Ending Violence Against the Earth
by Leonard Hjalmarson
"This year the earth spoke, like God warning Noah of the deluge."
So began Time magazine's first cover story of 1989. Reviewing the list of the ecological disasters of 1988 one could wonder if the Editors of Time were voicing prophetic words.
In the year of the Earth Summit in Brazil both Time and Newsweek again ran special issues on the Environment. Drought, flood, holes in the ozone layer, and continued loss of massive tracts of tropical forest compose the facts. To counter the world's present deforestation tree planting would have to cover an area the size of France yearly. Are we any closer to discovering the limits of our planet's resources?
If there has been destruction, injustice, and waste, where has the Church been? Prominent Canadian scientist David Suzuki charged in a six part series on the CBC (A Planet for the Taking) that mankind is guilty of unrestrained selfishness, resourcism, chauvinism and speciesism, using the avowed transcendence of the race as an excuse for the wholesale rape of the earth. Suzuki strongly implied that Christianity has a major responsibility in the crime.
Farley Mowat, the famous Canadian author, in an interview discussing his book Sea of Slaughter pointed to the Judeo-Christian ethic as the source of man's failure to respect other forms of life, since "God created all life to serve man's need." For Mowat, as for Suzuki, the solution is to reestablish man as one animal among many, to conquer the "domination" ethic by operating on the basis of need rather than greed.
These two prominent Canadians joined the Editors of Time in leveling serious charges at the Church. We need to address these charges as well as the proposed solutions, admitting our guilt where necessary, and reasserting the biblical understanding of man's relationship, under God, to creation.
A Historical Perspective: the Rise of Science and Consumerism
In 1966 Lynn White, Jr. delivered a lecture to the American Association for the Advancement of Science entitled "The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis." He asserted that the lack of reverence for nature and the desecration of nature by technology are consequences of biblical teaching.
Rene Dubos, in his Pulitzer Prize winning book, "So Human An Animal," agrees that technological societies have exploited the earth but disagrees with White's charge that Western culture has simply applied the biblical maxim to creation. Dubos insists that Genesis 1 and 2 have been misunderstood, and in reality teach that the earth has been given to people for their care. The proper relationship of humanity to creation is one of harmony, not conquest; we are called to work with the earth, not against it.
In order to understand how the Church is involved in this nasty web we must gain a historical perspective. Owen Barfield in his book, "Saving the Appearances" has shown how primitive humans experienced a very different world than do we. The rise of modern science, which occurred as a result of the de-idolizing of nature as well as faith in a Creator upholding an orderly and knowable world, removed from our consciousness "any perception of a transcendent meaning in our experience of the world." The subject/object distinction in the modern mind places a great distance between person and environment.
Unfortunately a new idol arose to replace the old. Science itself has become a god, and reductionism, the view that only scientific, materialistic, mechanistic descriptions of the world are really true, has become a determining assumption. Two other developments, themselves closely linked, tie in.
Darwin found grist for his evolutionary model in Victorian British Socialism. In America the biblical doctrine of freedom ("freedom to do the good") had long since eroded among the upwardly mobile, formally religious class to "freedom to pursue one's own ends." Social Darwinism in the 19th century became the colored glass through which all life was viewed. "The survival of the fittest" became its battle cry.
The industrial revolution was taking a new form at the turn of the century and was becoming the technological revolution. In order for progress to continue consumption had to increase. Hand in hand with the evolutionary world view the doctrine of unlimited progress gained momentum.
The great economist Lord Keynes concluded in 1930 that the day might not be far off when everyone would be rich. Until then, he cautioned, "Avarice and usury and precaution must be our gods for a little longer. For only they can lead us out of economic necessity into daylight."
The clear message was that ethical considerations are a hindrance to progress. Science itself, once interested in truth for its own sake, now became a slave to the god of efficiency. Greed and envy became the roots of the modern economy.
