Christian Earth Stewardship—A Critique: Principle Five

June 18, 2016 § Leave a comment

Principle 5: We have been given dominion over the earth—but we hold that dominion only as stewards of creation.

Therefore, earth stewardship should include concrete communication with God.

The essentials of dominion in stewardship are these:

God has given us lordship over creation as a trust. God still ‘owns’ creation and will hold us accountable for what we do with it. In the meantime, we are its stewards.

It is increasingly clear that we are failing our responsibilities under the agreement. In fact, there actually is no agreement. Our dominion has grown to the point that we now routinely defy the very forces of earth’s gravity and fill the firmament with heavenly bodies of our own making. The Powers of dominion—the corporations and governments—worship their own gods, and these gods—Mammon and the Principalities—mostly laugh at the idea of divinely sanctioned limits to their dominion, if they are aware of them at all.

Even the semi-theocratic administration of George W. Bush gleefully tilled paradise but systematically failed to keep it. Christian earth stewardship is an abject failure and our dominion, in the absence of our stewardship, has run completely amok. Why? What is the problem?

What’s wrong with the Christian theology of dominion that it has allowed, sometimes even encouraged, such idolatry? What’s wrong with Christian stewardship theology that it has so thoroughly failed to catch on, even in seminaries, let alone in the pews, and failed to stop the idolatry of eco-destruction?

The problem with dominion

The theology of dominion comes from the Bible, specifically, from Genesis 1:27-28:

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number, fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air and all the creatures that move on the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.”

And it was so.

Though slightly less familiar, Psalm 8 is more explicit:

Lord, our Master,
how majestic Your name in all the earth!
Whose splendor was told of the heavens.
From the mouth of babes and sucklings
you founded strength
on account of Your foes
to put an end to enemy and avenger.
When I see Your heavens, the work of Your fingers,
the moon and the stars You fixed firm,
“What is man that You should note him (sic),
and the human creature, that You pay him heed,
and You make him little less than the gods,
with glory and grandeur You crown him?
You make him rule over the work of Your hands.
All things You set under his feet.
Sheep and oxen all together,
and also the beasts of the field,
birds of the heavens and fish of the sea,
what moves on the paths of the seas.”
Lord, our Master,
how majestic Your name in all the earth!

The writers of both these passages clearly saw dominion as a blessing, a gift, rather than a commandment. Genesis 1:28 is explicit on this point. The fact of our dominion and the sheer scope of our power today has allowed us to see it as an entitlement, even though the ‘fact’ of our ownership of other creatures must have seemed far less established to the Psalmist than it does today. Anyone who deals with farm animals and their predators day in and day out knows just how easy it is for even a docile cow to accidentally maim you for life. Torah covers goring by oxen as both a criminal and a civil matter because oxen are powerful, dangerous and not always submissive to human dominion (Ex. 21:28f).

We’ve already discussed the social and environmental context for which Genesis 1 was written: exiled priests wrote it to encourage a small community of settlers returning from exile in Babylon only to find lions roaming the desolate streets of Jerusalem. The zealots among the settlers (and wouldn’t that be most of them, or they wouldn’t have returned from Babylon to resettle the homeland in the first place?) must have held on to that blessing with a desperate faith in the promise more than with the confident assurance of their real experience. Think of the Jewish settlers of the West Bank today, then infest the city with ghosts and predators roaming ruins and all the good farmland already taken.

The theology of dominion that we take for granted today has resulted from centuries of industrialization, urbanization, and the increasing dominion of the mass-production, mass-consumption society, in which people (especially theologians) have jobs, not farms, and rarely encounter real ‘nature,’ let alone oxen that they or their father have ‘trained’ not to gore the neighbors.

The industrial revolution has turned animals, once our partners in survival, into subjects true and simple. We don’t want them for the work they can do for us anymore. We just want the hamburgers. Modern industrial farming treats them as producers, as living machines to be warehoused and operated. As for predators, the primal fears of the modern agribusiness manager are reserved for the creditors and the viruses; wolves and lions are, practically speaking, no more than metaphors for the bank.

Where in the Bible—or in the real post-industrial world—would today’s Christians find sufficient reason to temper our dominion?

Lynn White, in his landmark indictment of Christianity for causing the environmental crisis, said that the main problem was that Christian theology (that is, biblical theology) desacralized nature while, at the same time, it has promoted dominion. Dominion has played a less important role than he claimed. But desacralization of nature strikes right to the very heart of the matter. The problem with dominion is not so much our power over creation, which industrialization has made a concrete and undeniable reality, but the desacralization that comes with it.

