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.
June 9, 2016 § Leave a comment
Principle 4: God is the sovereign proprietor of earth. Therefore, earth stewardship is radical land reform.
This is potentially the most radical of all the earth stewardship principles if we take full responsibility for it. At the least, it redefines—and should apply to—the commons, the gifts that all humans and generations hold in common: the atmosphere, including the ozone layer, the seas and great lakes, underground resources like water, oil, coal and other minerals, the electromagnetic spectrum . . .
At the most, God’s sovereign proprietorship of creation and all its bounty challenges the most basic assumptions of capitalism (the private ownership of capital, especially capital resources like minerals), and some aspects of the liberal political-philosophical tradition, especially the central importance of individual rights over and against the rights of the community and the central importance of privately owned property.
As with the other principles, my main criticism of this one is that God’s ownership of earth is just an idea, a theological notion with no practical development or application in the earth stewardship tradition, let alone in our personal and congregational lives. As with the other principles also, a full treatment of how we might live this principle will have to wait until we discuss the principles of dominion and covenant. But the idea itself—that we do not own creation with all its gifts—and its implications for community practice, deserve much more careful attention.
Ownership and inheritance: economics in the commonwealth of God
The Bible has not so much to say about land use, but a great deal to say about land tenure. In a few key passages, the Bible declares God’s ownership and rulership of God’s creative handiwork. And it develops the practical implications of this principle in Torah, the teachings in the Pentateuch, and in the teachings of Jesus and his prophetic predecessors, on inheritance—on who should own the land and under what conditions. The essence of the principle is this: the earth does not belong to us. That is, the ‘earth’ does not belong to humans; ‘public’ lands do not belong to government; private properties do not belong to you or me. We possess the right of usufruct, upon condition of covenantal obedience. But the Creator does not relinquish ownership of the Creator’s divine handiwork.
As a consequence, because it does not belong to us, we cannot just do with the earth as we please. This is the foundation of Christian earth stewardship.
Founding our earth stewardship on biblical principles of property ownership should make us radical critics of capitalism. Capitalism also is founded on principles of property ownership and the two sets of principles tend to confound each other. No other earth stewardship principle has such far-reaching implications for how we live and for our impact on creation through economics, the system by which we work and produce, sustain and project ourselves on the earth.
This is obvious. Nevertheless, we’ve seen very little revolutionary thinking about what an economic system founded on God’s ownership of the world would look like, let alone practical experiments in alternatives that take this principle seriously. We’ve seen some good work on sustainability, but that assumes we keep the private ownership of capital—the foundations of capitalism—intact and just reform the balance sheet, that we make sure that our assets and liabilities line up, and that we consider the landbase when calculating profit and loss. This is an important, even necessary, work and, given that we do not plan to establish a theocracy, really the only way earth stewards can reasonably proceed in a pluralistic democratic society. But reforming capitalism is a secular path; it ignores the greater implications of the biblical principle of divine ownership that virtually all earth stewardship writers proclaim. A more rigorous sense of religious and intellectual integrity requires that we either jettison this principle or explore it more fully, at least on behalf of our own communities and their micro-economies.
This is one of the great failings of earth stewardship, that it has founded itself on a radical economic principle and then failed to build a meaningful economic superstructure on the foundation. This is mainly because, following Paul rather than Jesus, Christianity has abandoned the original superstructure built with Torah.
The Bible makes the rather abstract principle of divine ownership into a practical set of teachings for active community life by encoding the principle in inheritance law and supporting it with an economic theory (that is, a theology) of redemption (that is, of restoring families back to land they have lost through bankruptcy). In the biblical worldview, Israel—both the land and the people—are Yahweh’s ‘portion’; they are His (sic) inheritance by right of redemption through conquest. But he has handed over his estate—the land of Israel—to his people Israel as an inheritance with terms of covenant somewhat like the covenants we sometimes attach to land sales today.
Let me take off into a bit of a tangent in order to explain. This will be a longish detour, but it’s absolutely necessary, given the fundamental importance of the principle of divine ownership in earth stewardship thinking. And besides, it’s fascinating.
Redemption Economics and the Origins of our Tradition
When Jacob (Israel) was forced by famine to go to Egypt and sell his tribe into slavery in order not to starve (Gen 43), he and his people were saved from this debt slavery because Jacob’s lost son Joseph was the vizier in charge of the negotiations. But after Joseph died, the Egyptian crown conveniently forgot the special arrangement for the tribe of Israel and they ended up in debt slavery anyway, trading their labor for their food.
When Yahweh delivered Israel from the hand of Pharaoh at the Exodus, Yahweh took possession of the debt note previously held by Pharaoh: now Israel owed Yahweh for both its existence as a people and its subsistence as tribes, family groups and individuals.