Responding to the Secular Prophets
The issues are economic and profoundly biblical ones. The word "economy" is important in the New Testament. Occurring in Eph.1:10 is describes God's plan for all creation. Christ is seated "in the heavenlies;" He is Lord of all. The Church is called to manifest the first fruits of a plan of reconciliation which extends to all creation, for "the whole earth is full of His glory." Redemption includes the liberation of creation from its bondage to futility (Ro.8:19-22). The Christian, receiving the inheritance of the Spirit and promised the world, is set free to let of the drive for wealth and power. He is set free to serve.
The ordering of God's house extends to all creation. The Greek word for house, oikos, is the root also of our word "ecology." All life on this planet is essentially interdependent. All life has a common source.
The Christian's role, then, is to be an "oikonomos," a steward in God's house, extending the kingdom by incarnating Jesus' loving Presence. The exegesis of Psalm 8 in Hebrews 2 makes Christ the archetype for human dominion over nature. In the Old Testament Psalm the point is made that the world is in humankinds' care. In Hebrews, Christ is identified as the Word of God through whom all things were created. In Col.1:15-17 He upholds all things. Christians are called to participate in Christ's role as sustainer of creation.
What of the secular ecological prophets? Their path to security and meaning is the path of naturalism.
How does the Christian respond? By warning that people become what they worship (Ps.115); that the mind set on the flesh is death (Ro.8); and that he who saves his life will lose it. The person who sets out to conquer the world ultimately destroys it and thus erodes their own security.
Suzuki accuses Christianity of "speciesism," of placing humanity at the top of a pyramid and implicitly giving them the right to destroy all that is below them. In secular eyes the doctrine of the "image of God" is the foundation for world destruction.
We must be careful not to miss a profound truth here. Mankind, as fallen rulers, tries desperately to reestablish their greatness, and ends only "ruling in Hell." As Milton commented,
The Church has often been guilty in its silence of approving the abuse of creation. However, Scripture teaches that we are called to follow Christ in His sacrifice for the world. Jesus used His transcendence as an occasion for a redemptive immanence, lowering Himself in order to raise us to God (Phil.2:5ff). Paul exhorts us to do likewise.
The secular ecological prophets would call us to participate once again in nature, to see ourselves as a part of that which we are destroying. There is some biblical basis for this suggestion.Not only is humanity in God's image, we are also "of the earth." Humanity, being of the earth and in God's image, is a unique mediator between Christ and creation. We are called to care for creation as the greater serves the lesser, though with greater knowledge and power we could indeed subdue it.
A less obvious danger exists in the desire for a new connect-edness with creation, the desire to be free of the subject/object distinction which lies at the base of the scientific method. Canadian biologist Walter Thorson in Reflections on the Practice of an Outworn Creed has shown that the attack upon the scientific method as a valid means to truth leads us to a similar devaluation of Christian theology. The scope and authority of science are limited, but an attack upon objectivity may end in eroding the possibility of God as objectively real.
Where Eastern religions teach that reality is an illusion ("maya"), the Scriptures teach that the physical world is real. Jesus "upholds" creation; even the resurrection life will be a physical life. Christianity is the only religion which thoroughly approves of the body. The great humanitarian movements of history arose in the West for this reason.
What then are we to do? The Chinese character for "danger" signifies two things: crisis and opportunity. It seems likely that the false separation of physical and spiritual reality into compartments will die with the mechanistic world-view. Christians have an opportunity to model the message of the Incarnation: Jesus approves of and cares for the physical creation. God likes matter: He invented it.
God's Covenant with the Land
Lest we become proud, however, in thinking that a Christian re-discovery of ecological stewardship is uniquely Biblical or that we have nothing to learn from other cultures, it is useful to reflect on a letter written a hundred years ago by Chief Seathl of the Duwamish tribe (Washington state) to the President of the United States:
" How can you buy or sell the sky--the warmth of the land? The idea is strange to us. We do not own the freshness of the air or the sparkle of the water . . .Every part of the earth is sacred to my people.
This sense of connection to the land recalls many voices from the Old Testament. "Land" is the fourth most frequent occurring noun in the OT, becoming a more dominant theme than even "covenant." Elmer Martens (God's Design) points out that land has four theological dimensions: as promise, gift, blessing, and in relation to a specific life-style. Under this latter heading follow the questions of sabbath and jubilee.
