An interview with J. Matthew Sleeth, evangelical environmentalist and author
In 2000, a wealthy hospital chief of staff and evangelical Christian named J. Matthew Sleeth looked around at the life he’d built — suburban neighborhood, huge house, two cars, lots and lots of stuff — and decided it failed to properly honor God.
In what he describes as a religious awakening, he, his wife, and their two teenage children set about bringing their lives in line with Jesus’ teachings. They moved into a smaller house, sold most of their belongings, cut their energy use by two-thirds, even began hanging their laundry out to dry.
What followed was not deprivation but a life of renewed meaning and depth. Inspired, Sleeth quit his job, wrote a book called Serve God, Save the Planet, and set off traveling around the country to spread the good news of “creation care.” I caught him on the phone as he headed into Houston, where he planned to carry the message that “we have a problem.” Laughing over my pun-induced groan, he spoke with the alertness, urgency, and self-deprecating humor of a man who’s found something larger than himself to serve.
Describe the personal journey that led you to write this book.
My background is in medicine, as an emergency-room doctor. I was director of an ER and chief of staff of a hospital.
When my wife and I were on vacation, she said, “What’s the biggest problem in the world?” I said, “I think it’s that the planet’s dying.” Really, when you’re an emergency-room doctor, you’re just straightening deck chairs on the Titanic, and the whole ship is going down.
So we went through a series of changes, and we went through a religious awakening. I began to look more and more to the Bible for the answers to moral problems, which I think this is. In Christianity, Christ says, give half of everything you have to the Lord and follow me. If you have two coats, give one away, and first seek the Kingdom of Heaven; don’t store up treasures on earth. And between that and where I was in life as a doctor was huge gap. It also says to change yourself first, and then change somebody else. Don’t see the speck in the other person’s eye, but get the two-by-four out of your own.
So our family went through a process of change where we gave more than half of what we owned away, and we moved from a house — kind of a doctor-sized house — to one that was the size of our garage. We cut our electricity use to a 10th of the national average, and we cut our [use of] fossil fuels.
Then I started talking and writing a lot about what I was doing. The Bible-believing church in America has forgotten all of those lines, or needs to be reminded, about simplicity, frugality, and generosity toward other people who can’t repay you. I try to remind folks of those lines. I thought when I started this I would simply be talking in churches, but it’s 50/50 — 50 percent environmental groups and 50 percent church-based.
Do you have any advice for environmentalists on how to speak to religious people, evangelicals in particular?
When I go and talk at a conservative church, they may go from saying that there’s no global warming to deciding as a church to switch their power to green power, or change light bulbs [to CFLs], that sort of thing. It literally can happen in one session.
What people say is, “Well, nobody ever told us about this. Why didn’t someone tell us about this?” Environmentalists would say, “Well, they’re nuts, they’re not paying any attention — it’s overwhelming.” But these two different groups get their news and their information from two entirely different sides of the spectrum. The folks at 60 Minutes have a different crowd than the folks at the Salem Radio Network — and SRN has a way bigger crowd. They don’t even know each other exists! It’s a chasm.
When you talk to a church and you want to get a church to do something, you have to talk to the heart, and you have to use the Bible. You have to speak the language of the church. Too often folks in the environmental movement have made people of faith feel uncomfortable.
Another thing that happens over and over again: I’ll speak to an environmental group, and ask them, “Is anybody here an evangelical Christian?” One person will raise their hand. But after the talk, a number of them come forward. They’re scared to say it! Same thing in the church: I’ll talk, and afterwards people will say, “Well, I work for the state Department of Environmental Protection, and I just kept my mouth shut.”
But when somebody speaks the language of a group, they hear it. If I went and talked about greenhouse gases and global warming and 381 parts per billion of CO2 … humans don’t change their behavior based on statistics. We change our behavior based upon our hearts. The person out driving a Hummer didn’t buy it because of the statistics, because there isn’t anything that supports buying a Hummer. They bought it for some emotional reason.
Faith is about all those things you can’t measure, whereas science is measurement. I consider myself a scientist, but the faith side of me is able to speak to things like justice and peace and love, and greed or sin or guilt. If people don’t feel a little guilty and sinful about their lifestyle, we’re doomed.
