Noah and dominion: toward an evangelical environmentalism

ImageWhen I was seven, a young lion cub danced across the silver screen and onto the apex of American pop culture. Simba, protagonist of Disney’s The Lion King, grabbed the hearts of millions of kids by singing that he “just can’t wait to be king.” What young kid, in today’s culture of independence and self-determination, couldn’t identify with the desire to be in charge as soon as possible? Simba quickly learned, however, that proper ruling doesn’t mean doing what you want; it means doing what is right and serving those entrusted to you.

The flood of subsequent Mufasa-induced tears is only matched by the flooding called down by the wickedness of Cain’s descendants as portrayed in Genesis and Aronofsky’s Noah. Many prominent conservatives, including Albert Mohler and Glenn Beck, have roundly condemned the film for a host of reasons (for more in-depth reviews of why Noah isn’t evil and is worthy of some great discussion, check out this well-written review from The Gospel Coalition or this interview with a pastor who consulted on the film). But perhaps the most troubling and perplexing critique is the backlash against a perceived “antibiblical” environmentalist agenda in the film. Tubal-Cain, the leader of those who defy God’s designs, openly advocates for the exploitation of resources with no thought to longevity or stewardship, leaving dead hellscapes in his wake. In contrast, the patriarchs of Noah’s family mark the passing of generations by reciting the Genesis account to their sons, passing on to them the charge of dominion that first came to Adam and Eve. Negative critics take this to mean that the God of Noah destroys the world in response to humanity’s failure to be tree-hugging liberals. These viewers stop in their interpretational tracks once they see the strip mines and leveled forests, failing to ask why the descendants of Cain ravaged the landscape and whether it was tied to something that matches with the Genesis description of God’s judgment.

Tubal-Cain and his followers in the movie feel entitled to make choices that gut natural resources not because they are anti-environmentalist but because they are arrogant enough to think that they deserve to use Creation as they choose. They want to be kings like young Simba, with no one to tell them what to do as long as they’re strong enough to defend it. Far too often, we join them. We do what is right in our own eyes, and to hell (I choose that word quite intentionally) with how it affects anyone else. Surely our turning of a blind eye to how we receive cheap Chinese consumer goods won’t mean that Chinese schoolchildren will have to spend recess inside multimillion-dollar filtered domes rather than face life-threatening pollution outdoors. As big as the ocean is, our trash surely won’t affect it by making it harder to find a lost Boeing 777, or by creating floating blobs of life-suffocating plastic thousands of miles across in each of Earth’s three greatest oceans. And compared to the loss of safe drinking water, agriculturally-induced dust bowls, and killing of human food sources, these implications are tame. It is this kind of arrogance, entitlement, and disregard that manifests not only as destruction of the environment, but also as rape, theft, and murder. Though there are many symptoms, it is the same disease, and God in both Genesis and Noah removes this diseased hubris through the Flood.

But dominion, as given to us by God, means something else entirely. In the beginning, God took chaos and brought forth beauty, and it was good. Amongst that beauty, God put humans, telling us to have dominion over nature and subdue it, to make it a garden. God had designed something beautiful, and yet He purposefully stopped short in order to give us the brush for the finishing strokes. Our interest in the health of Creation does not grow out of the idea of rights as is common today, but out of obligation to the One who entrusted us with His property. Like the servants in Jesus’ parable of stewarding money entrusted by the master, we are graciously given authority of something we neither made nor deserve. Our dominion should not look like Simba’s youthful aspirations or Tubal-Cain’s murderous intent; it should look like Christ. His kingship looks more like a gardener and less like a dictator. He holds, cherishes us, and thanks God for us. He cultivates us for His purposes, according to our design and in order to make us better than we can be on our own. In this process, all things are made whole. God does not simply desire to save human souls and whisk them away; He plans to use Jesus, the Jesus we are to emulate, to “reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” As Paul says to the Romans, all Creation was subjugated to frustration through our poor stewardship of God’s gifts (including our bodies, our time, our energy, our mind, and the earth) and “the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth” for the freedom of Christ’s reconciliation.