Yet, out of loving-kindness, Yahweh redeemed his (sic) people; he gave them back their life and gave them the land he had promised so long ago to Jacob’s grandfather and grandmother. Under the terms of the covenant, however, he continued to demand a token payment in commemoration of his redemption of their debt to him—“the first offspring of every womb,” including the firstborn sons. As for these human first offspring, he provided a mechanism for their redemption, also. Instead of being sacrificed, like the firstborn livestock, these children were ‘bought’ back by their families with an economic payment/sacrifice. Furthermore, sin-breaches of covenant required material offerings that served as token payments (Lev 4-5) that likewise commemorated the original gift of redemption and that signified renewed commitment to the covenant, its terms, and its God with an ‘economic’ transaction in the form of sin offerings and guilt offerings.
Thus, the entire sacred economy of ancient Israel, with its offerings and sacrifices, its tithes, and its consecration of firstborn, hinged on the foundational act of divine redemption, in which Yahweh took Israel as his own from out of the land of Egypt and then released Israel from the debt they owed to him for his salvation/redemption.
This is why both Torah and the prophets, including especially Jesus, are preoccupied with the poor and with redemption (forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors)—with relieving the poor from the burden of debt. The cancellation of debt (redemption) and the restoration of property to debtors on the part of God the divine Creditor is the people of Israel’s foundational experience: they became God’s people through an act of redemption, through the canellation of a debt. Everything they had—their freedom, their land, their livelihood, their very existence as a people—was a redemption gift. And it was also a lease, whose terms were defined by the covenant.
Thus the foundation of ancient Israelite religion and identity was an economic act. God forgave Israel the debt that the people owed God for having been redeemed from debt slavery in Egypt. And the religious superstructure of Yahwistic faith (Torah) was, in one of its all-pervasive dimensions, a system of divinely mandated economics designed to manage this debt.
I go into all this detail because I want to make clear how important the idea of God’s ownership in its economic sense is, not just to earth stewardship, but to the Christian gospel itself. There is so much more to say about the economics of redemption in the common-wealth of God, but it takes us even farther away from a focused critique of earth stewardship. In fact, I began another book on a land-based gospel because of my deep dissatisfaction with earth stewardship’s lack of economic substance and almost complete ignorance of the significance of Jesus’ teachings on economic debt and land reform for a sustainable, spiritual relationship with our landbases.
Taking God’s Ownership of ‘the Earth” Seriously
But let us have no illusions about how far this idea so essential to our religious tradition could go in today’s market economy. Today, the market is god. Even in the theocracy envisioned by some on the Christian right, biblical principles of sin and forgiveness apply only to a fairly narrow range of issues in personal moral life and communal concern. They do not extend to the workings of the market. Over the market, the market itself is god and everything is for sale in the market: pornography and sex toys, weapons and congressional legislation, electromagnetic spectrum and wetlands, even our grandchildren’s future.
Religious communities that want to recover a covenantal relationship with God and the gifts God has loaned to us have only church property and their members’ personal property to work with—and a prophetic voice with which to challenge the excesses of the market. It was no different for Jesus and his community; they had no more control over their economy, which was controlled by a priesthood that had sold out to an imperial occupying power, and which was double-taxed, by the temple and then again by Rome. For our communities as for the first disciples, the economics of redemption in the commonwealth of God requires a vigorous ministry to the poor, and, like Jesus’ followers, we must do for ourselves rather than look to government, since Pharaoh’s heart is ever hardened.
With their longstanding emphasis on social justice and on environmental justice in particular, earth stewardship writers have taken a lead on these issues. They have found their prophetic voice. But a crucial step remains, crucial in the sense of taking up the cross: religious communities at all levels—congregations, synods, dioceses, denominations, inter-denominational councils—should take up the principle of God’s ownership of their own property with a more developed economic and ecological—that is, covenantal—understanding, and see what innovations in land ownership and management the Holy Spirit leads us to. We already enjoy special economic status in partial recognition of our situation in society: we do not pay taxes. How can we build on this in creative ways?
Churches already exist outside the market economy, as a gift-based economy. We rely on donations not profits for our existence. We already have a theology of stewardship, recognizing that we hold the assets of the institution in trust on behalf of the community as a whole and as a responsibility to God, and we urge our members to consider the care and continuance of the institution as a stewardship obligation.
We need only to extend the assets we consider in this way to include the church’s land, as land in an ecology, and not just as the grounds on which the buildings stand; and to extend our stewardship to include our obligation to God vis a vis the ecosystems God has gifted to us as our habitation. Finally, and most importantly, we need to restructure church governance to take explicit account of God’s ownership as the foundation of our stewardship. We shall return to this when we discuss principle six, covenant.
June 8, 2016 § Leave a comment
Principle 3: The purpose of our earth stewardship is to glorify God
This principle defines the proper purpose of an economic system in a Christian community. The word ‘eco-nomics’ literally means the laws of the household. The purpose of the earth household, as earth stewardship interprets its laws, is to glorify God. For thousands of years, human households accommodated themselves to the divine laws of earth household, more or less, or they perished. And, according to the Bible, the divine laws of earth household have served the divine interest, to divine glory.
