Saturday, January 21, 2023

God values the creation, and we should steward it.

1. At the end of Genesis 1, when God has set the world in order, he sees all that he has done and pronounces it "good" (Gen. 1:31). It is no longer "formless and empty" (1:2). Everything is working the way it is supposed to work. [1] 

Part of that goodness is the place of humanity in that order. Humanity is to be fruitful and multiply (Gen. 1:28). Humans are to "subdue" it and "rule over" it. After Adam and Eve are placed in the Garden of Eden, they are to "serve" it and "keep" it (Gen. 2:15). [2] One gets the sense that humanity is the crown of God's creation, and with great power comes great responsibility. 

Humanity is created in the image of God (Gen. 1:27). That both makes humanity valuable and perhaps suggests that humanity in some respects is God's representative on earth. After the Flood, God makes a covenant with his whole creation (Gen. 9:10). He has destroyed the earth, but he will not flood the earth again. 

"The earth is the LORD's and all that is in it... he has founded it on the seas and established it on the rivers" (Ps. 24:1-2). "Heaven and the heaven of heavens belong to the LORD your God" (Deut. 10:14). "The heavens are telling the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims his handiwork" (Ps. 19:1). Humanity may be the pinnacle of the creation, but God clearly glories in the rest of his handiwork as well.

The Law had provisions for the land. Every seventh year the land was to lay fallow to have a chance to recuperate from non-stop farming (Lev. 25:3-4). Just as humanity needs regular rest, so the land does as well. Jesus tells the crowds that God observes even the death of a sparrow (Matt. 10:29). It would appear that God not only loves humanity but the rest of his creation as well!

The holiness codes not only held that a person could become unclean and defiled. Humans could defile the land as well (Num. 35:33-34). A murderer defiled the land with the blood that was shed. The only way to purify the land was the death of the murderer.

The preceding verses give us a certain sense of God's attitude toward his creation. He likes it. He cares about it. Deuteronomy 25:4 looks out for the ox that is plowing the land. The farmer should not muzzle it but allow it to eat as payment for its labor.

A sense of respect for God's creation seems in order. We are thankful for the chickens that give us eggs. We are thankful for the cattle that give us meat.[3] Evangelicals are emphatic about the value of human life from conception. Yet the embryos of humans and those of other animals look quite similar at the earliest stages of development. If we are really pro-life, it would seem consistent to be good stewards of the other life God has created on the planet as well.

2. In the Parable of the Talents, one of the servants is chastised for not growing what the master had given him (25:14-30). The import of the parable is often taken to suggest that God expects us to use and grow the gifts he has given us. With regard to God's creation, we can bless the land and sky that God has given us. We can take care of it, and we can also curse it.

The placement of the parable in both Matthew 25:14-30 and Luke 19:12-27 suggests that these parables were deeply subversive. While they can easily be read in a hyper-capitalistic way, the proximity of Matthew's parable to the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats and the fact that Luke's parable is next to the story of Zacchaeus suggests a subversive meaning. In such a context, "making interest" on one's money becomes a metaphor for using it to help others in need. It is thus a fitting metaphor also for stewarding the creation that God has given us as we think about the lives of our "neighbors" at home and around the world.

God gave us streams from which to drink. God gave us plants to grow for food and animals to kill for meat. Ecology speaks of ecosystems, systems of life where each component of the system works together in harmony. The plants convert sunlight into energy that herbivores eat. They take carbon dioxide from the air and convert it to oxygen. We eat the herbivores and breathe in oxygen. We exhale carbon dioxide and the system repeats itself. It is healthy. It is natural. This is the way God has created the world.

Humanity has advanced industrially and technologically more in the last two hundred years than in all of history before. As of the writing of this article, the population of the world has surpassed 8 billion, far beyond any world population in the past. We are capable of consuming more forest than ever before if we let ourselves. There is plenty of demand to remove nature to build houses, businesses, and industry. There's nothing wrong with building or selling. However, as stewards of God's planet, we should also be mindful of the potential cost to God's creation and others. 

God endorses our growth and advancement. He made us to advance and excel. Otherwise, he would not have given humanity the charge to subdue the earth. On the other hand, God does not endorse selfishness or destructive hedonism. It is thus both biblical and Christ-like for us to open-mindedly consider the impact our advancement might have on others. This is part of loving our neighbor as ourselves. 

It is also a human tendency to sacrifice the benefit of our future for the needs and pleasures of the present. We eat recklessly because it tastes good even though we know we will likely pay for it in the future. We spend the money we have now rather than saving it for the future. The courses of action it takes to "look out" for the environment cut into corporate profit and personal convenience. It is no surprise that it is an uphill battle to get much done in these areas until a crisis emerges.

