It doesn’t seem to be the case so much anymore, but I remember a time when care for the environment was thought of as a bourgeois concern. It was the kind of thing celebrities and upper-middle class white people could afford to care about, as it offered practical solutions (like recycling) and goals (like reducing carbon footprints) that, ironically, could be achieved with the help of a new range of consumer goods (like electric cars). It was the sort of cause attractive to optimistic activists, because it didn’t require us to examine our own hearts in quite the same way that decades of struggle in the civil rights movement had.
Today that kind of dualistic opposition of environmentalism to human rights has begun to break down due to a growing awareness that, in Pope Francis’ words, “the human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together,” that “the deterioration of the environment and of society affects the most vulnerable people on the planet.” (Laudato Si, 48)
One of the most obvious and dramatic examples of that fact in recent memory here in the United States was Hurricane Katrina. It was ten years ago, right at the end of August, that Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast and burst through the levees in New Orleans causing $108 billion dollars in damages and leading to the loss of almost two thousand lives. It was part of a season of tropical storms in 2005, the most active Atlantic hurricane season in recorded history, and as such it came to occupy a special place in our collective consciousness as both a real event and a parable of human disregard for the earth and the poor. When the levees broke, it was the poorest areas of New Orleans that were hit worst and we likely all remember the scenes of houses and cars being carried away on the water, as people stranded on their rooftops reported seeing the bodies of those unable to flee floating by. Prisoners were abandoned in their cells as guards sought shelter on higher ground. Ecological crisis and human callousness came together in a horrifically perfect storm.
This tragic scene is playing itself out across the globe on a scale so large it can be hard to see. Again, Pope Francis names the human contribution and the human cost to our disregard for the environment, citing the Bishops of Argentina.
“We note that often the businesses … do here what they would never do in developed countries or the so-called first world. Generally, after ceasing their activity and withdrawing, they leave behind great human and environmental liabilities such as unemployment, abandoned towns, the depletion of natural resources, deforestation, the impoverishment of agriculture and local stock breeding, open pits, riven hills, polluted rivers and a handful of social works which are no longer sustainable.” (51)
This is the distorted, dystopic view of humanity’s place within creation generated by a bad reading of the passage from Genesis we heard this morning: “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.” (Gen. 1:28) One symptom of our sinful state is that we have for too long taken stories such as these as divine warrant to treat creation and the inhabitants of its seas, skies and land as objects that exist solely for our gratification.
That utilitarian reading of our sacred scriptures is short-sighted and ironic, since the larger story being told by the book of Genesis is the mythic imagining of how human life came to be so hard. The book of Genesis is a story of ruptures in the relationships between humanity and the rest of creation that begins with humanity fully at home in the garden and ends with the first family torn apart by jealousy, toiling on the land, and the first civilizations divided by different languages and at war with one another. If anything, the book of Genesis is a warning to humanity that when “dominion” becomes “domination,” violence and death will soon follow.
Pope Francis says it this way,
“We are not God. The earth was here before us and it has been given to us … Although it is true that we Christians have at times incorrectly interpreted the Scriptures, nowadays we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion ever the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures.” (67)
But to say that we are not God still slightly misses the point, leaving the authority to dominate creation to a higher power; conceding that we are not the ultimate power, but that such a divine power does exist and with it a divine right.
The passage from Paul’s letter to the Philippians deconstructs that idea, presenting Jesus as the visible face of the invisible God who reveals God’s power and authority to be entirely different than we would ever imagine, encouraging us to understand our dominion in light of Jesus’ servitude:
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God 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 — even death on a cross.” (Phil. 2:5-8)
The story from Mark’s gospel illustrates the same point with characters whose motivations are all too familiar. The disciples, James and John, have come to Jesus literally asking to serve as his right and left hand men. In his teaching and his healing, they see a man of power and they want to secure positions near that power for the sake of their own glory, glory that would set them apart from the rest of the disciples. But it is that desire to set ourselves apart from one another that Jesus has come to heal, that definition of dominion that sets us over and above our kin in creation that he has come to correct.
Think of all the ways we work, each of us, to set ourselves apart from those around us. Imagine the inventories of items we surround ourselves with in order to feel accomplished, attractive, elite. Houses and cars, clothing and electronics, each at a cost to the earth and those whose labor makes them accessible to us. What price have we paid, in real terms, to put so much distance between ourselves and each other?
In Jesus, God shows us what divine power looks like. It looks like service to our neighbor. It looks like a self-emptying love. Are we able to imagine how such love, taking root in our hearts, might change the world? I mean, literally change the world. If love of neighbor were so strong that we might curb our cravings for excess such that manufacturing and agricultural practices might change, so that carbon production might diminish, so that extreme weather might abate, so that storms might surge with less power, so that levees might hold, so that lives might be spared. Can we imagine a love that powerful, or more appropriately, a power that loving?
We can imagine it because we’ve seen it, because it has claimed us in water and fed us at its table. We can imagine it, because it has taught us how to pray for daily bread, a serving size that meets our needs and allows our neighbors to be fed just as much. We have known love this great, so great that our most divisive cravings are satiated, that our hunger for power and privilege passes, and we are fed with the thing we most desperately need: communion, within and between ourselves and the rest of creation, of which we are and always have been an integral part.