What have we forgotten?
Jeremiah 2.7 (New International Version)
I brought you into a fertile land to eat its fruit and rich produce. But you came and defiled my land and made my inheritance detestable.
How long will the land lie parched and the grass in every field be withered? Because those who live in it are wicked, the animals and birds have perished. Moreover, the people are saying, ‘He will not see what happens to us.’
As for you, my flock, this is what the Sovereign Lord says. I will judge between one sheep and another, and between rams and goats. Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture? Must you also trample the rest of your pasture with your feet? Is it not enough for you to drink clear water? Must you also muddy the rest with your feet?
Isaiah 5.8-10; 24.4-6
Woe to you who add house to house and join field to field till no space is left and you live alone in the land. The Lord Almighty has declared in my hearing. ‘Surely the great houses will become desolate, the fine mansions left without occupants. A ten-acre vineyard will produce only a bath of wine, a homer of seed only an ephah of grain.’
The earth dries up and withers, the world languishes and withers, the exalted of the earth languish. The earth is defiled by its people; they have disobeyed the laws, violated the statutes and broken the everlasting covenant. Therefore a curse consumes the earth; its people must bear their guilt. Therefore earth’s inhabitants are burned up, and very few are left.
I feel it’s fair to say that nothing exercises our ‘moralistic muscles’ more than attempting to live out the Biblical understanding of human ‘stewardship’ of creation. We might feel we have a firm grasp of what that means, but under scrutiny our moral stance might not be as secure as we thought.
The modern eco-warriors will prick our environmental conscience with examples of the havoc and devastation that our modern self-centred way of living is having on a global scale; whilst pointing to the damaged and depleted planet we are leaving to our children’s children, children and beyond.
As valid and accurate that outlook may be, and as sincere and well-intentioned as the motives behind this alarm call are, as Christians, we have to beware of what that ethical stance may be based upon. If the envisaged goal is to change people’s attitudes to how they live life in a more caringly, environmentally-friendly way by scaring them with shocking images of Armageddon; then it will achieve mixed responses.
It’s an ethic based on fear and repercussion! The Biblical alternative is to present the question ‘What kind of intention makes an act good?’ And, also, provide the answer ‘an act is good when it is done with God in mind!’
The Bible is utterly clear from its opening words that there is a Person behind Creation. Before the universe is even mentioned, the Bible has already introduced us to a Person.
Behind the lamentations of the great Old Testament prophets we read earlier is the unmistakeable pleading not to forget God, the Person who brought Creation into being, the One for whom we exist, as our liturgy reminds us!
Seeing God in everything does not come naturally. It’s a skill to be acquired, an art to be learnt. It is one of the tasks required in living a Christian life and, indeed, a human life.
God grants us stewardship of creation, to tend for it in his fashion. As the Lord’s Prayer emphasises, ‘Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’ In heaven, God rules in person: on earth, we are to rule in his name, that his rule may come upon earth as it is in heaven.
On examination, there is no exploitation in God’s rule over us, and therefore there should be no exploitation in our rule over creation. It should be the same sort of protecting, liberating, healing and enabling rule that God exercises over us.
The Old Testament prophets graphically display what happens when the Lord is forgotten: nature’s provision becomes polluted, defiled, greed abounds and there is widespread wilful destruction.
Having a Person at the heart of reality makes morality a matter of right and wrong, not of taste or preference. All created things have a degree of value in the eyes of their maker, or they would not have been made; and that propels us towards an environmental ethic.
If things have a value, it is possible to treat them in a way that respects or violates that value. To know the real value of things is an ongoing process that is in sync with a deepening understanding of our benevolent creator.
In closing, for anyone who might want to journey further into Christian ethics I can recommend two books that I have found useful:
Café Theology by Michael Lloyd, published by Alpha International
The Big Questions by Jonathan Hill, published by Lion Hudson