Our Obligations to Creation

Four Way Faith
Part One – Down: God’s Gift of Creation

This post is part of a series introducing the concept of a Four Way Faith. A balanced and healthy life involved loving relationships in four directions; Up with God, In with Self, Out with Neighbours, and Down with Creation. Each has two elements – the gift of each relationship to us and our obligations to each relationship.

The indigenous Cherokee elder, Stan Rushworth, once said “the difference between a Western settler mindset of, I have rights and an indigenous mindset of I have an obligation.”  Instead of thinking that I am born with rights, I choose to think that I was born with obligations to serve past, present, and future generations, and the planet herself.”

If you travel to Plymouth today you would be to see and take part in commemorations to mark 400 years since the so-called Pilgrim Father’s set sail from the port on the aboard the Mayflower and headed to what was considered by the Puritans as a “new Promised Land”. On November 11th 1620 the ship dropped anchor near the tip of Cape Cod and the Plymouth Colony was established. This is not the place to offer a complete American history, but what is significant to note is that it was disagreement and persecution amongst different Christian’s which led to that particular voyage. Puritan’s in England were forced to pray in private by the Church of England, whom the Puritan’s regarded as beyond redemption due to its Roman Catholic history. Of particular interest to me as a Baptist Minister is that Baptists (as an English-speaking denomination) originated from 17th Century Puritanism. That is to say that Baptists stem from the same roots as those Pilgrim Fathers.

Why does this matter? Well, an extremely simplified version of history indicates that the European idea of rights rather than obligations was a founding and (I would argue) damaging principle in the foundations of what has become the United States of America. It is a principle that the Puritan Christian’s held, as evidenced by their contention for the right to be able to pray and to worship freely (a right I believe in). The principle of rights, and given theological backing and even God’s blessing, gave the western colonisers the reasoning to be able to claim land that was already inhabited by others. European and American power and control is identifiable by our fixation upon rights, this is perhaps most apparent in the American Bill of Rights which is fought over by political opponents with ever increasing polarity and hostility but also seen in the UK as evidenced by the vote for Brexit and concerns for the rights around border control and access to services.

Now, let me be clear, I am not against rights, it can be useful to think in terms of rights and can offer certain freedoms and protections. The Declaration of Human Rights is a positive example of the rights I would hope all should be strive for, to the betterment of our global community. However, rights can become a selfish endeavour and lead to a mindset of entitlement. The opening quote from Cherokee elder flips the motivation from our rights to our obligations. This is similarly reflected in Middle Eastern beliefs, including that of the Israelites, Jews, Jesus and early Christianity. In the account of creation we read,

So God created humankind in his image, … 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.’

Genesis 1:27-28

The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.

Genesis 2:15

This is taken to mean humans have a special responsibility to lead creation and to look after the earth. As Professor Hava Tirosh-Samuelson explains,

Midrash Ecclesiastes Rabba 7:13 expresses human responsibility toward nature as follows: “the Holy Blessed One took the first human and passing before all the trees of the Garden of Eden said: ‘See my works, how fine and excellent they are? All that I created, I created for you. Reflect on this and do not corrupt or desolate my world; for if you do, there will be no one to repair it after you.’” This Midrash makes clear that humans must neither be indifferent to nature nor bring about its destruction; they must protect nature through their own effort, thereby becoming partners of God, although not co-creators.

Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, ‘Nature in the Sources of Judaism‘ in Dædalus (Cambridge, MA: American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2001)

As mentioned previously creation is a gift that provides nourishment and healing for our bodies, minds and souls. The created world is a gift, but we are also called to reciprocate within our care and love for creation. It this not a one-way relationship whereby we take for ourselves but one which requires the ongoing nurture, nourishment, protection and cultivation of the natural world. If creation was made by God then who are we to destroy what God has made, how selfish.

