April 22 was EARTH DAY and April 26 is ARBOR DAY. This Sunday we will observe our annual Blessing of the Seeds service. As I have been preparing for this service I have learned or been reminded of the following truths:
- Terry LeBlanc who directs the North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies says that there is much that non-indigenous Christians can learn from indigenous peoples and indigenous Christians in particular.
For indigenous Christians the starting point for how they view life on this planet is Genesis 1. Genesis 1 is a story of how much God loves and cares for our planet.
Non-indigenous Christians often start with Genesis 3, the story of humankind’s fall. Starting here can cause us to see creation as an enemy, a place of curse, and a place to be delivered from.
As LeBlanc says, “The starting point determines the destination. Viewing the earth as an object of God’s love helps us see creation as good and worthy of care. Viewing creation as a place of curse can put us on a trajectory toward carelessness and intentional degradation of the planet.”
- Notice the extraordinary number of passages that refer to nature. The Green Bibleis an edition of the NRSV translation that highlights all references to nature in green print. To help you see how pervasive these references are, get a copy of this Bible and read it as a spiritual discipline.
- Notice how much God values all of nature throughout all parts of the Bible—in the creation stories, in the Sabbath regulations, in the Psalms (e. g. 104), in the prophets (such as Isaiah and Jeremiah), in Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes, in the teachings of Jesus, in Paul’s letter to the Romans, and in the Book of Revelation.
- Read carefully the creation stories and other passages of the Bible that show ways in which humans are to care for creation—take responsibility, serve earth, and preserve it. The Bible presents care for creation as our foundational human vocation.
- In passages where the rest of nature is ill-treated in the biblical stories, read against the grain of these stories in light of other, more foundational biblical passages that show a deep commitment to care for creation—just as we put biblical passages of violence in context by critiquing them in light of the overarching biblical principles of love and justice.
- Creation was not formed for human beings alone.
We tend to think that God created life for the benefit of humans. We think of everything else in life as our environment, there to serve us. But why not think of ourselves as part of the environment, interrelated with all the plants and animals? How would we act if we knew that the well-being of other species depended on how we functioned as part of their environment?
In the biblical stories, God called creation “good.” even before humans were created. After the third day, God called plants and trees “good.” After the fourth day, God called the sun and the moon “good.” After the fifth day and sixth days, God called the animal creatures of air, sea, and land “good.” Finally, “God saw everything that God had made and, indeed, it was good.” (Genesis 1:1-31).
- God loves creatures for their own sake. Far from creating the rest of the world to serve humans, God created humans in God’s image to serve and care for the Earth. God loves all creation for its own sake. The Psalms (e. g. Psalms 104 and 148) show God delighting in all creatures. Notice how God made many parts of creation for the benefit of other creatures! For example, God made the springs of water for the wild animals. God made the grass for the cattle. God made the trees for the birds to nest. God made rain to water the forests and the mountains. God made the mountain crags for the goats. (Ps 104:10-30). God delights in all creatures and provides for them. God calls humans to honor their right to life and to foster their well-being.
“O Lord! How manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures . . . These all look to you to give them their food in due season.” (Psalm 104:10-30).
- Human beings were created so that they could take care of the garden Earth that God had created, so that they serve and preserve it.
This is the critical part. According to the Bible, what is the role of humans in creation? The key word is “dominion.” We have misinterpreted this word to mean that humans have a right to dominate and therefore use, abuse, and exploit the rest of creation for our own use. This understanding has had a tragic impact on our common life in the West. It has given us authorization to do just about anything we want to do to nature, without limits, for human benefit and for human pleasure.
“Have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over the cattle and over all the wild animals of the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth” (Genesis 1:26).
The biblical mandate for humans is that we are to have dominion not domination. The Hebrew word for “dominion” does not mean domination or exploitation. Rather, it means to “take responsibility for” and “to protect” Earth as a domain for which humans are responsible. A ruler who had dominion over Israel would be expected to be like a shepherd caring for and protecting the sheep—expected to take responsibility for the people in his realm, not to tyrannize or exploit them but to see that the people were protected and that justice was done for the poor, the widows, and the orphans. As such, “to have dominion over all the creatures” means that humans are to care for God’s good creation.
The words of the second creation story make this understanding of “dominion” abundantly clear.
“The Lord God took the human and put him in the Garden of Eden to till [serve] it and to keep [preserve] it.” (Genesis 2:15).
Here the human vocation is rooted in the command (traditionally translated) “to till and to keep” (Genesis 2:15). We now know that the words for “till” and “keep” are more faithfully rendered “serve and “preserve.” The word for “serve” here is the word used for servants of a master, of a king, or of a priest. Humans are to serve the land, not dominate over it. This completely reverses and upends the misunderstanding of “dominion” as “domination.” Instead of being in a hierarchical position “over” Earth, we are placed in a position of subservience so as to use our power to care for the well-being of all that God has created. And we are to preserve creatures and plants so that they survive and thrive. In a sense we are all to be like farmers, called to care for the land so that we preserve it in a sustainable way for future generations. God created humans in God’s image, to care for creation as agents of God so that the land, all plants, and all animals can flourish!
