The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries
Dominion: a challenge for preachers
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.
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.
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