Christians and the Environment: Alison has an exciting new thought!

What is man that you are mindful of him?
The son of man that you care for him?
Yet you made him a little lower than the heavenly beings,
And crowned him with glory and honour.
You have given him dominion over the works of your hands;
You have put all things under his feet,
All sheep and oxen,
And also the beats of the field,
The birds of the heavens,
And the fish of the sea,
Whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
Psalm 8:4-8
Translation: ESV (with Australianised spelling)

What Happened This Morning…

Anglicare holds a devotion for staff every Monday morning. This morning one of my co-workers reflected on Pslam 8, which is a magnificant psalm about God being a magnificant creator. All up, it was a very encouaging morning!

When he got to the part quoted above, our co-worker reflected on the role of humanity to rule over the rest of creation. He pointed out the bleeding obvious: we are not in control of creation (a point clearly illustrated by the recent Queensland floods). But it’s not the way things are meant to be. Humans are supposed be in control.

The Way Christians Talk About The Environment

It was a quick throwaway reference to a very complex issue of how Christians should be interacting with the non-human world, and I was a little put out by the way he phrased it. His choice of words emphasised that the rightful place of humans is to be master over creation. This is true of course – Jesus is the true human and the one who reigns over the creation right now (even as I write)! But the choice of words still grated with me. They were words that could be easily twisted to justify the attitude of those people who have no scruples with using any and all of the earth’s resources at whim.

If you are a Christian who has given a lot of thought to the concepts of power and dominion, you will know that dominion is not about abuse, but about service. Jesus’ lordship culminated in his greatest act of service. He is a servant king, and he calls his followers to be servants of others too. In the Christian circles I move in, this idea is pretty commonplace. We are encouraged to be people who serve others at great personal cost. We look to famous examples, like Mother Theresa, but we also acknowledge those who serve unnoticed, like the person who spends their Saturday cleaning the church building for the sake of everyone else. Even at work, Anglicare encourages its leaders to be servant leaders, following the example of Jesus.

So if we are all on board with the idea of “power as servanthood” when we interact with people, how come I never hear people use this concept when they talk about the rest of creation? When we talk about creation, we use words like dominion and stewardship. How about servant leadership? Is it OK to talk about us being the servants of non-human entities?

You can pass this off as my inner greenie dancing on a soapbox, but I think there’s something here. Don’t you think it’s weird to have one model of dominion for interacting with people and another version for the rest of creation?

Ideas To Flesh It All Out

After reflecting on this during the day, I came up with some ways that I think we could be better servants of the rest of creation:

1. Understand ecosystems better
In a completely ecological sense, this is seeking to understand why the earth behaves the way it does, and how humanity interacts with the earth’s processes. We should be understanding what we are serving! But I think Christians could be doing even more – we should also be integrating our understanding of our ecosystems with our understanding of God. I’m not 100% sure how to do that though, due to me not being a theologian. Any tips?

2. Be prepared to put the needs of ecosystems above your own
We say that about people, and I think it’s OK to say that about environmental processes too. This could end up being a useful discipline that helps some of us combat selfishness. There are so many places I could start here: buy local produce, use less water, don’t buy too much food, avoid consuming products that generate lots of waste, use re-used goods as much as possible… (Argh! This list is starting to make me feel like I shouldn’t be buying anything else from Ikea!!)

3. Find beauty in creation – even the non-beautiful parts
Phil McManus, one of my geography lecturers, used to remind us that even though the “charismatic megafauna” are very very cute and beautiful, it’s not just the whales, tigers and pandas that make up our ecosystems. There is beauty and imoprtance in the ugliest and most annoying of organisms. Even mosquitoes. And if you are good bible-believing Christian, you can get excited about the day when Christ will redeem all creation – even those guys. I’m not quite sure what a redeemed mosquito will act like, but I’m looking out for the beauty anyway…

4. Remember that often abuse of the environment goes hand in hand with abuse of other people!
And often, when we abuse the environment, we are also abusing other people. I am currently wearing a cheap skirt that I bought for a grand total of $10 from a chain store. It’s lined with some kind of synthetic fabric and travelled all the way from China (most likely on a large, fossil fuel burning container ship). That can’t be good for the environment. But it was probably also made in a poorly ventilated sweatshop, by someone whose monthly wage is a tiny fraction of the amount of money I will spend buying food for dinner tonight. And the size of their dinner tonight will probably also be a fraction of mine. I wish I had thought of this before I bought this skirt. That was definititly not something that served the environment, nor other people.

Well, that is all I have for now. What do you think? Can Christians exercise “servant leadership” over creation? Or is that kind of leadership only expressed towards other people and other people alone?

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13 thoughts on “Christians and the Environment: Alison has an exciting new thought!

  1. darvids0n

    Hey Spal! Interesting ideas, but I suppose I would disagree with you on some of your big points.

    Part 1 of 2

    1. Understand ecosystems better
    “In a completely ecological sense, this is seeking to understand why the earth behaves the way it does, and how humanity interacts with the earth’s processes. We should be understanding what we are serving!”

    This I think is pretty much a universally GoodThing(tm). It’s hard to say that we shouldn’t try and understand the earth because we obviously want to use what we’ve been given to its full potential. Plus, a lot of great innovations have come about as a result of us understand how the earth and things on the earth work (not the least bit in agriculture, with hydroponics and permaculture and so forth!). So I would say that this is pretty agreeable.

