Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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Masters of Our Domain – Destroyers of our Home
The Republican Party Platform prefaces its section on “Environmental Progress” with encouraging words: “The Republican Party reaffirms the moral obligation to be good stewards of the God-given natural beauty and resources of our country.” While this statement is geographically parochial – shouldn’t our moral obligation reach well beyond the borders of our own country? – it could provide the foundation for profoundly responsible policies and practices related to climate change, among other things.
But the Platform quickly reveals a theologically based ideological conviction that takes the Platform and the policies it supports in directions that turn stewardship into dangerous exploitation. “We believe that people are the most valuable resources and that human health and safety are the proper measurements of a policy’s success.” No one denies that human health and safety important. But the Platform promotes a form of human exceptionalism that historically has led to the exploitation of creation, the denial of climate change, the destruction of habitats and the species that inhabit them, and the irresponsible consumption of resources that takes no regard for the impact on the future.
If what serves the interests of human beings and their economic interests becomes the sole measure of policy, what kind of stewardship can we expect? The Platform is clear: “We support the development of all forms of energy that are marketable in a free economy. . . including coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear power, and hydropower.” The Platform supports hydraulic fracturing, leaving it to states to regulate even though states have shown willful disregard for geological disruption in places like Oklahoma where dangerous earthquakes have become commonplace. The Platform calls for “lifting restrictions on nuclear energy” and for “expediting the permitting process for mineral production on public lands.” Opposing any form of carbon tax, the Platform suggests the control of carbon emissions through the development of “carbon capture and sequestration,” two unproven and extremely costly technologies. The Platform rejects the work of the United Nations Intergovenmental Panel on Climate Change and the Kyoto and Paris Agreements. It would forbid the EPA from regulating carbon dioxide. Given all that we know about climate change, is any of this good stewardship?
In his Encyclical on the environment last year, Pope Francis challenges the notion that the Bible grants humanity license for unbridled consumption and exploitation:
“We are not God. The earth was here before us and it has been given to us. . . . Although it is true that we Christians have at times incorrectly interpreted the Scriptures, nowadays we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures. . . . This implies a relationship of mutual responsibility between human beings and nature. Each community can take from the bounty of the earth whatever it needs for subsistence, but it also has the duty to protect the earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations.” (Laudato Si’, 2015)
In what could be read as commentary on the Republican Platform, Francis goes on, “If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs.”
To read a party platform through a theological lens may seem strange. But it is important to note the ideological and theological presuppositions that drive policy directives. Variant readings of the Bible have led to contested understandings of the proper relationship between God, human beings, and the rest of creation. For far too long, readings that assume some form of human exceptionalism have allowed us to use creation as our “convenience store.” We are now, however, realizing the destruction caused and the peril promised by our old hermeneutical lens. Ten years ago, a significant group of prominent Evangelicals had this to say:
“Christians are reminded that when God made humanity he commissioned us to exercise stewardship over the earth and its creatures. Climate change is the latest evidence of our failure to exercise proper stewardship, and constitutes a critical opportunity for us to do better. Love of God, love of neighbor, and the demands of stewardship are more than enough reason for evangelical Christians to respond to the climate change problem with moral passion and concrete action.” (The Evangelical Climate Initiative, 2006)
For a Party that has long claimed the allegiance of Evangelicals, even in this current bizarre election cycle, it would be wise to examine the fundamental theological flaws in its parochial, nationalistic, and short sighted environmental policies. No matter how one reads Genesis, absent a vibrant, healthy and awe inspiring environment, human life is not only impossible, it is meaningless.
John H. Thomas
August 5, 2016