[Last week Pope Francis, true to his name, issued his long-awaited encyclical on the environment. For those who are interested, the Washington Post published these helpful cliff notes. In honor of the Pope’s courageous stand, I am reposting a blog I wrote a while back. Hope you enjoy it.}
The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it; the world and all who live in it.—Psalm 24:1
Then God said, “Let us make human beings in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” So God created human beings in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.—Genesis 1:26-28
Around midnight on December 4th, 1984 in Bhopal, India, a highly poisonous gas, methyl-isocyanate (MIC), leaked from a factory owned by Union Carbide. People were awakened by the sound of their neighbors’ screams, as the gas spread through the city choking them and burning their eyes and lungs. Many panicked, taking to the streets to flee. Author Annie Leonard describes the horror in her book The Story of Stuff. It must have seemed like the end of the world, or a scene from The Last Days of Pompeii, as families were separated and people began suffocating and dying in the streets from the noxious cloud.
When it was over, as many as 8,000 people, men, women and children, were dead, many of the bodies never identified or counted as the government quickly buried them in mass graves. Another 12,000 have since died from the lingering effects and health issues related to inhaling the MIC. Many believe that had the Union Carbide plant officials been forthcoming about what was happening at the time and shared valuable information about how people could protect themselves (such as covering their faces with a wet towel), many lives would have been saved. Yet the plant’s initial reaction was to deny that there was any leak at all. It was later found that the safety and refrigeration systems, which would have prevented the disaster, had been switched off—to save money.
Twenty-five years later the company still refuses to share anything about the chemical that might help victims who are still suffering. They claim that MIC’s properties are a proprietary secret (just like Coca-Cola). To this day many toxic chemicals abandoned at the plant site continue to leak into ground water, which the local population depends upon for drinking.[i]
Environmental crises, such as climate instability due to global warming, as well as catastrophic losses in ecosystems and the pollution of air, soil, and water, are also issues of justice. Because the poor are particularly vulnerable to changes and devastation in the natural environment, they are usually the first to suffer from the reckless decisions, carelessness, and rapacious greed of industrialized nations and their multinational corporations.[ii] Poorer countries are already paying the price for our addiction to fossil fuels by being forced to use funds traditionally slated for development and infrastructure to combat the effects of climate change: drought, floods, and other natural disasters—costs that ought to be covered by the wealthiest nations, who are the biggest polluters.
If global temperatures continue to rise, exceeding 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 F) over pre-industrial levels, the effects on developing nations, especially in Africa and Southern Asia, will be catastrophic—resulting in millions of displaced people, according to a report by the World Bank. Since God’s heart is always tuned to the cries of the poor, such environmental crises ought to be a focus of prayer and activism for all Christians. As he states in Isaiah 56:1, “‘Maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed.’”
The passage in Genesis 1 quoted above can cause (and has caused) a lot of trouble in interpretation. At first glance the language sounds rather violent. The words subdue, rule or have dominion over sound like the language of conquest. Not surprisingly, some Christians have used these very verses to justify a highly exploitative, profiteering, slash-and-burn policy toward the earth. In fact, dominion thinking has become so associated with the worst excesses of capitalism that some environmental groups blame the Judeo-Christian God for our problems: If he had not written those verses, the earth would not be in this mess! It’s nice to have someone big to blame—someone even bigger than Union Carbide—but God is not responsible for human sin or our misuse and abuse of his Word.
One basic rule in interpreting Scripture is that we should never take a verse out of context and run with it. Every word in the Bible has a literary, cultural, and historical context, and every verse must be weighed with its context against the whole counsel of Scripture.
What does it mean to be made in the image of God? Does it mean we look like God, that there is some kind of family resemblance? Or is it something more to do with God’s character, a moral or spiritual quality? These are important questions, because how we answer affects everything we do and value as human beings.
In the culture and language of the ancient Near East, the phrase image of God had a very specific and recognizable meaning. When people heard it, they would not have looked puzzled as we do today. To the pagan cultures of that world, there was only one person, a single human being, who was the image, the earthly visible representation, of their god. That was the king, or pharaoh. He was the image of god, the closest thing to god on earth. He was responsible for ruling in the god’s place and for exercising justice, promoting law and order, protecting and bringing prosperity to his people.