Until now. As Thomas Berry puts it, industrial human civilization has taken creation off of God’s ‘auto-pilot’ system and put it on manual control. Human tools—human technologies—have given humans the leverage that makes ‘manual override’ of creation possible. Now human ‘laws’ govern how we use these tools, whose interests they serve. In practice, this mostly has been the interests of stockholders and private property, at least in the modern Western, over-developed economies. The earth stewardship principle of God-glorifying purpose challenges this usurpation of purpose. Earth stewardship demands that we align the interests of human households of every scale with the laws inherent in earth household.
This applies to all four types of human ‘households’—that is, to the four types of human organization that produce and consume:
- family households;
- businesses, ruled by the laws of profit and loss;
- nonprofits of all kinds, including religious organizations; and
- communities, and the governments that manage not just the business of the community (justice and peacekeeping, education, war and the military, records, public health and welfare, etc.), but also the commons and the community’s infrastructures.
Earth stewardship writers, like their secular environmentalist counterparts, have focused primarily on family households, as consumers, and on governments, as regulators. They have focuesd less consistently and less vigorously on direct challenge to corporate households, leaving that to governments as their surrogates in this arena. They also have tended to forget about themselves, to forget about congregations, in particular, as communities that produce and consume, and as communities that could model new ways for households to live on the land.
I believe the main focus of earth stewardship should be on these latter two hitherto less attended-to kinds of households. Business cares not a fig for the glory of God. Its purpose is profit. And business drives most of the destruction of creation.
Earth stewards should develop a much more creative and aggressively prophetic voice regarding business and economics, challenging both the system and the organizations and institutions that give it a body. On the positive side, earth stewardship should guide the creation of businesses that praise God and augment rather than diminish God’s handiwork. We should redefine business interest from profit and loss to service and protection. And we should redefine work.
Work as worship
If we believe that the heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament proclaims His (sic) handiwork, then how, in practical terms, should our own handiwork—our earth stewardship and our human labor—add to creation’s worship? Beyond, that is, the obvious responsibility to do nothing that would diminish or degrade creation’s praise, which basic principle we have almost completely forsaken in our wantonness. What positive implications flow from the principle of purpose, beyond the obligation to restore what we have destroyed, to the degree that we can?
We are the only creature that, like God, creates with our handiwork. This means that the work of our hands and minds should be offerings of worship.
We should be able to joyfully lay what we make and do upon the altar of our worship as tokens of our gratitude, in imitation of God’s love of beauty and goodness, in respect of God’s abundance. The products and services of a faithful Christian economy, including our systems of delivery—transportation, packaging, advertising, etc.—should be fully recyclable and/or renewable, so as not to diminish but rather augment creation’s abundance and providence.
Just as importantly, work itself should be a blessing, not a curse, Genesis chapter three notwithstanding. The earth steward is right to question the Bible’s curse of labor. Yes, our toil is painful sometimes, but not always. Not all labor is a curse. Indeed, we often find joy in our work. And which glorifies God more, our pleasure in our labor, or our pain? Is the Judge of Genesis 3 so enamored of His (sic) judgment that only pain and sweat do satisfy? If so, then God would want us to deliberately add to the pain of work with workplaces of torture. Which, actually, greed and heartlessness all too often allow.
Rather, does not God’s judgment hang more heavily over bad business management, over the often distorted relations that govern our labor? Does not the Book of Life record whether we have loved our neighbor, down to the least of them—whether their wages can support a family and leave them an inheritance? Whether the wage slaves are set free? Whether the debtor finds mercy? Whether the worker, regardless of station, can know pleasure, growth and satisfaction in what she or he does? For whatever we do unto each other in our management of labor, we do unto the carpenter’s son. Thus, in how we make things no less than in what we make does the glory of God shine.
June 4, 2016 § Leave a comment
Principle Two: We worship the Creator, not the creation
Divine presence in creation—earth stewardship is protecting God’s revelation, for God is present in creation.
God may not dwell in nature in any way that invites our worship of nature. But God has certainly been present in nature in ways that invite our worship in nature. All of the important divine revelations in the Jewish and Christian and even Quaker traditions have taken place outdoors, often in wilderness, and usually through natural agency. Let’s list them:
Universal and symbolic revelation
- The act of creation itself—the Word of John’s gospel at work, God’s first revelation.
- God first speaks with Adam and Eve in the Garden—God’s first communication/revelation to humans.
- The Deluge—God first uses nature as a weapon.
- God promises covenantal peace to Noah; the rainbow as sign/revelation.
- Revelation to the patriarchs and matriarchs
- God promises fertility, a nation, and a landbase to Abram, taking him outside to count the stars (Gen 15:4-5), and again “near the great trees of Mamre” (Gen 18:1).
