Thursday, April 24, 2014

Stewards of God's Creation

Last week I went with my family to watch the film adaptation of the Biblical Story of “Noah” at Village Six. Watching the interpretation of the Flood event from the book of Genesis, it was easy (and perhaps the film’s aim) to find parallels between the destruction of the environment, lust for power and insatiable desire to consume everything  in the movie and in the world we live in today.

Last night the Pacific Conference of Churches and Fiji Council of Churches Lenten Talk session at Dudley Church in Suva, discussed stewardship of creation as part of the moral formation of Israel.

It is important to recall that the moral formation of Israel is a “formation to be different” in: Moral values; Governance; Social relations (social justice).There are two fundamental inter-related formation tracks that branch out from the Moral formation of Israel (not in order of importance). The first is the order (governance) and relationship (social justice) among the people of Israel. The second is Israel’s relationship with God’s created world – the natural environment.

Israel’s exercise of stewardship must be totally different from that of Egypt. If Egypt destroyed the natural environment in its pursuit of building and maintaining an empire, Israel was not to do the same.
Properly speaking the term “stewardship”encompasses governance and leadership. But these are means whereby we exercise our responsibility as stewards. The biblical narrative understood stewardship as the “proper and prudent ‘trusteeship’ of God’s gifts” and these include:
·         the people under our care;
·         the natural environment;
·         the wealth we create from the abundance of the natural environment;
·         the resources – land, money, etc. - at our disposal;

Being stewards means that we are trustees or custodians of God’s created world and everything in it. In its broader context, stewardship is the responsibility of a trustee entrusted to us to take care of God’s world and everything in it.
Its limited meaning (which is unfortunate because of the absence of its moral imperatives), as used today, is the management of finances and assets, and decision-making processes in a way that is transparent and accountable.

The first chapter of Genesis sets a momentous vision of the universe coming into being as the work of God. Humans, the last and greatest of His creation are given dominion over nature. (Gen 1:28; see also Ps 8:6-9; 115:16) Few passages in the Bible have had a deeper influence on Western civilisation than Genesis 1, particularly v.28. Genesis 1:28 and more explicitly in Psalm 8:3-5, portrays a sense of wonder at the smallness yet uniqueness of human beings, vulnerable but also unique in their ability to shape the environment.

It was Max Weber who argued that this idea – human beings, though small and vulnerable - is master of creation, the natural environment. This misinterpretation of Genesis 1 text, laid the roots of Western civilisation, and demystified nature - that nature is not sacred but to serve humanity’s desires and needs. Genesis 1:28, however, is only one side of the complex biblical understanding of stewardship.  It is balanced by a narrative quite different in tone in Genesis 2:15 in which the first human is set in the garden of Eden “to work it and take care of it” (see also Ps 104:14)

The two Hebrew words used in Gen 2:15 are highly significant to a proper understanding of our responsibility as stewards of God’s creation. The first Hebrew verb le’ovdah (translated as “to work it”) literally means “to serve it”. Humanity is both master and servant of nature.The second verb leshomrah (translated as “to take care”) literally means “to guard it”. This is the verb used in later biblical translations to describe the responsibilities of a guardian of property that does not belong to him or her. The person must exercise vigilance in his/her protection and is liable for loss through negligence. This is perhaps the best short definition of human beings’ responsibility for nature as conceived by the Biblical narrative. The point is that we do not own nature.

“Life forms are not inventions but discoveries. They do not belong to scientists or biochemical corporations but equally to all and none of us: they are God’s loan, entrusted to our collective care” (Sacks, 2000:165). In an original interpretation of Genesis 1, “Let us make man in our image after our likeness”, Samson Hirsch (19th century) puts it this way: “The ‘us’ refers to the rest of creation. Because man alone has the capacity to change and possibly endanger the natural world, nature itself was consulted as to whether it approved of such a being.” This original interpretation implied 3 clear moral messages:
·         Not only do we not own nature but we are duty bound to respect its integrity.
·         Human beings would use nature only in such a way as to be faithful to the purpose of the Creator.
·         The mandate to exercise dominion or mastery over the natural world is not technical but moral and is limited by the requirement to protect and conserve.