Now imagine that you are a Hebrew slave, born in Egypt. You have had it drummed in your ear since birth by your Egyptian masters, “This is Pharaoh. He is the image of god—you are but a lowly slave.” Now suddenly, you are freed from captivity, and your God, the one and only God, informs you that all human beings—not just one, but all, both male and female—are made in the image of God. What would you think? Quite a radical paradigm shift! And what an awesome responsibility! As creatures created in his likeness, you would be responsible for taking care of creation, ruling over it as God would himself.
Far from giving us license to abuse and misuse God’s creation for our own selfish purposes, this passage, in its proper context says that, yes, we were given the earth to rule and not for ourselves, but for God. We are his vice-regents, responsible and accountable to him, as a viceroy is responsible for keeping order, caring for a country, and representing the interests of the king who sent him. So we are responsible for ruling as God would rule.
And how would God rule?
He makes springs pour water into the ravines;
it flows between the mountains.
They give water to all the beasts of the field;
the wild donkeys quench their thirst.
The birds of the sky nest by the waters;
they sing among the branches.
He waters the mountains from his upper chambers;
the land is satisfied by the fruit of his work.
He makes grass grow for the cattle,
and plants for people to cultivate—
bringing forth food from the earth:
wine that gladdens human hearts,
oil to make their faces shine,
and bread that sustains their hearts.
The trees of the Lord are well watered,
the cedars of Lebanon that he planted.
There the birds make their nests;
the stork has its home in the junipers.
The high mountains belong to the wild goats;
the crags are a refuge for the hyrax. (Ps 104:10-18)
Psalm 104 shows us that God cares for, provides for, and watches over every living creature he has made. And blessed are we when we understand that our power to rule is given, not as an absolute right, but in trust, and that our job is to govern as God would govern: benevolently, generously, with special care and concern for the poor and weak.
Let me point out another scripture that helps further establish the context of Genesis 1:
Then the LORD God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being…The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. (Genesis 2.7,15).
The Hebrew verb translated here to work or tend means to “serve,” and in this context, to “till” or ”cultivate.” The verb to care for means “to exercise great concern for, to guard, to watch over”—the same word used to characterize the Lord’s relationship with his people: that he watches over them with care, love, and concern. Thus, in the second chapter of Genesis, we have a good illustration of exactly what God means in Chapter 1 by saying that we shall “rule and have dominion over the earth and its creatures.” We are God’s servants, to care for what he has created. That is context.
Setting the Record Straight
Regarding our relationship with creation, there are three major untruths, or misconceptions, that have infiltrated the church. First, that the creation account shows that God gave human beings control of the earth to use and treat as we see fit—in short, that the earth is ours. As we have seen already, such an interpretation does not hold water. One might even say it is blasphemous. Psalm 24 clearly states, “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, the world and all who dwell in it.” The earth is not ours; the Bible never says it is. And just how do we treat something that is not ours? If you borrow something from a friend, do you return it broken or dirty? No, you treat it with care and respect. How much more when the person who owns the property is God!
Would it have made sense for God to say to Adam and Eve, “Here is the earth, I’ve taken great care in creating it, and I’m delighted with everything in it. Now I’m entrusting it into your hands. Go and ruin it, completely destroy it, make a pig’s breakfast out of the whole thing”? How can we say we love God and then trash what he has made? Yes, subduing the earth does involve our wrestling at times with the wildness of nature, in taming it and cultivating it, or plumbing its secrets, but always with respect, knowing it is not ours. If you had someone house-sit for you and you returned home to find the place strewn with garbage and human waste, how would you feel?