3. We should be wary of our own susceptibility to manipulation by those with power and resources. It took decades to pass legislation in relation to lead paint and lead gas. The book, Deceit and Denial is a meticulous presentation of how the lead industry managed to successfully oppose legislation against the use of lead, either throwing doubt on the certainty of certain harmful effects or blaming the incompetency of parents in slums for not watching their children closely enough. [4] I remember even as a boy in 1978 a tone of mocking in my family toward how the Carter administration was annoyingly ending leaded gas in lieu of the more expensive unleaded. 

The same narrative played itself out in relation to the tobacco industry. [5] The same narrative has arguably played out in relation to the gun lobby. The same narrative seems to be playing out in relation to climate change. With money or inconvenience at stake, with resistance to being told what to do, data is ignored or obfuscated. Lobbying forces manipulate the public into mocking those trying to work for the public good. "Going to try to regulate the farts coming from cows? Ha. Ha."

Small concessions are made as necessary. "Well, maybe the planet is warming, but there's no proof it is caused by human activity." Blame is diverted. "The problem is not the paint, it is the Negro and Puerto Rican parents who aren't watching what their children put in their mouths." "The problem is the lack of self-discipline on the part of the smokers." "The problem is not guns but the hearts of the people shooting them." Years, sometimes decades later, either crisis or the openness of a new generation breaks through. We wonder how it wasn't seen before because it seems so obvious now.

These sequences of events are repeated over and over again. It is amazing that we do not see the pattern... over and over again.

4. Poorer communities and countries see the impact of pollution sooner and more clearly than the comfortable. A 2016 study found that race is the biggest indicator in the US of whether you live near toxic waste. [6] Similarly, while most CO2 emissions come from the affluent global north, the regions most vulnerable to the effects of global warming are in the global south. Island states whose land is disappearing from rising water levels do not dispute the impact of climate change on the earth, nor do the African nations facing crisis levels of drought.

The love of our neighbor in the southern hemisphere puts an obligation on Christians to listen with an open mind and heart. The fact that this is God's creation calls us to listen with an open mind and heart as good stewards. It is the love of those in Flint, Michigan, whose water was allowed to become so polluted, that calls us to sacrifice a little today for the benefit to others later. We may find that we are also benefiting ourselves, like the rules that keep us from withdrawing from our retirement accounts before a certain age. We could sure use that money now, but it is even better for us to have it later.

Jesus almost scorned the "healthy" and focused instead on those on the margins--the poor, the sick, the demon-possessed. He focused on the lost sheep of Israel. Concern for God's creation translates to concern for those on the margins of the world today, for they are the ones that most suffer from the throwaway society of those of us who find everything convenient. 

5. We can debate the details. In this article, I have gone beyond principles to some specifics that seem relatively uncontested today. Except that they are contested. If we are interested in truth, we must allow for claims to be contested. Hopefully, there can be broad agreement on the principles. It is fully Christian to care for God's world. If we know our actions are harming others--or even potentially harming others--that is a concern for a Christian. 

As a Christian, people are important. The accrual of greater profit is not. Profit is not evil. The pursuit of profit to the detriment of others is. Paul indicts the Corinthians for putting the pursuit of their own freedom over concern for the faith of others (e.g., 1 Cor. 8:13). "Take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak." (8:9). 

The technological advances of the world are a tribute to the intellectual gifts God has given the world. We can even blow up the world with nuclear bombs. With the great power God has given us comes great responsibility as stewards. God has not called us to selfishness, but to love our neighbor.

[1] John Walton has argued that, in context, the pronouncement of the creation as good likely had more to do with how it was functioning than its moral quality. In The Lost World of Genesis 1 (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2009), 148-150.

[2] I am indebted in much of what follows to the benefit of sitting into several presentations by Brian Webb at Houghton University on Scripture and the Environment.

[3] It is interesting that the Genesis narrative gives the impression that humans did not even eat meat before the Flood (9:3).

[4] Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner, Deceit and Denial: The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution (Berkeley: University of California, 2003).

[5] Allan M. Brandt, The Cigarette Century: The Rise, Fall, and Deadly Persistence of the Product that Defined America (Philadelphia: Basic, 2009).

[6] From 1996 to 2020, the CDC and NIH were stymied from using their funds to research gun violence.

[7] Paul Mohai et al. "Which came first, people or pollution? Assessing the disparate siting and post-siting demographic change hypotheses of environmental injustice," Environmental Research Letters (2015).


Martin LaBar said...

"It is fully Christian to care for God's world. If we know our actions are harming others--or even potentially harming others--that is a concern for a Christian."

It's 8 billion, not 8 million.

I have posted more on this subject, including two arguments for good Christian stewardship that partly or almost entirely come from the New Testament. (There's nothing wrong or lacking with what the Old Testament says about these topics.)

Ken Schenck said...

Good catch! Will look into it.

Martin LaBar said...

I think there's something grammatically wrong with this:

The holiness codes not only held that a person could become unclean and defiled. Humans could defile the land could as well (Num. 35:33-34).

Ken Schenck said...

Yes, I corrected that in my copy.

Ken Schenck said...

Made a comment there. Good reasons...