These 3 points are an integral part of Genesis 2 and 3 (the story of the forbidden fruit and the subsequent exile from Eden). Not everything is permitted. There are limits to what human beings may do and when they are transgressed, disaster follows as Gen 3:19 irrefutably says “Dust you are, and to dust you shall return”. The main point to remember is this: Creation has its own dignity as God’s masterpiece, and though we have the mandate to use it, we have none to destroy or despoil it.

There is little doubt that stewardship as understood by the Biblical narrative is about what we today call “sustainability”; that we are charged with conserving and protecting the world’s resources so that future generations would benefit.
The 3 great commands declaring periodic rest - the Sabbath, Sabbatical year and the Jubilee year – clearly state this point. They spell out that much of the biblical legislation on the natural environment (nature) and Israel’s relation to it is about sustainability.

On the Sabbath, all agriculture work is forbidden, “so that your ox and your donkey may rest” (Ex 23:12). It is a day that sets limits to our intervention in nature and the pursuit of economic activity. And remind ourselves that the earth is the Lord’s . For 6 days it is handed over to us, but on the 7th day we symbolically abdicate that power. It is a weekly reminder of the integrity of nature and the boundaries and limitations of human striving. We become conscious of our being creations, not creators.

What the Sabbath does for human beings and animals, the Sabbatical and the Jubilee years do for the land. The earth too is entitled to its periodic rest. Israel was warned that if they do not respect this, they will suffer exile:
“Then shall the land make up for its sabbatical years throughout the time that it is desolate and you are in the land of your enemies; then shall the land rest and make up for its Sabbath years (Lev 26:34)

This command puts forward 2 fundamental concerns. One is environmental. Land which is over-exploited is eventually eroded and loss its fertility. The Israelites were therefore commanded to conserve the soil by giving it periodic fallow years and not pursue short-term gain at the cost of long-term desolation. The second, and no less significant, is theological. “The land”, says God, “is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me” (Lev 25:23). In other words, we are guests on earth and we have a fundamental moral responsibility as stewards to protect and conserve what is not ours.

Jesus was very well versed with the Torah and the traditions of his people. His challenge parable about the master’s money (Matt 25: 14-30 and Lk 19:12-26 ) is a challenge about stewardship and how it is ought to be practiced. If Rome’s practice of stewardship of God’s gift of creation was through violence, coercion, bribery, interest, extortion and slavery (as in Egypt), then Israel's’ exercise of stewardship must be completely different.

Biblical religion (as all other great religions) embodies a deep sense of respect for the natural environment. This constitutes an important counterbalance to the indifference, bordering on arrogance, of empire worldviews.
One of the defining beliefs of modernity (and post-modernity) was that science and technology would unlock the riches of nature and would lead to open-ended progress towards unlimited abundance. Empires and indeed civilisations (past or present) at the height of their powers have found it hard to maintain a sense of limits. The Biblical narrative teaches a different wisdom with regards to the natural environment and our stewardship responsibility towards it: Reverence in the face of creation, responsibility to future generations, and restraint in the knowledge that not everything we can do, should we do.

The simplest image, and surely the most sensible one, in thinking about our ecological responsibility is to see the earth as belonging to God and us as its trustees, charged with conserving and if possible beautifying if for the sake of our grandchildren not yet born. Biblical religion is not a philosophical system; it is born out of real life experience and embodies truths made real in the life of the community. It is one thing to have an abstract conception of our ecological responsibility. It is quite another to celebrate the Sunday weekly – to renounce our mastery of nature one day in seven – and to make a blessing, as we do in our churches – over everything we eat or drink to remind ourselves that the “earth is the Lord’s and all that is within it, the world, and those who live in it.” (Ps, 24:1)

Prayer, ritual and narrative are ways we shape what Alexis de Tocqueville called “habits of the heart”. They form character, create behavioural dispositions and educate us in patterns of self-restraint. We will need to cultivated instincts of caution if we are to hold ourselves back from patterns of production and consumption that threaten the future of God’s creation. (Sacks, 2000:171)

(The above text is a summary of the presentation on Stewardship from the Pacific Conference of Churches Exodus Formation Series).

“Simplicity, Serenity, Spontaneity”.

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