Faith column: ‘Tenants-in-chief’ of the Earth
I have had several people ask me variations on a theme: “What are we to make of all the natural disasters? Is it the end of days?” From the burning of most of the West this summer to the brutal Atlantic hurricane season to the utter ruin of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands to the Santa Ana Wind-driven firestorm in California, it certainly seems as if the world is falling apart.
I am not a scientist, so I have little more that I can add to the evidence submitted by a body of several thousand climate scientists, who tell us greenhouse gases cause global ocean temperatures to rise, causing increased violence in hurricanes and increased power of the off-shore breezes that create the Santa Anas and intensify the El Nino/La Nina cycle of damp and drought that created the firestorm that ripped through Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and the rest of the West. They further tell us that the spike in greenhouse gas emissions directly corresponds to the Industrial Revolution.
I am a pastor and theologian, so what frustrates me even more than the denial of science is the willful misinterpretation of scripture that allows this belief in human domination of the earth to continue. For generations, theologians and preachers have told us that we have a right to do whatever we want to the Earth without consequences. Usually, they quote Genesis 1:27-28:
“So God created human beings, making them to be like himself. He created them male and female, blessed them, and said, ‘Have many children, so that your descendants will live all over the earth and bring it under their control. I am putting you in charge of the fish, the birds, and all the wild animals.’” (Good News Bible, emphasis mine)
They are wrong, not merely on scientific grounds, but also on religious grounds. The Hebrew words translated “bring it under their control” here have absolutely nothing to do with power. God instead tells us that we are to “tend,” and to “keep” the Earth. We are asked to make the Earth more beautiful, not to destroy its beauty.
Earlier in the chapter, we are told that we are created in the image of God. We often mistakenly believe that means we have God’s power. The Hebrew word for image, tselem, refers to an idol or other marker erected at the boundaries of a country to mark the limits of that king’s domain. The tselem has no power in and of itself. It is a signpost that says: The king’s domain stops here. So, when we are told to fill the Earth, to tend and to keep it, we are meant to be God’s tselems in the world, pointing the way to God. By our every action we are meant to say, “God rules here.”
The Psalmist will tell us that “the Earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof (24:1).” God, speaking to Job, will tell us that God dances with the lightning and plays catch with the hippopotamus and the crocodile (see chapters 37-39). Christ walked on water and calmed the storms, and a hymn will tell us that “winds and waves, his voice still know.” We are not the rulers of the earth, but, at best, the tenants-in-chief, and like any renters, we are asked to give the property back to the owner in as good — or better — condition than it was given to us. In our willfulness, we have mistaken the lease for a deed of sale.
We have violated the terms of contract, and are now paying the price.
We are faced with a choice: Will we continue to live in our sinfulness and pride and mistake our role in the world, or will we confess that we have done wrong and seek solutions. Some of them are quite simple: Use energy efficient products, control heat loss in your house by providing better insulation, covering windows with plastic and filling in the cracks with weather stripping or caulk. These solutions show us God’s mercy. For, not only are we taking seriously God’s command to tend and to keep the Earth, but we also reap the benefit of more money in our pockets. Other solutions are more difficult and may demand sacrifices on our parts. They may ask us to cap our emissions or improve the efficacy of our vehicles and the cleanliness of our power plants. At the very least, we must work in places destroyed by wind, fire and wave to bring back life and hope to our brothers and sisters — and our fellow citizens.
No, the disasters are not the end of the world. They are God’s plea for us to repent our sin, change our ways, work for institutional change and embrace the stranger, only to find a brother or sister. Will we listen before it is too late?
The Rev. Deana Armstrong is pastor of First Congregational United Church of Christ.