A Christian Surfer Rides the Environmental Wave: An interview with Jim Moriarty of Surfrider

By Christian Buckley


Flourish, Fall 2011

Founded in 1984, the Surfrider Foundation is a non-profit environmental organization dedicated to the protection and enjoyment of our world’s oceans, waves, and beaches for all people, through conservation, activism, research, and education. With an annual budget over $6 million, Surfrider is one of the largest and most active coastal environmental organizations on the globe. Jim Moriarty, a follower of Christ, sits at the helm of the ship, which gives him an interesting view.  We sat down in Solana Beach to discuss…

Christian Buckley: I guess the first question I would ask you is how did your Christian faith inform your decision to take the job at Surfrider?

Jim Moriarty: I was working in high tech, loving that world, when I got a call from a headhunter about the opening. It came out of left field for me. Initially, I didn’t really see the fit and told them so, but I loved the mission of Surfrider Foundation and felt there was something compelling me there.  The funny thing is that my wife did see the fit and summarized it by saying, “you were born for that job.” As the process continued, I prayed about it and essentially took my hands off the steering wheel. In essence I said, “God, if you want me there… put me there.” I was an atypical candidate and selection for Surfrider in many ways. By the time they offered me the job, I was convinced God had called me to it.

Now as I look back at the threads in my life, this job really does fit. I’ve always been drawn to big ideas—big ideas that question the current status quo. The first was probably punk rock. The next one was software, the Web, and the Internet. Environmentalism is in that same vein. Each of these has a world-changing scale. What I did to move from technology into the environment was in some ways a blind step of faith, a step of saying I am not prepared for this… but I’ll go anyway. There’s a lot of excitement in that. For me, this overlaps with a faith walk, where you are pushed into uncomfortable situations and you come out different on the other side. There’s a patina that happens on your soul.

CB: When you joined Surfrider four years ago, was there a certain amount of hesitance toward you on the part of the environmental community? “What are we supposed to make of a Christian who is interested in the environment? Aren’t they suppose to be conservative reactionaries who think we’re a bunch of hippies?”

JM: Overall, yes. I sometimes feel like I live in a world of non-intersecting circles. In one circle are environmentalists and in the other circle are Christians.

What I’ve learned is that the circles can intersect. A person can be both. Regarding the environment, the Christian circle essentially believes that God created the earth, ecosystems, and life itself. The environmentalist circle understands the fragility of our world, the importance of intact ecosystems, and the preservation of systems that support life. From my perspective, the circles do overlap and should overlap more often and with more intellectual and spiritual vigor.

The challenge is that there are people in both circles who can’t see the overlapping parts of the circle…and instead focus on the differences. If you focus on the non-overlapping parts of the circles, you end up feeling like Christians are indifferent to the state of our environment.

CB: What do you think is at the root of that Christian indifference?  I’m sure you’ve had a number of interactions with Christians…

JM: The Christian church has institutional characteristics. There are a lot of factions of the

To really, truly see the utter magnificence of God’s creation you need to get outside and do more than go for a walk.

church that put greater emphasis on one area over another. Subjects like environmentalism compete for mindshare with every other possible subject a church can include—disability, military outreach, homeless, missions, children’s ministry, and so on. Institutionalizing Jesus’ message isn’t an easy task, because agendas compete and language gets diluted by committees, etc. I think one of the downfalls of the organized church is that certain ideas get relegated or downsized or pushed aside. Environmentalism traditionally has been one of them.

CB: How would you define environmentalist, and would your definition of a Christian environmentalist be any different than your definition of an environmentalist?

JM: Yes, my definitions are different. When I took this job, I told the board, “I’m not an environmentalist,” and I specifically said, “I’m not a ‘capital E’ environmentalist. I am a ‘small e’ environmentalist.” And that’s more descriptive of traits that I have and my particular belief system or hierarchy. It’s more of a lifestyle and less of a job.

For me, an environmentalist is as simple as someone who understands and appreciates nature and God’s creation. I interviewed a seven-year-old girl, Mackenzie Steiner, asking her the silly question, “Are you an environmentalist?” And she said, “I don’t know what an environmentalist is.” I explained, “Well, it’s someone who appreciates God’s creation, sees that it’s beautiful, and cares for it.” To which she quickly said, “I absolutely am that, because fish need clean water and birds deserve clean air.” She’s right.

A Christian environmentalist is a little bit different because it’s more than an appreciation of nature. The Bible offers a context for that appreciation. Many of the people I work with have that appreciation and understanding; they understand ecosystems, they may understand the science behind these; but they’re lacking the context of why these are important. They are important to them because these things sustain life. They are important to me because these things not only sustain life but also they represent the creation over which God gave us stewardship. For me, that adds an extra layer of meaning. For a comparison, think of a non-Christian walking down the street and seeing a beggar and making a decision one way or the other to give the person money. They may say, “I have money and this guy needs some,” or they may say, “This guy’s a scam artist, I’m not giving him any money.”  I’d suggest a Christian’s perspective would be, “What did Jesus model for us in his words and deeds?” The answer to that question supersedes any reactionary view.  The guy might be scamming me, but I’m going to give him money anyway. I’m not going to do it because my buddy’s with me. I’m not going to do it because my wife or my kids are with me. I’m going to do it because I follow Jesus. That’s the extra layer of context.

CB: How would you respond to those who might argue that Jesus never spoke out about environmental issues? He never fundamentally taught the need to care for creation in the sense that perhaps some in the creation care movement draw from Genesis and some of the Old Testament obligations.