If your religion confers sacred status on the creatures you depend on for survival, as traditional indigenous religions do; and if you experience them as spiritual presences in your life, you will treat them completely differently than if you confer upon them the status of property and experience them as instruments of wealth generation. This desacralization of creation is exactly what the writers of Genesis 1 intended. They blamed the quasi-animist Baal worship and its myths and rites of fertility, in which the people participated in the sacred cycles of the seasons, as the cause of the catastrophes that befell Israel and Judah, and they feared the resumption of such beliefs and practices while under the dominion of Babylon. Clearly, they modeled the creation story of Genesis 1 on Babylon’s own creation myth, Enemu Elish, but in the Babylonian story, the gods create by procreating. The Israelite myth-makers removed the gods, made the creative act the word of God rather than sex (“and Yahweh said, “Let there be…”), and then set humans over it all. No spiritual presences, just animals and plants desacralized. No fertility rituals, just a Sabbath day of rest from work.

Here indeed, lies a huge problem for earth stewards—that nature isn’t sacred; it’s just property. And the only way to temper its mismanagement is stewardship, beliefs and practices designed to make sure that the true owner doesn’t get angry with you over how you managed his (sic) property. So, in practical terms, the problem with dominion is the solution that earth stewards propose—it’s our stewardship.

The problem with stewardship

So what are the guidelines? Where in the Bible are the rules by which God will hold us accountable for our care of creation? Given these principles of earth stewardship, where are the practices of earth stewardship to be found?

Almost without exception, the Bible passages that earth stewardship writers offer us tell us that we should take care of creation, but now how. We could start with Genesis 2:15: “And Yahweh God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” Of course, Adam and Eve—that is, we humans—were subsequently cast out of Paradise. Are we still supposed to take care of the cursed, thistle-infested, sweat-soaked earth that our disobedience has bought us, with only women for us men to rule over instead of the whole world? Sounds like a little lashing out at the thistles and the females might be in order. Plus gratitude for any technology that seems to reduce the sweat—gratitude that now borders on worship.

Like Genesis 2:15, virtually every one of the passages listed in my scriptural resource under stewardship sheds some light—and casts a shadow. This is especially true for Christian scripture and even the contributions of Jesus himself. Where earlier prophets, especially Jeremiah, had occasionally condemned bad ‘earth stewardship,’ at least indirectly (Jer 12:4; overgrazing), Jesus never does. All we have is four parables of property stewardship:

  • the parable of the tenants Lk 20:9-18 (Mt 21:32-44; Mk 12:1-11)
  • the parable of the wise servant Lk 12:42-48 (Mt 20:45-51)
  • the parable of the talents Lk 19:12-27 (Mt 25:14-30)
  • the parable of the wasteful manager Lk 16:1-13

On the surface, these parables look promising. They’re about stewardship, the bad stewards get their come-uppance, and so the message is, treat the master’s property right. You cannot serve two masters; it’s either God or your money (Lk 16:13). Except that these parables are not really about property. They use property as a metaphor and they do apply directly to economic justice, to matters concerning debt and the feeding and beating of servants. Mostly, though, they are about “true riches”—the kingdom of heaven. So they only apply to earth stewardship indirectly.

More importantly for us earth stewards, in all these parables, God is an absentee landlord. God comes back to find that [his] stewards have mismanaged [his] estate. To make matters worse, the servants (us) have no idea when he’s coming back. And when the master does come, he punishes. Severely. It is as though, in order to add insult to the injury of a vague timing of the threat—the fact that you don’t really know when the Landlord will show up—the stories make the punishment more extreme. I’m going to make it harder for you to know when I’ll return to judge you, and when I do, you can expect harsh treatment for any mismanagement. Although periodically some apocalyptic movement tries to trim our lamps for us, the fact is that we have been waiting for two thousand years now for the Landlord’s return. By now, the threat seems rather empty, harsh as it is.

These are the crucial flaws of Christian earth stewardship:

First, that God is falsely portrayed as absent.

Second, that the idea of earth stewardship rests on the flimsiest possible biblical pillars and Jesus himself is no real help. Earth stewardship is not integral to the gospel and it’s barely even biblical.

Third, we have no instructions. We had instructions once, but Paul convinced us to throw Torah out. And anyway, those instructions are three thousand years old and assume an agrarian/pastoral economy and a religious culture of animal and vegetable sacrifice.

More to the point, we have no religiously defined and sanctioned way to directly ask the Owner for whom we are stewards, “What do You want from us? What is Your will?” All stewards come up against questions that exceed their knowledge and authority to answer. Some decisions belong in the hands of the owner of the property. What then? We have not even realized that this problem exists.

