Speak up for Green Faith

Sermon 21 October 2018 – Westmount Park United Church

Yesterday I went to a spectacular exhibition of Vegan and Vegetarian lifestyle resources at Palais de Congres, along with our new member of staff, Erica Follon.   At one point, a person at the Anti-Speciesism booth was explaining to us their work, and he used a key word, for the attitude they want to change, dominate.   

I looked at Erica, because I had begun telling her about the sermon I wish to share with you today, its more of an educational sermon, specially for us as a Living Church; Faith in Nature Centre.

So let me see if anyone can help the sermon along with the key word dominate, and Faith in Nature? 

Does it bring to mind a Bible passage?

Genesis 1:26 Then God said, “Let us make humankind[c] 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,[d] and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”

In the present environmental crisis of species extinction, this is a problem for us, as Jew or Christian.

But let me pick out some other verses. 

For homosexuality,  Romans 1:26:   the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another.

or for anti-apartheid  Romans 13:1 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities;

or for divorce Mark 10:11-12 “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; 

Does this mean we are wrong in conducting same sex weddings, marrying divorcees, encouraging rebellion against oppressive state governments?   Does it mean we cannot use the Bible?

Let me bring us back to the offending verse in Genesis.  The conversation yesterday at Palais de Congres shows it’s a serious issue.  

Lynn White, Jr., "The historical roots of Our Ecologic Crisis," Science Vol 155, pp. 1203-1207 (10 March 1967).

Five years after Rachel Carson, wrote Silent Spring, and precipitated a new era of environmentalism an American historian, Lynn White, Jr published in the magazine, Science. Entitled, “The Historical Roots of our Ecologic Crisis,” the essay would prove to be a watershed in religious thought regarding the environment.  White argued humans must first examine and critique their attitudes toward Nature“What people do about their ecology depends on what they think about themselves in relation to things around them. Human ecology is deeply conditioned by beliefs about our nature and destiny — that is, by religion.”

Quoting the offending verse we heard in Genesis 1, White points explicitly to a “monarchy” of humanity over the rest of creation, being sourced by a ‘Christian’ attitude that denigrates the importance of nature.

Many scholars have argued about the interpretation of the Hebrew word for dominion, insisting it implies more stewardship than domination, so that Genesis 1 teaches responsibility towards the living world.  

I am not convinced by this, and also, there is a serious weakness in relying on just a few verses as we have seen.    I am not encouraging you to cherry-pick the Bible, taking the nice bits you agree with and ignoring the rest.

When we take a broader view of the Bible than two verses in Genesis 1, we find there is no contest of interpretation.  The Bible teaches us that people love living things.  The Biophilia of the Bible is obvious, hence Job’s reading today.    This story of the faithful person tested through personal loss and suffering beyond endurance, ends with God’s reply; the words we heard today.   Not to address the suffering but to put it in the context of the fact of existence, the universe, its scale and beauty.   ‘Were you there when this was made?’ asks God.  Job is left speechless.

The Psalms, especially, are full of biophilia, the trees of the field clapping their hands in praise, we can take Psalm 104 that we read today:

In them the birds build their nests;
    the stork has its home in the fir trees.
21 The young lions roar for their prey,
    seeking their food from God.
22 When the sun rises, they withdraw
    and lie down in their dens.
23 People go out to their work
    and to their labor until the evening.

24 Lord, how manifold are your works!
    In wisdom you have made them all;

This broader vision of the Bible being biophilic is given real substance with books like Ask the Beasts, Darwin and the God of love, by Roman Catholic author Elizabeth Johnson.   And The Bible and Ecology, by Evangelical Richard Baukham.  

So the influence of Genesis 1:26-28 to permit destruction of nature, if White is right, is not fair to the Bible; its been manipulated.

But if you want to take those verses and argue for stewardship, theres another problem, that the evidence is not hopeful that human beings are capable of caring for the living systems of the earth.  We barely understand Climate Change systems and that’s just one of many.  It is still a sort of pride or hubris about humanity, an anthropocentrism that is problematic according to our anti-speciesism friend at Palais de Congres.

Finally, let me ask you to join the dots, between our Biophilia and the gospel reading today.   Let me ask whether you can make a faithful judgement between Jesus warning the two brothers who seek to boost their status and teaching whoever wishes to be first, should be servant all, and our attitude towards other living things.  Do you think this sort of teaching has anything to say?  And then in general, not trying to cherry pick the verses we like, does this teaching on humility and service fit the witness we are given about Jesus and following Jesus today, through the gospels?

I have a lovely story to tell you that gives me strength and confidence to really speak up for Green Faith, from the first Christian communities.  It comes from a book of Christian ecological scholarship, titled: Diversity and Dominion!

Susan Bratton writes about anti-Imperial themes and care for nature in early Christian art.  She studied the earliest Christian art that is found in catacombs and burial tombs, before Christianity was the Roman empire religion.  They are full of harmonious images, more like the second Genesis story of creation, of paradise, more like the verses that are overlooked of vegetarianism in the first creation story itself.  And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.”   If you compare Christian to Roman art on burial tombs, Romans show their hunting prowess and courage in fighting beasts in the arena, yes of domination.  Whereas Christians have doves, fruiting trees, and vines.  The image of Jesus, is not of King, but rather the Good Shepherd (who lays down his life for his sheep).  

This non-Biblical evidence, affirms our interpretation of biophilia (not domination) would raise a large shout of Amen, Alleluia from the first Christians.  

Biophilia is the overall theme for our relationships with other creatures

Don’t accept an interpretation of the Bible limited to a few verses and biased by Empire and the history of Christendom and capitalism.

Join hands with the early Christians, following the Good Shepherd servant of the least and the last, and speak up for Green Faith.

Amen.