BY BRIAN ZIMMER
Modern-day hippies have lived in the trees in Cal’s Memorial Oak Grove for over a year now. Walking down the street, I am informed by messages in chalk that “Cars melt Earth,” and commanded by vandalized traffic signs to, “STOP driving.” What can Christians learn from this bastion of liberalism, so frequently referred to as “Berzerkley”? Perhaps a bit more than a lot of Christians would tend to think.
Common Christian Misconceptions
There is a dangerous temptation for Christians to misjudge the way secular environmentalists advocate for the environment and simply write their concern off as pagan and contrary to worshiping the one true God.
A very common interpretation of Genesis 1:28 (“…fill the earth and subdue it…”) is that we have complete ownership over the environment and may use it to whatever extent we deem necessary to ensure the advancement of humanity. Some even argue that, since God will create a new heaven and earth after the end times, we do not need to take any precautionary measures to protect the environment.
Called to be Caretakers
I would like to propose that our role as Christians must be strictly interpreted as being stewards of Creation. Very shortly after the verse granting men dominion over Creation, we see in Genesis 2:15 that “the LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” God placed us in the world to rule over, but also to take good care of, what belongs to him. We are like tenants in God’s “house.” When you are responsible for someone’s house, you make sure to take care of what’s inside and keep it as pristine as possible. The owners of the house may grant you the right to eat their food and to make use of their resources, but you would not try to take anything that belongs to them and use it for your own gain. We need to remember that it’s not about us: it’s about God.
God and Creation
It must be understood that all things belong to the Lord. In Psalm 24:1 we see that, “the earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it,” and in Psalm 50:7–12 God tells us, “the world is mine, and all that is in it.” Through Paul’s writing the point is reiterated that “all things were created by him and for him” (Col. 1:16). With the realization that the resources of the earth do not actually belong to us, it should be in a different light that we begin to approach what might be acceptable actions with regard to the environment.
At each stage of creation, God noted the goodness of it. Seven times the phrase, “And God saw that it was good” is repeated. God’s covenant after the flood included all of creation (Gen. 9:8–17). In the Psalm we see a beautiful portrayal of God caring for his creation (Ps. 104:10–30). In Matthew we see that God watches over Creation, not letting the smallest of its members die apart from his will. (Matt. 6:26; 10:29). He created the Sabbath for animals and the land as well as humans (Exod. 23:12; Lev. 25:4–5). He states that righteous men are kind to their animals, while wicked men are cruel to them (Prov. 12:10).
Even after the Fall, Creation continued to be a testament to the glory of God (Ps. 19:1–4; 96:11–13) and a way that God reveals himself to man (Rom. 1:20–23). However, the more we foul our skies, the less people will see God in the heavens. The fewer trees we leave standing, the fewer there will be to sing for joy before the Lord. I contend that by destroying Creation we are actively going against God’s will, in that we are removing a path through which He willed people to find Him.
God desires all of creation to be redeemed and brought back into a right state with him. Jesus shed his blood not only for us, but for all things in the Earth. Even as we work toward our redemption, creation also longs to share in this redemption. This image is powerfully portrayed in Romans 8:19–23:
The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.
We should not see ourselves as being so separate from the rest of Creation. This passage points out our relationship with it: together we groan for redemption, and together we will be redeemed.
God has given us dominion over Creation (Gen. 1:28). What constitutes godly dominion? Let us look at the Hebrew words for dominion (radah) and subdue (kabash).Answering Genesis, “Earth Day: Is Christianity to blame for environment problems,” http://www.answersingenesis.org/docs2002/0320_earth_day.asp; Theodore Hiebert, “Rethinking Dominion Theology,” Direction 25 no. 2 (1996), http://www.directionjournal.org. Dominion (radah) does place humans hierarchically above the rest of Creation; it gives us the right to govern it. However, the verb does not in itself tell us the manner in which we should govern. Some of the ways in which the term is used are a master ruling his house (Lev. 25:43), Solomon’s officers commanding their soldiers (1 Kings 5:16), and Israel’s being ruled over by its enemies (Lev. 26:17). While the kind of ruling done over Israel’s enemies is harsh and often goes along with destruction, the master is encouraged not to rule his household ruthlessly.
