Liberate scripture to liberate the planet

“Cathedral on Fire” — Part III of a series

By Rev. Rick King

If the earth, sea and skies are “God’s Cathedral,” as environmentalist John Muir called them, climate change has set this cathedral on fire. UCC climate justice minister Brooks Berndt says environmental justice isn’t just one more cause on our task list, as Christians; it intersects with every other form of injustice, too. No matter the color of people’s skin, how much money the make, who they love or how they worship—ALL of us call Planet Earth HOME.

In our church, every time the creation story in Genesis comes up in the readings for a Sunday, many of us stumble over the words in Gen. 1:28: “God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’”

We stumble on words like “subdue” and “have dominion” because they don’t match the picture we have of our relationship to creation. They are relics of an earlier age, when monarchy was the default political system, and hierarchy was the way humans ordered themselves and their relationship to the earth. Dominion and conquest were the order of the day, and the earth existed primarily for our benefit.

But we don’t read Genesis literally as a set of rules to live by, and we are shaped more by mutuality in community as members of a democracy. Genesis 1 is compelling, even beautiful as a word-picture of a planet and a cosmos that evoke wonder and awe in us. But we are rightly suspicious of using sacred texts to rationalize abuse. Racism, slavery, misogyny, economic inequalities, war, and environmental degradation have all found religious justifications in scripture.

But what if Genesis 1 images God as a gardener inviting us to “till and keep” the Garden that is our home? What would we be willing to do to ensure the health of the garden and defend it from destruction? And how would we approach land overgrown with weeds and strewn with garbage or toxic chemicals?

There’s a wonderful passage in Romans chapter 8 which is eerily relevant to where we find ourselves now, in the climate crisis: “18 I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; 20 for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now…”

This is a picture of liberation, not only of humanity, but earth and the cosmos. What if humans whose choices led to this “bondage to decay” also stand in the position to be agents of the planet’s liberation? If, as Paul says in Romans, Christ’s coming changed everything, then, as Brooks Berndt writes, Jesus leads us to change not just individual hearts and minds and practices—but entire systems of dominion and conquest. “Jesus’s vision was one of ‘system change,’ not the mere tinkering of reforms to the present order.”

Most scientists say that we are long past the point where gradual modifications in our habits will avert a climate catastrophe. Naomi Klein writes that our economic system is at war with the planetary system, “So we are left with a stark choice: allow climate disruption to change everything about our world, or change pretty much everything about our economy to avoid that fate.”

Do you see the link between economic inequality, racism, and climate justice? All can only be addressed by changing the systems individuals and communities live within. Berndt writes that “to hold creation sacred in today’s context becomes a challenge to the status quo.” Just as the protests of two summers ago after George Floyd’s murder were designed to challenge the status quo on race, so the climate strikes of today are designed to disrupt business-as-usual, unsettling the present order of society to bring about a system change that puts our Garden home first instead of profits or politics.

As with race, churches are on the front lines of this system-change. Will we embrace it? What do YOU think?