Steardship and Ecology: A Reflection

Stewardship and Ecology

David Rhoads

 

“Steward” is a biblical term that refers to a manager who is responsible for the goods and property of another. A steward is not therefore an owner, but is one who has a responsibility to an owner to treat their property with care and respect. Stewardship is a term that refers to the responsibility of a steward to manage wisely. The unjust steward was one who took advantage of his position to aggrandize himself.

The term has come to be used as a metaphor for the responsibility that we humans have to manage wisely and responsibly the goods and property that are in our possession. The assumption is that we do not really possess or own anything. Rather, the world belongs to God, and it is arrogant for humans to think otherwise. Therefore, we are not owners but stewards of all that comes into our arena of responsibility—income, assets, property, goods. The point is that we have a responsibility to manage these things according to the will of God the owner. Out of gratitude for what we have, we are called to use all that we have for God’s sake. In principle, this may mean that we are ready to give it all up, perhaps to the poor. Yet, the biblical tithe has been used as a marker of responsible management. This tenth is given back to God—to the church, to the poor, to other causes deemed to be expressions of God’s will—as a symbol that the whole belongs to God.

We may further extend the analogy to refer to one’s whole life as a gift given by God and belonging to God. We are responsible stewards when we care for the health and well-being of ourselves and our family. Furthermore, we have time and talents that also belong to God. We are responsible to offer ourselves in all that we do in love for God and neighbor—in our jobs and in our family life and in our role as citizens. We may also think of tithing ten percent of our time and talents freely beyond our work—in service to the church or other worthy endeavors that express God’s love and care for the world.

In recent times, the concept of steward has been applied in a new way to refer to our collective human responsibility to care for the resources of God’s creation, the Earth. The conservation movement has traditionally sought to steward our resources by setting aside natural areas as park lands, establishing animal preserves, supporting mining and logging practices that are sustainable, and protecting the natural world from development and abuse. Now, our human failure to be responsible stewards of Earth has led to the current ecological crises threatening global climate stability, the ozone layer, and the diversity of plant and animal species. Ecological disasters also include the pollution of air, the despoiling of land, the degradation of fresh water, and threats to the health of the oceans. The loss of forest and arable land in alarming amounts has tremendous implications for food security. Population growth now nearing seven billion is putting pressure on every eco-system on Earth. Not only do we have collective responsibilities to care for creation, we also have a personal responsibility in our lifestyle at home and work to live out values that are earth-friendly. To do otherwise is sin against creation.

All ecological threats also have the greatest impact on the most vulnerable people—third world countries, the poor, people of color, and the sick and elderly. Ecological justice is a concept that recognizes and seeks to respond to those most affected with the least resources. Are we humans collectively stewards of Earth? Or are those of us with greater resources to be stewards of ourselves and the rest of Earth community? There are dangerous problems here, and we need to face them if the concept of “steward” is not to end up being the arrogant and paternalistic role of the privileged few exercising management control over the world and others to serve their own interests. Therefore, if the analogy of stewardship is to serve in a useful and just way for Earth-community, it must be carefully defined and qualified.

Some will say that humans have no role in stewardship of resources, because we are one species among many and because we have no right to claim authority over any other species or resource. That is no doubt true in principle. However, there is no getting around the fact that we humans do exercise control over most land areas and much of the seas and oceans. We do draw on so many resources of the earth. We do have an enormous impact on air, land, and water. Therefore, we do need to ask how we can do this in a responsible way. What is the relationship between humans and the rest of creation? What is the nature of our responsibility for creation? What attitudes and values should guide our lifestyles and the decisions that affect the earth? We cannot deny our human role. But what will we do about it?

The Bible is a good place to find guidance. The concept of “environmental stewardship” is connected with the creation stories in which God gives human beings dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and the animals of the land. Seeing stewardship in the context of the creation stories means that the notion of being a steward is a profoundly human vocation, perhaps even more fundamental than discipleship. A human vocation is different from a job or a career vocation. This vocation is fundamental to what it means to be human. Just as we say that our human vocation is to love God and to love our neighbor, so our human vocation in relation to Earth is to be responsible for its well-being. Caring for creation is not an add-on, not a sideline, not related to part of ourselves or just some of our life. It is related to Earth, and it is a collective vocation to see ourselves as earth-keepers.

