Watching the horrendous impacts of Hurricane Ian reminds us all of the role the continuing warming of our climate can have in transforming hurricanes coming out of the Gulf of Mexico into supercharger hurricanes. The warm waters of the Gulf make notable hurricanes into super-destroyers, which is what Ian was to the western coast of Florida.
Unfortunately, what we are assured of are more and more destructive natural disasters that are anything but natural in that we have chosen to ignore scientists and other experts who have warned us for years to take action. I believe our refusal to take heed is rooted in some really poor biblical interpretation.
For years, evangelicals and fundamentalists have quoted this verse to establish an unnecessary hierarchy between humans and creation.
Then God said, ‘Let us make humans in our image, according to our likeness, and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over the cattle and over all the wild animals of the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’ (Genesis 1:26)
This hierarchy once simply meant a level of importance; humans were more important than creation. But with the increasing influence by fundamentalists in the 1970s and 80s, dominion went from hierarchy to exploitation. The first public servant to put this misinterpretation into policy was James G. Watt, who was the first Secretary of the Interior in the Reagan administration in 1981. He was an evangelical Christian who said of his work, “My responsibility is to follow the Scriptures which call upon us to occupy the land until Jesus returns.” The belief that care for creation did not matter with the soon return of Christ and the original command of dominating creation easily morphed into exploiting creation for the benefits of humans.
The results of Watt’s tenure were disastrous. Here is just some what he left behind:
- Listed the fewest number of endangered species of any Interior Secretary until 2007,
- Put in place a moratorium on National Park expansion and resisted even personal donations of private lands for public conservation,
- Proposed that at the turn of the century all 80 million acres of virginal U.S. wilderness could become available for drilling and mining,
- Dramatically reduced regulations when it came to oversight of how public lands were being used which resulted in a quintuple increase in the amount of federal land leased to coal-mining companies,
- Over the protests of oil business CEO’s and coastal state leaders, Watt offered practically the entire outer continental shelf to oil-company bidders.
All of this and more was “accomplished” in the brief two years he was in this position.
As with much of fundamentalist biblical interpretation, one word is taken out of context and the deeper underlying meaning of the passage above is missed. While the word “dominion” has come to be viewed as merely a means of exploitation – something the word did not originally mean at all – what is missed in understanding this passage is the first few words, “Let us make humans in our image.” This shows us that in the beginning of creation God understood God’s self to be triune – Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. And in God’s trinitarian self one part of the triune was not more important than the other. God relates to God’s self in an egalitarian and relational way and God is creating humans in God’s relational image.
The question we must ask then is, should we relate to God, to one another, and to all of creation in the ways in which God relates to God’s self or should we follow the advice of those who would cherry pick one word and then misuse that one word in ways that has led to utter destruction? The truth is when we value the importance of creation as much as we value ourselves, there are benefits for all to share.
For instance, when we at the Festival Center heard the unbelievable fact that in Washington DC 75% of all carbon emissions come from buildings we knew that our plans for renovations must not continue an exploitative form of energy usage. Therefore, once we are done we will have LED lighting, more insulation, brand new solar panels, and other energy savings efforts that will dramatically lower our carbon emissions. Not only will this benefit our environment, we will spend much less than we were formerly on energy-related costs, but we also become much more attractive to people and organizations in our community who value a relational approach towards creation rather than a hierarchical or exploitative one.
We have to look beyond the simplistic explanations we have been given by those who either refuse to see or are unable to see the deeper meanings that Scripture has for us. If we opt for simplistic meanings we will end up with disastrous results whereas if we can learn to think more deeply we can live more securely.