- God delivers Isaac from human sacrifice and renews the Abrahamic covenantal promise—a mountain and wilderness revelation. [Gen 22]
- Jacob wrestles with God/God’s angel and receives his name-giving as Israel—a river revelation. [Gen 32:22-32]
Revelations to Israel—the origins and deliverance of the people Israel
- God commissions Moses at the burning bush—a mountain and wilderness revelation.
- God redeems his tribe and creates a people at the Passover and Exodus.
- God reveals the law at Sinai—a mountain and wilderness revelation.
- God gives Ezekiel visions of the temple’s reconstruction by the River Chebar—a river revelation.
The origins of Christianity
- God provides signs at Jesus’ birth.
- God provides signs at Jesus’ baptism—a river revelation.
- Jesus is tested in the wilderness—a wilderness revelation.
- Jesus teaches the twelve and feeds the thousands; the sermon on the mount—mountain revelations.
- Jesus is transfigured—a mountain revelation.
- Jesus faces another trial in Gethsemane—a mountain (non-)revelation.
- Jesus is crucified—a mountain revelation.
- Jesus is raised from the dead.
- Jesus ascends into heaven—a mountain revelation.
Continuing revelation today
- The sacraments—baptism and the Eucharist—revelations through water and the fruits of the vine.
The Quaker tradition
- George Fox has a vision in which “I was come up into that state in which Adam was before he fell, in which the admirable works of the creation, and the virtues thereof, may be known, through the openings of that divine Word of wisdom and power by which they were made.” (Journal, Nickals ed., p.28)
- Fox has a vision on Pendle Hill of “a great people to be gathered”.
- Fox convinces several thousand Seekers at Firbank Fell and the Quaker movement is born in that beautiful, isolate place.
- John Woolman—several outdoor revelations.
God clearly prefers to communicate with God’s people outdoors, in natural surroundings or, better yet, in wild places. Especially on mountains or near rivers. Furthermore, many of us (certainly this is true of me) have had our own transforming religious experiences in nature, often as children or adolescents.
Nevertheless, despite the powerful lessons of our own tradition, we worship indoors. Our seminarians study under fluorescent lights. Their spiritual directors do not think of sending them into the wilderness for 40 days and nights of spiritual formation under the direct tutelage of the Holy Spirit and the Creator Father, even though this is what Jesus himself did. Unlike Jesus, who could have been a trail guide for the desolate places of Galilee, we often do not even know where our water comes from or where our waste goes.
Moses, Elijah, Jesus—these prophets knew the spiritual ecology of their landbases, none better than Jesus. He went to particular places for specific spiritual purposes. Why? Because the written tradition (not to mention local lore now mostly lost to us) gave these places religious-historical meaning. And because the landscape itself supported that meaning. Mostly, this had to do with thunderstorms, rain and lightning—that is, with the climate, topography, and ecology of Palestine, with the character of divine revelation, and with the character of the Divine Revelator. These prophets not only knew their ‘ecology,’ they also knew their God.
Ecology, specifically the climate and topography of Palestine, have played a defining role in the origins of our religious tradition and how we understand God’s revelations to us. Yet the earth stewardship tradition goes out of its way to warn us off of the very practices that brought Moses and Jesus into intimate communion with the Creator.
Every religion fears its mystics. They are out of your control. And they claim a higher source of authority, one that comes directly from God, than that of the people, structures, and rituals that a tradition can offer. They are going to trust the ideas and religious impulses that come from such direct revelation more than the ideas and behavior that predominate in any tradition. George Fox and Jesus himself stand shoulder to shoulder as rebel mystic prophets.
And the western religious tradition has always feared the paganism that lies so close to its own roots, but against which it has always defined itself. “Pagan” comes from the Latin pago, meaning to farm; “heathen” comes from heath—the western religious tradition has always also feared the people of the land, indigenous peoples, people who find the Creator in creation. And so it has turned its back on even its own foundational traditions of revelation in nature.
Modern religious earthcare practice should return to nature, where all the evidence of our own tradition suggests we are most likely to encounter God.
June 3, 2016 § 2 Comments
Principle 1: Creation is good . . . so where is the gratitude?
Our goal is Christian community that lives gently on the land and offers pragmatic and prophetic alternatives to the world’s ways. Over the past 60 years, earth stewardship theologians have answered this call from God with increasing maturity and creativity. Our faithfulness to God’s call has included strong commitment to our tradition. Thus, while many tributaries have fed the movement, its main themes of Christian earth stewardship remain in the mainstream of Christian tradition.
However, its influence in real Christian communities and on the wider society has been minimal. In the last chapter, we explored some reasons why this might be so. We entertained some questions and challenges that might open ways toward deeper, more successful engagement with our ecological problems and options. Now I want to answer some of these questions, to move from the descriptive, rhetorical, and exploratory to the prescriptive, critical and provocative.
