Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

A Heated Debate
distributed 10/1/04 - ©2004

Last night, the US presidential campaign entered its dramatic last month with Bush and Kerry's first face-to-face appearance. Presidential Debate #1 revealed clear differences between the candidates -- differences in policy, personality and vision.

Round 1 of the debate cycle focused on international issues. Understandably, the conversation dealt extensively with Iraq -- with the wisdom of that pre-emptive attack, with the preparation and conduct of the war, and with strategies for "winning the peace." The "war on terror" and national security were broadly discussed, revealing polarized stances on how best to achieve peace and security. Nuclear proliferation was named by both candidates as the greatest threat, but Mr. Bush was alarmed only by nuclear weapons in the hands of terrorists or new nuclear powers; Mr. Kerry recognized the dangers and hypocrisy of the new nuclear weapons being developed by the US. Kerry twice named global warming as an urgent international issue; Bush didn't mention the topic.

If it were not already evident, last night's debate made it crystal clear. The selection of a president in 2004 is not a matter of subtle shading between two generally similar choices. We are being presented with two very different perspectives on the role of government, the common good, and on the US's posture in the world. We are being presented with two strikingly different personalities, and two wildly different views of how the world works.

The decision to be made by US voters is of crucial importance. All US citizens should make up their minds and cast their votes. And, in the month remaining before the election, all of us should be energetically engaged in the broader democratic process -- participating in the political conversation, writing letters to the editor, campaigning for our preferred candidates at all levels of government, and working to get out the vote.

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I am now going to shift the subject of the conversation to historical details about Genesis 1-3. If you don't see why that is a related subject, then the importance of addressing this detail of biblical interpretation is confirmed.

In my work with churches about environmental theology, the Genesis stories come up frequently. And I find, almost universally, that those texts are seriously misunderstood. And so I want to piggy-back on last night's political debates to draw a close parallel.

There are two -- count them, two -- creation stories in the first three chapters of the Bible. We can best understand those accounts if we see in them the same sorts of profound and passionate disagreements about style and worldview that we heard in last night's political debates. If we fall into the trap of glossing over those great differences, we will never be able to understand the clarity and integrity of either theological position.

Of course there are similarities in the two creation accounts. Both Kerry and Bush spoke as "Americans" and shared many assumptions about and the powerful role of the US in world affairs. So too, the biblical stories are clearly Jewish, and share assumptions about the reign of God, and of humanity's distinctiveness within the creation.

But there is a heated conflict between the two theological stances in Genesis. We can't just accept "the biblical view" about humanity's place and purpose in creation. We need to decide between two very distinctive options -- or we can select one of the many other theological choices found in the Bible, church history, and in modern theological thought.

What are the choices that are presented to us in the opening chapters of Genesis?

The Eden story -- chapters 2 and 3, written about 1,000 BCE -- is a folksy account of a God who stumbles his way through creation. Recurring problems need to be fixed. There is no one to till the earth, so an earthling is created to do that task. The earthling is lonely, so various animals are created. When that doesn't work, gender differences are added. Human freedom, aspirations and temptations cause problems that lead to "the fall." In this Yahwistic account, humanity is created for stewardship and service, within the context of both freedom and law ("don't eat from those two trees!").

Genesis 1, from a priestly source, was composed 500 years later, after the Babylonian exile and the return to Jerusalem. It is a story of a cosmic God who makes no mistakes. Every step in the creation is good. Chaos is divided neatly into clearly defined order. Humans come at the end of creation, not the beginning, and the text is adamant that male and female are created together. This story rejects the idea that humans are to serve the Earth. Instead, humans are assigned powerful dominion over the entire creation. But that dominion is intended to preserve the fragile structure of this well-ordered creation. Humans are told use their power to maintain a flourishing, fertile and diverse creation.

The contrast between the two stories is at least as blatant and as bitter as the one between Kerry and Bush. Both stories are deeply rooted in the faith of Judaism, but they give voice to profoundly different expressions of that faith.

When the conflict between the two stories is ignored, when pieces are taken from each without heeding the complex integrity of each source, we find the roots of today's crisis of ecological destruction. Our culture has claimed the power and authority granted in Genesis 1, and mixed it with the freedom and creativity of Eden. The constraints imposed on humans, and the purpose of service that are essential to each story, have been lost.

Last night's presidential debates made clear the need to make a political choice, because the differences are real and important. So too, as people of faith, we need to make choices between competing theological themes about humanity's role and purpose in creation.

In politics and faith, see the differences, understand the implications, and cast your vote.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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