Black and white image of a hand holding an apple on background of shattered blue glass

The first sin as recorded in Genesis 3 was to eat a forbidden fruit, the first sin is described as going against will and it involved nature, a fruit. God is said to given out punishment to the woman and the man because of their actions, but within this is the sentence “cursed is the ground because of you”. Due to the actions of humans the ground is cursed. There are two ways of reading this, either God curses the ground as a consequence for the actions of Adam and Eve, or it is their actions with cause the ground the be cursed. Taking the second of these two options we can see that when we mistreat nature, when we go against God’s will and do not treat the natural world with due care and attention the ground is cursed. Whether or not you accept the scientific evidence for climate change (personally I do) we experience in the world around us the far reaching impact of the way in which we, personally and as a civilisation have had a negative impact upon the created world. Ruth Valerio (Global Advocacy and Influencing Director for Tearfund) recently shared just five areas in which the health of the environment impacts human health in her blog ‘Health Planet, Healthy Lives‘ from which the following are adapted.

  • Air Pollution: According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) approximately 90% of the global population breathe polluted air. We feel it our lungs, there are increases in illness and infection, we notice the smog on busy streets and the comparison to coastal or rural air. The cars we drive, ways we heat our homes, the products we use and the way they are produced all add to air pollution but too often we are too lazy to change our habits and behaviours because we don’t always feel the immediate effects ourselves and change is difficult. Yet, breathing polluted air contributes to 1 in 8 deaths.
  • Water Disasters, Quality and Variability: “According to UNESCO, an estimated 3.6 billion people (nearly half the global population) live in areas that are potentially water-scarce at least one month per year… The flip side of water scarcity is flooding. UNESCO forecasts that by 2050 nearly 20% of the world’s population will be at risk from flooding.” We may choose to support a charity or mission to assist poverty strict communities with water supplies but more than charity is required, we need a just society with improved water management. According to the WHO more than half a million children under 5 years old die each year from diarrhoeal diseases caused by a lack of safe water.
  • Availability of Nutritious Food: Drought and desertification are causing more than 12 million hectares of land to be lost each year. Over half of the land used for agriculture is moderately or severely affected by soil degradation. Our personal and societal demands for cheap produce and products all year round has led to the destruction of forests and habitats, the global eco-system has been devastated and native species of plants, crops and animals and appropriate agricultural techniques lost to the demands of mass production of limited food stuffs.
  • Climatic Variation: Since the 1960’s the number of weather related natural disasters has more than tripled. For example, where once trees supressed the risk of flooding the trees have gone flooding has increased despite similar rain patterns. Nutrients from the ground have been washed away impacting on the availability of nutritious food. Pollutants in the atmosphere effect the sun’s reach to earth, with extreme high temperatures such as the summer of 2020. In a similar summer in 2003 more than 70,000 excess deaths were recorded, a figure attributed to extreme high air temperatures which contribute to cardiovascular and respiratory disease.
  • Patterns of Infection: “Rampant deforestation, uncontrolled expansion of agriculture, intensive farming, mining and infrastructure development, as well as the exploitation of wild species have created a ‘perfect storm’ for the spill over of diseases from wildlife to people.” Covid-19 is not a ‘natural disaster’ but rather the result of human activity according to the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).

This may all sound like doom and gloom, in fairness it is. Yet there is also hope. Jesus did not only die for the sake of human kind and our relationship with God,

For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

Colossians 1:19-20

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 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.

Romans 8:19-20
Silhouette of flower meadow on background of shattered blue glass

Jesus death and resurrection are for the whole world, creation itself was to be the beneficiary of Christ’s sacrifice. Redemption through Christ comes to us and to creation. We are to play our part in that act of redemption, as children of God, for it was humankind who first cursed the ground and as we are redeemed so our actions and behaviours should be a witness through our care and nurture of creation. As Christ is revealed in us and so we revealed as the children of God for whom creation awaits with eager longing. As Christians, as followers and believers in Jesus and his Way, filled with God’s Spirit and seeking to glorify the Father we must have a mindset such as that described by Stan Rushworth, thinking about “obligations to serve past, present, and future generations, and the planet herself.” In serving the planet we serve ourselves, our neighbours and our God for all are interconnected.

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