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Reduce, Reuse, Reimagine Plastic Jesus

Everywhere we look in our culture you will find plastic. One place where you will not find plastic, however, is in the Bible.

Plastics, first created in 1907, began global production in the 1950s. Over the next 70 years, annual production increased nearly 230-fold to 460 million tons in 2019. This growth spurt birthed single-use plastics, now one of the most urgent environmental threats. These plastics, too often buried in landfills or dumped untreated in our water sources, have become emblematic of our culture's convenience obsession.

As Christians, we can't turn a blind eye to our overuse of plastics. Many of our sacred symbols, like communion cups, nativity scenes, Easter eggs, or even Jesus figurines, contribute to the plastics crisis.

Less than 14% of plastic packaging is recycled, and the process is time-consuming and costly.

Plastic pollution wreaks havoc on habitats, disrupting natural processes and reducing ecosystems' ability to adapt to climate change. Ocean wildlife often mistakes plastic waste for prey, leading to ingestion, starvation, and death. Microplastics, defined as plastics under 5 millimeters in length, pose a risk to human health, entering our food supply and raising concerns over our well-being.

One stark example of the health costs of our plastic addiction is found in the industrial corridor along the lower Mississippi, dubbed "cancer alley." Home to over 200 industrial facilities, including oil refineries and plastics plants, this region emits significant amounts of harmful air pollution, severely affecting the health of nearby communities, particularly Black and low-income neighborhoods.

Over 99% of plastic is made from chemicals sourced from fossil fuels, tightly intertwining the fossil fuel and plastic industries. The fossil fuel industry's plans to invest billions in expanding plastic production exacerbate our plastic crisis, with projections indicating that plastics will account for 20% of total oil consumption by 2050.

While recycling is often touted as a solution, it's insufficient. Less than 14% of plastic packaging is recycled, and the process is time-consuming and costly. Plastics' composition complicates recycling efforts, as different plastics require separate processing.

“Idolatry always reduces to the worship of something ‘made with hands”

So how might we understand and respond to the pernicious plastics problem in our churches? To address plastic's impact theologically, we must first understand sin. Sin isn't just individual acts of harm but also harm inflicted by communities and societies on vulnerable communities and ecosystems. Plastics symbolize our idolatrous desire for material goods and our insatiable greed, driving us to prioritize consumption over people and planet.

Repentance, or metanoia, requires a change of direction, both personally and economically. We must shift from consumption to connections with people, creation, and God. Finding contentment outside of material possessions is essential, as our economy's profit-driven model perpetuates dissatisfaction and planned obsolescence. “Idolatry always reduces to the worship of something ‘made with hands,’” writes farmer and essayist Wendell Berry, “something confined within the terms of human work and human comprehension.” Just like the golden calf in Exodus 32, plastics are a human-made creation that we think will save us. We substitute it for true worship of God. Producing and disposing of single-use plastics places a huge toll on creation and future generations. We are turning our backs on life and life’s true source.

Each of us holds the power to make a meaningful difference. Through collective action, we can enact transformative change. Individuals, families, and congregations alike have the opportunity to embrace a plastic-free lifestyle. These conscious choices enable us to see plastics differently. By eliminating plastic food containers, cups, bags, water bottles, cutlery, coffee stirrers, and synthetic Easter eggs from our lives, we deepen our understanding of the spiritual, political, economic, and environmental implications of plastic.

The promise of eternal life in Christian faith contrasts sharply with plastics' eternal existence.

This year's global Earth Day theme, and the focus of Creation Justice Ministries Earth Day Sunday resource, centers on the urgent need to reduce plastic usage. With a shared goal of phasing out all single-use plastics by 2030, churches across the United States are stepping up to the challenge. Through education, preaching, and tangible action, these communities are committed to dethroning plastics from their pedestal, both now and for generations to come.

It is important for us to take action in our own lives and in our communities, but we cannot tackle the plastic crisis through individual action alone. Federal legislation, such as the Rewarding Efforts to Decrease Unrecycled Contaminants in Ecosystems (REDUCE) Act, is essential to hold corporations accountable for their plastic pollution. The REDUCE Act shifts the burden of pollution cost from individuals to corporations and employs market-based mechanisms to discourage single-use plastic production. As people of faith, we must advocate for policies like the REDUCE Act to create systemic change and protect our planet for future generations.

The promise of eternal life in Christian faith contrasts sharply with plastics' eternal existence. Plastic's legacy persists for up to 1,000 years, burdening future generations with our plastic usage today. Loving our neighbor means considering not just those nearby but also those in the future, sparing them from the consequences of our plastic addiction.

As people of faith, we must confront our plastic sin, repent, and work towards a future where single-use plastics are a thing of the past. With deliberate action and collective effort, we can phase out all single-use plastics by 2030, preserving our planet for generations to come.

For more resources on plastics and the church, check out “Plastic Jesus: Real Faith in a Synthetic World” from Creation Justice Ministries.

Photo by Cara Beth Buie on Unsplash

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