“You know you’ve made it into the Mann family when you start washing Ziploc bags to save some plastic.”
I laughed at my brother-in-law as we both stared at the dripping Ziploc bags hanging from the kitchen sink handle. We had just finished cleaning the dishes after a family dinner, and that statement seemed cathartic. It was like the resolving note to a song’s conclusion, its fading sound describing how marriage has shaped me, sometimes, in inconvenient ways. For better or for worse, as they say — Ziploc bags included.
But that laughter also betrayed my tenuous, long-standing relationship with capitalism and consumerism. I was raised on convenience. Growing up in the suburbs of Dallas, the microwave oven served as my personal chef, ready at the touch of a button to nuke my frozen Totino’s pizzas. The trash can happily received my waste — disposable napkins, plastic cups, Gatorade bottles, and anything else that I didn’t want anymore. And every Tuesday morning, the dump truck would roll through my neighborhood, removing my family’s junk to an undisclosed location, hiding the spillover costs of our capitalistic way of life.
And every Tuesday morning, the dump truck would roll through my neighborhood, hiding the spillover costs of our capitalistic way of life.
While I now question and challenge my habits, capitalism has inescapably influenced my life. Dissolved into the water of our culture, it is an economic system that infiltrates and creates the world in which we live. At its best, it has brought forth tremendous human ingenuity and spurred scientific development. Yet its shadow has also loomed over so many different communities, oppressing the marginalized and disadvantaged while also bringing destruction to our ecosystems.
Until recently, I had never learned to examine the impacts of our way of life. For me, once that Starbucks cup made it into the trash can, it was gone. I never asked where that cup would end up. I never realized how it would contribute to the growing crises we face today.
Awareness of capitalism’s costs is often difficult to develop when you’ve been shielded from its negative effects. If you’ve never lived near the city dumpsite or seen the floating islands of plastic mass in our oceans, there’s little sense of any problem. And even when we develop an awareness of capitalism’s shadow, the vast majority of us will never live completely outside of it. Despite our best efforts, I will still purchase items that are shrink-wrapped in non-recyclable plastic, and you will still purchase that six-pack with plastic rings. If we were to follow those non-renewable items to their typical end destinations, we might find them enwrapped around a bird’s neck and wing, preventing it from flying, or inside the belly of a whale, along with other items that pollute our oceans. Shrouded behind our convenient blindness, this is our uncomfortable truth: Capitalism is hardwired into the DNA of our globalizing world, and its shadow can quickly become an impossible challenge.
Capitalism is hardwired into the DNA of our globalizing world, and its shadow can quickly become an impossible challenge.
So, for a time, I feigned ignorance. But ignorance, I’m discovering, is becoming less and less plausible for me.
From the majority of marine birds ingesting our leftover plastics to the large masses of buoyant garbage that wash up onto our shores, the shadow of capitalism has become larger, more widespread, and more visible. According to a World Economic Forum study, “The New Plastics Economy”, if our global habits do not change, there will be more plastics in the ocean than sea life by 2050. The implications of the growing body of research now available to us is overwhelming, to the point of feeling powerless.
If our global habits do not change, there will be more plastics in the ocean than sea life by 2050.
But maybe washing and reusing Ziploc bags represents a kind of healthy resistance that we can build upon.
I never would have pictured myself standing at the kitchen sink, scrubbing down a greased-up Ziploc bag that had once stored our leftover chicken thighs. Whenever I come across these disposable food bags, waiting to be cleaned after dinner per my wife’s request, I still sometimes find myself muttering, “I can’t believe I have to clean this stuff again.”
Yet despite the discontent I sometimes harbor around our family’s emerging practices, there’s a kind of unexpected beauty here. The act of recommissioning a product meant for one-time use helps me to place boundaries on our cultural lifestyle and enact environmental awareness in productive ways. It nudges my imagination to consider new habits so that consumerism is not given carte blanche authority over my life. It also brings about an opportunity to reflect on my life as a follower of Jesus. Through intentional limitation, we can become people learning how to live in our world as actors who bring life. Environmental awareness and action empower us to exercise our agency in small but significant ways.