The amazing thing is, I get up and talk about these things like sin and guilt and the fact that this earth is a sacred thing, as it says in the Bible, and nobody has any problem with that. When you talk science, I don’t know whether it’s honest or not. Scientists from 100 years ago thought they were dead right about something. And you can be inadvertently wrong, you know what I mean? But we know, absolutely, that love is a good thing. You’re never going to go wrong on that. You’re never going to go wrong if you take Christ’s advice to treat your neighbor like you want to be treated yourself.
My advice is, if you’re an environmentalist, to have an earnest, listening talk with somebody of faith and find out where they are first. The worst way to get anybody to change anything is to walk up and say, “You’re stupid. You need to change.”
Are you running into resistance when you try to bring these two groups together, from either side?
Amazingly, no. I’ll bring a Bible along, and point out that the symbol of God is a tree, and of course the symbol of the Sierra Club is a tree.
I’ll say that the first step everybody takes in environmental awareness, stewardship of the earth, is not to throw their trash out the window while they drive down the road. Nobody disagrees with that. And the church is at that step. They think at step one: they give a hoot, they don’t pollute.
So if you want to bring those two groups together, and you suggest that the environmentalists enlist the aid of the church in cleaning up a stream, there’s no controversy. Because you’ve started at step one. If you want to show An Inconvenient Truth, now you’ve started at step 60, and there’s a problem.
Your book focuses pretty exclusively on individual actions people can take to clean up their own immediate environment. But the problems we face are huge and global, and there’s no way they’re going to be solved without political action.
I agree. But what happens is that people show up at a meeting to stop a power plant from being built, and then go home and flip their light switch on. They’re sending another signal — we want the power. Politicians are very savvy about reading their constituents. They pay attention to what people really want, not what they say.
The moment you start practicing democracy at home by turning off the light switch, you become an activist saying one thing and doing the same thing. When you change the heart of people, when you get to that 5 percent that sociologists say can change a population by doing a particular behavior … if you’ve got 5 percent of Americans insisting on hanging up their laundry, then you’re going to have presidential hopefuls next election primary in New Hampshire, I guarantee you, hanging up laundry with somebody.
People who think that top-down change happens exclusive from bottom-up, well, there’s a disconnect there. It doesn’t happen that way.
The idea is that if enough individual people change their behavior, it will send a political signal?
Absolutely. If we can get people to put the “conserve” back in “conservatives,” you’ll see the sea change everybody is hoping for. My dream is that three years from now, traditional Republicans are promising an organic chicken in every pot, and Democrats are promising two organic chickens in every pot. They both read their constituencies very well, and what we want right now is our cake and to eat it too. We’re not really willing to get out of our big cars; we’re not really willing to conserve. Therefore, I’m working on the heart change.
An example I use over and over again is, there’s no person who tried harder, politically or with his writing, to point out the injustices of slavery than Thomas Jefferson. If you go to the Jefferson Memorial, on the right-hand side it says, “God will not long tolerate this great injustice.” He tried to get rid of it in the Constitution, but I think everyone said, “Yeah, right, Tom. You’re the second biggest slave-owner in America.” And they went about business as usual.
In a democracy, we’re supposed to have leaders that are a reflection of the populace. And that’s what we’re getting.
That’s kind of depressing.
Well, that’s why I want to change the populace.
There’s a strain of evangelical Christianity — and if you look at the sales figures for the Left Behind books, it’s not small — that believes in a certain interpretation of the Book of Revelation which says Jesus is coming back soon, the End Times are coming in our lifetime …
And why bother?
Right, why bother.
Why not even speed things up?
Right. Which looks like what’s happening.
What I do is remind folks who believe this could be the End Times that the point of the End Times is to do the Lord’s work, and to redouble your efforts. I try to make it real and personal: I have everybody in the room imagine that NASA just said there’s a meteor heading toward us, it’s the size of a moon, and there’s no way to stop it. Nothing can be done, and the Earth is going to be destroyed in four weeks. That’s all the time you’ve got.
I ask people to truly search their hearts, ask if they think they’re just going to go on a vacation to Disney World to have their kid shake the hand of a big plastic rodent, versus go to church, versus … My guess is that there would be no homeless people downtown, that they would be inundated with invitations to come to dinner in people’s houses and to church.
And I remind everybody that their own personal End Time is within 100 years, no matter who’s in the audience. When Christ says, “I come quickly,” he means, “Don’t let me catch you sleeping.” If you’re like the average American that reaches age 71, you’ve spent 10 years of your life watching television. Christ isn’t talking about literally taking a nap or sleeping your eight hours a night — he’s talking about being spiritually, mentally, asleep. A lot of us need to wake up.
