Skip header and navigation
Skip section subnavigation
Skip this page's content

Creation Care: Part 2

Understanding the Human Footprint on Planet Earth in Biblical Perspective

By Ken Wilson, February 25, 2007

 

Some long-time Christians feel ambivalent about environmental concerns. In the beginning of the modern environmental movement key articles pitted environmental concern over and against faith. Rather than root the emerging environmental ethic in existing sacred traditions, there was a tendency to simply critique those traditions; often the critiques were one-sided and narrow. People of faith, of course, commit their fair share of unfair critiques. Since then, there's been a great maturing in the environmental movement, but first impressions are lasting. It's time for people of faith and people of a more secular environmental persuasion to move beyond "isms" thinking, in order to find common ground in our shared responsibility to regard the environment as a sacred trust. And it's time for people of faith to dig deep into our faith in order to embrace a biblically informed responsibility within God's creation.

To do that, we must understand the human footprint in biblical perspective.

We humans are a mixed blessing: we've had a negative impact on the world around us, but by the saving grace of God we can become part of the solution and find our rightful place in creation.

The biblical understanding of the human footprint on the creation is a dynamic tension between pitfall and promise; between unvarnished truth and hope.

If we can get this right, we can settle into a better relationship with the environment and contribute to society's response to environmental concerns. I want us to be in position to make that contribution.

The gospel is the most powerful story ever told. It is a gospel of personal, social, andglobal transformation. The gospel changes lives, relationships near and far, and is meant to be a divine catalyst for addressing our most pressing global concerns. If the gospel is not that good, it's not good enough.

Consider the sweep of biblical truth touching on this issue.

  • Genesis 1: 24-31 reveals humanity in the context of a vast and flourishing creation. We are given a unique dignity, having been made in God's image. We are given a leadership role (rule) in creation. In the context of the whole Bible, it's clear that this "rule" is not self-serving domination, but self-giving servant leadership; but it is a kind of rule nevertheless. It is the human destiny to be a global species: we are to multiply and fill earth, and so we have. We fill not just a local ecological niche, but a global one.
  • Genesis 2: 15: reveals that part of our "rule" as Image bearers is to "work it [the garden, signifying creation] and take care of it." As we know from the Hebew translate "work" this is our priestly service to God, since work includes the notion of worship.
  • The Hebrew translate "take care," means "guard and protect." We are to be the Earth's tenders and protectors. How far we have fallen from this noble calling!
  • Genesis 3: 17-19 can be viewed as the Fall From Grace Environmental Impact Statement. As we strayed from our calling, our relationship with God, others andcreation as a whole shifted from the realm of blessing to the realm of curse; from fruitful to futile; from harmonious and true to discordant and bent out of round.
  • Genesis 3: 15 refers to a promise of restoration imbedded in this tragedy: through the human line, "the woman's seed," evil itself will be subjugated. This is considered to be the first of many "messianic promises" fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth. But alas, the promise is a long time coming.

"A lie runs half way 'round the world, while the truth is putting on its shoes." --Mark Twain

As our story unfolds, the negative impact of humanity runs half way round the world, while the truth is putting on her shoes. It's the old story of the turtle and the hare. Truth will prevail, but only in the end.

The promise moves slowly from the "woman's offspring" through Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and people of Israel who will give birth to a Savior, and eventually "All shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well!"

Meanwhile the pitfall widens into a abyss spreading over time and the earth: human culture develops, spreads, mixing blessing and curse....

The spread of humanity is part of the original blessed command; culture technology, increasing complexity are all implicit in the blessed command. But the Bible is unflinching in facing the devastating impact of that spread.

In Genesis 4 Cain kills Abel, a sign of humanity's homicidal tendency. Abel is a hunter-gatherer who offers what he's hunted in sacrifice; Cain is a farmer bringing a grain offering. Abel's sacrifice is pleasing, Cain's, mysteriously, is not.

However odd this may seem theologically, it is sound ecology. The shift from hunter-gathering to the more advanced agrarian society came at a cost to the environment through the disruption of habitat and the facilitating of city life. Right in the book of beginnings it's begun. "Mixed blessing" is putting it mildly!

"The Lord God saw how great man's wickedness on earth had become and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time. The Lord was grieved that he made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain." (Gen. 6: 5-6)

Notice the focus is on man's wickedness on earth, grief over making man on earth.... because man's footprint is a trampling one: soiling, spoiling, ruining God's good earth.

Next comes the flood as judgment with a remnant and the promise preserved. Then the tower of Babel (see Genesis 11: 1-4). Humans have multiplied again, gathering into complex society with common language and advancing technology (e.g. baking bricks, using tar for mortar, work teams, ladders, architects, engineers, etc.)

God says, in effect, "Oh no! My little geniuses, always smarter than they are wise; I've got to slow them down to let wisdom catch up with them!" So he scatters them....but they regroup to form Babylon, land of the Chaldeans out which comes Abram. The promise slowly unfolds, as the seed of Abraham, of divine wisdom, is making his way through the gene pool to Mary of Nazareth, whose son will gather again....all while the pitfall only worsens....

Humanity expands, cities proliferate, pollution spreads

Here we have the Human Ecological Impact Pattern: we expand as technology advances; then we run wild with it [e.g. pollution in industrial England; here in the U.S. we wipe out the buffalo; in 1800's we clear cut Michigan of it's virgin white pines].... but slowly wisdom puts her shoes on and catches up and we say, "Oh, this is excessive!" and we do better...

We humans are a mixed blessing: we've had a negative impact on the world around us, but by the saving grace of God we can become part of the solution and find our rightful place in creation.

Because the Bible was written when the human footprint was smaller, the soiling and spoiling of the environment was not as bad then as it is today...