The act of recommissioning a product meant for one-time use helps me to place boundaries on our cultural lifestyle and enact environmental awareness in productive ways.
Beyond the practice of washing and reusing Ziploc bags, wrestling with the purpose behind stewardship has also been significant.
Some have argued that God’s coming renewal of the earth serves as a basis to dismiss creation care. “Why even bother if God will remake the earth?”
However, a careful look at God’s unfolding story reveals God’s gracious invitation for us to reimagine our understandings. From the beginning of creation to its renewal in future history, God calls us toward stewardship of this world. When God created humanity, we were called to cultivate the earth and care for it (Genesis 2:15). The introduction of evil and sin did not change or lessen this responsibility. Rather, it heightened it. We see this commitment to stewardship in the person of Jesus as he cared for humans who would also one day be renewed. Jesus modeled creation care through his ministry and his teaching. He said, “Preach the gospel to all of creation” (Mark 16:15 NIV), and taught his disciples to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).
We are called to steward the earth’s resources in anticipation of God’s coming kingdom, not in ignorance of it. Revelation 21 reinforces God’s call to stewardship while also pointing us to a dynamic shift in our imagination of the new heaven and the new earth. The Holy City is described as descending onto the earth, suggesting a profound continuity between old and new, similar to that of Jesus before and after his death and resurrection.
We are called to steward the earth’s resources in anticipation of God’s coming kingdom, not in ignorance of it.
The earth will not be simply wiped away in favor of a new earth. Instead, Revelation highlights the mystery of God’s renewal, which includes a temporary destruction that upholds the continuity of the earth, cleanses it, and leads to its renewal. This earth will one day be renewed, and our actions usher in God’s kingdom here and now: “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19). What we do here on earth will have dramatic impacts to how we experience heaven one day.
What we do here on earth will have dramatic impacts to how we experience heaven one day.
Stewards, Not Saviors
This call toward creation care has led my family to reexamine our everyday habits. What started with Ziploc bags eventually led to conversations about other conveniences: disposable diapers, napkins, and takeout food. We have made intentional choices to lessen our environmental impact. Recently, we purchased containers that we leave in the car so that we can use them as takeout boxes in restaurants. Other options we are experimenting with include reusable produce bags, composting our leftover foods, bringing our own cups and straws for boba tea, and choosing to eat more at home.
But along with these new practices, we’ve needed to learn how to live with the tension. Every day, we have to remind ourselves that we are called to be stewards, not saviors. We live in God’s coming kingdom that is already, but not yet. We are in the in-between. Before the day that God comes to make all things right, we represent and point to the hope of God’s renewal that Jesus makes possible. Through creation care, we usher in the kingdom of God and bring forth life that will contribute towards eternity.
Every day, we have to remind ourselves that we are called to be stewards, not saviors.
For some, stewardship may take on the forms of advocacy and social change in our places of influence. A restaurant owner could re-consider the use of disposable takeout containers. An employee could help bring awareness and spearhead innovative practices in their current company. An engineer or an entrepreneur could use their skills to develop innovative ways for us to clean up our oceans.
For me, stewardship means embracing the inconvenient. One bag at a time.
By Jonathan Eng
Photography by Aaron Huang
Jonathan Eng serves as a pastor with Gateway Church in Austin, Texas and loves inviting others to pursue God’s heart for reconciliation and justice. When he and his wife Gloria aren’t chasing around their little one, they enjoy traveling, diving, and chasing their dogs, Squishy and Mocha. Stay connected at jonathankeng.com.
AARON HUANG was born in a Christian family, but never had an “aha” moment. Traveling and nature photography help him experience the beauty of God’s creation and remind him of his own insignificance and God’s grandeur. Find him on Instagram @heyeyron.