It may be true that missionaries (of the old gospel preaching, disciplemaking, church planting variety) are among the last great “jacks of all trades.” Indeed, during my fourteen years in India and Pakistan, I preached uncountable sermons and taught innumerable Bible studies, but I also diagnosed and treated staph infections, repaired my own computer, started a for-profit language business, and designed a piece of my own wedding garments. Nonetheless, self-sufficiency, while it might get the job done, rarely gets the job done well. There’s a lot at stake with the Great Commission. We talk often about mobilizing the entire church to reach unreached people groups with the good news of Jesus Christ, but we don’t talk enough about mobilizing the many categories of expertise which, while maybe not available from a seminary or Bible college, nonetheless flourish in the larger Body of Christ. Environmental missions, an emerging category within missions, is particularly dependent on mobilizing scientists. This is particularly true because environmental missions is missions which has awakened to the glorious truth that the Great Commission and the Creation Mandate are combined in the Greatest Commandment: to love God and our neighbors.
A year ago, the Lausanne Movement, a global network of evangelical leaders founded by Billy Graham and John Stott in 1974, released the Lausanne Creation Care Call to Action. Among its various statements about climate change, sustainable food production, or biodiversity loss, the Call to Action includes Item #5: Environmental missions among unreached people groups.
We participate in Lausanne’s historic call to world evangelization, and believe that environmental issues represent one of the greatest opportunities to demonstrate the love of Christ and plant churches among unreached and unengaged people groups in our generation. We encourage the church to promote “environmental missions” as a new category within mission work (akin in function to medical missions.[i]
The definition which we employ of environmental missionaries is that they are “those sent cross-culturally to labor with Christ—the Creator, Sustainer and Redeemer of all creation—in caring for the environment and making disciples among all peoples.”[ii] The type of mobilization which can bring good news to both eroded riverbeds and eroded hope, to both depleted soils and souls, is going to have to regularly look outside its own missionary team and ask the Biology, Geology, Engineering (etc.) departments in our universities, “Please help us, join us, lead us.” One of the stories with which I travel among scientists is from the Sunderbans region of Bangladesh and India’s West Bengal. The story employs an ecological perspective in understanding an unreached people group, and that same perspective in loving and effectively serving them in the name of Christ.
It is axiomatic that Muslims abhor idolatry. The Koran states, “ALLAH does not forgive idolatry, but He forgives lesser offenses for whomever He wills. Anyone who sets up idols beside ALLAH, has forged a horrendous offense” [4:48]. Mohammed’s great battles of Mecca and Medina were against the idolaters of the region. Nonetheless, there is a Muslim people group of the Sunderbans coastal forests who, not only in violation of their religion but in violation of missionary expectations, worship the Hindu goddess Bon Bibi, visiting her temples and celebrating her festivals. Only an ecological perspective can help us understand this. Bon Bibi, it is believed, protects her devotees from tiger attack, and the Sunderbans has the largest percentage of man-eaters in the world, perhaps one in every ten tigers. Why the unique percentage? Biologists speculate that this unusual aggressiveness is the result of irritation caused by the salinity of the water in the area. Traveling through territory almost always requires a tiger to wade or swim. All drinking water sources are to some degree brackish. Now scientists are examining how man-eating traits are passed along in the DNA of tiger cubs. Attacks which result in human deaths in the region are estimated at between 50-250 annually. Wildlife conservationists, like the world famous NGO Project Tiger, know that man-eating incidents invariably result in revenge killings, further decimating the population of this glorious but endangered species.[iii] Villager, tiger, conservationist—no one seems to be experiencing the shalom promised to the New Creation, purchased for us at the cross of Christ.
An ecological perspective is what we might call a mobilized knowledge of an ecosystem, its people, and their influence one on the other. But more than that, it is what plant geneticist Wes Jackson of the Land Institute, calls “consulting the genius of the place.”[iv] Ironically, the word genius is not etymologically distant from genie or djinn. In Arabic, djinn literally means “hidden from sight” and as a spirit it can often times, unlike Jackson’s positive vision, be malevolent. Christian missionaries and Christian biologists can work together to bring that which is hidden—the interplay of matter and spirit—to light. For missionaries, the interpretation of some hard ecological data can help us move from an easy, but rarely helpful religious perspective to the more fruitful spiritual one, by which I mean that Sunderbani Muslims do not live at the level of the Koran, the creed, nor the Five Pillars, but rather at the level of their own fears and aspirations. Each day, as honey collectors or as woodsmen, they head into the forest, hoping as we all do for provision and protection. They might trust their own amazing skill set for sustenance, but have turned to the Divine for security. And the fact that these Muslims have turned to “the horrendous, unforgivable offense of idolatry” demonstrates their great desperation. “Do not be anxious about anything,” Jesus longs to tell them, “but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to [me]. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil 4:6—7). Prabhu Yisu Khristera is a shield and defender, the Lord of all he has created.
One solution that Project Tiger has implemented for the Sunderbans is to install solar panels which provide light at night, preventing the tigers from wandering into the villages, thus protecting both villager and tiger from attack and counter-attack. I consider this to be an example of the “Reconciliation Ecology” espoused by Michael Rosenzweig. His book is entitled Win-Win Ecology: How the Earth’s Species Can Survive in the Midst of Human Enterprise, a title which in this case can work backwards since H. sapiens of the Sunderbans also hopes to escape the jaws of enterprising tigers.[v] Notice how the solar panels are also an example of renewable energy addressing more than just carbon emissions, but speaking to the deepest fears of people for whom Jesus died. It is also, I suppose, a useful analogy in the hands of an evangelist: “The Lord is my light and my salvation— whom shall I fear?” (Ps 27:1). I hope that Christian conservationists, Christian engineers, and—indeed—environmental missionaries will soon be part of the crew bringing these solar panels to the Sunderbans. According to the missions strategists at the Joshua Project, Christians make up only 0.007 percent of West Bengal’s Southern 24 Parganas district.[vi] Humanity’s enemy, the most evil of all djinn, is also portrayed as a roaring feline predator “seeking someone to devour” (I Pet 5:8). It is time to mobilize all the categories of expertise in the Body of Christ to effect the fullness of the rescue of these people and Panthera that Jesus won at the cross.
[i] Lausanne Global Consultation on Creation Care and the Gospel (2012). “ Creation Care Call to Action.” St. Ann, Jamaica: Lausanne Movement, http://www.lausanne.org/en/documents/all/2012-creation-care/1881-call-to-action.html. accessed November 20, 2013.
[ii] Bliss, L. (2013). Environmental Missions: Planting Churches and Trees. Pasadena: William Carey Library. xii.
[iii] Montgomery, S. (2009). Spell of the tiger: The man-eaters of Sundarbans. Chelsea Green Publishing; Reza, A. H. M. A., Feeroz, M. M., & Islam, M. A. (2002). Man-tiger interaction in the Bangladesh Sundarbans. Bangladesh Journal of Life Science, 14, 75-82;
[iv] Wes Jackson (2010). Consulting the Genius of the Place. Berkeley: Counterpoint.
[v] Rosenzweig, M. L. (2003). Win-win ecology: how the earth's species can survive in the midst of human enterprise. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
[vi] Joshua Project (2013). “India: West Bengal: South 24 Parganas” Joshua Project. http://www.joshuaproject.net/south-asia-districts.php?rog5=IN2818. accessed November 22, 2013.