A Higher Commission Than Mere Dominion
Genesis 1:1-2:4 Matthew 28:16-20
April 24th, 2016 Earth Day Easter 4 Year C
Do any of you here ever feel the need to apologize for being a Christian? If it comes up in conversation, if someone asks you point blank whether or not you belong to a church or believe in Jesus, do you ever feel the need to qualify what you mean when you say, “yes”?
Yes I go to church, but…
Sure I believe in Jesus, but….
Oh yeah I’m religious, but…
Anyone? I do.
I do, because I’m afraid that when people hear the name “Jesus” or words like “Christian,” “church,” or “religious,” that they will automatically begin to assume things about me that just aren’t true; that I’m intolerant, say, or judgmental, or ignorant.
I’m afraid that they will associate me with the political, social, or theological agendas of the Religious Right or Focus on the Family, evangelicals for Trump or those people who thought the world was going to end a few years back – who come to think of it may be the same people… just kidding – and I don’t want to have anything to do with people like that.
All of which, I fully realize, means that I’m not nearly as tolerant or non-judgmental as I’d like to think, because the truth is that there are a whole host of Christians out there with whom I do not want to associate, not just in the present but throughout history.
I don’t mean to rain on anyone’s parade here this morning in case you didn’t know this, but Christianity has a long and sordid record of abuse that I want nothing to do with, a reputation in the world and throughout the ages that breaks my heart.
Since the days of Constantine we have been known as conquerors, crusaders, colonizers, and now, perhaps most damning of all because it sounds so innocuous and yet does so much damage, consumers.
All of which is an absolute tragedy given that I believe what God would really like us to do is behave as caretakers: caretakers of creation, caretakers of one another, caretakers of God’s message of healing and hope for all the earth.
I’m not saying that there haven’t been bright spots of love and resistance along the way. I’m just saying that when people hear the word “Christian,” I’m afraid that they are more likely to think of the Spanish Inquisition than say the hospitality of the Benedictines, of witch hunts and Westboro Baptists rather than World Vision or Church World Service.
I’m afraid they are more likely to associate the name David Beckham with the soccer star than they are the director of Bread for the World.
And I chalk that up to a failure on all of our parts, be we liberals or conservatives, fundamentalists, Congregationalists, or downright wacky end of the world pretrib-post millenialists, (dag, that sounded judgmental again, didn’t it?) a failure on all of our parts to really understand what it is God wants of us.
And not for nothing, (and here is where I get in trouble if I’m not already) sometimes the Bible doesn’t exactly help.
It’s no secret that Christians have a lousy reputation amongst non-Christians and I think a lot of that can be traced to the two passages we have before us today – to the idea that we have dominion over all the earth and the mistaken notion that Jesus’ great commission to go out and make disciples of all nations gives us the authority to force our beliefs upon others.
And I wish I could chalk it all up to a simple misunderstanding, but – at least in the case of our reading from Genesis this morning – it’s not.
Here before us we have this beautiful poem about the creation of the world – the separation of light from darkness, land from sea, the birth of constellations and heavenly bodies, myriad fish and fowl, multitudes of mammals and vegetation – a beautiful poem that lays the whole glistening new born wonder of creation at our feet to be … what?
Not nurtured or protected, not lovingly tended or appreciated, but subdued and dominated.
Verse 28: “God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”
Oh man, that’s a tough verse. And I wish I could tell you that the word “subdue,” which in Hebrew is kabash has the same root as the word for stewardship or domesticate or that the word for dominion, which in Hebrew is rada, really means to raise up and tend, but no. Kabash, well, have you ever heard someone say, “we’re going to put the kibosh on that.”
It’s not the same word, but it might as well be. Kabash literally means to subdue, enslave, and can even go so far as to refer to rape. And rada isn’t much better. Rada means to tread (upon), rule (over), dominate.
God, at least according to the author of Genesis chapter 1, gave us all the wonders of creation to subdue and dominate, and for far too many people, that has been all the encouragement they have needed to justify the use and abuse, the polluting and pillaging, the desecration and exploitation of the earth and of all her creatures; even the human ones.
When it comes to issues of environmentalism and eco-justice, it would seem that the Bible – or at least this one particular and very well known verse in the Bible – is not a help so much as a hindrance, at least to those of us who care about protecting the earth and all who live upon it.
But in all fairness to the Israelite who wrote this first chapter of Genesis, you have to admit there is a certain logic in advising a tiny race of people with a few sheep and some rudimentary tools to tame the earth and bear as many children as possible, because in truth that is what it was going to take for those people back then to survive.
However, it doesn’t take a genius to see what a disaster it would be for Christians now-a-days to blithely follow this command and behave toward the earth with a divinely sanctioned sense of entitlement.
To quote the esteemed biblical scholar Walter Wink, given when and to whom it was written, “we can scarcely fault the Bible for not providing us (today) with clear moral guidance about the environment. On the other hand,” he asks, “why should we need it? Anyone who needs scriptural guidance to decide that destroying the ecosystem is wrong is a moral idiot.”
(Never let it be said that academics can’t sometimes come right out and say what they mean).
He continues, “Even the most crass reckoning of our human self-interest should lead any marginally intelligent person to realize that if we keep on poisoning the earth, water, and atmosphere at the current rate, we will soon be unable to survive at all.”