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.”



However, before we throw the Bible out with the proverbial bathwater, Wink recommends that we look not just at the words of scripture, but at the tenor, not just at specific verses in isolation, but at the overall trajectory of the Biblical narrative from Adam, through the prophets, all the way to Jesus.


Because when we do, a different picture emerges, not just of God but of what God expects of us.


The truth, is that the Bible is full of specific instances that condone incredibly despicable things: violence, war, oppression, abuse, child-sacrifice, slavery, misogyny, homophobia. You name it, it’s in there.


Like the steady beat of a drum calling soldiers to battle, there is a theme apparent in verse and story that suggests that domination and exploitation – however unfortunate and violent they may be – are the only way, the surest path to survival.


We see this in the first chapter of Genesis in verse 28. We see it in the conquest of the Promised Land. Remember, “Joshua “fitt the battle of Jericho, Jericho. Jericho?” Yeah! Great song, right? Yeah? Not a nice story! We see the human propensity to dominate and exploit in the cruelties and compromises that are committed to establish the kingdom of David, Solomon, and the consecutive kings of Israel.


But, (and this is a big important but,) but there is an alternate song, a delicate harmony if you will, being sung throughout the scriptures as well, sung by prophets like Moses and Miriam, Hannah and Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ruth, Elizabeth, and Mary.


It is a song of concern for the meek and the marginalized, a song of hope and healing for the poor and the lame, a song of freedom and redemption for the prisoner and the outcast, love and reconciliation for all of creation.


It is a song that counters this theme of domination and abuse we find ourselves trapped in even now, a song that reaches it’s zenith in the life, the words, and the witness of Jesus the Christ.


And it is a song Jesus himself invites you and I to sing, not just for our own salvation, but for the salvation of the world.


For you see, Jesus came offering people a vision of a new life, a life lived together in a new kind of kingdom; a kingdom defined not by aggression or hierarchy, submission or dominance, but by gentleness and openness, care and compassion, partnership and mutual responsibility (This is a paraphrase of Riane Eisler as quoted by Wink).


A kingdom where swords could be beaten into plowshares, where lions would lie down with lambs; a kingdom where there need be no distinction between Jew or gentile, male or female, slave or free, because all people would be free; freely recognized as God’s children and treated as such.


“In his beatitudes,” says Wink, “in his extraordinary concern for the outcasts and marginalized, in his wholly unconventional treatment of women (speaking to them in public, touching them, eating with them, even teaching them), in the seriousness with which he took children, in his rejection of the dogma that high-ranking men are the favorites of God,


in his subversive proclamation of a new order in which domination would give way to compassion and communion, Jesus overturned the most rigidly upheld mores of his time. He rejected hierarchies. He called for equality. He denounced class arrangements that favored the wealthy over the poor. (p 18-19)


And then he sent his disciples (this is where you and I come in) sent them out to proclaim that this new kingdom was at hand, that it was as close as our willingness to reject the domination systems of old and embrace this new way of living and loving and valuing one another:


“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” he said, “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”


It was an invitation to go forth in love and humility and let all people know that they are welcome in God’s kingdom regardless of their race or religion, their history or family, their past or their present, their gender, rank, or standing.


It was an invitation, not to tell people what to believe, and most certainly not to force or threaten them to believe – for what could be more antithetical to the spirit of Jesus? – but for the disciples to go forth and show others with the witness of their very lives, how to live and how to love.


Notice Jesus didn’t say, “teach them to believe a specific set of doctrines about me or they’ll go to hell.” He didn’t send the disciples out into the world to lord their newfound faith over others or indoctrinate others.


No. He sent them out to love others, all others, as Jesus had loved them, in order that those others might catch on and love that way too.


And it might have worked, if Christianity hadn’t eventually become legal, but unfortunately it did. (Thanks for nothing Constantine.)

Within a few hundred years it was co-opted by the establishment and, in perhaps the most unfortunate irony in all of history, Jesus’ name and his message were taken up and twisted round that they might be used as just one more marker to denote who is in and who is out, who is worthy and who is not, who is saved and who is damned.

The great commission was taken as a justification for the destruction and appropriation of non -Christian peoples; their way of life, their faith, and their property. The ethos of domination, seen as God-ordained, was used to justify the abuse and subjugation of people of other races, other religions, of women, children, animals, even the earth itself.

To quote Walter Wink again, “The Domination System (that persistent drumbeat I spoke of before) proved too strong. Soon sinners were being excluded from the church, women were being squeezed out of leadership, and the wealthier, educated males were taking over authority from the poor and unschooled.

The Roman Empire joined the Jewish leadership in attempting to crush this nonviolent movement of compassion and equality. From within and without, enormous pressures forced the church ineluctably toward precisely the kind of hierarchical and violence-based system that Jesus had rejected.”

“So why not just throw out the Bible, and Christianity along with it?” asks Wink. Why not give up on this book and this faith that have been the cause of so much pain and suffering? “Because,” he says, at least for people like you and me and him, “it is … the tenor, the thrust, the spirit of Jesus that drives us (ever onward) toward God’s future…”.

Within “the Bible,” he says, we do not find “… a repository of politically correct opinions, but an ongoing struggle to overcome domination right here: in our own tradition, in our own Scripture, in our own homes,” our own lives, our own society.

And it is in the person of Jesus that we find the will and the wisdom for this struggle. It is in the words and actions of Jesus where we find the truths we need to combat that spirit of domination.


It is in Jesus’ teachings that we get a glimpse of the gospel of liberation we so desperately need to hear, for in his words we hear the new song, the good news that we don’t have to live this way any longer.

So let us go, therefore and make true disciples of Christ, but let us always do so in the spirit of Christ, remembering that the gospel is not a threat but an invitation. Let us reclaim the name Jesus and the whole idea of what it means to be a Christian in this world such that people will think it’s a good thing when they hear that this is who we are, he is who we follow, and this is what we believe.

Let us sing a song of freedom and equality for all peoples, a song of love and care for all creation, not just with our words but with our very lives, proclaiming as we go forth a gospel that truly is good news for all.

Amen? Amen.


[1] “Ecobible: The Bible and Ecojustice,” all quotes from Wink throughout this sermon come from this essay which can be found here http://theologytoday.ptsem.edu/jan1993/v49-4-article2.htm