The Role of Christians in the Extension of Justice to Creation
The joy that accompanies my tour of Spring Peeper Meadow is beyond words. Twenty-five years ago, the wetland was completely degraded. After a century of agricultural use the land was left eroded and covered in monotypic stands of invasive species. Today the wetland is brimming with biodiversity. Its hydrology was restored and more than one hundred different native plant species were sown. Foxes, coyotes, six different species of frog, and over one hundred bird species use the wetland. Spring Peeper Meadow stands as a testament to what good restoration practices, high community involvement, and hard labor can produce. It is a beacon of hope to those pursuing justice for creation.
Learning about the science behind restoration ecology led me to explore what Scripture and Christian tradition have to say about this form of justice. What is the relationship between Christians and nature? What is our role in creation? Does God’s justice extend to creation? Naturally, my investigation began in the book of Genesis. In the beginning, “the Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it” (Gen. 2:15). To till and keep it, that is, to shamar and abad. A close translation of these words reveals God’s intent for man in the Garden of Eden: to serve and preserve the land. God wills that we be caused, led and enticed to serve the earth, to keep and watch over it. God indeed takes up the cause of the land and brings it justice.
We can see this in Israel’s history. The Lord spoke to the prophet Jeremiah declaring 70 years of captivity for the Israelites for their failure to listen to his words and keep his commandments. God would use Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, to punish his people for their rebellion. What aroused God’s anger? The work of their hands and the harm they caused themselves. This included failure to give the land sabbath rest each seventh year. “The land enjoyed its sabbath rests; all the time of its desolation it rested, until the seventy years were completed in fulfillment of the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah” (2 Chronicles 36:21). Here we see God triumphing the cause of the land, bringing justice to his creation. Today, environmental degradation may look differently from what it did thousands of years ago, but it remains rooted in the same sin: injustice towards creation. It comes in the form of overexploitation, as we see in the fisheries collapsing worldwide due to overharvesting. We can see it in our pollution of the atmosphere and oceans. For example, nitrogen runoff from the Mississippi River has created a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico that stretches thousands of miles and where no marine life can exist. Habitat loss and global warming are other direct drivers of environmental degradation.
For the Israelites, an act of harm against the land was ultimately an act of harm against themselves. The reality is that humans and creation are so tightly intertwined and bound together that to destroy one is ultimately to destroy the other. We cannot survive in an earth that cannot grow our food, or that lacks clean air and water. Ecosystems provide an abundance of services which directly impact the wellbeing of humans. In addition to provisional services, such as medicine and raw materials, ecosystems provide cultural services like recreation and education. Life would be impossible without the regulatory and supporting services provided by nature. These include pollination, soil formation, climate regulation, flood control, photosynthesis, to name just a few. The link between humans and the environment actually runs much deeper than mere interdependence. The roots of the earth reach the very core of who we are, for we are made of the earth. The adamah, or earth humus, is within. It is what we were formed from. We are made not only of God’s breath, but of earth as well (Genesis 2:7).
Scripture is clear that God’s invisible attributes, his eternal power and divine nature, are perceivable in creation (Romans 1:20). Nature also reflects the glory of God. The Psalms are a perfect example of Scripture pointing to a creation immersed in the glory of God (Psalm 19:1-6, 33:5, 95:4-5, 96:11-12, 104, 148). Because God created creation (Genesis 1:1, 31; Nehemiah 9:6; John 1:3; Colossians 1:15-16) he necessarily loves and cares for it (Psalm 145:8-9; John 3:16). He is merciful to it, extends his grace over it, and ultimately covenants with it (Genesis 8:20-22) (Anthony, 2018). Scripture also shows that God sustains Creation (Job 12:10; Psalm 65:9-13; Colossians 1:17, Hebrews 1:3). Lastly, God redeems creation (Isaiah 51:3; Acts 3:20-21; Romans 8:19-21; Colossians 1:20).
If it is in fact true that creation reveals God’s character and will, Christians should be at the forefront of the movement to bring restorative justice to the earth. Pastors must teach the importance of creation care. Ecological restoration and stewardship of creation is a Chistian’s responsibility and should be viewed as a spiritual discipline, since it is a divine calling. If God is passionate about all of his creation, we should be, too. Similarly, the dominion spoken of in Genesis 1:26-28 is equivalent to the dominion spoken of in Psalm 72:1-14. The psalmist speaks of a king who rules the land justly, and has dominion over his kingdom. His dominion is characterized by justice, righteousness, prosperity, defense of the afflicted, deliverance and rescue of the needy, and freedom from oppression and violence. This dominion is an ushering into shalom. Therefore, our ruling over God’s earth should reflect a dominion that steers his creation towards peace and prosperity. The command to subdue is equivalent to serving. Jesus taught that to be great is to be the servant of all (Matthew 20:26). If we are to subdue the earth as Christ would, we must serve, keep, and protect it.
When we step into our God-given stewardship role, we can begin ushering creation into shalom through an era of restoration. Like the wetlands of Spring Peeper Meadow, other degraded natural areas can be healed and restored. Justice for creation will increase ecosystem services and steer humanity toward a sustainable future, but more importantly, we will be fulfilling our role as stewards. Therefore, when we read in scripture that the Lord is a God of justice (Isaiah 30:18) and that he requires us to do justice (Micah 6:8) we should not limit justice to the realm of people and societies. On the contrary, we should look to the mountains, skies, waters, fields and animals and be compelled to serve them too and extend God’s justice to them.
• Anthony, Brendon. Environmental ethics: class lecture. Biola University. La Mirada, CA. 2018.
• New Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocrypha: New Revised Standard Version. Oxford University Press, 2018