Finally, even if we knew what to do, even if we had an operating manual for the earth, even if we had a way to ask the Owner for guidance directly when the really big questions come up, no practical way exists to hold ourselves accountable in real life and real time for our treatment of real places. There are no meaningful consequences for bad earth stewardship—except the one imposed by failing ecosystems, by the ‘inivisble hand’ of the Creator, as it were.

In order to succeed, Christian earth stewardship needs four fundamental reforms:

First, a spiritual awakening to the presence of the Creator, and the creative Word, and the Holy Spirit in the landbases and earth systems and creatures on whom we depend as a species—a resacralization of creation in terms that avoid the heresy of nature worship.

Second, a new reading of the gospel—a gospel of the land, a land-based gospel in which our role as stewards is integral, if not central, to our experience of Jesus and his message.

Third, we need instruction from God. We need guidelines for the day-in and day-out of land management. And we need a way to ask God for guidance and permission when the big problems come up, like global warming and species extinction, problems for which our impact on the created systems is so great as to overrule the Creator’s original design. And not just a way to ask; also, a way to receive an answer and test the answer to be sure it is of God.

Finally, once we have an answer, we need processes and institutions for accountability—a way to hold each other accountable for the care of our landbases that actually changes behavior. Do we need laws, courts, prosecutors, and judges, at least for the protection of land in the care of our members and congregations? How else might we bring good gospel order to the matter? We could start with Matthew 18:15-20. Certainly, we also need prophets, a new and creative way to hold the wider culture morally accountable in ways that go beyond the mute and tardy voice of the ballet box. For one thing, election politics only affects government regulation and policy, and the greater power is the economy and the corporate households that make it up.

Earth stewardship instruction

Let me return to the need for instruction, because it is the missing key to earth stewardship. No greater task awaits us as earth stewards than finding a way to reliably commune with our God about how to be faithful in our stewardship. Thankfully, we are not without resources.

Paul alludes to such a process when he discusses the regulation of the gifts of the spirit (1 Cor 14:26-33, esp. vv. 29 & 32). And, of course, ancient Israel had her prophets, court prophets like Nathan and the great independent prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah. For both kinds of prophets, processes seem to have existed for dealing with their messages in a formal way in the royal court. We need to restore the lost DNA of the prophetic tradition, and to restore the institution receptors that would allow the prophetic voice to express itself effectively.

In our own time, in two religious communities, these receptors are already (theoretically) active. The Roman Catholic Pope can speak for God to the world and to his own people with prophetic authority. And the Quakers have a tradition of prophetic ministry, though Quakers have lost much of the culture of eldership that nurtured this ministry in centuries past. Many Friends labor creatively to save what’s left of this tradition and adapt it to our modern circumstances, but so far, with limited success.

As for day-to-day guidance, we have the first book of revelation, creation itself, and we are learning the language in which it was written—the earth sciences. The prophetic voice that does command some respect these days among at least some Christians is that of science. Earth stewards must be literate earth scientists.

Not that we should give up the Bible. We can’t ask Christians to give up their Book, even though it weighs especially heavily on our work as earth stewards, with its unscientific creation stories and its relative silence on matters we would love to have real guidance on. So we need creative interpretation of the Bible, or we are lost.

For all that the Chrstian tradition has been interpreting and reinterpreting its own literature for more than three thousand years, still new revelation awaits us. Very, very few trained ecologists have become students of the Bible. I’ve tried, but I am an amateur. I know that ‘adamah’ refers to the red clayey soil that is the only soil in Palestine that needs no fertilizer or reconstitution to be productive farming soil—and that has real theological significance for our understanding of Adam, that is, of ourselves as ‘the human.’ But there is so much more to know! Let’s get to it.

Meanwhile, when we find the Bible in conflict with proven ecological science, as with the creation stories, we simply have to side with the science. Because science, too, is one form of God’s revelation.

We have no theology of land management yet. But we do have the truth about creation, the laws with which it was created and which govern it. The two should be merged. Not just with an imprimatur on ecological principles, but by transforming the way we think about God. We need an understanding of God that is informed by the first revelation of creation, that understands how ecology has already shaped our religious tradition, and that seeks ways to reshape the tradition as new knowledge is revealed.

I propose a great religious-scientific experiment. Let us experiment with ways to hear God’s prophetic voice in a new land-based spirituality. Let us see what an ecological gospel might look like—what a theology built on biblical and scientific revelation might say about caring for creation. And let us test the results on our own property and in the marketplace. Let us refine our approach as the results come in. Let us put our light on a stand so that the whole house may be lit.


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