One of creation’s gifts to humankind, according to the foundational testimony we find in Genesis 1:28, is: “Be fruitful and multiply … and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”
Commentators suggest that the Hebrew verb we translate as “dominion” connotes a concept of stewardship – a taking care of and using for the benefit of the health of creation itself.
It is one dimension of the partnership of Creator and creatures that is established in the origins of life, according to the testimony.
A review of the long history of the growth and development of the many faith communities that build on that testimony shows how easily this concept of “dominion” can evolve into its kin-word, “domination.”
Communities naturally develop and evolve into institutions, whose preservation involves order and various kinds of authority.
The process of institutionalization often involves a stratification of the human family into those who benefit from the community’s advantages and those at whose expense those advantages are maintained.
I don’t believe it is too far-fetched to suggest that what we see as the problem and current appeal of “replacement theory” lies in this foundational “replacement” of creation’s admonition to dominion with an operative principle of domination as a core feature of the human struggle to be community.
Communities of all kinds – be they governments, churches/denominations, schools, even mission agencies – seem to be vulnerable to this development and evolution, especially as they become more complex and in need of structure and order.
We see it in the early years of the Christian movement, as the relative simplicity of the church we see in Acts 2:43-45 and 4:32-37 becomes the empire-sanctioned Christianity of Constantine’s and later times.
The ease with which domination replaces dominion in the human journey through history is evident in many subsequent eras as well.
The U.S. is currently recalling the Charlottesville chants of “Jews will not replace us,” and hearing some pundits and politicians stoking fear of a “great replacement” crusade that is underway to change the character of our life together.
It is not hard to observe that those peddling such theories are fearful of losing their domination, which time and cultural conditioning have established as an entitlement.
That domination ensures a place of power within their context – a power that will be lost in a broadened sense of a more inclusive community.
We might also observe that historical resistance to other movements of inclusion – such as the inclusion of Gentiles into the early Judaized Christian movement, the abolition of slavery, the crusade for women’s suffrage, the “Jewish problem” of Germany’s Third Reich, the civil rights movement, the Equal Rights Amendment, the inclusion of women in leadership roles, the ongoing quest for racial justice – all appear to be rooted in a fear that a particular pattern of domination is being challenged.
Domination is a subtle master of our souls. It can wear the outer clothing of kindness, gentleness and compassionate service, and its underlying assumptions of superiority can be masked in ways that make them difficult to challenge.
When attention is called to those assumptions and appeals for their correction are made, a common response is a claim of personal assault, which makes one vulnerable to public proposals that a “Great Replacement Theory” is underway to take one’s group’s identity and replace it with another’s.
The fancy footwork of this process shifts the focus from the problem of domination to the claim that its preservers are the victims of an effort to be “replaced.”
Something is being replaced, but it is not the people whose fear is being manipulated in response to appeals for justice and inclusion.
Rather, it is the conscious and unconscious domination and control that, over time and with cultural conditioning, have replaced the charge to have dominion and its covenant stewardship of life.
Perhaps some of the “back to the Bible” appeals could start with Genesis 1 and its concept of dominion to see the root of the “replacement” problem.
Professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University, a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and the author of Keys for Everyday Theologians (Nurturing Faith Books, 2022).