Traditionally, Christians have twisted the mandate for dominion to mean that all of creation is made for human beings and that we have a right to dominate and exploit creation for any of our wants and needs. This has led to incalculable abuses of nature. What we now know is that the Hebrew word for dominion means to “take responsibility for” creatures as a ruler would be responsible to assure the overall well-being of those in the realm. The rulers of Israel were often called shepherds, again a term similar to steward in expressing the care that those in charge needed to take to care for the sheep and in asserting the risks they might be willing to take to protect them. In the first creation stories, the rest of creation was made first, human beings were created last. And they were created not to be the so-called crown of creation but to care for the garden Earth and to preserve its well-being. This understanding puts human beings into a caretaker position in regard to environmental stewardship. This stewardship is management as sacred trust.

The second creation story goes even further in clarifying the concept of environmental stewardship. In this story, Adam and Eve are told “to till and to keep” the land. However, the words translated as “till” and “keep” may be misleading. The Hebrew word for “till” is a word used for the “service” that a slave gives to a master. And the Hebrew word for “keep” means not to own and hold onto but to “preserve” for future generations. This mandate “to serve to and preserve” the land/Earth places human beings not in a hierarchical position over creation but in a position below Earth-community in service to it. Just as the later Christian message depicts Jesus as a “servant king,” humans are challenged in the creation stories in this way: “If any want to be great, they are to be least of all and everyone’s servant.” Exercising environmental stewardship is done not from a position of superiority but from a position of serving the best interests and well-being not of ourselves alone but of all Earth-community.

These qualifiers are reinforced by the idea that creation was made for its own sake and not for human beings. After God created each part of creation, God saw that it was “good” in its own right—even before humans were created. Furthermore, God mandated not just for humans but for all animals to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.” God wishes for all species to survive and to thrive. In Psalm 104, the psalmist celebrates creation and explains that the grasses were made for the cattle and the crags for the mountain goats and all of creation has been arranged by God so that each animals gets its food in due season. To do responsible stewardship, we must value for its own sake that to which we are responsible. We must delight in creation, for delight is the right basis for our use of something. We will preserve that in which we delight! And we are called to love creation. We will not take care of that which we do not love! Even more, we are invited to love creation as God loves it, not in the abstract, but concretely in terms of caring for life. The biblical Sabbath regulations that require humans to give rest to the animals every seven days and to allow the land to lie fallow in the seventh year and to remit debts are all examples of human care for Earth community. As good stewards, these are the kinds of actions we are to take to serve and preserve life.

Hence, all our actions of stewardship are done as part of our service to the larger will and purposes of God. So often we make our plans and ask God to bless them. What we are called to do instead is to ask what God’s plans are and then to ponder how we can bring our lives into conformity with them. God wills for all creation to thrive in all its diversity. God wills for the vulnerable to be cared for. God wants there to be peace and justice in the land, for humans and non-humans alike. In our modern culture, we too often place profits above people and we put security for ourselves above security for all. We think the world is there for our use at will. We think our standard of living is justified without seeing how much of our life is dependent upon the exploitation of natural resources and the poverty of others. We are called to see the larger purposes of God for the world and to exercise our stewardship in this context.

This ethical responsibility is expressed in biblical terms when the land languishes and the grain fails because there is injustice in the land. The Bible knows the close relationship between the ways in which people exploit the earth and exploit the poor. Much of our contemporary economy is based upon the most efficient ways to strip resources from the land without regard to the future of the land and the ways we pay the lowest wages and get the most labor from poor workers without regard to health and life. We have reduced earth and people to commodities that serve the financial markets. The people and Earth go together. We are called to steward resources in ways that generate sustainability for earth’s resources and in ways that create sustainable life and health for workers.