- All of life is sacramental. “The whole earth is filled with God’s glory” (Isaiah 6:3).
The Scriptures make it clear that God did not create the world and then withdraw from it. Just as God continues to live and move and be manifest in humans, so God is present in all of life. The whole Earth is filled with God’s glory! That is to say, all of life is sacramental.
- Humans and all creation are called to praise God. “Worship the lord in holy splendor: tremble before him all the earth. Let the heavens be glad and the Earth rejoice. And let them say among the nations, ‘The Lord is king.’ Let the sea roar and all that fills it; Let the field exalt and everything in it. Then shall the trees of the forest sing for joy before the lord” (I Chronicles 16:29-34; Psalm 148).
One of the ways to understand the impact of our degradation of Earth and its systems, our pollution of land, sea, and air, and our threat to species of animals and plants is to realize that we are thereby diminishing their capacity to praise God. As we seek to restore Earth and rescue endangered species, we are enhancing their collective worship of their creator—as they are able to thrive and teem and relish being alive.
- Justice for humans is related to justice toward Earth.
For the Bible, creation is one world. Humans and the rest of nature are inextricably tied together as part of one reality with a common relationship with God. Therefore, when humans flourish in peace and justice, also the land flourishes with grapes and grain. On the other hand, when there is violence and injustice, the land languishes.
“The earth dries up and withers. The world languishes and withers. The earth lies polluted under its inhabitants, for they have transgressed laws, violated the statutes, broken the everlasting covenant. Therefore a curse devours the land.” (Is 24:4-7; compare Joel 2:2-20.).
Given the nature of the biblical vocation and the interrelation of human justice and Earth care, it is appropriate to see our role this way:” love God, love the neighbor, care for creation.”
- All creation is groaning. Paul recognized the cry of nature in response to the human crimes against it—made obvious by human injustice and by the ravages heaped on the natural world, in Paul’s time by the conquests and exploits of the Roman Empire. All of nature, he declares, longs for the revealing of children of God who will care for creation and free it from degradation and decay.
“For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God . . . . We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now and not only the creation but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the spirit, groan inwardly as we await the adoption, the redemption of our bodies.” (Romans 8:19-23).
Read the Bible with new eyes and see all the places where creation/nature is present and where it is suffering and groaning. Seek to respond with the empathy of Paul and the compassion of God for this suffering creation. Become the children of God who will bring hope and restoration to creation.
- The kingdom of God restores all creation. When Jesus announces that the kingdom of God had arrived, we see restoration of life—the sick healed, sinners forgiven, demoniacs freed of possession, the lame walk, the blind seeing, the deaf hearing, and the poor with good news preached to them. We see people restored to the wholeness and freedom with which they were created.
But the kingdom of God also includes the capacity for Jesus to lie with the wild animals without fear, to calm a threatening storm, and to bring forth food in the desert. All creation is being restored. Furthermore, the image of the future when the kingdom will arrive fully is that the trees will be bearing fruit throughout the year, the water will be crystal clear and abundantly available, and the leaves of the trees will be a healing for the nations.
“The kingdom of God has arrived.” (Mark 1:14)
“Your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).
“And he was with the wild animals and the angels were serving him.” (Mark 1:13)
“The wolf shall lie with the lambs, and the lion will lie down with the kid.” (Isaiah 11:6-9)
The Book of Revelation portrays the most amazing vision of the future unity of all creation. John recounts an overwhelming experience of all creation giving glory to God.
“Then I heard the whole creation, everything in heaven, on earth, under the earth, and in the sea, say, ‘Blessing and honor and glory and might be to our God who sits upon the throne and to the lamb, forever and ever.’” (Revelation 5:13).
Furthermore, John condemned the treatment of earth—humans and the rest of nature—by the Roman Empire. He prophesied:
“The time has come for God to destroy the destroyers of the earth.” (Rev. 18:11)
John envisions a time when the old destructive/oppressive order is gone and there is a renewed heaven and a renewed Earth—a city in which nature and human life are fully integrated, in which the “the river of the water of life” will be “free of charge” for the poor, when the tree of life will yield ample fruit all year around, and when the leaves of the trees are a healing for the nations.” (Rev 21).
“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and the Lamb, through the middle of the city streets. On either side of the river is the tree of life, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the trees are for the healing of the nations” (Revelation 22:1-2)
John calls people to live in that vision in the present.
- For an extended essay on these themes see: Reading the Bible with Care for Creation: An Essay by David Rhoads