Man’s [sic] Dominion

I’ve been thinking a lot about apocalypse. It might be because I’m reading The Walking Dead (a zombie apocalypse graphic novel) and Y: The Last Man (all the men on the planet except for one mysteriously die). Perhaps it’s because I’ve been reading Derrick Jensen’s Endgame. (Jensen is a reluctant apocalyptic prophet, who calls us to see that civilization is both intrinsically unsustainable and in its final throes of death.) And also because of Stephen Hawking, who thinks that we have about 200 years left on the planet Earth.

It’s not troubling to me that someday humans won’t be around. In some sense, I’ve believed it all my life; I used to believe that humans will go to heaven (or hell) and the Earth won’t matter. But lately I’ve been seeing the subversion of that idea: Someday, whether because God takes us all to heaven (or initiates the kingdom of heaven), sends some of us to hell, or because we’ve polluted the environment to such an extent that it is no longer hospitable to human life, we won’t be here (or at least we won’t be here perpetuating and perpetrating the same horrendous disregard for nature that we currently thrive off of). Houses will crumble. Factories will be destroyed, no longer able to dump toxic waste into streams, and pollute the air. Forests will flourish. Our great civilizations will be covered over. Nature will experience her renaissance.

Of course, there will still be plastic.


Making me think matters are ever more dire is a recent article by Bill McKibben in Rolling Stone. I’m not going to tell you about it, just go read it. If I have to tell you how bleak the future of the environment looks, it’s probably because you own a corporation and have been always already ignoring it and further polluting it. Or perhaps you’re a Christian, or more than likely both.

A lot of Christians like to argue that God gave man [sic] dominion over the Earth, therefore we have every right to subdue, exploit, rape, and squeeze all we can out of it (of course this isn’t how they would put it; “stewardship” is the euphemism that Christians like to use to describe their pollution.) This dominionist argument has always struck me as peculiar. The word dominion is of the same root as our word Lord or dominus in Latin. In this view we have a God given lordship over all creation. Dominionists argue against animal rights and environmental issues proclaiming,“God gave us dominion!” or “Animals are ontologically different!” Therefore they1  abuse farm animals, exploit resources, pollute water and air, remove mountaintops in order to strip them of their coal, and many other horrendous acts (many of which involve oppressing and abusing human beings, but if I have to convince you that this is immoral… well, again, you’re probably a CEO).

But as Christians, our prime example of lordship is that which our Lord Christ has displayed. Can you imagine Christ displaying his lordship over his followers by forcing them to get pregnant and packing them in a crate where they cannot stand or turn around and then defending his actions by saying: “So our animals can’t turn around for the 2.5 years that they are in the stalls producing piglets, I don’t know who asked the sow if she wanted to turn around. . .The only real measure of their well-being we have is the number of piglets per birth, and that’s at an all-time high.”

Or imagine our Lord Christ growing chickens much bigger than normal by feeding them caffeine so they stay awake longer than usual and eat. Then, since if a chicken stays awake too long it will die, Christ feeds it downers to get it to sleep. Since it is always in pain, our Lord gives it aspirin.

It’s hard to imagine these despicable acts being perpetrated by Christ; Christians have traditionally seen our Lord Christ as loving, humble, peaceful. If a lamb strays, he leaves the 99 to find it (rather than say chopping it up and feeding it to the other lambs). He is kind and compassionate. He (in traditional Christian terms) sacrificed himself for his Creation, for those whom he had lordship over. He “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God [his Lordship] as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death. . .so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord”2

So let’s take dominion literally. God gave us Lordship over the Earth? Then let’s follow the prime Christian example of Lordship; let’s die—die to self, self-interests, consumerism, or if we can’t stop our rapacious practices, let’s literally just die and let nature be—so that the Earth can be saved.

  1. I use the pronoun they, but I am well aware of my complicity []
  2. Philippians 2:6-11 []

9 thoughts on “Man’s [sic] Dominion

  1. In The Ecology of Eden, Evan Eisenberg calls for an embrace of a human Tzimtzum after the Kabbalistic myth in which God “contracts” in order to make ontological room for the created order. The idea is for us to contract, to make room, to re-learn a more complementary relationship with the rest of the world. I think this can map onto a kind of kenotic posture exemplified by Jesus (which would be consistent with an incarnational theology; the definitive incarnation of God models the kenosis of Tzimtzum).

    Eisenberg’s book is very good, offering one of the best discussions I’ve seen of the damage humans are wreaking (esp. through modern agriculture). He describes it as a wildly successful but dangerous symbiotic alliance between three organisms: humans, grasses (esp. wheat), and rats. The middle bogs down, and even his very balanced proposals for renewal are probably optimistic, but it’s worth the read.