I’m going to challenge each principle one by one, but many of my questions and observations and criticisms cut through the individual principles to challenge the framework of earth stewardship as a whole. Indeed, many cut through earth stewardship as a niche theology within the tradition to challenge the fundamentals of the tradition itself. This is one of the marks of the severity of the ecological crises we face, that they call even our foundations as a civilization into question.
I am not optimistic, not about the prospects for change I outline in the following pages. Religious communities are inherently conservative, and rightly so. It should be hard to change an ancient yet living tradition. I don’t expect the mainstream of Christian tradition to change. But it has happened in the past. It happened in Judea two thousand years ago.
I do have faith, however, in the Holy Spirit. Something will happen. I may have it all wrong about the details, or even the broad outlines, of the revolution I propose. But I do expect God—the Mystery and Reality behind our religious experience—to reach through our inertia and ignorance and even our sinfulness to activate life-affirming changes in us—in some of us, anyway. In you and in me? What do you think?
Let’s find out . . .
Principle 1: Creation is good—so where is the gratitude?
I am sitting on the porch of a little cabin in the Poconos. Before me the hill slopes steeply down to Lake Wallenpaupack. The grass is lush, bright emerald in the sun, a deeper forest shade where the huge white pine throws its silhouette. The surrounding forest marches down to the lake on the right; on the left, from the water’s edge, the tree line angles up and to the left, framing the prospect of the lake. Across the wind-riffled grey of the water, on the farther shore, the forest climbs back up to the sky.
Robins hunt worms in the greensward. Swallows hunt the air above, zooming in their crazy patterns, flashing their underbellies as they bank, returning occasionally to the boxes on their poles placed around the fenced-in garden. Behind the fence, whose planks are blotched with moss, lie strawberry plants, tomatoes, a huge rhubarb plant—an acre of food. So good! So much to be thankful for!
But when, as a person raised in the Christian tradition, would I join my religious community in concentrated gratitude for all this? Where is the date on the religious calendar for the religious feast of thanksgiving?
These colors, the scent of pine, the song of birds, the brush of the breeze upon my face, the taste of this coffee and those strawberries; the food, the fuel, the building materials and fabrics; the sun, the clement climate, the aluminum for the boat and the refined oil that drove my wife and I here; my body and its senses, my brain and my words, my joy in the moment, my very life itself—all this—creation—all this is the first expression of the Creator’s goodness, unfolding for eons before the Incarnation and the Atonement. And without these first gifts, the Incarnation and Atonement could not have occurred. Yet when in the annual cycle of the Savior Son’s gifts do we remember and celebrate—and give thanks for—the prerequisite gifts of the Creator Father.
Perhaps you will point to Thanksgiving, the holiday. But Thanksgiving is uniquely American, or at least North American, and it is a secular holiday—it takes place on a Thursday. Moreover, Thanksgiving is rooted in history, not in the land. Without the tradition of desperate Pilgrims and generous Wampanoags, would the European settlers have come up with Thanksgiving on their own? By contrast, thanksgiving is the essential religious impulse of Indigenous peoples the world over. My traditional Mohawk friends begin every single gathering with their thanksgiving prayer. I have known that prayer to last 45 minutes. In the praying person’s own words, it reverently catalogs all the things we have to be thankful for, in categories, like a Walt Whitman poem.
Earth stewards raise up the inherent goodness of creation, and God bless them for it! But their tradition gives them precious little support. Why? Why is the Christian tradition so thoughtless, so thankless for all this goodness? Why has the Christian tradition historically ignored the land, its gifts and even their Giver, the Creator, with the attention of its heart, mind and spirit?
First, because Paul and his Gentile churches abandoned Jesus’ peasant roots. Paul spoke in mystical abstractions instead of folksy sayings and parables of the sower. A Roman citizen and an itinerant tradesman, he cared nothing for the land-based economy of Jesus’ first followers; rather, he cared about life in the city. More importantly, he threw over the law. As the exploding demographics of Gentile city-dwelling converts swamped the original Hebrew peasants and fishermen who were the first to hear the Good News, Christianity lost the spirit of thanksgiving. The Greek fear of death and the promise of resurrection replaced the Passover remembrance of Israel’s creation as a people and God’s gift of the Promised Land.
Paul delivered the second blow to the spirit of thanksgiving, also: Christ-centeredness. Where Jesus put the Father at the center of his life and teaching, Paul put Christ at the center of his—and ours. Jesus redefined God as Father; Paul redefined God as Son. Thus was the Creator downgraded to a second-tier godship.
And speaking of downgrades, the third blow was the Christian obsession with the Fall and the notion that creation was suffused with sin. Creation may have started out good, as we earth stewards claim, but no more. And the root of all that sin?: An animal, a vegetable (okay, a fruit), and a woman. And following the Fall?—God’s curse, of creation, fertility, and work. Add to this Paul’s Greek disgust with “the flesh”—it’s temptations, its corruption and eventual death—and you have a radical denial of the goodness of the Creator’s gifts in all its essential forms, a series of stumbling stones on the path to thanksgiving.
