By the time we were teens, we had seen enough of them—ugly, black-and-white photographs of denuded West Virginia hillsides; fallen stands of massacred big trees along the California coast; vast scrapings of the earth in Utah or Wyoming to extract ore from which to manufacture all that drove our bustling world. A burgeoning movement to “save the earth” brought persons from all backgrounds and many faiths into a growing social and political network that insisted on a different ethic for human stewardship of earth.
And while we ought not embrace the strange theologies (or none) that animated parts of that cultural awakening to the damage humans were inflicting on the planet, we must frankly acknowledge a painful reality. The Christian church had chosen to say little about the complex interactions of humans with the environment until larger social pressures made it necessary.
Those who read the language of Genesis primarily through the lens of the “dominion” granted to the first couple in Eden had for generations justified any human action toward the earth that yielded food or wealth or gain or comfort. Earth belonged to humans: they could do with it as they pleased.
“Dominion” doesn’t offer or imply the selfish destruction of the future for the wealth or comfort of those living in the present.
Other Christians, spurred by undeniable evidence of polluted air and lakes increasingly devoid of life, began the always-important task of revisiting the biblical account to notice other equally important principles: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it” (Gen 2:15).1 We understood the “tilling” part, for humans have been scratching a living from the soil for six millennia or so. But “keeping it” implied another value—one that took us beyond the immediate gain that could be extracted from the ground. Sustainability—God’s plan for making this planet both livable and useful for our children and our children’s children—emerged as a counterbalancing reminder that we are first and always stewards of a planet made by a Creator.
We should have been reading all the Word, including the psalmist’s ringing affirmation—”The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it” (Ps. 24:1). The wise, intelligent management of resources that never actually belonged to us has been mandated by the same Scripture that taught us to believe in the Genesis account. Whatever “dominion” may mean, it doesn’t offer or imply the selfish destruction of the future for the wealth or comfort of those living in the present.
Stewardship, far more than only returning tithe and giving offerings to heat, light, and ventilate the church sanctuary, requires that we also preserve, maintain, and leave to any generations that may follow us a planet at least as rich and life-supporting as the one we inherited. Indeed, Jesus’ parable of the talents directly urges that a principle of stewardship actually increases the Lord’s assets moving forward—that our duty would be, in fact, to give our children and grandchildren better air and cleaner water, soil more capable of producing uncontaminated things to eat.
In short, our caring for the earth grows out of a godly gratitude to the Lord who has graciously cared for us. The same God who both made and beautified the earth asks that we honor who He is by how we treat what He has made. When we lose sight of His great gifts, we also lose sight of our God-given responsibility for preserving and improving what, in the end, will still belong to Him.
1 Bible texts is this article are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission.