Green PleaAn interview with J. Matthew Sleeth, M.D.
Formerly an ER doctor and chief of staff, Matthew Sleeth gave up medicine to care for an ailing earth when he became a Christian. Author of Serve God, Save the Planet, Sleeth travels the U.S., teaching and preaching about caring for creation. When he visited Northwestern in April as the keynote speaker for the college’s second annual Day of Learning in Community, Classic staff asked him, among other things, what green living has to do with loving God.
Classic: In your book, you describe some pretty drastic lifestyle changes your family has made to live more in line with God’s plan for the planet. Describe some of those adjustments.
Sleeth: We started where most beginners do, with recycling. Now we also precycle, which means considering the amount of packaging and other waste that will be generated before you buy something. Then we added more difficult things, like gardening, washing dishes by hand, and hanging clothes on the line—even in winter. Eventually we moved from a doctor-sized house to one that was smaller. Now we live in a house the size of our former garage, and we don’t own a clothes dryer or dishwasher.
Classic: Your family—your kids—went along with this?
Sleeth: My kids were spoiled doctor’s kids when we started, but now they think nothing of having to do the dishes. I’m lucky: My kids seem to like physical labor. It’s hard as a parent to tell your kids we’re going to do without things their friends have—we’re going to be a bit peculiar. But part of the Christian life is living in restraint. Recently a mom admitted to me they’ve gone to disposable dishes for every meal. Where is that kind of toss-it-in-the-trash lifestyle headed?
Classic: How do Christians, in particular, respond to your presentations about living more green?
Sleeth: Although many Christians have views on this (and some of them believe God doesn’t care about going green—it’s a political movement, they argue, not a faith issue), I find many of them have never gone to their Bibles, seeking answers to environmental concerns. I’ve never encountered anyone who’s against what I share once they’ve gone to their Bibles themselves saying, “God, teach me about this.” Most of the time, they find their views are based on politics too—and not what the Bible teaches about creation and how to care for it.
It’s a sin to tear God’s world apart. When I teach or preach, I try to make it really simple: I say, “Imagine the world is one square mile. You live downstream, and I live upstream. What do you want me to put in the water—or not put in it?” If I put something in the water that I know might hurt you, that’s a sin.
Classic: Why don’t we hear sermons about environmental issues?
Sleeth: Remarkably few pastors have been equipped to preach and teach about creation care. That’s why I’ve started traveling to seminaries. Also, it’s hard for a pastor to get up and give a sermon that challenges congregants’ lifestyles. Say a Midwestern pastor preaches on biblical agricultural laws and asks, “What does this mean for feedlots—and those of us who like our meat cheap?”
Classic: What are some specific ways churches and colleges have responded to your creation-care message?
Sleeth: At one church, everyone agreed to forgo Christmas presents for one year, and they put that money—$290,000—toward a clean water project in Afghanistan. Another church raised money to buy all their households rain barrels. They also stopped using disposable dishes for church events. (All the men volunteered to do the dishes, which was unanimously endorsed by the women.) They dedicated the money they saved for feeding ministries. A college did away with trays in their cafeteria and saved 16,000 pounds of food waste in one year.
Classic: Some Christians don’t believe global climate change is real. Does it matter?
Sleeth: People use arguments over an issue like this so they don’t have to meet their responsibilities toward God’s creation. You don’t have to believe global climate change is happening to know water shouldn’t have dioxins in it or that the air as you drive into a city shouldn’t look like a dome of smog and haze. Christians can usually still agree we should be consuming less and freeing up more of our resources for the church’s work. Everyone—including Christians—can do something about caring for creation every part of the day. No excuses.
Classic: Given the current state of our economy, we’ve been warned not to severely limit our consumption or the U.S. and global economies could collapse. Thoughts?
Sleeth: Our economy may have to collapse. We’ve been heating the house by burning the furniture. There’s no way to dig yourself out of a hole; you’ve got to go a different direction. The planet will cease to exist if every generation lives only for itself. The Bible is all about considering generation after generation after generation. God is not concerned with short-term economies. Focusing just on the immediate future is not a biblical approach to how to live on God’s planet.