Culture At Large

The Bible meets environmentalism on Chesapeake Bay

Andy Rau

The topic of Christianity and environmental stewardship comes up from time to time here at TC and at other blogs I read. Two things I have learned from observing (and occasionally participating in) offline and online discussions about this issue: 1) it is possible to find a compelling mandate for environmental stewardship in the Bible; and 2) the whole notion of "environmentalism" has so much political baggage associated with it that many evangelicals have difficulty supporting it politically, even though they might agree with the concept of environmental stewardship in theory.

If that impasse frustrates you, here's something that might encourage you: the story of one woman who bridged the gap between the Christian watermen of Tangier Island and environmentalist activists alarmed by the damage being unwittingly wrought by the watermen on the local ecosystem.

Here's an abbreviated version of the story (which I first learned about while reading Living the Good Life on God's Good Earth for a church Bible study): for years, environmental activists had tried without success to get the watermen of isolated Tangier Island to change a number of practices that were badly damaging the local environment. The predominately Christian islanders reacted with anger and defiance, seeing the activists as condescending outsiders with little concern for the people who would be affected by the environmental legislation they were proposing. For years, no progress was made, until a Christian without ties to either side of the dispute stepped into the conflict and changed the nature of the discussion. Susan Drake Emmerich convinced the watermen to change their ways by framing the entire environmental debate as a Biblically-supported Christian mandate, rather than using the usual arguments from the environmentalist playbook.

From the article above:

No one has been more surprised by this transformation than Don Baugh, the Bay Foundation’s vice president of education. “I had been trying to instill an environmental ethic on Tangier Island for 15 years,” he says, “and I had been more or less unable to do it. The community was very reluctant.”

....But Drake had one thing going for her that few other environmental activists had. She was an evangelical Christian. In a community like Tangier, where religion is taken very seriously, that can make a world of difference.

“Susan’s message was essentially the same as ours,” Baugh says. “But she put that message into a biblical context and was therefore able to give [the people of Tangier] a new basis for interpreting it.”

Of course, there is no shortage of ecological challenges still facing the Chesapeake. But this little story seems to hold a great deal of significance, both for environmentalists trying to win over the Christian community and for evangelicals sympathetic to environmental concerns but uncomfortable aligning with left-wing politics. By making a Biblical case for stewardship that sidesteps politics and partisanship, we can at least discuss the issue without getting caught up in the mire of political bickering.

A few more links about Tangier Island and this incident:

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, Theology, News & Politics, Social Trends, World