Climate justice: from subduing to tilling and keeping

04 May 2021

In the second in a series of blogs, the Revd Simon Topping considers how we might develop a healthy theology of climate justice. Read the first blog here

It seems to me that Christian engagement in the struggle for climate justice has been held back by the way in which we have interpreted some key biblical passages – so we have some catching up to do!

The command in Genesis to “have dominion” over all living things and to “subdue” the earth has justified a “power over” relationship with the natural world – it is there for us to exploit, control, use and consume as we wish. Most Christians recognise that when a similar “power over” relationship is imposed upon human beings it leads to social injustice and exploitation, but we have struggled to accept that the same relationship with nature leads to ecological injustice, including climate injustice.

So how do we manage these tricky texts in the first chapter of Genesis if we are to develop a healthy theology of climate justice? Perhaps we can begin by rethinking the word “dominion” in the light of the lordship or dominion of Christ. Jesus turns the idea of dominion on its head – true dominion, true lordship is exercised through loving service of others. So exercising dominion in relation to all living things, as Christ interpreted it, is to enter into a relationship of loving service towards the world around us.

And perhaps we also need to place greater focus on the other account of creation which begins in the second chapter of Genesis. There we learn that God had a specific purpose for humanity when the first human being was placed on earth – according to Genesis 2:15 it was “to till it and keep it”. This feels quite different to dominating and subduing.

To till the earth means to maintain the richness of the soil so that it promotes and sustains plant life. To keep the earth is to take responsibility for its wellbeing. The same Hebrew word (shamar) used in 2:15 is used in Genesis 4:9 when Abel asks of God: “am I my brother’s keeper?” or, in other words, do I have responsibility for my brother’s wellbeing? God’s response makes it quite clear that Abel, and all humanity, has a social responsibility towards our fellow human beings. God’s placing of humanity on earth “to keep it” makes it clear that we also have an environmental responsibility for the wellbeing of the earth, including the climate.

So if we can reinterpret “dominion” as loving service directed towards the wellbeing of the natural world, modelled on the Lordship of Christ, and if we can understand “subduing” as responsible cultivation, a “tilling and keeping” for the benefit of people and planet, then, as Christians, perhaps we can reimagine our relationship with God’s creation and see more clearly a biblical mandate to engage in the struggle for climate justice.

The Revd Simon Topping is a presbyter working in the Gloucestershire Circuit.

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More about  how to get your Church engaged with a Climate Sunday service and commitments here and find out about what a group of young Methodists from around the world are doing to raise awareness here