The Least of These

Dr. James Emery White | Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary | Monday, November 21, 2022

The Least of These

I am surprised more is not written or reflected upon in regard to the opening salvo of Jesus’ public ministry. His first recorded words are quite remarkable and unmistakable in focus and challenge:

“When he came to the village of Nazareth, his boyhood home, he went as usual to the synagogue on the Sabbath and stood up to read the Scriptures. The scroll of Isaiah the prophet was handed to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where this was written

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released,
that the blind will see,
that the oppressed will be set free,
and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come.’

“He rolled up the scroll, handed it back to the attendant, and sat down. All eyes in the synagogue looked at him intently. Then he began to speak to them. ‘The Scripture you’ve just heard has been fulfilled this very day!’” (Luke 4:16-21, NLT)

Jesus came to bring good news—what’s known as the gospel. The redemptive message of God for the world. There was also a concern for a particular group of people: the poor.

This is the third and final installment in an informal series of blogs on creation care. It began with attempting a simple, concise theology of creation care. In the second blog, I focused on a single concern – rainforests – and why they matter. Here, I want to remind all of us of one of the most overlooked aspects of creation care. Namely, that the litany of nightmarish concerns tied to the environment – such as extreme heat, drought, mudslides, the rise of intense storms and hurricanes, wildfires, and the melting of glaciers – will fall disproportionately on the poorest of the poor.

If you haven’t downloaded and read “Loving the Least of These” from the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), I urge you to do so. In it, you’ll read these words:

“Although the changing environment impacts all of us, the disproportionate devastation upon the most defenseless must break God’s heart. Creation, although groaning under the fall, is still intended to bless us. However, for too many in this world, the beach isn’t about sunscreen and bodysurfing but is a daily reminder of rising tides and failed fishing. Instead of a gulp of fresh air from a lush forest, too many children take a deep breath only to gasp with the toxic air that has irritated their lungs.”

Vulnerable children in developing countries who are among the poorest of the poor are on the front lines for the devastation to come if we don’t take care of creation. The NAE report went on to outline four heartbreaking realities.

First, the poor and their children are more affected by disasters—particularly in housing and health outcomes. The reason is because they have no savings to deal with crop or home loss, their livelihoods are more likely to depend on ecosystem resources, and they have no flood or other disaster insurance.

So when Hurricane Ida and Hurricane Harvey wiped out many coastal communities, the poor in those areas could not afford to rebuild.

Then there are the health issues related to disasters.

Climate-change related health problems result from both abrupt disasters and gradual changes such as heat waves, the spread of diseases, increased parasites, air pollution, droughts, fires and floods. Poor children are more likely to have asthma that is made worse by increased heat. Heat waves kill people who lack access to air conditioning, who can’t pay to travel to cooler areas, and who can’t even open windows due to crime risk.

Here’s a second reality: the poor and their children are not able to afford the costs of prevention and survival. Or in technical terms, the costs of adaptation and mitigation.

Just think of prevention, or adaptation. People in poverty are less likely to have reserve funds to allocate to adaptation efforts. If they choose to spend money on adapting to or preparing for changes such as building cisterns, moving a settlement, or adding technology to save energy or water, they do so at the sacrifice of other necessary items such as food, education or health care. 

It becomes even more volatile in a fossil-fuel based economy because food costs follow a rise in oil prices, a phenomenon illustrated this year by the global rise in food prices following the beginning of the Russia/Ukraine war.

Then there are the costs of survival, or mitigation.

Preventing greenhouse gas emissions means changing the way the economy is structured. New technologies are first available to the wealthy and only later become available to poorer people. Purchasing low emissions buses and vans for public transportation and investing in other alternative energy infrastructure costs money that poorer communities just do not have.

Here’s a third reality: The poor and their children are more likely to be displaced. Disasters, resource limitation and conflict can cause massive displacement of people within and between countries. 

Sea level rise through the melting of the glaciers is causing the relocation of countless coastal groups and islanders. We are already seeing coastal Alaskans forced to leave their homes as the sea takes over their land, and Pacific Islanders relocating as their islands simply disappear. Coastal groups and islanders are often among the poorest of the poor and, when displaced, have no place else to go and no other means to survive.

Here’s one last reality: The poor and their children are more likely to be affected by ensuing conflicts. Even the most cursory study of world history shows that a lack of resources leads to violent conflicts over territory and goods, with the poor often the victims of the conflict.

Those who are Christ followers would be wise to remember such things. After all, those who plan on entering the Kingdom of God supposedly have one thing in common:

“I was hungry and you fed me,
I was thirsty and you gave me a drink,
I was homeless and you gave me a room,

“I was shivering and you gave me clothes,
I was sick and you stopped to visit,
I was in prison and you came to me.”
(Matthew 25:35-36, Msg)

James Emery White

Sources

“Loving the Least of These: Addressing a Changing Environment,” published by the National Association of Evangelicals, Revised Edition (2022), read online.

About the Author

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and a former professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book After “I Believe” is now available on Amazon or your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive, read the latest church and culture news from around the world, and listen to the Church & Culture Podcast. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram at @JamesEmeryWhite.

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and a former professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. 

His latest book, After “I Believe,” is now available on Amazon or your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive, read the latest church and culture news from around the world, and listen to the Church & Culture Podcast. 

Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram at @JamesEmeryWhite.