The “Book of Common Prayer” includes a grateful and humble acknowledgment of “this fragile earth, our island home.”
It’s a moving phrase; and, on this Earth Day, I pray that we will love this fragile earth with courageous and tender love, realizing that it’s not a warehouse of resources, but our home, a home we share with everyone and everything else God has made.
God’s mandate to humanity to “subdue the earth and have dominion over it” (Genesis 1:28) has tragically been used to justify exploitation of the earth’s nonhuman creatures and profligate waste of its resources.
In the late 1960s, medieval historian Lynn White famously charged that the Judeo-Christian tradition of human dominion over the created order is one of the historical roots of the contemporary ecological crisis. It’s a sadly accurate indictment.
Like many others, however, I claim that it’s not our faith, but a distortion of it, which has allowed for the abuse of nature.
Rightly understood, the words of Genesis are a mandate for us to exercise respectful and wise care for the health of creation.
We need to be clear about a couple of terms that are prominent in Genesis 1 and 2: “image of God” and “dominion.”
Humans bear the gift and demand of likeness to God: We are made in God’s image.
The writers of Genesis were familiar with the practice of near eastern kings who marked off territory under their sovereign rule by erecting statues of themselves in those places.
These “images of the king” represented a king’s authority; they were signs of the monarch’s ownership.
Similarly, human beings as “images of God” don’t assert their own rule over the earth; the earth belongs to God, and men and women are signs that it does. They represent the sovereignty of God.
Ultimate dominion over the earth belongs to the God who made it; ours is a delegated and limited dominion. So, we care for God’s good earth in God’s holy name. We bear God’s image.
For Christians, Jesus is the clearest manifestation of God’s image. Of Jesus, Paul wrote in his letter to the Colossians, “He is the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15); and, in 2 Corinthians, Paul spoke of “the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4).
Followers of Jesus understand what it means to be “in the image of God” by looking to the life, teachings, death and resurrection of Jesus. The more like him we become, the more of God’s image we reflect.
We also need a Jesus-shaped understanding of the word dominion, which is vastly different than domination.
For followers of Jesus, to “exercise dominion” over the earth is to relate to the created order as Jesus “our Lord” (Latin: “dominus”) relates to us.
Remember that the definitive expression of Jesus’ power was his cross – the apparent weakness of self-giving love and mercy. As the well-known Christmas carol has us sing, “He rules the world with truth and grace.”
Any dominion we exercise as bearers of God’s image needs to reflect those qualities of truth and grace. We are not owners, but stewards.
We live on borrowed time and in loaned space. The ground beneath our feet, the resources that sustain our lives and our industry, and the very breath we breathe are divine entrustments.
We’re gratefully accountable to the giver for our use of these gifts.
The same Eucharistic prayer that acknowledges earth as “our island home” confesses “From the primal elements you brought forth the human race, and blessed us with memory, reason and skill. You made us the rulers of creation. But we turned against you and betrayed your trust; and we turned against one another. Have mercy, Lord, for we are sinners in your sight.”
A sign of mercy received is mercy given. We may and we must treat the wounded world with mercy.
Guy Sayles is a consultant with the Center for Healthy Churches and an adjunct professor at Gardner-Webb Divinity School. He will join the religion faculty at Mars Hill University in Mars Hill, North Carolina, in the fall. He served as pastor of First Baptist Church of Asheville, North Carolina, for more than 13 years previously. A version of this column first appeared on his website, From the Intersection, and is used with permission.
A consultant with the Center for Healthy Churches (CHC), he served previously as an assistant professor of religion at Mars Hill University, an adjunct professor at Gardner-Webb Divinity School and as pastor of several Baptist churches.