The Papal Letter on the Climate Commons (1): Human Dominion vs Stewardship over Nature

By JACK JENKINS & EMILY ATKIN, reviewing a draft of the coming papal letter on climate change:

“The likely encyclical draft — entitled “Laudato Si” or “Praised Be,” from a prayer by St. Francis of Assisi — directly addressed the old biblical claim that because God gave humanity “dominion” over the earth in Genesis, humanity has a right to exploit it at will. This has also been a popular position among American politicians, who have used God to advocate for the continued development of fossil fuels.

“We are not God,” the document reads. “The earth precedes us and was given to us. This allows us to respond to an accusation made against Judeo-Christian thinking: it has been said that, from the story of Genesis, which invites us to subjugate the earth (Genesis 1:28), the savage exploitation of nature would be encouraged, presenting the image of human beings as ruler and destroyer. This is not the correct interpretation of the Bible as intended by the Church.”

The document continues:

Even though it is true that sometimes Christians have interpreted the scripture incorrectly, today we must forcefully refuse the idea that from the fact of being made in the image of God and from the mandate to subjugate the earth that one can deduce an absolute dominion over other creatures. It is important to read the biblical texts in their context, with the right hermeneutics, and remember that these invite us to “cultivate and care for” (Gen. 2:15) the garden of the world. While “cultivate” means to plow or work a plot, “to care for” means to protect, heal, preserve, conserve, to watch over. This implies a responsible reciprocity between human being and nature. Every community may take from the bounty of the earth that which it needs for its own survival, but it also has the duty to protect it and ensure the continuity of its fertility for future generations. In the end, “The earth is the Lord’s” (Psalms 24:1), to Him belongs “the earth and everything in it” (Deuteronomy 10:14). Thus, God denies any pretense of absolute ownership: “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants.” (Leviticus 25:23).

Various other Christian groups such as Interfaith Power and Light and the Good Steward Campaign have also contested the problematic biblical interpretation that God gave humanity the right to do whatever it wants with environment. Instead, they — along with the majority of Christians in the United States — believe that God calls people to be stewards and protectors of the earth, not careless masters.

Still, some Christian leaders and politicians have repeatedly made a religious case for fossil fuel extraction. For the pro-mining minded, “God-given resources” is a popular term— in fact, it’s a tenet of the national Republican Party. Indeed, the official platform of the Republican National Committee advocates “taking advantage of all our American God-given resources. That is the best way to advance North American energy independence.” The argument has taken other forms as well. In Minnesota, a former state representative argued for coal mining by invoking the stability of God’s creation. “God is not capricious,” he said. “He’s given us a creation that is dynamically stable. We are not going to run out of anything.” Former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin has said oil and gas is “what God has created for man’s responsible use.” Ultra-conservative evangelist Bryan Fisher — who has a penchant for the extreme — has said that not using fossil fuels would be tantamount to an insult to God.
“God has buried those treasures there because he loves to see us find them,” he said.

By contrast, the new encyclical — which also appeared to specifically acknowledge humanity’s role in climate change — is the culmination of a long list of pro-environment comments made by Pope Francis since he ascended to the papacy. He discussed climate change during his inaugural mass as pope in 2013, declaring “let us be ‘protectors’ of creation, protectors of God’s plan inscribed in nature, protectors of one another and of the environment.” In May 2014, he warned of the repercussions of inaction on climate change, saying “if we destroy Creation, Creation will destroy us! Never forget this!” Later that year, while speaking in Brazil, he referred to the deforestation of the rainforest a “sin”.”

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