31 Maple Street
Bristol, Connecticut USA
March 24, 2019
Rev. Kristen J. Kleiman
“Environment is deadly, worsening mess”. That was actually the headline on March 14th for an article about a new United Nations report in which the UN says, “Earth is sick with multiple and worsening ills killing millions of people yearly”. (Borenstein & Larson, AP, 3/14/19)
Back in October, a judge allowed a three year old lawsuit to proceed in which 21 children and young adults are suing the federal government for knowing and ignoring that carbon pollution poisons the environment and creates extreme weather events. Extreme weather events, like the bomb cyclone, a blizzard and a cyclone together, which shut down the midwest this past week. The lawsuit alleges that the government has known and not done anything to stop climate change, leading to damage to the plaintiffs’ health, safety, food security and economic stability.
And more municipalities are beginning to burn recyclables, releasing toxins into the air because China will no longer take our plastics and paper, and towns and cities just don’t know what to do with all of our waste.
What a mess! And do you know who’s to blame? The Bible. Yes, the Bible.
The Bible, and specifically this passage we heard from Genesis have not only given people permission to treat the earth poorly; this passage, “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion [over everything on the earth].’” (Genesis 1:26), has empowered and given people authority to treat creation like a single-use plastic.
There are those who disagree and want to nuance the word ‘dominion’. They argue that the English translation is not quite right, that it should say ‘rule’. And that we should think of how God “ruled” the garden of Eden, how God continues to rule the world – as a benevolent caretaker, good steward, and loving Creator.
I am absolutely with them. When scripture writes ‘dominion’, I want people to be inspired to be loving, faithful caretakers and stewards of God’s creation. I love that interpretation of ‘dominion’.
However, that’s not what the word radah (raw-daw) means in Hebrew. In addition to dominion, radah can also be translated as to tread down, subjugate, to crumble off, and prevail against. Not a single one of its many definitions speaks of stewardship and caretaking.
And the word ‘subdue’, found later in verse 28, comes from the Hebrew word kabash (kaw-bash): again- to tread down, disregard, conquer, subjugate, violate, bring into bondage, keep under.
Those in the evangelical community who use the Bible to justify rolling back environmental protections for the earth seem to be well justified. The Bible seems clear that We have been made a little lower than God, crowned with glory and honor, and given dominion, the power to subjugate and tread down, the works of God’s hands because God has put all things under our feet. (Psalm 8:5-6 paraphrased).
So, “Human beings [must] have the right to take what they want from the earth, in terms of natural resources, without regards to how it might affect other species.” (VOX, Tara Isabella Burton, Feb 23, 2018).
Statements like this make me want to cut ‘subdue’ and ‘dominion’ right out of the Bible, but I can’t. We can’t. We can’t pick and choose from the Bible, keeping some things in and other things out, in order to justify our own feelings, convenience, and financial interests.
So in moments like this, in wrestling with words like these, it is best to set them back into context. Acknowledge them in the time period they were written; See them in the larger passage they are a part of.
Creation and nature can be scary, dangerous – even more so for the Israelites thousands of years ago. When we read these words from Genesis, these words passed down from pre-literate societies, we need to remember that every day was a fight for survival. They were literally trying to crumble off a little place of safety and prevail against the elements.
When we read these words from Genesis, we need to be aware of when they were written, and we also need to be aware of the larger passage so we can discern why they were written.
While I did not read from the beginning of Genesis, you might know that as each object and creature was created, God called everything all good. The sun, the moon, the stars, the land, the seas, the birds, the land animals, the ocean animals, even the insects. All good – all created through God’s word that we call Jesus Christ.
Soooo if all the world was created by God, was pleasing to God – and if, as it says in Leviticus 25, verse 23, “the land is [God’s] and you reside in [God’s] land as foreigners and strangers” and if we are created in God’s image, to live and act as God does, it would follow that we are not called to dominate and subdue creation; we are called to be loving, faithful caretakers and stewards of God’s creation.
That’s what people like Pope Francis believe. In his second papal letter, he “uplifted the importance of environmental justice and preserving the well-being of all humanity. He [wrote] that the reading of Genesis supporting the exploitation of the Earth’s resources “is not a correct interpretation of the Bible as understood by the Church,” because “the earth was here before us and it has been given to us.” (Emily London is a research assistant for the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress.)
And it’s also what the Church of England believes and lives with their ministry endeavor, “Shrinking the Footprint”, a mandate to all of their churches to be better stewards of our environment by being better stewards of their church buildings. The Church of England has also called on their members to participate in the Lent Plastic Challenge. (I’ve posted a copy of that on our Facebook page.)
And of course, our own United Church of Christ, has long believed in our calling to be faithful caretakers and stewards of God’s creation. Six years ago, we engaged in purposeful earth care for 50 days with the Mission 4/1 Earth, and we continue to lift up love of creation with the 3 Great Loves church-wide ministry.
So if we listen to the Roman Catholic church, the Anglican/Episcopal church, and our own United Church of Christ, it’s not our right to subdue the earth; it’s our calling to lift up the earth, to protect it and live in harmony with it.
So how do we do that?
First, let’s talk about how we transform the world by transforming ourselves. We do not engage in guilt, blame, or self-contempt. They are not helpful in the journey of transformation. They do not open us up to God’s holy and transforming spirit.
Instead, as we discern changes we can make in our lives that will have a positive impact on others and the world, it is beneficial to begin with reflection.
What is one action you currently do that cares for the earth? Do you turn the water off when you brush your teeth? Do you use reusable shopping bags at the grocery store? Do you compost?
What do you currently do that respects the environment?
And what next step is God calling you to take?
Many of my Facebook friends have been posting and sharing “9 tips for living with less plastic” (which I have also shared on FCC Bristol’s Facebook page). Could your next step be taking a reusable bag into every store? Could it be giving up plastic straws? Bringing your own travel mug to fellowship?
After the Benediction, I invite you to ask five people what they do or plan to start doing that cares for God’s earth.
In this Lenten season, as we grow in our Christian faith journeys and grow closer to God; as we seek to be changed by Christ’s love into Christ’s love; as we work to transform the world by transforming ourselves, we trust and know that with God’s help, the small and large steps we take to care for the earth will transform creation.