    “But I think Christians could be doing even more – we should also be integrating our understanding of our ecosystems with our understanding of God. I’m not 100% sure how to do that though, due to me not being a theologian. Any tips?”
    I don’t have several years of Bible college under my belt either, but I spose I’d say that we should *temper* our attitude towards the ecosystems around us with knowledge of who began those ecosystems, and why he began them (no hard and fast answer to why God made creation but things on earth are here partly because we can/should enjoy them). So don’t look at ecology and say it’s a beast that needs to be tamed, but consider it perhaps a toybox of stuff which we can use and enjoy, but not abuse, because our Dad got us the toys and that’s not respecting our Dad. Plus he might get annoyed at us for breaking the toys. Not sure how far I can stretch the analogy here.

    2. Be prepared to put the needs of ecosystems above your own

    Okay, here’s where my disagreements start. The needs of people should be paramount to the needs of ecosystems if we are to love our neighbour (and I’m pretty sure you won’t find a single bit of backup in the Bible for the assertion that our “neighbour” includes plants and animals, in case you were going there). So I would say not only don’t put the needs of ecosystems above the needs of (you, others), don’t even be prepared to, because it’s just not right.

    Of course, we need to define the NEEDS of people and the NEEDS of ecosystems, because where the needs of an ecosystem don’t conflict with the needs of people then I’m totally for paying attention to those needs! And the needs of people don’t extend to being able to eat any fruit or vegetable they want, or have the perfect diet, or be able to drive/fly across the world every week to meet with executives with ties and expensive pants. So there, I can see great value in conserving resources which will see a large detriment to the environment if they are consumed at their present rates.

    “There are so many places I could start here: buy local produce, use less water, don’t buy too much food, avoid consuming products that generate lots of waste, use re-used goods as much as possible…”
    All good things, not at all conflicting with people’s basic needs. I’m totally for advocating all of these things!

    Reply
    1. darvids0n

      Part 2 of 2

      3. Find beauty in creation – even the non-beautiful parts
      I also agree with your point here, creation is not just a place to live, it’s actually a beautiful place to live. The more we produce and consume man-made products, the less we see nature’s products as special and amazing. This is rather sad.

      4. Remember that often abuse of the environment goes hand in hand with abuse of other people!
      I think a lot of people just throw the sweatshop argument in. It can have merit, but I don’t think your more general point about abuse of the environment “often” going hand-in-hand with abuse of other people is valid. Slavery, exertion of power or control over others, or greed can be seen apart from abuse of the environment (which I would probably term gluttony). I deliberately and consciously buy cheap clothes because I want to use as much money as possible for other, more charitable means. The price difference on some (not all) fair trade goods can be better spent, in my opinion. But then again, I haven’t bought new clothes in a number of years, since these are still perfectly operational, and I’m not exactly trendy as it is so there’s not a lot of point dressing trendy. So there are good ways to reuse or keep using things to reduce your impact on the environment, and not be labelled “abusing the environment” for buying one skirt.

      Anyway, those are some of my thoughts. I’d be up for chatting some more about this as well: I think the best criticism is that which is well-formed, well-intentioned and well-understood 🙂 It would also give us a chance to catch up properly!

      Reply
      1. darvids0n

        An attitude of servant leadership is fine, but not literally serving the creation, since that’s the height of idolatry by its very definition.

        So I think as long as we remember God’s place over all of it, and look out first for the needs of our neighbour, then we’ve got things the right way round 🙂

      2. Anonymous

        “…not literally serving the creation, since that’s the height of idolatry.”

        In some sense it must be not idolatrous to serve creation, otherwise when I serve my brothers in sisters in Christ as Jesus calls me to do, that too would be idolatrous.

        Matt

      3. darvids0n

        Fair enough, Matt! I was equating my usage of “serving” to “being mastered by”, as in, we live to only serve the created order and things therein. Kinda like the “cannot serve two masters” thing. So my point was to serve God, and tend to creation yes, but don’t just serve creation. Which I’m sure wasn’t what Spal meant by “servant leadership”, but I just wanted to make sure the term “servant” in that didn’t have the definition I just used.

  2. tibbycat

    I like this post 🙂

    I think a lot of Christians sadly get dominion and servant leadership mixed up. You only have to look at the plethora of books in my shop or Koorong that encourage men to have dominion over woman to see that. But that’s a whole other topic :p

    On the environment and politics, it makes me sigh sometimes when I hear Bob Brown, who’s certainly not a Christian, express more godly opinions about the environment (and caring for it as servants) than the environmental opinions of particular right wing politicians who actually do claim to be Christians.

    Reply
    1. Alison Post author

      Sad stuff about Bob Brown. I read an interview with him in the Good Weekend last week and even he seems to think he is doing a better job at being a Christian than many other people – even though he also clearly states that he is not one…

      I think this screams out the need for more Christians to engage with the issue. Maybe if we start making it a more normal thing to talk about, there will be more Christians treating the rest of creation better?

      Reply
      1. tibbycat

        In terms of social justice and stewarding the environment, he’s probably right. In terms of Christ though,… no.

        Totally agree with your second paragraph!

  3. birdienl

    I’m really glad to see this post. I also think being a Christian and the environment is a really important subject to be thinking about these days. I couldn’t have put it as concretely in words like you did, unfortunately. About 1. intergrating our understanding of ecosystems with our understanding of God. Strangely enough, it’s been fantasy from C.S. Lewis and Tolkien which has helped me think about this. In their worlds of Narnia and Middle Earth all creation is so much more one (people, animals and plants) compared to how we often see it (human vs. the rest of creation).

    Reply
    1. Alison Post author

      Oh my goodness – I never noticed that about CS Lewis (I haven’t read Tolkien :S), but now you mention it, that is so so true! I’m going to watch carefully for the creation stuff next time I read.

      Reply

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