I was a high school freshman in Tennessee when Hurricane Katrina struck Louisiana.
As part of the relief efforts, my high school did a food drive for those affected by the tragedy. Prepared to do my part, I asked my neighbors for canned goods.
When I told my immediate neighbor why I was collecting donations, he cut me off and said something I haven’t forgotten: “I’m not going to give you a single thing – and I’ll tell you why. Those folks down there deserved what they got.” He then shut the door in my face.
Sadly, this is a common belief among evangelical Christians: if tragedy strikes, the victims must deserve it. Probably the most well-known pastor who teaches this theology is John Piper, who wrote a highly controversial article shortly after the tragedy.
Piper and others play this blame game whenever disaster strikes, citing various reasons for the destruction: lack of Christian leadership in government; drunkenness; the existence of LGBTQ+ people and the U.S. government’s toleration of them.
While they teach that the victims deserved whatever tragedy, they are quick to pray for God’s mercy so that none of us – victims included – get what we “truly deserve” (illustrated in this prayer Piper published after a different disaster).
I suspect it’s in the hopes that they are viewed as “compassionate” toward the victims of these tragedies, even though they’re doing nothing tangible to help.
This flawed theology allows us to judge people we dislike, absolving ourselves of any guilt for our own sins. This lazy theology excuses us from practicing the hands-on compassion Jesus taught throughout his ministry.
Funnily enough, I agree with Piper on one point: natural disasters are the consequences of our sins. He and I simply have a vastly different idea of which sins and who’s committing them.
Additionally, Piper believes God is doing this violence, whereas I believe more along the lines of Sir Issac Newton. Everything we do has an expected consequence; if I drop a ball, it will fall. God did not intervene to make the ball drop; that’s just the natural consequence of my action.
But let’s move from physics to theology.
In Genesis 1, God created the earth and the first people, telling them: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea.” In verses 26-30, the words “dominion” and “subdue” appear frequently. But what does dominion mean?
In his book The Seven Pillars of Creation: The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder, William P. Brown invites us to shed our modern-day understanding of “dominion” as “triumphalism” and to instead understand “dominion” as an invitation to participate in co-creation with God.
Brown contends that Israel – an agrarian society – knew first-hand the joy of creation: the satisfaction of eating food you grew yourself. They also knew the toils of labor, tilling the soil so that it can become fertile ground.
From that perspective, Brown argues that “dominating” over the earth to “subdue” it isn’t about exploiting it. Rather, it is an acknowledgement of how hard it is to nurture land to the point where it can grow new life.
“Dominion” isn’t about control but proper caretaking. If something is under my domain, then it’s my responsibility to care for it.
While reflections about Genesis may be expected for an Earth Day piece, another passage may be more constructive: Jesus’ “Parable of the Talents” in Matthew 25.
In this parable, a master gives three servants different amounts of money and asks them to watch over it while he’s gone. The two with the most invest the money, while the one with the least buries it for safekeeping.
After a time (the passage doesn’t say how long – it could have been years), the master returns. He’s pleased with the two who grew his wealth but furious with the servant who buried it.
Traditional interpretations suggest that the master is angry because that servant didn’t make the money grow, but I invite us to ask some questions: How long had the talent been buried? Was it rusty? Was it broken? In this condition, was it worth anything?
Perhaps the master wasn’t angry that his wealth hadn’t grown but that what he had entrusted to the servant was now damaged beyond repair. Perhaps we are this servant, and natural disasters are the natural consequences of our collective lack of care toward the earth.
Like the Steward of Gondor in The Lord of the Rings, we’ve allowed our greed to take resources from the earth to elevate ourselves. The poor starve while we hoard more than we need. The rich take from the middle class so they can pad their pockets even fuller than they are now.
Just like the city of Gondor, the ones on the lower levels of society suffer most when tragedy strikes.
Suffering begets suffering. As the earth suffers under our poor stewardship, her writhing pain leads to the suffering of those already most vulnerable.
Perhaps instead of praying to God for mercy against what we “rightfully deserve,” faith leaders would more responsibly practice moral leadership by encouraging our congregants to repent from the sin of exploiting the earth.
It’s easy to point at other people and blame them for their misfortune (Job teaches us that.); it’s far more challenging to ask God how we might change our own behavior and hearts.
In the society we have created, it is impossible to go a single day without harming the earth. While we can’t completely eliminate the harm we cause, we can mitigate it. We can commit to harm reduction strategies as we navigate the world we’ve made.
This Earth Day, I invite you to join me in repenting of these sins: creating needless waste, stockpiling while our neighbors beg for pennies, and supporting corporations with no climate care policies.
As we repent, let us also return to our roots, remembering that dominion isn’t about control, but an invitation from God to participate in the miracle of making new life.
Let us accept this invitation with joy, enthusiastically putting our hands to the dirt from which we were made and breathe life into it, just as God breathed life into us.
Our domain awaits proper stewards – let us answer the call together.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series this week for Earth Day (April 22). The previous articles in the series are:
What Can We Do With a Global Population of Eight Billion? | Don Gordon
Urging Big Business to ‘Invest In Our Planet’ | Martin J. Hodson
We Cannot Live Without Earth’s Bounty | David Wheeler
Would Jesus Invest In Our Planet? | Helle Liht
A bivocational pastor, writer and spiritual director based in Atlanta, Georgia, she currently serves as the Pastor of Congregational Care at The Faith Community and works as a Spiritual Director at Reclamation Theology. Cawthon-Freels is the author of Reclamation: A Queer Pastor’s Guide to Finding Spiritual Growth in the Passages Used to Harm Us (Nurturing Faith Books), and a contributing correspondent at Good Faith Media.