The second misconception is the idea that care for the environment is a form of pagan idolatry or earth worship. There are many environmentalists who are not Christian. There are even some who do worship the earth. Environmentalism has in some circles become entangled with new age practices, or neo-paganism. Why is that? Because God’s people, who should be the first to lead the fight to protect the earth from devastating overdevelopment and help species that are endangered, have for too long abdicated their role, too long been silent—and not only silent but at times complicit in the raping and pillaging of God’s creation, all in name of the almighty bottom line. There has been a leadership vacuum, and someone had to fill it. Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church in California, author of The Purpose Driven Life, says that caring for creation should be a “no-brainer for Christians.” It’s just basic. It’s not pagan. Yes, there are people who worship the earth, but that is not what we are talking about. Caring for something, exercising responsibility for something entrusted to you is not worship. We care for our children or our pets; we feed and protect them; we are responsible for them. Does that mean we worship them?
Did you know that Earth Day (April 22), now a U.N.-sponsored international celebration which seeks to create deeper awareness of the degradation of the earth, has Christian roots? It was the brainchild of John McConnell, a deeply committed Pentecostal Christian, who believed that human beings have a responsibility to care for God’s creation and to share its resources in an equitable manner. In the 1930s McConnell worked in a plastics factory and became appalled at the effects of the new industry on the environment. His appreciation for the earth and concern for its protection was also a natural outgrowth of his Christian commitment to peace and love.
A third and highly popular misconception is that it doesn’t matter what we do with the earth, since it’s all going to burn up anyhow. This idea is so widespread it’s frightening. It seems a rather perverse assumption drawn from a kind of hyper-premillennialism, a nineteenth-century doctrine that believes Jesus is going to return prior to a literal thousand-year reign on earth. Premillennialism is based on a particular, and very literal reading of a passage in the Book of Revelation.
Now, if we are going to be dogmatic about something, it would be smart if we were dogmatic about something that the Bible is dogmatic about. In other words, it is dangerous to build doctrines on one verse in the Bible that is hard to understand or open to various interpretations. Jesus is going to return; there is no debating that. The Bible is clear. Yet it is not clear about exactly when. Will there be a literal thousand-year reign on earth after he returns before the last judgment? We do not know for sure. Will he return after a thousand-year reign of his kingdom (as the postmillennialists believe), or is that thousand year reign more symbolic of the age of the church (as the amillennialists hold)? Theologians have argued over these questions for centuries. The bottom line is that we do not know for sure. All we know for certain is that Jesus is coming back. And we need to be careful that how we interpret Scripture does not justify our treating other people or the earth with indifference or disrespect. If it does, that is a sure sign that we are off track, not walking in the footsteps of Christ.
How does God feel about those who plunder and destroy creation? Here is a verse in Revelation that is frequently (or conveniently) overlooked.
The nations were angry, and your wrath has come.
The time has come for judging the dead,
and for rewarding your servants the prophets
and your people who revere your name,
both great and small—
and for destroying those who destroy the earth.
(Rev 11:18, italics mine).
I wonder why we do not take that literally. We should.
A Liberal Concept?
In my first chapter, I mentioned that Bartholomew I, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, has received a great deal of criticism from the European press for his outspokenness about environmental issues. (Kermit the Frog is right. “It’s not easy being green.”) He has come under criticism from governments and the corporate sector, who complain that he has embraced “the liberal agenda” or that he is against “progress.” Yet, caring for the earth is not just a liberal concept, or a political one; it is a biblical mandate. And we should not be ashamed to carry the banner high and speak out. So what if someone calls us a bunch of “tree-huggers”?
There is a fascinating but frequently overlooked detail in John’s Gospel. On that first day of the week, when Mary Magdalene stood outside the empty tomb weeping, she met Jesus. Only she did not realize at first that it was Jesus. She thought it was the “gardener” (Jn 20:15). Coincidence? Jesus’ resurrection was the first act of God’s new creation, the renewal of all things. And as the New Adam, Jesus might appropriately be called The Gardener par excellence. How does the Gardener feel about people who trash his garden?[iii]
For some reason—God knoweth how—many believe that to be for the environment is to be against progress. If by progress one means the careless and wholesale devastation of the earth in pursuit of profit, then yes, we ought to be against that. But that is not the definition of progress. That is just selfish greed. Progress is something that brings benefit to all humanity, not just a few; it profits posterity as well, not just one generation. Destroying the earth to line the pockets of a handful of CEOs and investors is not progress.