Also there are limits placed upon our human activity, limits that we must learn to respect. God told Adam and Eve that they could eat of the tree of life and not the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The original sin may have been that human beings transgressed the limits of their human vocation. In the book of Job, God puts humans in their place by showing how much of this world is beyond human control and human responsibility. It is larger and more wondrous than we can imagine, and it is ultimately beyond our knowing. There is mystery to life that we cannot fathom. Therefore, we are called to exercise our responsibility with caution and humility. We are called to respect and preserve places of wilderness where human beings have little or no presence and influence. Life is larger than ourselves, and we are only one part of this creation. While we need to take actions to care for all creation, we cannot think that we humans have a right to all creation for our stewardship and control. We are wrong to think that we are responsible for creation. But clearly we are responsible to creation (or responsible to God for our treatment of creation)—to treat it with reverence and to act in ways that allow it to thrive. If we are to be good stewards of Earth, there is a foundational reverence we need to bear toward life, both because it is God’s creation and because it is filled with God’s glory.

Perhaps most fundamental to a wise and humble exercise of stewardship is the experience of solidarity with that to which and for which we are responsible. In our Christian faith, we focus so much on the covenant God made with God’s people through Moses on Mount Sinai. However, God made an equally important covenant with all creation through Noah. God made the covenant as a commitment to preserve life, and God made it with humans and “with all the land animals and all the birds of the air and all the fish of the sea.” Together all living creatures are in solidarity with each other in covenant with God. This experience of creation’s solidarity is affirmed by the admonitions throughout scripture for all creation to worship God: let the seas roar, let the fields exalt, let the trees shout for joy, let the hills sing. All of creation together—human and non-human creatures and the rest of the created world—are to sing praises to God. There is a wonderful scene in the book of Revelation that portrays this praise. John the seer says: “Then I heard the whole creation, everything in heaven, on Earth, under Earth, and in the sea, saying, ‘Blessing and honor, power and wealth, glory and might be to our God who sits upon the throne and to the lamb forever and ever.” When we degrade air and land and sea, we diminish creation’s capacity to praise God. When we oppress, exploit, neglect, and marginalize people, we diminish their capacity to praise God. We are in solidarity with all creation, and if we do not care for Earth community we are not able to celebrate together with praise.

And we are also called to be in solidarity with future generations to establish and maintain a sustainable life on the planet—to leave the earth healthier and more resourceful then the last generation. That is not definitely not happening now. And there are some religious folks who claim that we do not need to worry about Earth, because Jesus is about to come and deliver the saved out from the earth. Others claim Jesus will come and rescue earth from trouble. Others see personal salvation as so important that heaven is all that matters and this earth is but a brief pilgrimage for individual souls. But the Bible shows that God’s purpose is to restore all creation. The whole notion of incarnation is that the divine movement is toward embodiment in creation. The ultimate vision in Revelation is that God will come to a renewed earth and dwell among people. There is an affirmation of this earth in the biblical writings that cannot be denied. And we are called to act out our vocation as human agents of God to care for this earth-in-trouble and to work to restore it.

Paul knows this when he claims that “all creation is groaning in labor pains as it waits for the revealing of children of God” who will care for each other and for Earth. We are called now to be those children of God who exercise stewardship in relation to all creation. In the book of Revelation, there is a depiction of the vision of the New Jerusalem that we are called to enact. Nature is in the midst of the city. The river of life flows down the middle of the city streets available free of charge, so that none are deprived of fresh water. The tree of life is on either side and it yields fruit twelve months of the year, so that no poor person will be hungry. God will dwell with them and will wipe away every tear from their eyes. This is the vision that we as stewards are called to live in our lives and to foster in others.

So what does this mean for us in the twenty-first century? Clearly, it means that we need to assess our stewardship of the earth at a collective and a personal level. At the collective level, whatever successes we have had are overshadowed by the abysmal environmental state of the planet we now inhabit, due mostly to human mis-activity. There is no need to detail here the problems we have caused and continue to cause. But we do need to come to awareness of the specific impacts that our economy, our standard of living, and our cultural choices have on the Earth and the most vulnerable of the earth. Whatever leads us to see what needs to be done and whatever leads us to act will be helpful. We need to work on two levels: change the system and change our personal behavior. These two go together.

