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

None of the Above
distributed 9/14/12 - ©2012

Earlier this week, I read an opinion column, "On Environment: How Would Jesus Vote?", that I generally liked, but I was disturbed by the way the whole piece was framed. As I see all too often in writings about religion and the environment, the whole thing dealt with arguments between Evangelical Christians.

The column said, "Among Christians, divisions about what to do concerning climate change often arise from the interpretation of two opposing biblical teachings: that we're stewards of God's creation, or that humans have dominion over all living things." In the article, David Lillard used the Evangelical Environmental Network to represent the stewardship side, and the dominion camp was given voice through the Cornwall Alliance -- a group that I warned about a few weeks ago.

I was prompted to write back to the column's author and its distributor, to challenge them to a more expansive description of Christian thought.

I would point out, though, that there is a lot more to Christianity in the US than the Evangelicals, and that the Cornwall Alliance is an ultra-right-wing group. Rather than a conversation between two expressions of the religious right, it would be nice to spread the word about the multitudes of theological and political statements from Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Episcopalians, etc.
I'm glad to say that they both agreed with me, and we're having a conference call in a few weeks to talk about a series of articles.

So, now I need to figure out how those "mainline" churches might deal with creation care and eco-justice in ways that go beyond the dominion/stewardship split. My early attempts to find a few coherent labels suggest three other theological approaches. There are probably several more -- please let me know what I'm leaving out!

  1. Both stewardship and dominion presume that humans are, to some extent, separate from the rest of creation: we're over it or outside of it, categorically different from "nature."

    My preferred stance for theological ethics has a completely different presumption. It is an ecological perspective which insists that humans are in and of nature. We are part of the web of life, and we must live in harmony with the natural world that sustains us. Trying to draw a dividing line between our species and everything else is foolish, artificial and misleading. A few months ago, I wrote about the impossibility of distinguishing between a person and the swarms of bacteria that keep each of us healthy. It is just as foolish to think of forests and oceans as resources to be managed, because we are all part of an intertwined global ecology.

    The theological imperative that I often name is "Love your neighbor", which calls us to appropriate relationships with the members of our own community. It is about reciprocity, not control or management. It is about love, not economics.

  2. Ecological spirituality gives voice to another perspective, one of wonder, awe and respect. The whole of creation is to be honored because it is valuable and beautiful to God. An important moral category is that of sacredness, affirming the worth of each thing in its own right. For example, discussions about water issues often speak of water as sacred. It is not a commodity to be owned and sold, but a gift to be received and shared. An important ecumenical statement of environmental ethics was titled, "God's Earth is Sacred", and included the declaration that "To commit a crime against the natural world is a sin".

    This theological approach holds up "the integrity of creation," which respects the unique value of each element of creation. The end of the book of Job provides the most delightful biblical basis for this theology, where it isn't about human values and needs at all. God gives rain to the desert where no person lives, delights in the mountain goat and ostrich, and has a deep love for the hippopotamus. We should preserve species and seek ecological health simply because they are inherently valuable in the heart of God.

    An ecological spirituality often draws us into an appreciation of "the universe story", putting our human identity into the context of an vast, evolving universe where our history is just a tiny sliver of billions of years of time.

  3. The third category that I see in mainline ethics is an awkward one for me, even as it seems to be the dominant expression of progressive religious environmental ethics. In many of the denominational statements, and in lots of the political advocacy from religious groups, the key principle is one of human justice. These statements really have little to do with nature, and they don't delve into questions of humans as part of creation.

    The justice approach looks at how environmental issues disproportionately impact human communities. Climate change is a moral issue because the rich nations are placing burdens on poor nations, because island nations with tiny carbon footprints will disappear under rising seas, and because people with few resources will be devastated by drought. Toxic waste is an ethical issue because it is dumped primarily into minority communities.

    This is a fairly narrow circle of environmental ethics. It does not explicitly deal with questions of dominion or stewardship, ecology or the integrity of creation. It looks first and foremost at whether we're living in just and fair human communities. Those are very important and valid questions, but they are limited in their scope. They are human questions, not creation concerns.

    I think many of the people and church bodies who express a justice ethic do have deeper and broader beliefs about the whole of creation, but the justice approach is a helpful political strategy. Focusing on human communities keeps us on familiar ethical turf in the liberal church, and it means that we don't need to deal with new and potentially divisive questions about humanity's place and purpose in creation.

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The popular media finds it easy to cover religion and the environment by describing fights between the dominion and stewardship factions. It all comes down to a neat and tidy debate between Genesis 1:28 and Genesis 2:15 -- and it doesn't come close to reflecting the diversity of beliefs in contemporary Christianity.

The mainstream and conservative media probably likes this style of reporting, too, because neither stewardship nor dominion present a dramatic challenge to the dominant culture. Both assume that humans are not like the rest of creation, and they place us in some sort of controlling role. The approaches of eco-justice's web of life, and creation spiritualities integrity of creation are much more of a threat our culture's assumptions and institutions.

The opinion column asked, "How would Jesus vote?" If the only choice is between dominion and stewardship, I'd have to say "None of the above." Interestingly, that's what columnist David Lillard ended up saying in several instances, too.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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