You’re familiar then with the Great Awakening and the Second Awakening in this country. This, I think, will be the third. I think you’ll just see rapid, rapid change. I mean, when Pat Robertson’s on the bandwagon, look for a big change. I don’t get into name-calling of prominent televangelists who are still denying global warming, because I am positive they’ll be our allies in a year or two’s time.
Another thing traditional environmentalists would say is that one of the biggest problems humanity faces, if not the biggest, is exploding population.
But there’s a strain in Christianity generally, and particularly fundamentalist Christianity or evangelical Christianity, that emphasizes multiplying and populating the earth with big families.
The Bible does say, “Be fruitful and multiply.” It says, “Love one another.” It says, “Do the great commissioning.” It says look after the hungry, clothe the naked, visit those in prison, take care of the sick. Of all the commandments given by God, the first one that humanity can check off as done is, “Be fruitful and multiply.”
[Laughs.] So we’re done there.
We’re done. We need to move on to the next one.
Christian environmentalism springs out of the notion in the Bible of stewardship or dominion — that mankind was given dominion over the earth and thus has an obligation to take care of it. Some traditional environmentalists might say that this notion, that humanity has some special place that’s separate and above nature, and our needs take priority, is the root of the problem. Do you see any tension there?
I see tension, but I also see the potential for the answer.
I believe that we are slightly less than the angels, but not much less, and that we are the sentient beings on the planet, and that we do have a special place. We are made in God’s image, which means that we’re supposed to do the work of God here on Earth, which is to take care of all things lesser than us. That starts first with our children, and the unborn children of the next generation. When you begin to think of it like that, the onus is on us to take care of the planet. It isn’t that God says, “Do whatever you want and I’ll fix it up after you.” You wouldn’t get verses like out of Numbers [35:33-34]: “Don’t pollute the land you live in, in which I also dwell.”
What’s happened is we’ve all gotten wrapped up in a lifestyle of bigger is better. There’s a deep, spiritual hunger and yearning that cuts across this boundary between the church and environmentalists.
If you go and see an environmental movie and you come out numb, or feeling sad, you do what Americans do to comfort yourself. You go to the mall. You go eat. You watch a senseless, violent movie or something. But [at my talks] I see people going out crying. And that’s where they go change. Those people don’t go to the mall. They begin to take a look at their life, and they begin to change it. The unique thing about having a faith-driven life is that, at least in Christianity, you have this personal responsibility to God. So I tell people, this is a war to save the world we’re in now, or shortly going to be declared as such. You have to look in the mirror when you brush your teeth to find the enemy, but the person who’s going to save it is in the mirror, too.
You know, I was given dominion over a bike when I was a kid, but my parents didn’t have enough money to give me dominion over another bike. We’re beginning to wake up to the fact that there’s no spare planet around to replace this one.
It’s hard to face problems when there’s no enemy to fight but ourselves. That’s one area where Christianity has a long and rich tradition, helping overcome that part of human nature.
Right. It’s sensational to write about the Inquisition and forget about St. Francis. It’s easy to blame Christianity for ruining the planet and forget that the Amish have got the only sustainable long-term society that exists in America.
One of the things people want to say is, “Oh, what about the Chinese? They’re gonna get cars.” Well, one in 17,000 Chinese owns a car. We’ve got 200 million of them in the United States, with 300 million people. We need to look to ourselves, absolutely. That’s where you can go right to Christ: “Look not to the speck in your neighbor’s eye but to the moat in your own.” By the way, when Gandhi read that, he rewrote it as, “Be the change you wish to see in the world,” and he gave credit to the Bible in his book The Story of My Experiments With Truth. It’s human nature, but that’s the corrective nature of having a belief in the Bible.
Have you envisioned the implications if everybody took your advice?
Yes. We’re going to have a lot more trees and a lot fewer TVs. We’ve got those tests from sociologists and psychologists that show that the size of a house has increased 100 percent or something in the last 50 years, and we’re no happier. Einstein’s definition of insanity is that you keep doing the same thing and expecting a different result.
I don’t think that the meaning of life is things. And the Bible doesn’t support that either. So if we lose things, that’s where we need to go.