This cherishing of what we’ve been given should be right in the wheelhouse of evangelicals. If we take Scripture as seriously as we say we do, we don’t just take seriously that God made the universe. We must also take seriously what God says about the universe and to whom it has been entrusted. We must take seriously what our impact on nature says about how much we esteem both God and our neighbor. We, you and I, have been gifted with the work and the joy of bringing about a better world for the entire world and everything and everyone in it despite all our pollutions, both physical and spiritual. And we shouldn’t have to rely on non-Christian Hollywood directors and Captain Planet to learn this; we should learn it from the Bible of the One who gave us this world.

Noah and dominion: toward an evangelical environmentalism

“Heaven is for Real”…but so is this life

ImageWhile I write this, tickets are being bought for the opening showings of Heaven is for Real, the movie adaptation of a book detailing the report of a young boy’s near-death encounter with heaven. Preachers are putting the final touches on their Easter sermons, many of which will end with an impassioned reminder that you too can escape the pains of hell, trading this world’s death for the next world’s delights. My Facebook and Twitter feeds fill with reminders to the same effect, quickly approaching maximum one-liner evangelism saturation. They want you to experience the hope of Easter Sunday.

While I write this, adults want Easter to last forever, not because of any interest in the holiday, but because they dread the reality Monday morning brings. Even their young children join them in their pain, fearing the bully or teacher who can’t see the image of God standing in front of them. Families mourn students lost at sea when a ferry sank. Jews in a Ukrainian city wonder who is responsible for sending them orders to register themselves and their property. Doctors and nurses deliver news they don’t want to say while working feverishly on empty stomachs and battered feed to prove themselves wrong. Disease, abuse, poverty, and violence call forth enough tears to drown those whom the torment of dehydration and malnutrition won’t allow to cry. They experience the darkness of Good Friday and Holy Saturday full well.

But before I wrote this, a man, called Jesus in English, told all who would listen, “The thief comes to steal, kill, and destroy, but I came they they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Evangelicals are really good at remembering Christ’s calls to spread the gospel and Paul’s reminders that we don’t mourn as those without hope. But we fail this teaching of Christ when we neglect this world. We fall into a kind of modern Gnosticism, preaching that Heaven is for real and all this stuff doesn’t really matter, emphasizing the spiritual and profaning the physical. Christ came, lived, died, and rose again so that life would be more full for us. Full of hope as we work to steward the Creation with which God entrusted us. Full of passion as we love all of a human being, feeding them spiritually and physically with equal fervor. Full of joy as we simply enjoy the ability to feel grass underneath us and sun above us and friends beside us. And even full of pain, as Christ’s deep love saves us from the gnawing numbness and allows us the privilege to mourn with those who mourn.

If, while I write this, you want to find hope to tackle tomorrow, not just the future day of your death. If you see so much beauty in this world, and potential for even more. If you find no comfort in well-meaning friends who use pat answers and reassurances to rush from Friday’s cross to Sunday’s empty tomb. If you want to live, know this: heaven is for real, but so is this life. And Christ wants you to live in its abundance now, savoring every sunrise and the little bird pecking at crumbs beside my table and tears shared with a dear friend, long before He greets you in heaven. 

