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Earth Hour – dominion theology


Tomorrow is Earth Hour.

The four marks of the church’s mission were formulated and presented as part of the report of a meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council which took place in Nigeria in 1984.

Two meetings later, in Wales in 1990, they wrote in a report called Mission, Culture and Human Development “There has been a consistent view of mission … in recent years, which defines mission in a four-fold way . . . We now feel that our understanding of the ecological crisis, and indeed of the threats to the unity of all creation, mean that we have to add a fifth affirmation: to strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth.”

Lent is about being honest with ourselves. And Lent is about saying sorry – and doing something about it. It took Christians until 1990 to articulate responsibility for nature, for the environment, for the life of this planet. Why did it take so long? Why in 1984, when the church was working out its mission statement did it just stop at four? Why did it take six more years and two more meetings before the church realized we are responsible to strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth?

Part of it comes from a mentality that believes Jesus is coming again soon. If Jesus is coming again soon, then we don’t need to worry about the environment – in fact, we can help history along and encourage Jesus to return soon by just getting those wars going that we think the Bible is talking about.

And there’s a second, maybe even deeper problem. We see it in Psalm 8:
You, God, have made us human beings a little lower than God, and crowned us with glory and honor.
You, O God, have given us dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under our feet,
all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas.

We read this idea in Genesis 1:26
26 Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”
27 So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.
28 God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”

The idea that has been drawn from Genesis 1 and from Psalm 8 is that the rest of creation was made for us humans. We are the top of the pile and it’s all specifically made by God for us. And we can do with creation absolutely whatever we like. God gives it to us so that we have dominion over it and subdue it. God puts it under our feet.

Recently we’ve been growing to realise that we humans may be sitting on the top of the pile but if we destroy what we are sitting on – then… there’s actually nothing else to sit on. We are totally dependent on the creation Genesis 1 and Psalm 8 appear to be giving to us to have dominion over and to subdue. We have begun to realise that we are fouling, we are soiling, we are messing up our own nests.

Before moving on, let us acknowledge that Christians have been terrible at caring for creation and that we need to seek forgiveness for that and repent of our attitude and to start implementing the fifth mark of mission: to strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth.

We are becoming more careful in reading the Bible. The post-modern world in which we live takes much greater care about context including the context of the person who wrote this text. Post-modernism pays more attention to power – we ask the question: who is benefiting from this? Who is losing through this? Post-modernism also says: where you stand determines what you see – step out of your own way of reading the text, try and read it from a different perspective, if you’ve been reading the text to bolster your position, what might be another reading that challenges your position?

“Dominion,” is a translation from the Hebrew verb radah. This grants humans the right and responsibility to rule, to govern the rest of creation. That is the way radah is used in the Bible. Kavash “subdue” is even stronger than radah. There is no question that subdue and have dominion is what is meant.

Now look at the context. In Genesis 1, God brings all life into existence, declares it is all good, and puts it in a harmonious ecosystem. Humans are God’s representatives, made in God’s image, and are called to act the same way. [I don’t know if you noticed in the next couple of verses in Genesis humans are not given the right to kill and eat animals!]

In Genesis 1 we humans are God’s deputy, God’s stewards.

Read further into the Bible and one finds that the dominion that God seeks is regularly one that protects the defenseless and gives justice to the oppressed. Dominion over creation implies the vocation to protect it.

Now think of the context of the writer and early readers: they live in a land where most are subsistence farmers, eking out a living on land with rocky soil, and often little rainfall. They are subduing an often seemingly hostile environment. If you are examining power relationships, it is nature that they experienced as having power. That power-dynamic has been very much reversed. We have technology and nuclear capability that completely turns the power dynamics upside down. Take care then when we read “subdue it; and have dominion over it” – that means something quite different in our technological, post-industrial context than in an iron age context.

Don’t stop at reading in Genesis 1, however. Remember Genesis 2 isn’t simply a continuation of the Genesis 1 story. Genesis 2 is a quite different creation story. In Genesis 2 humans aren’t made in God’s image, aren’t made to subdue and have dominion. In Genesis 2 humans are made like the plants and animals, humans, plants, and animals are all made out of adamah – the arable topsoil of the hillcountry. And when Genesis 2 says the human is to avad it that is translated as “till it” – but better translate it as “serve” it.

