Scripted across the expanse that is the inside of his right bicep and triceps, in Gothic letters large enough to easily read from several bar stools away, a pastor friend once showed me his “Bad Theology Kills” tattoo. His daily reminder, he said, of the dangers of the profession. Yep. I don’t have tattoos. I tend to collect scars and have lots of those. Scars are like tattoos in that ‘reminder’ kind of way. But if I were to get a tattoo, or I could wish a tattoo on everyone in the world, “Bad Theology Kills” would be a top choice.
My pastor friend’s deadly accurate reminder came to mind as I skimmed the just-released “Making Peace With Nature: A scientific blueprint to tackle the climate, biodiversity and pollution emergencies” authored by the United Nation’s environment programme (UNEP). The opening sentences of UN Secretary-General Guterres’s foreword concisely sets out the global crisis of our time. “Humanity is waging war on nature. This is senseless and suicidal. The consequences of our recklessness are already apparent in human suffering, towering economic losses and the accelerating erosion of life of earth.”
In her foreword that follows, UNEP’s Executive Director Inger Andersen notes, “This report makes the strongest scientific case yet for why and how that collective determination [the determination that was building prior to the COVID-19 pandemic to address the three interconnected planetary crises of climate, nature, and pollution] must be urgently applied to protecting and restoring our planet.” Even before finishing Ms. Andersen’s foreword, I felt I was on notice that “Making Peace With Nature” will beg a radical shift in the way we all think about creation.
I was immediately curious. Before diving in and reading the UNEP’s scientific case, I wanted to jump ahead and read how the report addresses the furthest upstream and most fundamentally damaging thinking that has longed fueled humankind’s war on nature, namely, our theology. More specifically, bad theology. In our book Better Capitalism, we illustrate with a small but lived example of the carnage that sits at the intersection of unfettered economic pursuit and bad theology - environmental abuse, and I excitedly wondered how the UNEP’s report might address bad theology on the scale of global environmental abuse. Sadly, I soon discovered the report doesn’t address bad theology. I understand, for any number of reasons that might prove too challenging to navigate politically or culturally, so I offer this blog post as a supplement or footnote to consider when you read, or the UNEP updates, its report.
From primarily the perspective of my Judeo-Christian traditions, since that’s my social location, we read that God created the world and called on humankind to exercise dominion over all of it (Gen 1:26-28). The English word ‘dominion’ and the messaging around it has the sense of powerful control and even destruction, if that’s the will of the agent given dominion. A theology that teaches God gave humankind the right to ravish and abuse the earth (for whatever reason, including that ‘this is not our permanent home’ or ‘no worries, God will save us from us destroying ourselves’) is extraordinarily bad theology that kills.
The Hebrew word transliterated radah, the word we translate as ‘dominion’ or ‘rule’ to describe God’s delegation of creation-care duties to humankind, carries with it the right to rule coupled with the responsibility to steward. Let me repeat that in a different way: with the right to enjoy (or develop or exploit) comes the responsibility to care (and protect and sustain). In American common law terms, God is the principal and humans are the agents. Agents have the fiduciary duty to act on behalf of the principal, and to the benefit of the principal as well as the principal’s assets entrusted to the agents. For the agent to accept the dominion right but reject the stewardship responsibility is to be an unfaithful agent, the kind that will easily land in a human court of law as the beleaguered agent-defendant facing the angry principal-plaintiff.
Andrew Basden has written a concise explanation about radah and the theology of creation care that offers a nice summary: "Therefore, the role of humanity in relation to the rest of creation - whether wilderness or garden (if indeed they are meant to differ) - is one of having authority for the sake of the rest of creation, for its own development, rather than for the sake of humanity. As I have argued more in 'Radah', The Role of Humankind, this links very naturally with the idea that we are to 'image' God, i.e., represent God to the rest of creation by expressing his character. God's character is one of self-giving love. So should our radah be."
I’m grateful for the UNEP’s report as well as for the people who created it. Through a theological lens of radah the UNEP’s report should speak to political, business, and cultural leaders across our deeply scarred globe in such a powerful way that they and we, individually and collectively, will speedily cooperate to reverse course to save ourselves from our otherwise assured self-destruction.
I’m confident a reversal can happen, but only if we immediately and collectively execute a simple yet profound corrective: we must reject a theology of domination that falsely affirms we are authorized to destroy and kill God’s creation, and embrace a theology of stewardship that accurately portrays we are commissioned to protect and sustain God’s creation. It is that simple but critical tweak that is required. Only then will we have a collective mindset that will want to use the UNEP’s excellent report to willingly make peace with and repair nature.
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