

For all generations, what's the general view of environmentalism?
When you look at Christianity, it really is such a rich mosaic. So there is no such thing as a Christian stance on this. We're seeing the younger generation, especially, talking about global collective good and issues of justice, and recognizing their personal choices have serious impacts. For any Christian, recognizing the environment does not mean these folks are becoming liberal or anything; they're integrating these issues and, hopefully, making the debate more complex. The goal is not to have "me good, you bad" types of conversations. That's a false dichotomy.

Speaking of liberal views, can you talk about how politics creates conflict?
Yes. So often, the solutions to environmental problems are economic and political in nature. The average pastor serves a broad church and really works to avoid issues that are dividing or contentious. Most pastors are trying to build faith and build a sense of community. So the problem is how you can bring up environmental issues that are moral, ethical and biblical when all the solutions are economical and political. That's why it takes grassroots movements like ours, outside the mainstream, to bring these issues up.

So how can Christian communities start to address these issues?
The church is looking at peoples' private spiritual journey and they say they don't have a role in restoring public good. But maybe they should start thinking of the collective. I can choose individually what lightbulbs I buy, or choose to turn a light off, but those are individual choices. Now, it's time to ask the bigger questions: how does my community generate electricity? That's the collective voice we need and, in the church, it's diminished.