As a result, the first principle of creation’s goodness looks to me like a loser. Reestablishing the inherent goodness of creation against a deeply entrenched urban and Christo-centric tradition with its ancient bias against the flesh and a terminally corrupted world is nigh on hopeless. So far (and especially these days), apocalypse seems the winner instead—the expectation that God will destroy a fallen creation as one of His (sic) last saving acts—not some thankful return to a belief in its inherent goodness. No matter how sweet the taste of a strawberry or the dip and sweep of a tree swallow, the plagues and flames and death of Revelation seem more attractive, at least to some Christians. No, I fear that the hopeful enthusiasm for creation’s inherent goodness is a noble cause as a principle of earth stewardship, but a lost cause. Sin will win the war for the Christian imagination as it always has.
On the other hand, the earth stewardship writers (and also the apostle Paul) who insist that, while creation may be good, God does not dwell in creation in any way that would invite worship are only half right. God does dwell in creation, and that should invite worship, not of creation, but in creation, of its Creator.
So I say drop this principle. Or deal more realistically with our alienation from the natural gifts and processes of creation, gifts and processes upon which all civilizations depend—the fact that almost no one knows how to grow their own food anymore, or slaughter their own meat, gather their own fuel . . . It makes more sense to us to give thanks for Wal-Mart’s “low prices every day” and HD TV.
And we should deal more creatively with creation’s alleged fallenness and its detractors. Do we really believe in the Fall, as some species-defining moment of disobedience that infected all the human race and, indeed, all of creation, with sinfulness and corruption for all subsequent time until the End? Do we really believe that nature (animal, vegetable, woman) is the cause? Do we really believe, as I was taught, that there were no poison ivy or mosquitoes until Adam ate that apple? Is creation really utterly corrupt, not utterly good?
All this rests, of course, on the power of stories, as the fundamentalists and literalists rightly perceive—evolution as the story of creation versus Genesis 1-3. Where do we as earth stewards stand on this matter of creation’s true story? For Genesis 1–3 is not the true story of creation; it is a myth that nevertheless forms the foundation of our earth stewardship theology. Why should it? We will return again to the problem of sin when we look at principles eight and nine, that bad earth stewardship is a sin and that salvation in Christ is the cure. Maybe then we can decide whether we believe in creation’s goodness.
May 30, 2016 § 1 Comment
I’m still reviewing the book I almost finished on Christian earth stewardship, and have two new sections to share.
So far, I’ve posted:
- Ten Principles of Christian Earth Stewardship, just the briefest summary of a much more detailed treatment of the principles I culled from years of reading.
- Christian Earth Stewardship—A Dead End, which I probably should have left to the end. This describes how I came to feel that the stewardship approach used by most Christian theologians today just isn’t enough; it may even be an obstacle to truly effective earthcare.
Now I want to post two more lengthy entries and the link to a resource:
- Christian Earth Stewardship—Strengths and Weaknesses—this post.
- Christian Earth Stewardship—Assumptions—available now.
- Scriptural references for the Ten Principles and for other areas of earthcare concern.
Christian Earth Stewardship—Strengths and Weaknesses
The greatest strength of Christian earth stewardship is that it is mainstream. It speaks to many people with a fuller understanding of the gospel, it opens a way into Christian environmentalism that many people can follow. It has defined for the first time whole new questions for Christian faith and practice that are nevertheless faithful to the gospel message. It maintains a celebratory and positive spirit, as well, no easy task in the face of our environmental problems. It does this by focusing on the Creator’s power and Christ’s redeeming love.
Christian earth stewardship is also articulate. Its writers give us good reasons for being good stewards. They develop solid arguments for nature’s intrinsic worth without negating its instrumental value to human endeavor. By tying creation’s goodness to the Creator’s goodness, and by focusing on our capacity for righteousness—by prescribing a dominion tempered by obedient stewardship—they strike a pragmatic balance between human and nonhuman need, and raise a fence against human greed. Also, stewardship effectively defines human humility—knowing our true place in the scheme of things—as essential to our communal identity.
This movement genuinely strives for justice. It is very clear that social, political, and economic injustice help to cause and exacerbate our environmental problems and that environmental solutions must include progress toward peace and justice. Earth stewardship is especially sensitive to the international sphere, to the ecological dimensions of the suffering of the world’s poor, especially, and how structural economic oppression drives ecological collapse.
The most obvious problem with earth stewardship theology is that it isn’t working. At least not fast enough. While it goes too far to claim, as some have, that Christian tradition is the cause of our environmental crisis, certainly the tradition has done very little to stop it. Christian communities (by which I mean congregations and larger groups like synods, conferences, dioceses and other denominational and inter-denominational organizations) are in most cases no more eco-sustainable than the wider society. Its members and leadership are no more likely to speak out against ecological malpractice or to present viable concrete alternatives than non-religious people. Christian earth stewardship is not reaching the communion of believers with its message, and the communion is not evangelizing the wider society toward earthhealing and earthkeeping.
