In Genesis 1:28, God tells Adam and Eve that they shall fill the earth in numbers and subdue it, ruling over all the living creatures in the sea, sky, and ground. But what God meant by granting this sanctified dominion is up to heavy debate and has been at the center of many contemporary political, ethical, and environmental discussions since the Scientific Revolution. With the advent of modern technological and mechanistic innovation, our ability as humans to use the earth’s resources has expanded exponentially and people of faith have been wondering – is this what God really wanted?
The discussion, in its most simple form, boils down to a question of an open-use policy versus stewardship. Some people argue that God gave us Earth and everything on it to use at our discretion and for our sole benefit. The earth is our God-given kingdom, they state, and we can use all of it as we see fit. Others, however, believe that God gave us this planet as a gift – something to cherish, care for, and steward in a way that preserves its resources and beauty for future generations, indefinitely. This question of whether God gave us the right to plunder or the duty to protect was the topic of a panel discussion hosted by the Humanities Council of DC last week. As a part of their World House Series, the council hosted an event called “A Moral Dilemma: is going green a choice between right and wrong?” The event included four speakers, all of whom are both active in their faith communities as well as in the environmental movement. One speaker was a Christian and an urban gardener, another a Jewish professional trying to “green” the Jewish community, another a young Muslim woman working on environmental policy, and the last a former chair of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington who also holds an executive position within the energy and climate division of the United Nations. The resounding answer to the question posed above, as answered by the four panelists, was that we as a human community, and especially communities of faith, are not treating the planet or it’s creatures in a way that God (or our respective deities) would approve of. All four professionals came out in favor of stewardship, with some very interesting arguments and ideas about how to move forward.
One panelist argued that in an age of Globalism, with national borders becoming increasingly fluid thanks to economic and technological integration, people across the globe need to admit that the world is too small of a place to pretend that we are all still existing separately. We live in one community now, he argued, and it is time for societies all over the world to start engaging in real dialogues about how our use of environmental resources is going to harm our neighbors in this global village. Other panelists argued this point as well, noting that in many religions we are asked by the powers-at-be to put our neighbors and our family first. If we continue to do things like clear wetlands that lead to events like the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, are we really doing our jobs?
The Jewish panelist, Josh, said something very similar. He mentioned that some of the main ideas behind keeping Shabbat and keeping kosher have to do with giving everyone and everything, including the people we employ and the land itself, some time off. The Jewish people, he said, are a people that like to be challenged and that enjoy intellectual debate; we spent centuries extrapolating teachings in the Torah and other scripture to include modern issues like electricity and labor laws – it’s time for us to use that same logic to include the environment in our community ethic (the essay “A Land Ethic,” by Aldo Leopold, makes great arguments for this type of thinking). God’s call to protect and care for our neighbors means that today, we need to pay close attention to the aggregate effect of our individual actions; driving to work everyday when you could be taking public transportation isn’t holding a gun to someone’s head, Josh said, but millions of people ignoring environmental issues are threatening the lives of billions of others. When fresh-water resources run scarce, the United Nations executive stated as an example, we get conflicts like those in Darfur. As faith-based communities, we have a mandated responsibility to act preventatively when it comes to issues of both environmental and social injustices.
While each panelist had slightly different reasons for evoking a call for environmental protection from their separate religious groups, they all agreed that communities of faith should be addressing environmental concerns in the same way that so many of these communities address hunger, homelessness, and general prejudices. When it comes down to it, one panelist argued, connecting one’s personal values and one’s religious values should not be a personal struggle. As issues of social justice become more complex, he argued, we should be actively creating space for dialogue around how we can incorporate these new issues, like caring for the environment, into our evolving religious ethics.
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