Kabash can often be much harsher than radah, as it translates to “to tread down;” hence, negatively, to disregard; positively, to conquer, subjugate, violate – bring into bondage, force, keep under, subdue, bring into subjection.”Online Parallel Bible, “Micah 7:19 Lexicon,” http://lexicon.scripturetext.com/michah/7-19.htm. The ways in which kabash is used include destroying enemy territory (Num. 32:22, 29), making slaves out of people against God’s will (Jer. 34:11, 16), and rape (Esther 7:8; Neh. 5:5). However, in Micah 7:19, God’s compassion causes him to “tread under foot” (kabash) our sins. To really understand what these words might mean, we need to look at both the historical and biblical context in which they occur.
Historically, we must consider what the authors most likely intended in their choice of language and what the people who received the text would be likely to interpret it as saying. Working the land and producing crops was very hard and subject to many potential causes of failure. Men were essentially powerless before the forces of nature. In this respect, the relationship between man and nature can be viewed as quite adversarial. The ancient Hebrews had nothing close to the technology that we have today, and with this in mind, it is hard to imagine these words signifying anything close to the kind of control of which our industrialized society is now capable.
Genesis 2:15 and Genesis 3:23 also shed light on how to interpret the meaning of dominion and subduing. Both verses, in describing the way in which man works the ground, use the Hebrew word avad, which means “to serve.” The same word is used to describe how slaves serve their masters (Gen. 12:16), and how humans serve God (Exod. 4:23). This seems to imply that our role is that of a servant tending to the land God placed us in.
This analysis can sometimes lead to the belief that there are two different theologies present in the Genesis account: one of dominion and one of servanthood. However, these are really just two sides of the same coin. How often do we preach the value of being a “servant-leader”? The face of the dominion theology has had hegemony in our culture for far too long. It is time for the servanthood aspect of the theology found in Genesis to be reemphasized to give us a new sense of humility and responsibility toward Creation.
Christian Environmentalism in Practice
There are many things that we can do to help the environment. Here’s just a few things to get you started: encourage environment-based service projects in your congregation, use energy efficient bulbs, turn off electronics when they’re not in use, watch water consumption, use reusable, eco-friendly grocery store bags, and take your time while eating and enjoy food. For a more extensive list of actions you can take, visit Creation Care’s website as a starting point. Perhaps consider even joining a group like Greenpeace (or others) so that you can stay abreast of what is going on and be informed of opportunities to actively help the environment. In this way you can facilitate your ability to write to your congresspeople and inform them of the issues that matter to you.
Many people, especially in Berkeley, are very sensitive about the environment. On the whole they care a lot about Creation, and oftentimes hold the opinion that Christians do not. We should embrace this as an opportunity to reconcile an image that has been prevalent for too long and as an opportunity to reach out to people by showing them the love of Christ through the ways that we love His Creation! Through doing this we can spark many conversations that will give us the opportunity to share Him with many new people.
What We Can Learn From Berkeley
Berkeley has done a much better job cultivating a spirit of conservation and stewardship in its community than we as Christians generally have in ours. We would do well to follow their example in caring for the planet and standing up against those who would destroy it. Their love of Creation, however, may go a bit too far toward idolatry, of which we should be cautious ourselves (Exod. 20:3–5; Rom. 1:25). There are many people in our lives with great intentions whose focus needs to be shifted from the Creation to the Creator. In any case, we should be partnering with those in our community to mutually strengthen our ability to preserve God’s Creation.
The world is watching Christians and evaluating whether our actions align with the image of the God we worship. All of us must be diligent in determining our true relationship with the environment and ensuring that it aligns with God’s will.