From Mt. Sinai had come these words: "When you come into the land which I shall give you, the land shall keep a sabbath unto the LORD" (Lv.25:2). The text which follows points up two purposes: a religious one--to witness to God's ownership; and a humanitarian one--that the poor of the people may eat. Some scholars argue that Dt.15:1-3 couples a regulation about the release of all debts every seven years to the land's rest.
Martens points out that land, Yahweh, and Israel were bound together in covenant. So strong is this theme that Walter Bruggeman wrote that "Israel [was] a social, theological experiment in alternative land management." Richard Austin in his recent Hope for the Land wrote that
those who manage land are "tempted to create a sabbathless society in which land is never rested, debts are never cancelled, slaves are never released . . .and all of life can be reduced to a smoothly functioning machine. The powerful must resist this temptation, stop managing, and relax in openness to their community; then concerns for equity, justice, and mercy may come to the fore.
Brazilians destroy massive tracts of Amazonia because it somehow represents for them the hope of a properous future. The forests of British Columbia fall for similar reasons. Overfishing, James Bay, toxic waste and the irretrievable loss of one hundred species a day: the welfare of the entire world hinges upon the land, but somehow the more immediate concerns about jobs and profits take precedence. In Chief Seathl's words, we "kidnap the earth from our children."
Land, then, is more than acreage or territory. It is a theological symbol, through which a series of messages are conveyed. It is the tangible fulfilment of the promise. Land is a gift from Yahweh, and Israel, through preoccupation with it, has her attention continually called to Yahweh.. Land requires a specific and appropriate lifestyle..
Responsibilities concerning social behavior are enjoined upon the people for the time when they will occupy the land, and they are warned that disobedience defiles the land and may result in loss of their privilege of tenancy. The specific regulations about land use take both ecological and humanitarian concerns into account. Finally the festivals, associated with production from the land, once again link land and Yahweh, point to social responsibilities, and portray the joyful spirit in which this people lives its life on the land.
That land is real and spatially definable points to the wholeness and value of life in this world.Quality of life is all-embracing: relating to Yahweh, neighbor, and the environment. The promise of land and all that it signifies keeps God's design firmly rooted in the world, and leads us to see the wholeness of the call to discipleship in the New Testament. Finally, the importance of land is seen in that God promises to create not only a new heaven, but a new earth.
Faith and Rest
Modern science exists in a mechanistic and materialistic world, and as such has been interested in quantification, respecting only that which is measurable and therefore controllable. Christian values such as faith, hope and love are not measurable and not economic. Technology as a modern god promises us rest, comfort and power. Jesus calls us to faith, good works and service and to trust Him for results.
In the face of a thoughtful and impassioned attempt to reintegrate humankind with nature we must raise our voices in warning and offer the truth in word and in deed. Ecological and peace concerns are profoundly pro-life. The impact of environmental destruction on lives the world over is attested again and again in the news media. The affects of toxins on unborn infants, the rising rate of cancer and strange debilitating diseases, the suffering of thousands of families who have lost their livelihood on the east coast because of overfishing--all point to the reality that our lives are linked to the land.
Moreover, we must not neglect to stand up for justice among the peoples of the world in a time of dwindling resources. North Americans still consume the lions share of the earth's goods. The hidden cost to us is that rather than participating in God's love for creation, we have become materialists, worshipping material wealth. In doing so we have lost our love of the Creator. It is no coincidence that revival is occurring more often in other nations than western ones.
It is time to witness again to God's Lordship over all of creation. Many of us have opportunity to be more involved with the land; some of us can buy land and use it as a means to get in touch with God's love and care for creation. Others can rediscover walking or camping and renew our appreciation for the land. Still others can join groups who are involved with ecological concerns: saving old-growth forests are a means to witness to God's care for creation. If we can pass on to our children a new way of living in the world we shall be better stewards of God's manifold grace.
This article first appeared in The MB Herald, and then later in ChristianWeek Magazine.
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© 2005-2008 Len Hjalmarson. Last Updated in September, 2001