As a child of the 1980’s, a hallmark of my upbringing has been the annual celebration of Earth Day on April 22. In grade school I knew I could count on a break from the daily monotony of the classroom for special environmentally-focused activities and games. We learned the three R’s (all of which actually begin with “R,” unlike the three R’s of a previous generation) – Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. And we were eager to share our newfound knowledge with our sometimes less-than enthusiastic parents and grandparents. Millions of school children chided their mothers for using plastic grocery bags (that take centuries to decompose in landfills) instead of the very eco-friendly paper bags or reusable cloth totes. We scolded our dads for wasting drinkable water from the garden hose to clean off the driveway instead of using a resource-friendly broom. I remember going so far as making my family boycott restaurants that served Rain Forest beef (cattle raised in pastures created by destroying Rain Forests). Still, it wasn’t until I was in seminary that I fully appreciated the religious components of Earth Day as something much more profound than mere environmental stewardship.
A re-read of Genesis 1:26 offers tremendous insight to our purpose as inhabitants of this planet:
Then God said, “Let us make humanity in our image to resemble us so that they may take charge of the fish of the sea, the birds in the sky, the livestock, all the earth, and all the crawling things on earth.” (CEB)
Older translations use the word “dominion” to describe the relationship between humanity and the rest of God’s creation. No matter how it’s translated, the meaning remains: We have a divinely-ordained responsibility to look after creation on God’s behalf. God, who loves creation and calls it “good,” has left the care of the planet – its wildlife and the ecosystems that support its wildlife – in our charge. This is, I believe, a massively significant yet frequently overlooked aspect of the Judeo-Christian tradition. To be ecologically mindful isn’t merely a fashionable trend or act of good citizenship – it’s our very reason for existing.
I’m sure many of us are already living pretty ecologically-friendly lives. Hopefully most of us refrain from dumping toxins into the river or poisons into the ground (though humanity, as a whole, is certainly guilty of committing these horrific sins). But I also believe we can each do even more to care for the Earth and its non-human inhabitants. Just pause for a moment and consider how our daily activities might negatively affect the wildlife God created us to care for. Our transportation produces toxic gasses in the air. Our pesticides and chemicals run off, eventually working their way into the waterways. Our massive landfills poison their surrounding vegetation. The wildlife we were created to care for suffers because of our own inattentive and careless living. In fact, we often live as though the Earth and its wildlife were created for our benefit instead of the other way around.
I do believe that we will someday be called upon to give an account of how we’ve lived our lives on Earth. And I believe a significant part of this account will include how we’ve treated God’s Earth itself. We were created to care for – to have dominion over – the creatures of this planet. This is our purpose; it’s why God created us. Let’s not be negligent in this principal responsibility.