First, we need urgently to act collectively as stewards in our responsibilities to creation at the local, state, regional, national, and global levels. As important as it is to change personal behavior, by itself it will not be enough. We need to address the laws and policies and systems that affect the state of the environment—supporting global treaties, strengthening legislation that secures clean air, safe water, and productive land, promoting policies that reduce energy consumption and assure species diversity, placing limits on land use and waste, and investing in environmental technologies technology. In addition, we need to shift the process of globalization more toward local products and services. And we need to find ways to encourage to the greening of business and industry. We need to redirect the whole economy toward technologies and companies that serve a sustainable lifestyle for the world order.

Changing the system is obviously a tall order. But there may not be many other ways. The point takes us back to the biblical mandates. We have a collective human responsibility under God to serve and preserve creation. We have a responsibility to name the evil, to confess our sins and to repent of our destructive ways. We have the opportunity to restore creation, not only because it is essential for the continuance of human life but also because it is the right thing to do. We are called to care for Earth for its own sake and to look after the most vulnerable folks in their distress. Collective transformation of the society is crucial, for if Earth-friendly treaties and laws and policies and common practices are not in place, the changes we make in our personal lifestyle will be less effective than they might otherwise be.

Second, we need to become responsible stewards of what is directly in our care. We need to change our personal lifestyles. Every day we see books or news articles or magazines telling us how to green our lifestyles. Many of them are superficial and ask little of us. Others are quite radical and call for significant change. We just need to begin and then to keep going. If we think we cannot make a difference consider this: your living space is connected to every environmental problem we face—the emissions from your furnace, the meat in your refrigerator, the coal from the electricity you use, the water that comes into and goes out from your house, the products you purchase that are shipped from a distance, the treatments you give your lawn, and the gas in your automobile. We have it in our hands to make daily choices all the time that have an impact on God’s creation. And this will involve sacrifice on our part as we seek to live a simpler lifestyle and to walk lightly on the earth.

There is a concept of environmental tithing related to this commitment. Can we reduce our electrical use by ten percent? Can we reduce the gas for heating by ten percent? Can we reduce the water we use by ten percent? Can we eat ten percent less with food that comes from a distance? Can we set other goals to reduce our impact on the environment by a tenth? And if we can, should we not then contribute the money we save to environmental causes that seek not simply to stop our destruction but that take actions to restore Earth. And tithing is just a beginning as we contemplate all we can do on a daily basis at home and at work and in the society to foster and maintain a sustainable world.

The key to all of this is to see our change of behavior as part of our spiritual discipline. It will not help us to act out of fear or guilt or shame or outrage or despair. Rather, we need to draw upon the fund of God’s grace out of which we all live, that dearest freshness deep down things that will serve to sustain us for a lifetime of caring for creation—and that will enable us to do it with joy. If the lord loves a cheerful giver, the lord also loves a cheerful earthkeeper! Here is a litany for stewards of earth attributed to Father Ed Eschweiler:

 

Beatitudes for Stewards of Earth

 

Blessed are they who reverence all created things as sacred;

in God's eyes all creation is good

 

Blessed are they who understand that creation is like a beautiful

tapestry with every strand depending on all the others

 

Blessed are they who see the beauty of Earth as a reflection

of the beauty of God, who creates it.

 

Blessed are they who do not waste or spoil Earth's resources,

which are for everyone, even those not yet born

 

Blessed are they who reverence the earth—the breath of God

and the Spirit of life

 

Blessed are they who reverence for life-giving waters that sustain

the Earth's climate and nourish Earths inhabitants.

 

Blessed are they who reverence the soil that supports our homes

and our footsteps and yields abundant harvests.

 

Blessed are they who reverence the trees and other plants that

call down the rains, stabilize the soil, and freshen the air.

 

Blessed are they who reduce what they consume,

 reuse what they can, and recycle what they can no longer use.

 

Blessed are they who praise God the Creator in their reverent

and gentle use of all things on Earth

 

 

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