    But if so many other things are reversed — leadership is servanthood, Jesus’s coronation is the crucifixion, vindication comes in the form of the destruction of the Holy City, and God is a dead guy — then maybe the redemption of the earth comes in the form of human extinction.

  2. Hey Matthew. I enjoyed the post. Great perspective. I like the idea of letting nature have its renaissance. Its pretty offensive to say maybe just die so the earth can be saved. I appreciate that. What do you mean the earth is not the center of the solar system? Anyways. I like it. There is a cool and pretty simple book by Julie Clawson called Everyday Justice. It traces the implications of the choices we make daily and focuses on how we ought to let our promise to love our neighbor permeate everything we do. Thanks for postin.

  3. Thanks for the comments. I’ll check out both of the books mentioned above.

  4. Matthew, you make a good point about the evils of Christian dominionism, but it’s worth noting this reading of Genesis seems to have originated no earlier than Francis Bacon in 1603.[1]

    Aside from some early Christian commentators influenced by Greek concepts of nature, there’s a very distinct and strong Judeo-Christian tradition of genuine ecological and animal welfare, starting with the early Jewish commentators and stretching right up to the present day.[2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] [10] [11] [12]

    This includes the 19th century Christians who initiated early environmental movements.

    [1] Reventlow & Hoffman, ‘Creation in Jewish and
    Christian tradition’, p. 76 (2006).

    [2] Santmire, ‘The
    Travail of Nature: the ambiguous ecological promise of Christian theology’ (1985).

    [3] Boersema, ‘The Torah and the Stoics on Humankind and Nature: A Contribution to
    the Debate on Sustainability and Quality’, pp. 222-227 (2001.

    [4] Haluza-DeLay,
    ‘Churches Engaging the Environment: An Autoethnography of Obstacles and
    Opportunities’, Human Ecology Review (15.1.75, 78), 2008.

    [5] Rayner, ‘Judaism and Animal Welfare: Overview and Some Questions’, in Jacob & Zemer, ‘The Environment in Jewish Law: Essays and Responsa’, p. 60 (2003).

    [6] Conradie, ‘Christianity
    and Ecological Theology’, p. 78 (2006).

    [7] Hütterman, ‘Ecology in Ancient Judaism’, in
    Neusner et al (eds.), ‘Encyclopaedia of Judaism’, volume 4 (2000).

    [8] DeWitt, ‘Ecology and
    ethics: relation of religious belief to ecological practice in the Biblical
    tradition’, Biodiversity and
    Conservation 4, p. 838 (1995).

    [9] Gottlieb, ‘Faith, God, and Nature: Judaism and
    Deep Ecology’ in Gottlieb (ed.), ‘Liberating Faith: Religious Voices for
    Justice, Peace, and Ecological Wisdom’, p. 543 (2003).

    [10] Rayner, ‘Judaism and
    Animal Welfare: Overview and Some Questions’, in Jacob & Zemer, ‘The
    environment in Jewish law: essays and responsa’, pp. 60, 62 (2003).

    [11] Vogel, ‘How
    Green Is Judaism?’, in O’Brien & Paeth, ‘Religious Perspectives on Business
    Ethics: An Anthology’, p. 261 (2006).

    [12] Katz, ‘Judaism and Deep Ecology’, in ‘Deep Ecology and World
    Religions: new essays on sacred grounds’ (2001).

  5. Jonathan, thanks for the comment and the bibliography. I’m aware that there is a robust Judeo-Christian tradition of ecological and animal welfare. (Agrarian people surely knew that to destroy their landbase was foolish. “Insane” as Jensen would put it.)

    This post was simply meant to address the specific argument of dominionists, not to be an exhaustive discussion of reasons from tradition to be ecologically responsible.

    A specific response to a specific argument.

    Generally, the type who makes the dominionist argument doesn’t much care how “green” the early Jewish / Christian people were.

  6. Thanks Matthew, understood. I guess I would have just liked a nod to the existing tradition, because without it the article seems to be suggesting that ecological concerns are a novelty to Jewish and Christian communities, and I think it’s important to give credit where credit is due. Knowing such traditions exist can be very encouraging to Christians to whom these ideas are still new.

  7. Matthew, this is very thoughtful. Explaining the meaning of dominion and connecting it to the Lordship of Christ, how He compassionately rules over us, is the correct perspective. Whenever we hear or see people using Scripture as a rationale to behave in a certain matter we must ask, “Does the passage being used align with a broader Biblical principle? Does it align with Christ?”

    Man will exploit the earth, exploit fellow man, for his own selfish gain. As you point out, the problem isn’t the passage, it is misinterpretation and unbiblical application of it. If we cared for God’s creation as He cares for us, the world would look very different.

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