What is our responsibility to creation? How might the book of Genesis be read differently to reflect our commitments to nature? Sinai and Synapses fellow John Marc Sianghio discusses how religion can inspire and mobilize us as stewards of the earth rather than encourage our unsustainable status quo.
This was part of a sermon delivered on June 11, 2017 at First Christian Church of Downers Grove.
View the transcript below:
This is my Father’s world
And to my listening ears
All nature sings and round me rings
The music of the spheres
This is my Father’s world
I rest me in the thought
Of Rocks and trees
Of skies and seas
His hand the wonders wrought.
For many of you, beloved of God, this song and the sentiment it captures is familiar. As our world warmed up this week and we shake off the Chicago chill once and for all (hopefully), to walk among trees that have come into their fullest blooms and to hear the birds sing along to the music of the wind, it’s hard not feel enthralled by the beauty and the fragile harmony of nature.
But in these last few weeks we’ve also been reminded how fragile this image of harmony is. One of the videos trending this week on social media recorded tigers in a Chinese zoo ravenously devouring a live donkey. I only caught a few very edited moments of the video in the news story that I read, but even that began with several warnings about the graphic and disturbing nature of the ways that the tiger tore into the donkey, and the screams of distress that the animal let out. As brutal as it may be, though, that is also natural.
Nature is not always beautiful, it’s not always balanced, in fact sometimes it is downright bloody. Ecologists tell us that while the metaphors of nature and ecosystems as balanced and harmonious webs of life might be popular, the best science of our day tells us that nature is a place of constant change, competition, predation, and death. Was so long before human beings showed up on the planet, and it will be so long after we are gone. No matter what we do or don’t do, whether it be through carbon emission or destroying the rain forest or even thermonuclear war, life on Earth, the Earth itself, and the climate will continue. In one way or another, it will thrive, and it will change.
But, though we may not threaten the earth in nature at large, the best science of our day also tells us that the fossil fuel burning used to power everything from our cars to our phones, and other carbon emission intensive activities that we humans engage in, are having drastic effects on our specific climate.
It is not just the weather day-to-day or the idea that animals will exist in some form forever, but the state of things on our planet in terms of how we understand them to be for most of human history. That is, the stable long-term weather patterns in different regions and the flora and fauna that grow there. This climate is the thing that lets me know that in Chicago I can predict snow in February, and heat waves in June. But when I go to my native country of the Philippines, I can get a mango straight from the tree because they grow there in constant tropical heat and humidity. And that I should expect to need an umbrella in Seattle. It’s what allows particular creatures to live and flourish in a particular place.
What we are changing is that stability. So that soon, Miami could be underwater. Alaska, nice and muggy. Places once lush with green become shriveled into lifeless deserts. I’ve said the best science of our day tells us that the earth’s climate, and life as we know it on earth, has always had some element of change, and also said that we seem to be doing quite a number on making those changes happen. But I’ve also said that no matter what we do or don’t do, the earth and even life will endure. I’ve said too that often nature isn’t the harmony we sometimes impose on earth. Sometimes she can be brutal, not so much a friend but a tyrant.
Where does that leave us? Climate change is a complex issue. What are we as human beings – specifically for us this morning, what are we as Christians supposed to do about it, if we’re supposed to do anything about it at all? Does God have anything to say about climate change, and our responses and responsibilities to nature?
Brothers and sisters, not only do I think God has something to say about our responsibilities to creation, our text this morning shows us that caring for creation is the first thing God talks about after he gets done creating. It’s on the first page. Care for creation is God’s first command. So a Christian response to climate change isn’t a request, it’s a requirement. What it requires, I think, are three R’s – not “reduce, reuse, recycle.” Three R’s responding to climate change. They are, as I told the kids, Rule, Reality, and Redemption. Rule, Reality, and Redemption. Now as Christians we talk about the commands of God a lot, because there are a lot of them. As individuals and societies, God gives us many mandates. The Ten Commandments, the Great Commission, the Golden Rule. The charge to care for the orphan and the widow in their distress, that James calls “true religion, pure and undefiled before God.” These are commands to care and to show love for our fellow human beings.