We must ask ourselves why?
The reasons are related to our manner of proclamation and to the matter that we proclaim; that is, to church structure and institutional life, and to the compelling power of the Word in our time.
If the people in the pews and the congregation as a community are to internalize these new values and ideas, their pastors and priests have to internalize them. This means seminaries have to internalize them. To guide these institutions, their governing bodies need to internalize them. We need to eco-evangelize the administrative leadership of denominations and the boards of their seminaries; we must reach out to their faculty and student bodies, and, of course, to their administrators.
The gospel successfully communicates the grace of God when it speaks with meaning and power to the needs of the people, when it heals, when it opens doors into hope, when it shows people who they can be and what they can do in the world to matter.
The environmental crisis is a frightening, confusing, and hopelessly huge problem for most people. At the same time, it is rarely perceived as a direct personal threat in the way that a shrinking economy is, or the behavior and social future of our kids, crime and drugs, the disintegration of the family. How is earth stewardship relevant to these other problems? In fact, how is the gospel as a whole relevant?
Many people want to experience their salvation, not just believe in it. Christian earth stewardship will begin to transform people’s lives and their churches when they experience it as an integral part of a gospel message that speaks to all of their concerns. When it reduces their anxieties, upholds them materially as well as emotionally and spiritually, when it provides their families with strong stable support, when it gives them joy in God—then this landed gospel will blow into our lives “like the rush of a violent wind.”
We earth stewards must ask ourselves: Where is the transforming power of the gospel message as a whole? How is the earth stewardship message integral to this God-breathed core of teaching and practical guidance? How do we communicate the urgency of the environmental crisis and the relevance of our vision of salvation as essential elements of Jesus’ message?
So far, Christian earth stewardship is mostly theology. It has not explored its practical, real-life implications very deeply. This is its second greatest weakness.
This isn’t a problem in itself. It is perfectly natural for new understandings of the gospel to arise among theologians who are actively reflecting on their tradition and its relation to the world, and to find expression as ideas in words. Only now it is time to begin translating our faith into practice. What are the implications of earth stewardship for church potluck dinners, baptismal practice, Bible study, Sunday school curricula, parish groundskeeping, witness in the local planning board, community economic renewal, housing…? What concrete alternatives can we provide? What is our new vision for Christian living and how do we get there?
To make this next move, earth stewardship theologians need to overcome a third problem: we must take ourselves more seriously. The Ten Principles have powerful far-reaching potential for social transformation if we take full responsibility for them. Most earth stewardship writers stop short of declaring the full radical implications of their own principles.
At the heart of the problem is the declaration that earth stewardship is the right management of God’s property, which we hold in trust. To proclaim that the land belongs to God—and to take that proclamation seriously—challenges the very foundation of capitalist economics and enlightenment political theory, in which every individual has the right to life, liberty, and property. So far, earth stewardship writers have made the claim of God’s sovereign ownership of creation, and then let it go. This is a hot potato, a root principle of earth stewardship that we cut up into fast-food french fries. We should either drop it and deny God’s claim on the land, or fully develop a new understanding of property ownership that is grounded in the gospel.
Another principle that earth stewardship has sown on the path and then left to the birds is covenant. This is an ideal theoretical context in which to get real about land tenure and land use law. Now we are ready to develop real covenants. What sorts of binding agreements can we make with each other and with God about how we live on the land? Inside the church, how do we hold each other accountable for our ecological practice, both in family households and in the household of the parish? Outside the church, how do we hold corporations, utilities, and our governments and other social institutions accountable under the law?
Or is covenant merely a rhetorical device?
When we take these principles seriously, we realize that reform isn’t enough. So far, earth stewardship is a reform movement. However, our problems—social, political, economic, ecological, even religious—are so interrelated that the piecemeal, issue-oriented, institution-based, reactive measures that characterize both secular environmentalism and Christian earth stewardship are insufficient, even when taken all together. You can’t save the ozone layer without political regulation, economic conversion, and restructuring, redefining consumer desire through the media, changing agricultural practice, and understanding that shredding the ionosphere tortures the worship of the firmament into a screaming lament for God’s handiwork. Everything has to change because everything is interrelated. This means revolution, not reform.
Nonviolent social transformation on this scale requires radical alternatives to community life. Here, the Christian tradition is one step ahead because we already have communities that are (theoretically) aligned to God, not to the over-culture, and they remain the last bastion of hope (though under siege) for holistic community. When we look more closely at parish life as the locus and focus of ecological ministry, what opportunities do we see? If we think more boldly, what new alternatives for community life does God offer us? When we look at the early Jesus movement as a revolutionary one, does it inspire us with our own revolutionary alternatives?
