Creation Spirituality: Neither Owners Nor Dominators
By Rev. Dr. Louise Westfall
A fun summer diversion was seeing the new film Wonder Woman, based on the Marvel comic book character who first appeared in the 1940s. The current film is notable as the first big- budget one featuring a female superhero, and the first one directed by a woman. Wonder Woman is strong (she’s an Amazon after all!), brave, and gorgeous to boot. She wields a mean sword and the lasso of truth and is passionate about freeing the world from the scourge of war. The movie was utterly enjoyable, but it also provoked well, wonder, as I thought about the morning topic, which is the way humans exercise our God-given power within creation. Because, of course, it’s not by accident that it took 76 years for the chronicles of Wonder Woman to become a major motion picture. One of our statements of faith calls us to “hear the voices of people long silenced,” –so I invite us to allow her to be our teacher as we consider how to wield power faithfully (I promise no spoilers from the movie!).
Creation spirituality is the general theme for worship this summer. Last week’s consideration of the intersection of faith and science generated a lot of interest and post-service conversation, so we’ll definitely revisit that topic again. The morning text is another look at our origin story and particularly at the command to subdue the earth and have dominion over every other living thing. Human beings are described as the pinnacle of creation, endowed by God with unique qualities and characteristics such that they reflect God’s own image. And God gives them power and dominion over the whole world. A reading from the first chapter of Genesis, reading the first verse, and then beginning at verse 26. Listen for God’s word to Wonder Women, Super Men, and all the rest of us. [Genesis 1:1, 26-31]
Amid the many questions swirling around the creation of the world, is one concerning the command –repeated three times — for humans to have dominion over everything. Coupled with an additional directive to “fill the earth and subdue it,” it seems to give humans complete freedom and authority to rule over it all. Well, that makes sense. We have intellectual powers to manage, conserve, develop, share, improve, and enjoy creation in ways no other being does.
Would that we would have obeyed some of God’s other commands as effectively and comprehensively as we have carried out this one! Because our record with respect to creation is checkered to say the least. Too often we’ve seen the world as our oyster and worked determinedly to crack it open, eat the animal, and claim the pearl inside. We have “filled the earth” with people — 7.5 billion (some scientists believe the earth can physically sustain about 10 billion inhabitants). Human effect on the environment is well-documented as a disappearing ozone layer and the fouling of land, sea, and atmosphere. Americans share particular responsibility because we use a disproportionately large share of resources. A recent article in Scientific American described it. With less than 5 percent of world population, the U.S. uses one-third of the world’s paper, a quarter of the world’s oil, 23 percent of the coal, 27 percent of the aluminum, and 19 percent of the copper. Our per capita use of energy, metals, minerals, forest products, fish, grains, meat, and even fresh water dwarfs that of people living in the developing world. [And on the other end, we] create half of the globe’s solid waste. [www.scientificamerican.com/article/American-consumption-habits/]
The statistics are verifiable, but not as important as how we understand them and what to do about them. The purpose of the sermon is not so much to advocate for one perspective or solution, but rather to invite us to consider them through the lens of this text and the call to “have dominion” over the earth. Because it’s not simple. Truth rarely is. I don’t think an either/or response — either support development OR conservation — really gets at the underlying issue. It will take sustained effort, global cooperation, business and industry support, personal lifestyle choices and more to address human impact on our Earth home. As she began to narrate her story, Wonder Woman acknowledged that what one does when faced with the truth is more difficult than you’d think. But not to do something was not an option for her. Or for us, as we seek to exercise God-given authority over creation.
Two principles provide guidance. The first is to remember our Creator. The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it; the world and all the people who dwell in it. We are not owners; we are inhabitants and stewards. As ones made in God’s image, we are to reflect divine love in everything we do, every choice we make, every opinion we hold. Our “dominion” over the earth is derivative and intended to reflect the true owner’s good purposes for creation. At times, friends, I think we have failed to see and use our God’s given power in life-giving ways. Instead we feel out of control, uninformed, inadequate and fearful, so characteristic of the powerless. This feeling can actually cause us to relinquish the power we have, and can be a denial of the very One whose image we bear.
The second principle comes not from creation itself, but through the reality of sin. How quickly the good creation became compromised when humanity sought to replace God with Self as the center of life. Dominion quickly devolved into domination. Power corrupted. Humans enslaved other humans. The gap between rich and poor widened. So right away God laid out expectations for those in power. Written into Israel’s governance code was care for the “widow, orphan, and immigrant.” At the coronation of Israel’s mighty King Solomon, “dominion” (same word used in Genesis) focuses on treatment of the most vulnerable. [The King shall] deliver the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper. He has pity on the weak and needy and saves the lives of the needy. From oppression and violence he redeems their life, and precious in his sight is their blood. [Psalm 72:12-14] In his earthly ministry, Jesus continually called people to pay attention to the poor, and in the earliest days of the church, the startling characteristic of believers was the way they held all possessions in common, sharing so no one had need. While the Bible doesn’t baptize any economic system as the “right” one, we are bound to remember our neighbors. Exercising dominion is not self-serving privilege, but the power to protect and support so that life may flourish; to treat all beings with dignity and respect. Wonder Woman’s mother pleads with her not to leave their island paradise and mix it up with the violent, calculating mortals. Later she will be confronted with many good reasons to remove herself from danger. But over and over again she remains in the fray: I’m willing to fight for those who cannot fight for themselves. (and boy, does she make good on that promise!)
Remember God . . . remember our neighbors. Sounds very much like commandments that form the core of our faith: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself. It sounds so simple, but in fact changes everything, including our sense of power and how we exercise it on behalf of the creation.
If you are one who feel powerless. . .maybe wielding dominion means to add some daily earthkeeping actions: things like recycling, taking public transportation, making one meal meatless every week, buying fair-trade products, or when you next purchase an automobile, choosing a more fuel-efficient one than your current vehicle. We can all write letters and call our legislators and ask them to support earth-friendly legislation, conservation of public lands, and financial incentives for alternate energy development.
And if you happen to be one who feels powerful. . . maybe wielding dominion means channeling that power into actions that empower others, that affirm varied gifts in service to a common good, that promotes networking and collaboration, and encourage competence and creativity. Maybe it means remembering our Divine origin, the deep sense of connection we have with one another and the whole creation.
It will take us all, friends. The world we inhabit is both good and flawed, and those twin truths deeply affect what we do and how we do it. At the end of the movie, Wonder Woman has both won and lost; she has exercised dominion over evil, but sacrificed much in the process. The perfection of her island paradise is no longer an option. Her concluding words reflect the image of God and even more — the grace of God at work in a wonder-filled, broken creation. Like God’s grace, they offer both comfort and a call: I used to want to save the world, to end war and bring peace to humankind. But then I glimpsed the darkness that lives within their light. And I learned that inside every one of them, there will always be both. A choice each must make for themselves. Something no hero will ever defeat. And now I know that only love can truly save the world. So I stay, I fight and I give, for the world I know can be.
May it be so, for you and me.