Thankfully Christians are becoming more aware of our responsibility to be God’s deputy, God’s steward, and to serve creation. In the last 25 years Christians have started praying:

Awaken in us a sense of wonder for the earth and all that is in it.
Teach us to care creatively for its resources (NZPB p413)
We remember with gratititude your many gifts to us in creation and the rich heritage of these islands.
Help us and people everywhere to share with justice and peace the resources of the earth. (NZPB p416)
We thank you for your gifts in creation – for our world, the heavens tell of your glory; for our land, its beauty and its resources, for the rich heritage we enjoy. We pray for those who make decisions about the resources of the earth, that we may use your gifts responsibly; for those who work on the land and sea, in city and in industry, that all may enjoy the fruits of their labours and marvel at your creation; for artists, scientists and visionaries, that through their work we may see creation afresh. (NZPB p463)

[Such prayers are absent from New Zealand’s 1966 and 1970 revisions, and only begin to appear in the 1984 revision. Even the 1989 Prayer Book Eucharistic Liturgy Thanksgiving for Creation and Redemption was not built on that perspective “from the ground up”, but had creation words patched onto previous revisions]

Christians conscious of our responsibility to strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth may wish to explore A Rocha: “A Rocha is a Christian nature conservation organisation, our name coming from the Portuguese for “the Rock,” as the first initiative was a field study centre in Portugal. A Rocha projects are frequently cross-cultural in character, and share a community emphasis, with a focus on science and research, practical conservation and environmental education.”

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6 Responses to Earth Hour – dominion theology

  1. In Genesis 1 we humans are God’s deputy, God’s stewards.

    This seems a reasonable exegesis to me, especially with the continuation in ch.2 on “till” the ground, etc. Bind.

    in the next couple of verses in Genesis humans are not given the right to kill and eat animals!]

    This is true as stated, but tread carefully: in a recent church group this passage was taken and run-with and mangled into “…therefore you really should be a vegetarian to be an eco-friendly Christian”. Loose.

    When you write about post-modernism, what I see is that we have a new approach to the bible: we are now beyond taking it literally, know its origins in folk tales, and are looking to grasp the meat of relevance in the story, every day of our reality.

  2. I agree with Tim – it’s a good exegesis. However, what concerns me is that “Earth Hour” is aprt of the post-Jodaeo-Christian narrative that views humanity as essentially the same as any other creature, the main difference being that we are too many and our activities are suffocating the earth.

    This may seem a jaded analysis of the Anthropogenic Climate Change lobby; I may find it easier to listen to what they are saying when the leaderships of powerful bodies such as the IPCC are not filled with individuals who are doing very well out of the carbon-trading business, and when they (re)discover what the scientific method is.

  3. Thank you for sharing yet another deeply thoughtful post with the world. I think a great part of the problem has been the perceived lack of a clear command on this matter. With the Pharisaic and Medieval legalism examples always in front of us, we sensibly avoid creating laws and obligations where there is no requirement to do so in scripture.

    This may perhaps be short-sighted; not that we do not need a scriptural mandate, but that we overlook the mandate we do have. You have argued for a mandate based upon Genesis, but I would suggest a stronger mandate and one more consistent with our usual means of establishing obligation might come better from somewhat later texts.

    For example, one could develop this theology of environmental care from the Decalogue:
    – Thou shalt not kill: and this killing is the effect of mistreatment of the environment; for in so much as we pollute or impoverish the ground, air and waters to the eventual detriment of the health and nutrition of others, we do concretely and surely kill them.
    – Thou shalt not steal: if we grant that the creation is given not to us alone, but to mankind, we must acknowledge that if through negligence or greed we spoil its goodness that it not serve the coming generations well, then we do steal from them that which is given to them by God as their inheritance. A similar argument can be made in terms of theft from one’s neighbour where wasteful use causes present insufficiency.

    If we can look at environmental issues in these terms, primarily terms of our love to our neighbour, then we avoid the risk of being accused of worshipping the creation or of a Pharisaic synthesis of law. If we then relate this to a text such as the 5th chapter of Ephesians, we can suggest that if we sustain the environment so that it might be productive and healthy for our neighbours both current and future, we are engaged in the worship of and service to Christ through the love we show these our neighbours.

    This would match quite well with the BCP1662 prayers and their derivatives (are they in the NZPB?), such as from the prayer “that we may receive the fruits of the earth to our comfort, and to thy honour” or “O GOD, heavenly Father, whose gift it is that the rain doth fall, the earth is fruitful, beasts do increase, and fishes do multiply; Behold, we beseech thee, the afflictions of thy people; and grant that the scarcity and dearth, which we do now most justly suffer for our iniquity, may, through thy goodness be mercifully turned into cheapness and plenty; for the love of Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with thee and the Holy Ghost, be all honour and glory, now and for ever. Amen.” Even from the litany fits well with “That it may please thee to give and preserve to our use the kindly fruits of the earth, so that in due time we may enjoy them”

    I regret I’m not sure I can agree with all that has been set out in your post exegeticaly; yet that is not the more important part of the post and it will be left unaddressed.

  4. Thank you for this Father Bosco

    A big influence on me and one of my most prized books in my personal library the Dream of the Earth by Thomas Berry.

    Father Berry died last June. May he rest in peace, and may his insight still influence us as we contemplate this earth and our ongoing place within its systems.

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