Tuesday, June 27, 2023

Dominion over the Earth

It is a standard refrain, whenever one talks about being both Christian and concerned about our despoilation of this little planet.  With an anthropogenic mass extinction occurring all around us, and the basic processes of our global ecology beginning to transition into something more threatening and unpredictable, some of my Christian brothers and sisters choose to resist the adaptive changes that will be required to survive the storm that is coming.

None of those changes pose any threat to our faith, or to a life governed by the central virtues taught by Jesus. Wisdom and thrift, patience and generosity, welcome and mercy, grace and justice? If every Christian lived guided by these traditional Christian ethics, then we might not be in this crisis.  If they did now, we would be in a far better place to endure it.

But still, there is a strong counternarrative, born mostly of the idolatrous whisperings of the Mammon-addled, those who serve it above all other masters, those who have been seduced by the world.  

"Why should we do what the earth needs," their proof-texted rebuttal goes, "when scripture clearly states that we have been given dominion over the earth?  It's right there in Genesis, a foundational assumption of a Biblical worldview.  It is for us to rule this world, not for this world to rule us.  Power belongs to us, and we can do as we wish to this planet and to those that inhabit it."  

This theology is a kissin' cousin of Christian Nationalism, and we generally describe it as "dominionism."  Dominionism, in its ecological variant, is the preferred theology of consumer culture, prosperity preaching, and their crass materialism.  As such, there's a tendency among environmentally minded souls to push back against the idea in its entirety.  

Instead, I say to those who argue we have power over the earth, sure.  Yes.  You are correct.  We have been given dominion over the Earth.  Of course.  It's both scripture and a clearly observable reality.  Point ceded and accepted.

Let us now follow that line of reasoning.  If you are a dominionist, you are making that statement as part of your Christian faith, and I am accepting that statement as a disciple of Jesus of Nazareth.  I understand my whole life as a commitment to doing as Jesus asks.  If I do not do as Jesus asks, then he is not my Lord.  I assume, as you and I share that commitment, that you believe that Jesus is Lord.

So the core question, for the committed dominionist, is this: What kind of King was Jesus?

Christians must, if they are meaningfully Christian, understand Godly power and authority as being of a radically different character than worldly power and authority.  Worldly power is about control, about the use of coercion to enforce compliance.  Worldly power is about greed and selfishness, about the amassing of Mammon.  But the power of Jesus is not the brute power of the sword, and not the corrupting power of gold.  Those are human things.  Fallen things. 

Jesus presents us with God's power, a power that both stands above and subverts every sinful human power.  It is power in the form of a servant.  It is power that kneels and washes your feet.  It is power that welcomes the outcast as a sister or brother.  It is the power of grace and the power of love.  It is the power that heals.  It is the power that turns the other cheek.  It is the power that overcomes death by dying and rising again.  Any interpretation of the Gospel that suggests differently has been corrupted by the world.

When Christians are the subjects of empire, we remain good citizens unto death.  We're weird that way.  But when we are given the power to rule, as can happen in a republic?  Then we're weirder still.  The only way Christians can rule is as servants.  Profit and control are not our goal.

So if we have dominion over the world...which we do, as sentient beings capable of changing our environment...then our dominion must be modeled after Christ's power.  Meaning, it cannot be self-serving, or profit-maximizing, or extractive, or destructive.   If it is, then we are exercising dominion as Pharoah, as hard-hearted as Ramses.  We become Herod.  We become Nero.

Again, what kind of King was Jesus?  You can't read the Gospel and miss the answer to that question.

Not without trying.