But as a species, as the family of human beings collectively, God gives us one job. While creeds and catechisms might render the answer to “what is the chief end of humankind?” as “to love God and to enjoy Him forever,” the very first purpose and the very first command that God sets out for us as a species, the Bible tells us very specifically, is to rule over creation. First Command of God in Genesis is to Rule. So the first “R” of responding to climate change is “Rule.” When you read our passage of Genesis this morning we see that God says “let us make humankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule, or alternately have dominion, over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all creatures that move along the ground.”
Beyond rule over the animals in the second chapter of Genesis, which we didn’t read this morning, but where the creation is recounted again, the text tells us in verse 15, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and to take care of it.” So perhaps our chief end when you go down the chain of logic is ultimately to glorify God, but the Word of God tells us specifically that God creates human beings to rule over nature, both plants and animals. Humans, then, are created for the purpose of caring for creation. We are endowed with our very noblest qualities, God says He makes us in his likeness, so that we might care for creation.
Now, there are some out there, even people who identify as faithful Christians, who take this idea of ruling over the nature or having dominion to mean that creation was created for us, and not us for creation, as I’ve said. These people think we are free to use the earth and its resources, even to the point of exploitation, as long as human civilization is flourishing. We’ll all be OK. Even if those scientists are right about the fact that human activity is having a significant effect on the planet and climate, God gave us this planet and its resources to use for the benefit of humankind. Surely, God, in His perfect will, infinite power, and unconditional love, isn’t gonna let things get too bad. After all what the psalmist asks, in light, all of the wonder of nature what are human beings that God is mindful of us, he concludes that even compared to the magnificence of nature, humans are nevertheless just below the heavenly beings. And crowned with glory and honor.
But brothers and sisters, heavy is the head that wears the crown. For in the Bible, when God anoints a ruler, he does so not to enrich and glorify the ruler, but so the ruler can care wisely for the flock. This is why when God was ready to replace the strong man Saul, that Israel stubbornly and in rebellion to God crowned as their king, when God was ready to give Israel a ruler not chosen by their stiff-neckedness but by God’s own grace, he chose not the most noble nor the strongest, but the man after his own heart, David, the gentle shepherd. The man who very literally cared for the animals in the beautiful wilds of God’s creation.
And when David’s line continued, his son Solomon, when given the choice of any gift from God, chose not power or wealth, but wisdom, to better tend his nation. And when Jesus was of the house and the mind of David who was the king of kings and lord of lords, true God from true God, comes to rule the nation, he says of his rule that his yoke is easy, his burden is light, and that rather than exploit us, he will give us rest. When God tells someone to rule, he isn’t giving them free reign to exploit and plunder the riches of the people and the land for themselves. Rather, he sends the Shepherd King to face Goliath, the Wise King to build a temple, and the King of Kings to die on a cross. The man after God’s own heart, God’s own son. We who are made in God’s very likeness, then, are meant to rule with compassion and sacrifice, and not with greed. Ruling over creation, then, means to rule with love.
Now you might be saying to yourself, “Great, John, if I were to rule the earth I would shut down all the plants releasing carbon, we’d all be driving electric cars as much as possible, we’d be living locally off the land, just like God intended it to be.” Well I’ve got news for you, brothers and sisters. None of us are now or ever will be here rulers of the Earth.
So that brings us to our second R, reality. We have to be real about the problem of climate change. Real not only about what the problem is and its scope, but also real about the impact that our actions have on the matter, and also the limitations that those impacts can have.
What is real is this. We as human beings are driving climate change. Let me say it again. What is real is this. We as human beings are driving climate change. Our best science tells us this, more importantly God seems to tell us, that we can. When he says you makes us in His own image, most writers have taken that to mean that God gave us minds to discern and freedom to act in nature. We are not creatures of pure instinct. That as creatures are subject to our nature and the vagaries of natural patterns, we are rulers with intellects who can reason, discern, and manipulate nature. It is in our core capacity, then, as human beings to be scientists and solution makers, artists and philosophers.
But, we’re not all-powerful. And we act within certain natural limits. But as David’s Song reminds us, we’re just a little lower than heavenly beings. We build levees against terrible storms, we’ve made medicine to cure disease, we’ve even defied gravity itself and gone to the moon. So it should come as no surprise that we can and do drive climate change to an extent and rapidity unprecedented in the history of our planet.
That being said, even if you wanted to stop and arrest climate change, we’re not each of us individually all-powerful. (This might come as news to some people in Washington, I think). It’s clear that this power, this is being made in the likeness of God, isn’t granted to us singularly as human beings. In all of our great accomplishment, it’s taken teams of people that have crossed boundaries, that have come together to solve problems. And though we are all made in God’s image individually, the gift of His likeness that God gives is not for one person alone, but rather a gift to the species, so that the species and not one man or or nation or faith might rule over nature, but rather the human species as a whole. So if we know then that God made human beings to rule creation by caring for creation, we know too that we must do it as a species. The job is just too big for any one man or woman. You can recycle, have local gardens, till are your bins are blue and your thumbs turn green. It’s not gonna solve the problem of climate change.
Curbing climate change is going to take a global cultural shift away from the culture of consumerism and the ways of waste. It’s going to need to be a political solution, Chicago bag taxes and carbon trading, limits on manufacturing and investment in renewable energy. It’s going to need to be a civilizational effort: climate agreements, and a general acknowledgment that a threat to the climate anywhere is an injustice everywhere. The magnitude of the problem of climate change sheds light on the blessing God gives in the passage we read this morning. If we read God’s blessing to be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it in light, His command to rule over and care for creation it seems that the great diversity of the seven billion people on our planet, the minds and culture stretched to the end of the earth, from Pittsburgh to Paris to Pyongyang, are meant to come together to rule the Earth by caring for creation. It’s the only way it’s going to happen.
“John,” you might say again, “if we’re being real, it seems that climate consensus is a dream.” Cooperation on the scale, especially after last week, seems internationally impossible. And it’s this reality of global cooperation and the vision of global cooperation that brings us to our third R of responding to climate change: Redemption. When we’ve ruled, when we’ve gotten real about what it means to rule, we need to move beyond what is simply real, the idealistic vision of redemption. When I say redemption, I don’t mean our individual souls. I mean the broad vision of redemption that God lays out when you read the Bible from cover to cover, the redemption of creation itself. When sin first entered the world, one of the first things that it brings about is that thorns start to pop out from the ground. God says we will only fulfill our mandate to care for creation by the sweat of our brow. Sin makes our job for caring for creation tougher, but the job of caring for creation isn’t one that sin takes away from us.
And neither is it God’s plan for us to get back to the garden. Sin and an Angel with a flaming sword bar our way back. God’s plan for redemption of all creation, as Revelations says, is the City of God: The New Jerusalem, a place where every tribe, nation and tongue works in cooperation to build each other up for the glory of God. Where the lion lies down with the lamb, and the advances of human civilization and art and technology do not come at the expense of the burning of fossil fuel and the destruction of nature. Where the city and the wilderness do not come into competition, but do finally exist in harmony.
We don’t live in that world now. But that is the world but God call us to. The world where the great achievements of civilization, that in many ways have come at the expense of nature, of burning coal, of driving native peoples from their land and ways of living close to the land, can be maintained without the rape of the environment and the genocide of people and cultures. It is an effort mandated for us as species cooperatively. And only as a species, when rights are respected ideas are exchanged, laws are broken down, and bonds between human beings and our surrounding environment are forged, only then, and only that can build the city. Only that can bring about the redemptive vision of God, and while it might seem like it’s out of our reach, like it’s a La La Land, and it is nevertheless the reach that must needs exceed our grasp.
Because this is our Father’s world. This is our Father’s earth and he loved it so much that he gave it to us, to tend it, and gave us to the earth for its care. This is our Father’s world. And as our passage says, when He was done, when He had finally established human beings to care for the earth, then and only then, our passage tells us, God finally looked down, surveyed his creation, and said it was good.