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

Dominion: a challenge for preachers
distributed 5/20/11 - ©2011

What one word from the Bible has had the greatest impact on our culture? Some good candidates would be love, hope, faith, grace, and justice. In this time of ecological crisis, through, many people would vote for "dominion".

That word appears in just two Biblical settings that speak to humanity's relationship with the rest of creation. It is in Psalm 8:6, and Genesis 1:26-28 where it is used twice.

For a word that isn't used often, it has had a profound impact. The notion of dominion over creation certainly informed the now-infamous article by Lynn White, The Historical Roots of our Ecologic Crisis, which blames western Christianity for the crisis. (The quote below is selected phrases, without all the "..." marks cluttering it up.)

What did Christianity tell people about their relations with the environment? ... Christianity inherited from Judaism a striking story of creation. By gradual stages a loving and all- powerful God had created light and darkness, the heavenly bodies, the earth and all its plants, animals, birds, and fishes. Finally, God had created Adam and, as an afterthought, Eve to keep man from being lonely. Man named all the animals, thus establishing his dominance over them. God planned all of this explicitly for man's benefit and rule: no item in the physical creation had any purpose save to serve man's purposes. ... Especially in its Western form, Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen. Christianity not only established a dualism of man and nature but also insisted that it is God's will that man exploit nature for his proper ends.

White gets lots of things wrong in his telling of Christian creation stories, and he is not alone in his errors. His warping of the stories is shared by multitudes of people, inside the church and out.

"Dominion" -- improperly interpreted from a few Bible verses -- has distorted the way western culture has related to Earth. It is essential that preachers and theologians tell the story more fully and accurately. An occasion to do so is coming up next month.

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In the Revised Common Lectionary's three-year cycle of scripture readings, the Genesis 1 creation story shows up just once for Sunday use. That happens next in about a month, on June 19, 2011. Psalm 8 -- the only other "dominion" passage -- is also one of the readings for that day. While I hope that the Genesis 1 creation account will be the focus of attention in lots of churches, I also fear that many preachers will mangle the text and misinterpret the story during worship next month.

As some of you know, I get rather rabid on the topic of the Genesis creation stories, and I can go on quite an extensive rant about the importance of dealing respectfully with the two very different accounts that are present at the start of the Bible. (The Eden story dates from about 1,000 BCE, and the priestly story comes from 500 BCE.) The core points of my diatribe are summarized below.

To support pastors in preaching appropriately on Genesis 1, Eco-Justice Ministries has an extensive collection of resources on our website. Building on a series of workshops that we offered in 2005, the web pages do a detailed analysis of the text, put it in relationship with the other Genesis creation story, and provide a range of suggestions for sermon themes.

I strongly encourage preachers to look through those materials, and I ask church members to alert their pastors to these resources.

Here's the gist of what those extended resources talk about.

  1. The two creation stories in Genesis are just one example of the many places where the Bible has differing narratives in conversation with each other. We see it with the four gospels, New Testament letters written to diverse audiences and situations, and conflicting historical narratives in the Old Testament. In all of those cases, our task is to take the Bible seriously, not literally. We are not to harmonize the divergent texts, but to understand their distinctive messages.

  2. In the Genesis 1 story, Earth is not the center of the universe -- it is the universe. The whole of creation consists of Earth and the dome of the heavens above it. We're going to get all sorts of confused messages if we try to translate this story so that it talks about "the big bang" and our modern scientific universe.

  3. The story in Genesis 1 has to be taken as a whole, or we'll completely miss the point. The priestly authors were fixated on order and ritual purity, and their story provides the basis for all of the laws that define the practices and boundaries for living correctly -- including the rules about keeping separate foods, crops, fabric and people. (It is a story that makes the priests' role very important, by the way.)

  4. The structure of the story is very important. For the first three days, creation happens by separating: light from darkness, water above from water below, and dry land from water. In the next three days, each of those realms is populated and authority given: the greater and lesser lights to rule the seasons and liturgical calendar; the fish and birds of the water and air are to flourish; and then the creatures of land, including humans.

  5. Sabbath is the end of the story. God does not rest because God is tired, but because the purpose of creation is fulfilled. Creation is not an ongoing, evolutionary process in this view. When the job is done, then stop and rejoice in it.

  6. The whole message of the priestly creation story can get summed up by the saying, "A place for everything, and everything in its place." Things that have been separated are supposed to stay put, and each of the kinds of creatures are to stay with their own kind. The human role of dominion -- which is a harsh and controlling role -- is to preserve the order of creation. In the ancient Hebraic mindset, the human role is about environmental protection and pollution control, because Earth is "polluted" when those separations are not observed. (We see the priestly style of moral ordering and control in current religious crusaders against what they see as pollutions of God's will, such as Colorado-based Focus on the Family and their adamant stands against homosexual relationships.)

  7. Genesis 1 does not say what White thought, that "God planned all of this explicitly for man's benefit and rule: no item in the physical creation had any purpose save to serve man's purposes." The priestly story is about a fecund and fertile world, where all creatures are to be fruitful and multiply without violence or killing. The whole of creation is "very good" when it is filled with the great diversity of life.

  8. The other, earlier creation story about Eden has a very different style and message. It progresses by fixing problems that crop up (where every step in Genesis 1 is good). The Eden story gives humanity lots of free will and very limited authority in tilling (or "serving") the soil. The "fall" happens when humans try to be too much like God. We get into the dangerously confused interpretation that Lynn White voices when we mix up the two stories -- when we take both the freedom of Eden and the great authority of the priestly story, and disregard the purposes and limitations that are defined in each account.

The notion of "dominion" as domination and destruction for humanity's selfish gain is a perversion of biblical faith. The opening chapters of Genesis provide two contradictory approaches to humanity's role of participating in, protecting and nurturing God's creation.

You may not like the way Genesis 1 tells that story -- I much prefer the Eden account, and I find meaning in new stories that spin out the emergence of the whole, vast cosmos through billions of years -- but pastors and teachers need to help us all understand what the priestly story really says.

I invite you, and urge you, to make Genesis 1 the focus of worship at your church on June 19. Help your congregation and your community reject the Lynn White style of distortion. Make it clear that "dominion" is not about the rape and abuse of creation.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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