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Freedom to Care

I recently visited the site of John Harvey Kellogg’s Battle Creek Sanitarium1in Michigan, northern United States. Established in 1866, it has been rebuilt and expanded over the years. At its peak it catered to some 1,200 patients, many of them well-known figures of the time: businessmen, politicians, scientists, entertainers, writers, and thinkers. They came to experience the revolutionary new health practices set out by Ellen White. She advocated fresh air, pure water, a plant-based diet, and exercise—concepts that were as groundbreaking then as they are conventional now.

As I walked through these massive old buildings I was struck by the sheer audacity of our early pioneers—the enormity of their endeavor. How broad was their vision! How deep was their conviction, which drove them to such an ambitious enterprise! In these historic buildings we can trace the roots of today’s international network of Seventh-day Adventist hospitals, medical teaching facilities, and clinics. It was here also that the beginnings of our health food industries were nurtured and our church’s medical mission work began to take shape.

It was a powerful reminder to me that deep within Adventism is a concern for the complete person. Our faith is grounded in Christ’s message of wholeness—in a spiritual transformation that also encompasses the emotional and physical being. No aspect of human life lies beyond Christ’s touch; no facet of human activity falls outside the scope of His care.

This is our heritage as Seventh-day Adventists. It has shaped our attitudes and our institutions. It helps explain why we prioritize humanitarian care; why we campaign for religious freedom for all people, regardless of their beliefs; why we continue to invest so heavily in education. This message of “wholeness” has kept us at the forefront of public health issues, speaking against tobacco and alcohol use and other practices that destroy individuals, families, and communities.

Yet as I reflect on our past, I’m also conscious that our task is not static. We have a continuing responsibility to engage with emerging concerns in society; to bring our distinct values and prophetic voice to bear on those things that affect the communities in which we live today.

And today, one issue in particular generates immense media coverage and political discussion in almost every part of the world—the environment. Yet it’s a topic that we, as a church, have not yet taken on in a significant way. As I’ve talked with church members about environmental stewardship I’ve encountered many different attitudes: caution toward some of the political and philosophical rhetoric that so often accompanies the language of environmentalism;indifference toward an issue that some see as a sideline to our core mission; and, for some, frustration that we have too often stood by, silent, when our voice should have been heard.

Is the environment an “Adventist issue”? Do we have something significant—something unique—to contribute to environmental care? I believe the answer is “Yes.”

My hope is that we will move toward a fuller discussion of Adventism and environmental responsibility, and that we’ll begin to develop an approach that is true to our values and consistent with our historic calling. And so as we begin this conversation, let me share with you three brief thoughts about environmental stewardship.  

1. Removing the political wrappings
Is “environmentalism” the same as caring for the environment? Like so many “isms,” environmentalism is sometimes shaped by issues in society that are politically and economically driven, and which carry with them a specific agenda. Environmentalism may sometimes take on a flavor or set of dynamics that is not the same as care for the environment. It’s easy for individuals to feel: “I’m being pulled into a political battle—between governments, high finance, industry, scientists, public figures, and lobby groups.” The tone is often accusative and confrontational. And so we step back. We say: “I don’t want to be caught in that!”

But when we peel back the layers that surround “environmentalism,” we find ideas that resonate also with our own deeply held beliefs and values: care for God’s world and care for our fellow human beings.

Let’s tell the world about the Sabbath rest, the one day each week we especially remember God’s creative power. Let’s talk about our advocacy of vegetarianism—a diet that, pound-for-pound, requires fewer resources to produce than a nonvegetarian diet (and, at the same time, let’s also talk about the spiritual convictions that drive our lifestyle choices!). Let’s talk about our concern for the whole person—rather than merely the “spirit” or “soul”—a teaching that gives Adventists a unique perspective within much of Christianity today. Let’s talk also about the groundbreaking link made by our church’s cofounder and prophetess, Ellen White, between a clean environment and optimum health. Let’s talk about the importance Adventists have historically placed on pure water and fresh air.

2. A spiritual responsibility or an optional extra?
When God completed His creative work, He gave humans mastery—dominion—over the earth. But what does it mean to be “master” of our environment? Is it mastery for the purpose of utilization only? Is it an assertion of unaccountable power over nature—the right to use and abuse, extract, and even destroy, irrespective of consequences? It is not. The dominion that God extended to humanity was an act of trust, a special responsibility to administer wisely the resources He has provided.

This is the world God entrusted to our care.

When God created the physical world—with its incredible variety of life and habitats—He was not engaged in a random, haphazard act. He created something that was complementary and whole. And I believe that a failure to conduct our lives in a manner that preserves the balance between all these things is a failure of stewardship, a breach of the trust between God and humanity.

There are those who say: “But this world will not last. Our focus should be on the world to come!”

And yet we cannot step out of our world. For today, this is where we are; this is where we are called to demonstrate our obedience to God. This is the world God has entrusted to our care. And it is today, in this world, where we begin to shape lives and hearts for eternity.

Others may ask: “But isn’t this just a distraction from our most important task—sharing Christ with others?”

And I would answer: “We have hardly even embarked on this topic; we have a long way to go before it becomes a distraction!” Let’s not forget also that our mission approach as a church has never been narrow. By this I mean that our mission efforts have always encompassed a wide range of activities—preaching, teaching, evangelism, healing, humanitarian care, community service, religious liberty, and education. And this wholistic approach—modeling the ministry of Christ within our communities—will only be strengthened as we highlight also our care for the physical world. 

3. True freedom
“An expensive dwelling, elaborate furnishings, display, luxury, and ease, do not furnish the conditions essential to a happy, useful life,” wrote Ellen White. “Jesus came to this earth to accomplish the greatest work ever accomplished among men.… What were the conditions chosen by the infinite Father for His Son? A secluded home in the Galilean hills; a household sustained by honest, self-respecting labor; a life of simplicity; daily conflict with difficulty and hardship; self-sacrifice, economy, and patient … service.”2

There is another aspect to environmental stewardship that speaks strongly to Adventist values. When we choose a simple lifestyle and exercise restraint in our wants, when we emphasize the spiritual above the material and choose relationships before “things,” we are following in the footsteps of our Lord.

I see a certain circle in this. Seventh-day Adventists have always preached a spiritual message of freedom—freedom from the power of sin, freedom from fear, freedom of conscience and religious expression. Even our work of healing, educating, and providing humanitarian care is driven by a desire to free people from poverty, ignorance, pain, and injustice. And so that same concern for freedom takes us into care for the world in which we live. Being mindful of what I drink, eat, wear, use, how I travel and spend my time—these all yield certain consequences for the environment and, in turn, for each one of God’s children and His created beings. It’s not about living a somber, colorless existence. On the contrary, pulling free from relentless consumerism, focusing more on people and less on acquisitions, building a life that is focused on Christ’s priorities, not the world’s priorities—these are choices that deliver a wonderful sense of freedom, an indescribable feeling of liberation! And these are choices that yield a quality of life that is second to none.

This is a topic with a wealth of ideas yet to be explored; it’s a discussion I hope will take root in our schools, our institutions, our churches, and our homes. As we look more closely at environmental stewardship and consider our response, I believe we will find a bedrock of principle on which to develop a clear, biblically sound, distinctly Adventist approach. I pray that as we do so, we will not be less bold, less farsighted than our early pioneers. And above all, I pray that our response, both in words and actions, will serve to reveal more clearly to the world an image of the Creator.  

1 The Kellogg building is now owned and operated by the U.S. government.
2 The Ministry of Healing, p. 365.