What Does “Dominion” Mean?   (Genesis 1: 26-31)

by | Feb 16, 2020 | Sermon Text | 0 comments

Think about these words and places: Bhopal; Chernobyl; Love Canal, Three Mile Island, nuclear emissions, toxic waste; acid rain. These terms and places would have no real meaning at the start of the twentieth century, but they now are recognized as signifying the scarring that humanity had done to its earth over the last hundred years. New York City alone produces 24,000 tons of waste daily. Burning these tons of waste has given rise to a new word and a new reality, toxic ash. Medical researchers have found that Eskimos carry in their tissues the residue of pesticides used in the continental U S. Those who have found themselves in Atlanta on a hot summer day know that ozone is a constituent element of the smog that pervades that city’s atmosphere. But in the stratosphere, ozone is nature’s sunscreen, that which makes life possible. However, in recent years the ozone level has been diminishing at a rate of 4% a year, with a resulting spike in skin cancer rates. A continental size hole in the ozone level has been discovered over Antarctica, which may account for why Antarctica – Antarctica! – almost hit 70 degrees this week, and a glacier the size of Atlanta broke away from the southern ice cap to enter the rising sea. Meanwhile we are using the earth’s non-renewable resources at an alarming, irresponsible rate, even as the population of the earth increases exponentially. In 1650 the earth housed one half billion people; we didn’t reach the one billion mark until 1800. But we reached the two billion mark in 1927, hit the 3 billion mark in 1960, and the four billion mark in 1974. In 2017 scientists estimate that earth housed 7.5 billion people. Can we sustain the human community? Can we sustain our earth? Desperate farming tactics are resulting in the loss of 240 billion tons of top soil annually. And though naturalists estimate that there are between 20 and 30 million species of plant and animal life on earth, the extinction rate of the world’s creatures continues at such an alarming rapidity that we do not even know what species have already been lost.

Of course, some Christians say, hey, it doesn’t matter. The world is not our home. We are just passing through it, so caring for the ecology is not one of our responsibilities. In fact, this attitude is prevalent enough that some in the environmental community have opined that to become ecologically conscious requires renouncing the Christian faith. They argue that while other religions worshipped the earth as divine, Judaism and Christianity saw the earth as the distinct product of a Creator. This Creator gave the earth to humanity, granting us dominion over creation. Over time, this concept of dominion became understood as viewing nature as an instrument to be exploited and manipulated for humanity’s own ends. In this view, creation has no intrinsic worth in and of itself, but only as it provides utility for the human community. Dominion gives us freedom to do with the earth as we like. So goes the argument.

Christianity’s very belief that the world is not my home, its contempt for the world as an ultimate destiny, seems on the one hand a spiritual statement. Only heaven is our true home. Yet contempt for the world as an ultimate destiny can be translated into a contempt for the environment as a sustainable habitat. We can take the attitude that because the world is not our ultimate home, we don’t have to care what happens to it. In the 18th and 19th centuries, many Christians fostered the notion that the wilderness was a chaos to be controlled, an evil to be pushed back. I profoundly disagree with the ecological charges leveled against our faith, but I must concede that concern for the ecology has been on the circumference and not at the center of Christian theology. Indeed, I am guessing that many of you have been in church all your life and never heard a sermon on taking care of the earth. Yet, here’s the irrevocable truth: God has ordered us to take care of our environment. Taking care of the earth is a divinely-ordained obligation.

We should never lose sight of the very first verse of our Scripture: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” And God pronounced God’s creation “very good.” We can never lose sight of the fact that Christ was the creative force through which the Father created. As John 1 asserts: “All things were made through him and without Him was not anything made that was made.” Ignore it though we might, a fundamental theme runs throughout our Scripture from its first page unto its last: The earth is the Lord’s!

The very rationale that God gave unto Moses when he unleashed plagues upon Pharaoh was to ensure that Egyptian and Hebrew alike would understand, the earth’s is the Lord’s! In Joshua 3:11, Joshua reminds the Hebrew people as they are finally about to cross the Jordan River into their Promised Land, that they are to walk behind the Ark of the Covenant with the understanding that “The Lord is Lord of all the earth.” Psalm 24:1 famously declares, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof; the world and all who dwell therein.”

When God declares in Genesis that the divine will is to create creatures in the image of God and give them “dominion” over all the earth and all that lives therein, God does not thereby grant humanity the deed to the earth! The earth still belongs to God. In giving us “dominion” over that creation God entrusted us with the responsibility of being stewards of God’s possession – stewards, not masters. Dominion over something does not mean ownership. Dominion does not mean mastery of something. Dominion does not grant us a license for exploiting the earth. Dominion means that we are entrusted by God with the role of being caretakers of God’s creation and serving as his earthly instruments to treasure and preserve what God has brought into being. Dominion means that we are called to be caretakers of creation, lovers of it. We are called to be God’s emissaries of protection of the environment and God’s ambassadors in championing creation’s welfare.

Let me explain what I am saying in an image so basic that even the youngest child here can understand. When my sister and I reached a certain age, my parents would leave us alone at home. Because I was a year and a half older, I was given responsibility to be the household’s temporary head. I was to be steward of the house until my parents returned. I was given dominion of the household — but dominion did not mean what I wanted it to mean, that my sister had to do whatever I told her to do. Dominion meant that I had been given stewardship of her welfare. I was supposed to look after her, to make sure that she stayed out of harm.