JM: Building on my last answer… I wonder how Jesus would react to the complete annihilation of a species by man, who he charged with taking care of it. The first thing the Bible addresses is creation. It’s a

I think one of the downfalls of the organized church is that certain ideas get relegated or downsized or pushed aside. Environmentalism traditionally has been one of them.

pretty amazing story. God created the heavens and the earth and many species of birds, animals, and fish. Why would we destroy that creation?

What I don’t understand is why Darwinians are bummed out when a species is lost. That represents survival of the fittest, which is the essence of that theory. Some win. Some lose. Some evolve. Extinction ought to be harder to accept from the Christian perspective. It is an immense sadness to me to think that we wiped anything that God created off the face of the earth. That defies the instructions and mandate he gave to Adam and Eve.

CB: One of the criticisms of environmental and other Christian efforts that don’t share the gospel is that they miss the point of hell.

JM: I think that’s harsh. Jesus led by example. When I look at Jesus’ life, I don’t see him as angrily citing verses about hell. I see him as a servant. He washed feet and loved people. He put others above himself, to say the least.

For me, the larger issue is the context for a message. Jesus seemed to really understand this. He was the context for his message. He lived it. We miss this point many times and just try to hammer home a message without the context of love and service, and it comes across as judgmental and harsh. Jesus delivered his message with trust, credibility, and grace, not fear tactics, fire, or brimstone.

CB: Right. There’s no paradigm. There’s no means by which you evaluate those decisions.

JM: A Christian, like it or not, has a very crisp set of boundaries defining right and wrong. You may still sin, but you know that it’s wrong. You then seek forgiveness and stop doing it. In addition, we need to get involved in doing God’s work and following his calling. I can’t do this from behind walls by yelling at people walking by. People need to get out and share their faith.  Get dirty. It’s messy. The disciples didn’t have it easy, and what they risked and sacrificed and did makes typical American church life look pretty darn stagnant by comparison.

CB: So the point of this exercise isn’t for Christians to hang out with Christians and wait for the end, the point of the exercise is for God to reach in you and for you to go out there?

JM: Yes. From my perspective, that’s the larger calling. Some people will say things like, “It’s all gonna burn anyway, let God sort it out.” I find that mindset to be arrogant. It’s as if that individual has the gall to think that they have some intelligence as to when that’s going to happen. Whether it’s tomorrow or in the 21st

God created the heavens and the earth and many species of birds, animals, and fish. Why would we destroy that creation?

millennium, they’re not going to do anything to preserve what God formed with his own hands. Instead, they’re going to destroy it with theirs. Is that what you do with your children? They’re gonna die anyway. Why invest in them? Why give them food? Why give them good nutrition? Just let them play in the street; let them play in the highways. Give them drugs. They’re gonna die anyway.

CB: Well, I think that highlights the point you’re making about context. Yeah, it’s in God’s hands in the absolute eternal sense; but it’s also pretty clear that we don’t know much about that fact. Why do you think we are so ambivalent about the world around us?

JM: In my opinion, American culture is out of touch with our surroundings. We’re climate controlled. Our children are even more climate controlled. We have beds that go to a certain number, we have offices that go to a certain number, almost everything is within our control and can be dialed according to our comfort. When you get out in nature, you experience the anti-perfect; everything is shifting. You’ve got changing micro climates, you’ve got gale-force winds coming in, you’ve got huge waves, or you’ve got complete serenity; but it’s changing. Light comes up, light goes down. It’s not always on when you press the button. We’re not in control; God is. I think we’re continuing to insulate ourselves as a culture from the world around us. We have painted ourselves into these tiny little boxes and we don’t have the taste for the perspective of creation. We just don’t. To really, truly see the utter magnificence of God’s creation you need to get outside and do more than go for a walk. What comes to mind for me is snowboarding in absolute whiteouts in Utah or a two-wave hold-down in Indonesia. Those kinds of experiences let you know acutely that there are forces much, much more powerful than you at work. The question then becomes…what are these powers? What do I believe about them?

CB: That’s interesting. I was having this thought the other morning that we drink so much of the cultural kool-aid that we can’t separate ourselves from it. Like with my kids: What do I really want from and for my children? Do I really care that they go to college to get a degree, to get a career, to buy a house? Do any of those things make any difference either temporally or eternally? Have I found any satisfaction whatsoever in owning a home or a car? I don’t know.  Maybe if they were stripped away, I think I’d be probably more satisfied.

JM: You might be.

 


Christian BuckleyChristian Buckley is the co-author of Humanitarian Jesus and a previous contributor to Flourish and Creation Care Magazine. He is the co-founder of The Glue Network.com, a social media and philanthropy project that innovatively connects people to projects worth funding. As an attorney he has represented death row inmates and CEOs. As a business leader he has helped shape both non-profits and action sports companies. Find out more at thinkmoretruth.com or email christian@thinkmoretruth.com.



Jim Moriarty is the chief executive officer of the Surfrider Foundation, which is dedicated to preserving our worlds beaches, waves, and oceans. He worked in the software industry before joining Surfrider, and believes in the power a big idea can have in changing the world and the unique contribution an individual’s actions can have.

 

 


This interview first appeared in Humanitarian Jesus: Social Justice and the Cross (Moody Publishers May 1, 2010) by Christian Buckley and Ryan Dobson. The book also features an interview with Rusty Pritchard, as well as other church and social justice leaders, and tackles the issue of fusing faith and social action in modern America.

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