“Heaven is for Real”…but so is this life

In the Time of Chimpanzees, I Was Other: Making Our Own Monsters

chimpI bet you have that Beck song stuck in your head now. Don’t worry, I do too, thanks to recent news out of Kansas City. As I write this post, zoo employees in Kansas City are scrambling to prevent any more escapes after a chimp broke off a tree limb, used it as a ladder to escape, and successfully beckoned his friends to join. While the chimps were on the loose and probably trying to start the Planet of the Apes, zoo guests were kept inside buildings or cars, ironically locked away while the animals roamed free. Why would such a precaution be necessary, when chimps seem to be such happy little creatures in all the YouTube videos? Because of stuff like this. Apparently captive chimps can be extraordinarily violent. Wild chimps, counterintuitively, rarely attack humans. According to Frans de Waal, lead biologist from the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, this is because while wild chimps are afraid of humans, captive chimps eventually realize they are stronger than their captors. When the walls fail, the captors can quickly find themselves held captive, or worse. These are important things to remember when dealing with captive animals, but they’re even more true of our fellow human beings, created in the image of God. Our society, over and over again, utilizes a philosophical concept known as “the Other.” The Other is those things or people left out when we construct the categories of “Self” or “Same.” The Other allows us to define ourselves by what we’re not. Although differentiation is an important part of understanding life and society, the use of Otherness can very easily carry with it an implicit or even explicit devaluing of the Other. Such a stark separation from his or her fellow human can be one of the most painful psychological or social circumstances any human ever experiences. Walled off and devalued, the Other must find their own existential meaning or succumb to seeing themselves through the same dark lens that the self-proclaimed Same use against them. Unfortunately, some of the worst offenders of self-proclaiming Sameness and pushing away Otherness are Christians. This certainly and sadly includes some of my fellow evangelicals, men and women who use the Cross to keep down rather than raise up. While it is useful and even necessary to consider the boundaries of Christianity, dehumanizing our fellow humans by seeing them as lesser Others contradicts the very faith we proclaim. We are told humans are made in the image of God. We bandy about the term “sinner”, and yet Paul tells us all have sinned. We proclaim we follow Christ, but this Christ tells us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Getting to be Same and keeping away the Other is comfortable, admittedly. We get to be normal, without any of the pressure of feeling alienated. We get our laws passed “for the good of society” because we’re normal. We get to take potshots at, disparage, and use slurs against the Other without fear of reprisal. We get to tell ourselves that the terrible things never happen here, because we’re all Same. Those awful active-shooting, pipe bomb-making, plane-hijacking Others aren’t here with us. We have been able to get away with declaring ourselves as the Same for a long time, thanks to the moralistic pressure of Christendom. Societal pressure kept those who defied our “normal” from standing up to our dehumanizing or even simply making their difference public. It was peaceful, comfortable, and seemingly safe. But the walls have begun to fail. Demographic and ideological shifts make it harder and harder for anyone else to accept our declaration of normal. Those who would wish us ill have realized their strength and our weakened position. Most of those alienated as Other have calmly and maturely moved into their new societal standing. Sadly, a few have responded out of fear and pain, and the captors and anyone associated with them find ourselves on the other side of the wall of Otherness. People from all sides of the political aisle object to cruel treatment of chimps and other animals, pointing out the lasting damage we cause. And yet we tolerate the cruel treatment of humans as long as it is done in the name of faith, even if it contradicts that faith. We then dare to be taken unaware by reprisals. When we have caused, or allowed our fellow believers to cause, so much pain in the name of Christ, why should we be surprised when people don’t like us and make fun of us? When we marginalize those not like us and attempt to strip them of their God-given dignity, why are we surprised when the Church is reviled as oppressive and our God is mocked as a monster? When young children, based on their skin or economic classification, are treated with fear and suspicion like criminals, what could we expect other than some of them taking this to heart and becoming criminals? When children, at such impressionable ages, are pushed aside by adult and children alike for not fitting our “normal”, what’s so shocking about the few who take drastic, even violent, measures against themselves or others? The same goes for cultures across the planet. Why do we act so dumbfounded when US interests are attacked by someone who has been routinely relegated as lesser and Other? The very worst of our monsters are those that we have made ourselves. Do all evangelicals throw out the Other? No, thank God (I mean that). But far too many do, and those who don’t partake do precious little to curtail or mitigate, perhaps out of fear of being tossed out into the Other. Are the actions taken against us, be they rhetorical, legal, or physical, justified by our oppression? No, but we need to seriously examine our role as provocateurs. As Bane says in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, “No one cared who I was until I put on the mask.” How many of those who hate the Church, bring weapons to schools, or kill American soldiers can say the same thing with all sincerity? Going forward, we have two paths. On the one hand, we can continue to propagate the fantasy of our “normalcy”. If we do that, we’ll likely follow the advice of those who say to protect ourselves from the malicious Other, we need laws to silence them or guns to put them down, as if they were rabid animals. Make no mistake: if that is the correct response, we should all be barred from speaking and a gun should be pointed at each and every one of us. There is not an ounce of difference between us. All are made in the image of God. All are capable of despicable evil. All are capable of breathtaking beauty. On the other hand, we can embrace that beauty and tear down the machinations of dehumanization, even if it costs us the support of those who like to push out the Other. We don’t have to agree with someone in order to love them. But if we are truly following Christ, we have to love them.

In the Time of Chimpanzees, I Was Other: Making Our Own Monsters