Speaking of creation care, the Orthodox Patriarch noted that the church has always held that our relationship with the natural world must involve a “voluntary restraint,” which the early church called enkrateia, or “self-control”:
By reducing consumption we ensure that resources are left for others in the world….Our sin toward the world – the spiritual root of all our pollution—lies in our refusal to view life and the world as a sacrament of thanksgiving, and as a gift of constant communion with God on a global scale….If human beings treated one another’s personal property the way they sometimes treat the environment, we would view that behavior as antisocial.[iv]
When we are in right relationship with God, we treat all of his creation, including other human beings, with dignity, reverence, and respect. Whether Jesus returns in five minutes or five centuries, we take care of the earth until he returns. “Why?” someone might argue; “it’s just going to be destroyed anyway!” Yes, and if we keep going the way we are headed, it should be destroyed fairly soon.
We take care of the earth and its creatures out of gratitude, thanksgiving, love, and respect because they are God’s, just as we are responsible for treating our fellow human beings with love and respect because we each bear the divine image.
Practically speaking, what are some things we can do? Here are a few ideas:
We can pray and ask the Lord to show us ways in which we have misused his creation, and then repent, turn around, head back in the right direction. We can begin to practice restraint, self-control in our use or consumption of natural resources (water, oil, gas), products like plastic that pollute the earth and oceans, and paper, which has a high environmental price tag. We can educate ourselves about the real cost of the things we consume. We know, for example, the price of a hamburger, but do we consider the real cost? Producing a pound of factory-farmed hamburger causes more pollution than driving your car for three weeks. Cows raised in industrial lots produce millions of tons of waste, which contaminate our water supplies. You mean you can put a dollar value on all that? Yes, you can. When all is tallied, that burger could well cost hundreds of dollars. Of course, those costs are not passed on to the consumer—until later.[v]
Next, we can buy locally grown produce and support local farmers. This not only saves on transportation costs (i.e. pollution); it also supports the local economy. We can also use green cleaning products, detergents, pesticides and fertilizers. Product manufacturers are often not required to list ingredients, and for good reason, since many are neurotoxic, hormone-disrupting, and carcinogenic. Then they get dumped into our waterways!
Lastly, we need to take a stand against greed and work for climate and environmental justice. We can talk about these from our pulpits, in Bible study classes, our schools, and around our dinner tables. We can speak out against “legislated greed,” laws that shamelessly favor the major polluters of our world: the fossil fuel industries, hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”), and industrial agriculture. Did you know that factory farms, or confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are not only cruel to animals, but also responsible for up to 51% of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide—not to mention their polluting our soil and water supplies?[vi] Merely switching to grass-fed beef could significantly slow global warming.
James Speth, the dean of Yale’s School of Environmental Studies and the first scientific adviser to the U.S. President on climate change, said,
I used to think if we threw enough good science at the environmental problems, we could solve them. I was wrong. The main threats to the environment are not biodiversity loss, pollution, and climate change, as I thought once. They are selfishness and greed and pride. And for that we need a spiritual and cultural transformation, something we scientists don’t know much about. Maybe it’s time for us scientists, including those who are not religious, to work together with people of faith to help that along. [vii]
Sounds like we are needed, Church. The world needs us to speak up. After all, we have the answer, don’t we?
[i] Annie Leonard, The Story of Stuff, (New York: Free Press, 2010), 90-91.
[ii] Ken Wilson, Jesus Brand Spirituality, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2008), 57.
[iii] Wilson, 57.
[iv] His All Holiness, Bartholomew I, “A Changeless Faith for a Changing World.”
[v] Raj Patel, The Value of Nothing: How to Reshape Market Society and Redefine Democracy, (New York: Picador, 2009,) 44.
[vi] Zack Kaldveer and Ronnie Cummins, “Food, Farms, Forests and Fracking: Connecting the Dots,”
Organic Consumers Association, (9 May 2013).
[vii] Wilson, 59-6