In Cascadia, the salmon is central to both culture and economy, and has enormous symbolic importance to the region. In fact, author Timothy Egan went so far as to define the Pacific Northwest as “simply this: wherever the salmon can get to.” But wild salmon populations have been in trouble for more than a century due to overfishing, loss of habitat, water management systems (such as dams), and water pollution. Significant effort has been made to restore salmon populations, with mixed results. Not surprisingly, this is not a major issue or ministry focus for many Christians or churches in the region. Yet it should be, because it’s not just about salmon.
Biologists refer to salmon as a keystone species—a species so important that an entire ecosystem largely depends on its presence and health. More than forty species of mammals and birds depend on salmon for at least part of their food (including many humans). Salmon transfer important nutrients from the ocean to freshwater streams; their carcasses, carried by bears and other mammals, have been shown to be a major source of fertilizer for forests, which, in turn, play a key role in supporting the biological diversity that makes life in Cascadia possible and beautiful.
The salmon are suffering, and shockwaves can be felt throughout the ecosystem. Who can forget the images of Tahlequa, the orca mother who carried her dead calf 1000 miles over 17 days in the summer of 2018. She is a member of the Southern Resident orca population in Puget Sound, a population that is malnourished due to salmon depletion; in part, because of the stress from chronic hunger, two-thirds of pregnancies in this group do not make it.
The impact of salmon depletion extends to humans as well. Perhaps no community understands this better than local Native Americans, whose histories, cultures, and general well-being have been negatively affected as non-Native human populations reduced access to historic fishing sites, overfished existing salmon populations, and generally disregarded the wisdom, care, and stewardship practiced by Native communities for centuries.
In a region that is particularly sensitive to environmental issues, Christian complicity in historic patterns of mismanagement and abuse, along with a lack of concern and engagement in the present, exposes a narrow view of discipleship and a truncated sense of justice that is hampering the Church’s witness. We are called to metaphorically “fish for people,” but in Cascadia we must see the literal connections between the two.
Not everyone shares this perspective. While acknowledging the value of caring for God’s good earth, some Christians worry that too much focus on creation will take us away from a focus on the gospel. Why spend time saving salmon when someone’s eternity is at stake?
Others wonder how we can justify putting time, energy, and money into creation care projects when there is so much human suffering to be addressed. Isn’t an orphaned child more important than an orphaned orca? Isn’t working for racial justice more crucial than growing organic vegetables? Still others get nervous about crossing the line into worshiping the creation rather than the Creator. Doesn’t Scripture clearly warn us about those who “exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator” (Romans 1:25)? Such people fear that if we follow the creation care trail too far, we might lose our way in the end. These are important questions, but they stem from a deeper problem that affects both opponents and adherents to primacy of creation care.
When people think of creation care, most assume it involves work on behalf of non-human “nature.” Behind this assumption lies a dualistic view of the world that is at odds with the Bible. Originating in Greek philosophy, this worldview separates reality into material and spiritual realms, with the spiritual seen as the greater and more desirable. In this view, the goal of humanity is to rise above mere materiality or even escape from the material realm into a purely spiritual place. This perspective inevitably sets humans apart from (and sometimes against) the rest of the natural world.
Such dualistic thinking elevates heaven above the material world and pulls human beings away from the earth. It leads to a narrowing of evangelism that reduces human beings to disembodied souls. It leads to a reductive understanding of compassion and justice that disconnects human problems from their ecological context. And it leads to an impoverished view of Jesus, who blesses the physical creation by eternally binding himself to it in the Incarnation, and secures creation-wide redemption in his cross and resurrection (Colossians 1:15-20).
Dualistic thinking also reduces creation care to what humans do for the non-human creation. It fails to hear the Genesis story tell us that human beings are called to care for creation as part of creation—when we soothe a crying baby, talk to our neighbor about Jesus, host a seminar on race relations, or help preserve a forest, we are practicing creation care. Dualistic thinking also prevents us from seeing how inextricably connected we are to the web of relationships God created (see Psalm 104). It forces us into false choices (humans or salmon?) that blind us to the reality of how dependent all creatures are on the well-being of other creatures and the ecological systems that sustain us. It fails to recognize that for our Christian witness and mission to be effective we must think evangelically and ecologically.
Embracing the Bible’s comprehensive vision of creation care means rejecting the false simplicity of dualistic thinking. It means acknowledging the connections and complexities through which God creates and sustains the world. It requires living humbly, confessing our ignorance, and seeking to work within the limits of creation. It calls us to remember that all we do flows from our primary calling to be co-sustainers of everything God has made, from newborn babies to ancient glaciers. For Christians, it is not a question of whether or not we are involved in creation care, but whether or not we are doing it faithfully.
Faithfulness can be as simple as turning off the light when you leave a room, supporting the children’s ministry at your church, or learning about the regional ecology of Cascadia. The encouraging truth is that, any time we care, we are practicing creation care! But we must see the connections between our light switch and the problems of fossil fuel, between the children in our churches and the juvenile orcas in our waters, between conserving the majestic Cascade mountains and tending to our humble backyards. We must recognize that, due in large part to human abuse and neglect, much of creation groans and suffers (Romans 8:18ff.). We must shift from seeing creation care as a set of particular actions, to a way of life. We must, in the language of our faith, repent.
Repentance requires the willingness to turn our life around, to reverse the destructive course of history, to open ourselves to new ways of being, and to new journeys of discovery. This will require learning from those who are farther ahead on the path of transformation—or from those who have been there all along. Among the latter are Indigenous thinkers and activists such as Dr. Randy Woodley, who with his wife, Edith, leads the Eloheh Indigenous Center for Earth Justice in Yamhill, Oregon. Woodley calls us to recognize that we have wandered from the way of Jesus, and to nurture relationships that can reconnect us to the community of creation: “Brave new theological partnerships and open minds are needed for the twenty-first century. If we wish to live out shalom together (Euro-west and non-west), we must realize we are all on a journey together with Christ to heal the world.”
In my work with an environmental organization called Circlewood, I am seeing increasing numbers of Cascadian Christians responding to the call of lifestyle repentance, and rethinking what it means to follow Jesus in our beautiful corner of creation. The path forward is not easy; the long legacy of destruction will not be undone overnight. Yet we must begin somewhere; learning about and advocating for the centrality of the salmon in Cascadian ecology is but one example of such a starting place. Individuals and churches need to actively seek out those points of engagement with creation care at the intersection of our interests, our influence, and our capacities to enact change. It is time for all of us to feel the native earth under our feet, to get our hands dirty (literally!), and to live in ways that celebrate the beauty of Cascadia while restoring and enhancing its ecological health. It is time to listen to the Holy Spirit hovering over the waters of the Salish Sea, calling us to join the Creator in the work of creation.