But the ruin of the good land was already on the Bible's radar: "Your children who follow you in later generations and foreigners who come from distant lands will see the calamities that have fallen on the land and the diseases with which the LORD has afflicted it. The whole land will be a burning waste of salt and sulfur—nothing planted, nothing sprouting, no vegetation growing on it" (Dt. 29: 22-23)

"I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak...I will shepherd the flock with justice. 'As for you, my flock, this is what the Sovereign LORD says: I will judge between one sheep and another... Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture? Must you also trample the rest of your pasture with your feet? Is it not enough for you to drink clear water? Must you also muddy the rest with your feet?" (Ez. 34:16-18)

In Revelations, a global environmental crisis seems to be in view: a third of the sea ruined, a third of the sea creatures lost, a third of the rivers, and springs....[see Rev. 8: 8-10]

"We give You thanks, O Lord God, the Almighty, who are and who were, because You have taken Your great power and have begun to reign. And the nations were enraged, and Your wrath came, and the time came for the dead to be judged, and the time to reward Your bond-servants the prophets and the saints and those who fear Your name, the small and the great, and to destroy those who destroy the earth." (Rev. 11:17-19)

Two thousand years ago, good news came to a battered land. The events of that time centered on three places: Gehenna, Golgotha and a Garden. Gehenna, was a toxic dump; Jesus used Gehenna as a warning word: translated "hell," in English, it was a place you didn't want to end up. It was environmental disaster area, an open pit of toxic waste, bodies, human waste, garbage, so bad it could only be burned, which just spread the contamination.

Golgotha, or "place of skull," is where Jesus died: pulling into himself every-thing in us that destroys us, our relationship with God and each other, and that causes us to trample the earth like a bull in a china shop.

Thank God for the third place!

Garden: Jesus rose on the first day of a new week in a Garden! Mary thought he was the gardener! This is the promise of new creation begun! Finally something good happens ahead of schedule, makes an early arrival--"Before she was in labor she gave birth! A land brought forth in a day, a nation in a moment!" (Is. 66) Something of the future--at last a divine hurry up!--breaking into the present.

Morning has broken, like the first morning
Blackbird has spoken, like the first bird
Praise for the singing, praise for the morning
Praise for the springing fresh from the word

Sweet the rain's new fall, sunlit from heaven
Like the first dewfall, on the first grass
Praise for the sweetness of the wet garden
Sprung in completeness where his feet pass

Mine is the sunlight, mine is the morning
Born of the one light, Eden saw play
Praise with elation, praise every morning
God's recreation of the new day
Our task is not to trample away because it's all going to burn anyway! As resurrection
people our task is to live as though the new creation were already here, because
through Jesus it is!
So yes, the human impact has been destructive. We have a big footprint that we've
used to trample the earth. But Jesus is risen, God is back in the garden, teaching us to
walk gently again...
There's hope that we who have been such a big part of the problem can become part
of the solution.

God's Grandeur by G. M. Hopkins:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;

And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;

And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings

-------------------------------------

We humans are a mixed blessing: we've had a negative impact on the world around but by the saving grace of God we can become part of the solution and find our rightful place in creation.

Let me draw out two final implications of saving grace:

  1. We are empowered to move beyond defensiveness and denial about humanity's negative impact on God's creation.
    • There is a natural tendency not to face up to mess we've made of things. From a biblical perspective it is understandable there would be reluctance to face environmental problems: hoping, wishing, convincing ourselves it must be overblown, another Y2K scare. All of this is part of our sinful condition. Psychologically this is hard to face: why bother to become informed? Of course we would rather listen to voices tickling our ears with the view that it's all overblown. Of course we would tempted listen to soothing voices saying "Peace! Peace!" when there is no peace. But Jesus gives us courage to face big problems.
  2. We are empowered to move beyond a paralyzing despair that says, "What can we possibly do to make things better?"
    • Jesus is Lord of a New Creation who will teach us how to walk gently again on the earth! Yes, the problems are complex, but God will help us get our arms around the complexity, and show us what we may do.
    • The Michigan Department of Natural Resources tells us some discouraging thigns about water quality in our state.
    • Pregnant women are urged not to eat certain fish from the Great Lakes because mercury levels are too high and can hurt the unborn.
    • We used to do baptisms in the Huron river; finally we had to tell people baptized to go home and take a shower! So this sacrament of cleansing became instead something from which we had to be cleansed. What's wrong with that picture!?
    • Our rivers and streams suffer "algae blooms" created by run-off from our homes; 75% of contaminants in Huron are from home sites. Phosphorous in our fertilizers super- charges the algae which depletes oxygen in rivers leaving the fish gasping for breath...

Oh my goodness, it's all so complex, what can we do?

There are things we can do and some of them are easy to do. Nancy, who has always been the environmentalist in our family, prefers the lawn shorter, like my hair. And she prefers that I bag the grass clippings for the garden. But I'm a little lazy: the lawn looks better longer to me. The DNR website tells me to reduce need for fertilizer that pollutes rivers and streams, don't cut the grass shorter than 3" and don't bag the grass clippings, leave them as mulch in the lawn, it's great fertilizer and safe for the water!

Environmentalism has its upside!

There are things we can do! Start with the low hanging fruit, and before you know it, you'll want to pick the fruit higher on the tree!

Prayer: "Most gracious God and Father, you are with me as I make my journey throughout this day. Help me to look lovingly upon all people and events that come into my life today and to walk gently upon this land. Grant this through Jesus who lives and walks among us ever present at each moment. Amen" (from The Book of Common Prayer)

 
Skip the sidebar
Skip the page footer Return to top of page