Dominion meant that I could not hang her dolls out the window or hide her bicycle or do the sort of mean things that big brothers do to little sisters. No, dominion meant responsibility. It did not mean license.

The very fact that our Lord ordained a “Sabbath rest” to be incorporated into the rhythm of each week and each into each temporal cycle gives evidence that God cherishes and protects the environment in which God has placed us. On the Sabbath day, not only are humans and animals to rest, so, too, is the earth! Leviticus 25 says, “The Lord says to Moses, ‘When you come into the land I give you, the land shall keep a Sabbath unto the Lord. Six years you shall sow your fields and prune your vineyards and gather in its fruits, but in the seventh year there shall be a Sabbath of solemn rest for the land.’ ” God provides provision that periodically, we are to let the land rest and recuperate. Clearly, God calls us to account as stewards of God’s ecological resources.

It would be erroneous to say that Christendom has never understood this truth. Third- and fourth-century Christian ascetics went out into the wilderness to live and practice their faith in a simpler context. All sorts of traditions have grown up around these saints, that they made friends with lions, hyenas and birds. Marcarious the Alexandrian is alleged to have lived for months among mosquitoes to do penance for having killed one in anger. (I’m not quite willing to go that my far myself.) Later in Christian history, when Irish monks sought to create in their Celtic land a restoration of Eden, they sought to forge friendships with the beasts of the field. The 18th century Quakers and Methodists who railed against slavery also took up the cause for what we would call today animal rights. Then there was that strange Christian missionary named John Chapman, who went around trying to promote the reforestation and replenishment of the earth. I suspect that you know him by another moniker, Johnny Appleseed.

The best of our theologians have called us to have a profound sense of identity with all the earth. That crazy, wonderful St. Francis of Assisi called the sun, moon and rain his siblings. Why? Because, he said, all aspects of the earth share a common Source. We are all from the same Parent. God’s mark is upon all creatures. God’s mark is not just upon humanity. All creation bears the mark of God’s creativity and purpose. Through Christ were all things made, and without Christ was not anything made that was made. Thus, Christ stands not just a Representative of humanity, but as Representative of the whole created order.

We not only exist in nature, but we are a part of nature. The atoms in our human bodies were once a part of other creatures. They will be so again. The chemical and genetic structures of our bodies are incredibly similar to the cellular structures found in bacteria, grass and fish. We are truly brother and sister with every creature on earth, and God’s dominion entrusts us with the protection of the planet’s inhabitants. God calls us, the earth’s most advanced creatures, to protect kindred species from those within our own species who would destroy them. We must take our role as stewards of the earth with utmost seriousness.

Creation is not divine. Creation, however, is sacred. This is the Christian paradox. We do not say of creation, ‘See God in the tree,’ or ‘See God in the rock.’ or ‘See God in the river.’ However, when my wife Melissa was a summer missionary in West Africa, she found that there when a man drowned, many of the inhabitants said that “the water spirits took him.” They understood the river itself to be divine. Christianity expressly rejected that identification. Creation is not divine, but it can be a sacramental metaphor for the Creator, a vehicle for putting us in touch with the divine. The God of the universe did not remain pure spirit, but became “matter” for our sake, and thus all matter bears the mark of God’s grace and power.

The spiritual relevance of this topic is a matter of urgent and utmost importance. If we as Christians do not recover a concern for the ecology as a spiritual responsibility we will one day lose the ecosystem in which we live. I have already noted that many Christians lack a serious concern for the environment, but it is also true that many secularists share that lack of concern. Since they believe that life is a cosmic accident without meaning or purpose, they regard ecological stewardship as a waste of time. Some years ago I read a chilling essay penned by a distinguished London philosopher who said, “Suppose that, as a result of using all the world’s resources, human life did come to an end. So what? What is so desirable about the indefinite continuation of the human species, apart from religious convictions? It may well that that nearly everybody who is already on earth would be reluctant to die, and that everybody has an instinctual fear of death. But one must not confuse this with the notion that generations who are yet unborn can be said to be better off if they are born than if they are not!” That view was echoed by an MIT economist who observed, “Look, if you think of the history of the universe as a plane ride around the world, humanity got on eight miles before the end of the first trip, and industrial humanity got on six feet before the end. Are we interested in man’s being on the flight for another six feet? Or are we only interested in humanity for a fraction of a millimeter — our lifetimes? Do I care what happens a thousand miles from now? Do I care when humanity gets off the airplane? I think I basically have come to the conclusion that I don’t care.”

As Christians we must come to the conclusion that we do care. There is an old Kenyan proverb that makes great sense to me: We do not inherit the land from our parents; we borrow the land from our children.

We borrow the land from our children! I believe that only through the recovery of ecological concerns as a spiritual responsibility does our habitat have any chance for prolonged survival. The Kingdom of God is to be implemented through the embodying of God’s values in the here and now. We are called to be ambassadors for Christ and God’s good stewards of the earth. Are we willing to change our own lives and priorities to bear that responsibility? The fate of the world hangs upon the answer offered by people of faith.