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Restoring Right Relation

Often, Christians find Pope Francis’ promotion of integral ecology at odds with the biblical command to subdue the earth and have dominion over its creatures. Yet, a careful look at the Book of Genesis offers much to consider in regard to relationships among creation and how God intended creation to exist.

Ecologically-relevant verses are found throughout scripture, but as Pope Francis asserts in “Laudato Si’,” there is reason to start at the beginning: “The creation accounts in the book of Genesis contain, in their own symbolic and narrative language, profound teachings about human existence and its historical reality.”

“Fill the earth and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the living things that move on the earth” (Gn 1:28). Upon an uncritical reading, this verse seems to support human control over non-human creation. But, when placed in context with other biblical narratives, the verse no longer reads as a God-given mandate for human superiority. A critical look at the words from which “subdue” and “dominion” are translated paired with awareness of how these words are used elsewhere in scripture yields a different interpretation.

Elsewhere in scripture, the word translated into English as “subdue” describes cultivation of land and preparation of space for worship. There is great significance in this interpretative shift from subdue as meaning to overpower and control to subdue as meaning to cultivate for sustainability and ease of worship. Knowing this broader biblical context allows for reconsideration of the way in which humanity is asked to interact with non-human creation. Instead of exercising superiority over the earth with exploitation and destruction, humanity is called to cultivate a sustainable living space that allows for worship of God.

The word translated as “dominion” can also support a holistic, interconnected and mutually-dependent relationship among creation when the command to “have dominion” is considered in conjunction with scripture stories that elaborate upon its meaning. For example, the story of the great flood shows humanity tasked with “dominion” of creation.

Humanity must ensure survival of all.

Considered within this context, “dominion” transforms from a word conveying a relationship of domination and control into a word conveying a relationship of care, concern and respect. The survival of non-human creation is prioritized not because of any value or benefit it holds for humanity but simply because all creation is of God and deserves to live. Furthermore, when considered within the context of the great flood story, God’s command to humans about the relationship between human and non-human creation does not present a passive relationship, where human and non-human creation merely coexist, or even a relationship in which humans consciously refrain from destroying or harming non-human creation. What God’s command calls for is conscious, compassionate action on the part of humanity to see to the survival, livelihood and flourishing of non-human creation. This is quite a big responsibility, of which the failure to fulfill has disastrous consequences.

Pope Francis reflects, “The harmony between the Creator, humanity and creation as a whole [is] disrupted by our presuming to take the place of God.” When humans act as if humanity is other than creation instead of an integral part of it, all of creation suffers, including humans. 

He continues, “Responsibility for God’s earth means that human beings, endowed with intelligence, must respect the laws of nature and the delicate equilibria existing between the creatures of this world. ... The laws found in the Bible dwell on relationships, not only among individuals but also with other living beings.”

Creation was designed in a way that allows it to survive, to grow, to adapt, to flourish!

The human, in the image and likeness of God and as part of that design, is called to cultivate creation for life and worship (subdue) and ensure its ongoing survival (have dominion). While this relationship between human and non-human creation (and God) is often abused — even ruptured — reconciliation, a return to right relation, is always possible.

As demonstrated by the story of the great flood and exclaimed by Pope Francis, “All it takes is one good person to restore hope!”

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This article was originally published in the 2017 spring issue of Vermont Catholic Magazine.

Respect earth and others, says pope

Development projects involving indigenous communities must be planned in consultation with them and must respect their traditional relationship to the land, Pope Francis said.

Having the "prior and informed consent" of the native communities who could be impacted by development projects is essential for "peaceful cooperation between governing authorities and indigenous peoples, overcoming confrontation and conflict," the pope said Feb. 15 during a meeting with about three dozen representative of indigenous communities.

The representatives from Africa, Asia and the Pacific, Latin America and the Caribbean were in Rome for continuing discussions with the U.N.-related International Fund for Agricultural Development. Their talks aim at ensuring development projects impacting native communities are carried out in consultation with them and that they respect their land, cultures and traditions.

"I believe that the central issue is how to reconcile the right to development, both social and cultural, with the protection of the particular characteristics of indigenous peoples and their territories," the pope said. "This is especially clear when planning economic activities which may interfere with indigenous cultures and their ancestral relationship to the earth."

While none of the representatives were from North America, several news outlets immediately connected the pope's remarks to the ongoing protests over the construction of a leg of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which would go through indigenous land in North Dakota. Several Sioux tribes have protested the pipeline project saying it endangers the Standing Rock reservation's water supply and infringes on sacred tribal grounds.

Departing from his prepared text, Pope Francis praised the indigenous communities for approaching progress "with a special care for Mother Earth. In this moment in which humanity is committing a grave sin in not caring for the earth, I urge you to continue to bear witness to this. And do not allow new technologies -- which are legitimate and good -- but do not allow those that destroy the earth, that destroy the environment and ecological balance, and which end up destroying the wisdom of peoples."
  • Published in Vatican
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