The final question is one of leadership. Who will start? And when? Revolutions build in a community until someone strikes a spark. That spark catches among some—usually the young and the dispossessed—and then others try to stamp it out. They usually succeed. Has the tinder been laid? When the movement ignites, will our leadership answer with wisdom and joy or with fear? with ideas and support, or with alarms and wet blankets?
May 7, 2016 § 7 Comments
From 1990 to 1996 or so, I followed my initial leading to write a book synthesizing the work of Christian earth stewardship theologians. Reading it now after decades have passed, I am astonished at how thoroughly I internalized the Christian worldview to which I had been so hostile for so long and how comfortable I became speaking with a Christian voice. Reading it now pulls be back into that head space and reminds me how—joyful, really—it was for me to be there then.
I read those theologians, I followed the trails into Scripture that they had discovered and the trails that I found on my own, and I read some of their critics. And the more I read and thought while doing this research and this writing, the more I came to feel that Christian earth stewardship led to a dead end. I became a critic myself. Over time, the book became both a synthesis and a critique. And that critique inevitably became not just a critique of the Christian approach to earthcare, but of the Christian worldview itself. Again, I was the critic.
I had been a critic before; I had started out that way. But that earlier critique was shallow, ignorant, and hostile. Now I was inside. Now I felt I understood the assumptions behind the work and I had developed—or rather recovered—a profound love for the foundation, for the Bible, the love I had known as a pious Christian teenager. Now I wanted to speak to the tradition from the tradition about its own strengths and shortcomings and what I saw as its full potential.
In the book, I added chapters on Strengths and Weaknesses and on Assumptions, and I wrote detailed critiques of each of the Ten Principles of Christian Earth Stewardship. I suppose I will publish these here at some point. Strengths and Weaknesses is ready now, so I’ll publish that one, at least.
But I had lost the passion I had started with. I no longer believed in the direction I was going. First, just as an observation, earth stewardship was a demonstrable failure. More than a generation had passed and the church still had not caught on—hardly at all. Lots of good theology and still no action. Relentlessly, I asked myself why.
I see lots of reasons, but the three that loomed largest for me were, first, that the foundational Christian paradigm of sin, salvation through faith in Christ, and deferred judgment simply crowded destruction of creation onto an already long list of more compelling, sexier sins without providing any real accountability here and now, in this world and time.
Second, that the sins of destruction were mostly collective sins, not individual. The basic unit of ecological action (or non-action) is the household, not the individual, not even the individual as consumer. As individuals, we are virtually powerless to change our civilization’s ways. This allows denial and encourages apathy.
As “household” I included, besides family households, businesses, governments, churches, nonprofits, and other corporate entities—any entity that produced, consumed, and exchanged using a system of its own governance. And then there was the infrastructure—the electrical grid, roads and railroads, the internet—and corporate capitalism itself as a system of production, consumption, and exchange—structures of civilization that were not even really under the governance of even the largest “households”. An individual corporation, for instance, could decide to go green, but they would still have to use FedEx and computers and the rest.
Meanwhile, Christianity had atomized the sin and judgment and salvation paradigm to the individual as the locus of action, judgment, and reward or punishment. Jesus had started it, to a certain extent, but Paul finished it when he said, “In Christ there is no Jew or Gentile”. The people of Israel were no longer actors to be held accountable as a people under covenant, as they had been in the Jewish tradition for almost two thousand years up to that time. Thus Christian earth stewardship had no structures for meaningful accountability in the real world in real time, unless it chose to recover the ancient meanings and structures of covenant, beyond the rhetoric of the principle of covenant that they had articulated—but only as principle, not as concrete, practical plans for changing how we make ecological decisions as corporate households under God’s guidance and God’s judging eye.
The third main problem was that earth stewardship did not come organically out of the gospel of Jesus. Jesus himself has basically nothing to say about care of the earth. Oh, he does have a couple of stewardship parables, but they are really about the kingdom of God, and especially about money, not earthcare. And yes, he uses land-based and agricultural metaphors all the time. But again, they are about the kingdom of God.
It was telling that the earth stewardship theologians don’t rely on Jesus. They are quoting Hebrew Scripture almost exclusively, plus the “cosmic Christ” passages of Paul. Jesus has basically nothing to say about earthcare.
I came to believe that, if the message of earthcare did not come directly and organically out of the gospel of Jesus, Christians were not going to pay much attention; and they weren’t. If Jesus doesn’t talk about it, why should we?
So I dropped the project before really finishing the book. I told myself that I would now study the gospel of Jesus on its own terms and if I found something, I would follow it, but if I didn’t, I would lay the project down.
And so I started over. I spent years studying the gospels, trying not to force some revelation, but to read them in the spirit in which they were written, waiting to see what G*d would reveal, following the openings that G*d gifted me with. I did not find an earthcare message in Jesus’ gospel; it’s just not there.
But I found something else—two things, really. And they ignited a new fire that has yet to burn out. Not even close. That is for another post.