Marriage and the Grace of God

Last week, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that bans on gay marriage are unconstitutional, legalizing gay marriage throughout the US. I live in Canada, and have only a handful of friends from the US, but even so my Facebook feed was very polarized over the weekend: most of it was rainbow-coloured, thanks to Facebook’s feature that enabled users to put a rainbow filter over their profile picture in celebration of the ruling, and using the message “love wins”; but there seemed to be almost as many people posting articles and memes featuring various conservative Christian leaders decrying the SCOTUS decision and its popular support, or even writing their own comments reminding their Christian friends that as Christians they “cannot support this.”

This leads me to two thoughts. The first thought is “we don’t need to support this.” This was a Supreme Court decision about constitutionality, not the result of a referendum (as happened recently in Ireland). Many of the comments and memes make it seem like people believe that this signals a shift in public opinion, as if suddenly US citizens became much more gay-friendly overnight. In reality, most of those people with rainbow-coloured profile pics were already gay-friendly. I think many people were surprised to see just how much support for this there actually was, but that doesn’t change the fact that this is not a reflection of that support, this is a ruling on constitutionality. (It has also been noted elsewhere that many people don’t seem to realize that Canada has had legal gay marriages for a decade already.)

The second thought, far more important than the first, is that we should support this. We should support this because Jesus would support this. Allow me to explain.

So far as I can tell, marriage has always been idealized. Most of the debate coming from Christians against gay marriage has been about the definition of marriage (I know the arguments well, as I used to make them frequently). But the idealized Christian notion of marriage has always been tainted: patriarchy, divorce, abuse, adultery, childlessness and infertility, etc., have always undermined the ideal. It does not logically follow that the imperfection of marriage in general means that we should endorse marriages that are obviously imperfect from the outset, but oddly enough, that’s what Jesus does.

In Jesus’ day, marriage was largely a financial transaction in which one man would pay another man for his daughter, so that she could produce children for him. Some dowry systems required that the groom paid the father; other dowry systems required that the father pay the groom for taking his daughter off of his hands. This all had to do with the economics of poor agricultural societies in which families were the primary unit of work and productivity, but in a heavily patriarchal society, it’s still just thinly veiled slavery. A daughter received no education, no birthright or inheritance (unless she had absolutely no brothers), no say in matters of the community (unless she was a prophetess), no share in the priesthood and a lesser space in worship, no control over her own sexuality or fertility or body in any meaningful sense, and no choice over who she married. Legally, an unmarried woman who was raped was supposed to be married to her rapist; this was even an act of mercy, because an unmarried woman who was not a virgin would never find a husband willing to pay to marry her, which would leave her destitute, probably working as a beggar or prostitute (for a look at how desperate this situation was, read Ruth). Polygamy was surprisingly common, too. Women were unable to initiate a divorce from their husbands, but a man could divorce his wife for any reason he wanted; some rabbis in Jesus’ day insisted that burnt dinner was sufficient cause for divorce. While the law said that both the man and woman caught in adultery should be stoned to death, in practice the man could often get away with it while the woman would still be killed (unless Jesus was there to draw a line in the sand and say “he who is without sin, cast the first stone”). And women were often married off to much older men: some scholars believe that Jesus’ mother Mary was probably about 13, while Joseph was probably in his thirties or older.

This kind of marriage is far from our ideal today, in which marriage is a result and expression of love and personal devotion. This kind of marriage seems gross, barbaric, even a form of domination. Our society has outlawed almost every aspect of this kind of marriage, and I don’t think that it’s a stretch to say that this wasn’t what God had in mind when he created Adam and Eve and said they’d be one flesh together.

Even so, a wedding was one of the greatest celebrations in Jewish culture. It would often go on for days, include the whole community and as many family as could attend, and involved drinking a lot of wine in celebration. Love was not the purpose of weddings back then, but it was a blessing bestowed on the couple, that they would love one another and be fruitful and multiply and find rest and peace together. The marriage ideal that we hold now as a pre-requisite for marriage, back then was just a wish and a blessing, the ideal that people hoped marriage would turn into over time. There was an understanding that marriage wasn’t a perfect thing, but that it could become perfect if the people involved in it devoted themselves to each other. Marriage was not the zenith of a perfect society, it was a means of God’s grace in a broken one.

We can see this in the way that marriage is used as a metaphor for God and his people. Much is often made of the Christological interpretation of Song of Songs, which is essentially erotic poetry about enjoying love, but the main place that the Bible uses marriage as a metaphor for God and his people is in Hosea. God tells the prophet Hosea to marry a prostitute who repeatedly runs away from him and continues to ply her trade, and says that this is the way that God was married to Israel. Hosea always takes her back, and pursues her, even as she runs away. All he wants is for her to remain in the security and providence of their family, and finally to love him and their children. Hosea’s persistence in following his prostitute-bride is God’s grace on his people Israel. Marriage is not a perfect union, but rather an image of God’s grace, and a means by which we can experience that grace and understand God’s providence.

In the New Testament, the marriage metaphor continues – except that now the metaphor is that Christ is the bridegroom and the church is the bride; and Christ is the exemplar for husbands, who should give themselves up for their wives (rather than dominate them, as they had every legal right to do). Wives who become Christians are urged to stay with their unbelieving husbands (who continue to have almost total control over them, by the way), so that their good example might win their husbands over, i.e., so that their marriage might redeem their family, and their presence within that marriage might function as a vessel for God’s grace on an unbelieving spouse in an imperfect society. Paul says that being married is a wonderful burden, but if you can be like Christ without getting married, you’re even better off.

When Jesus performed miracles, it was expressly to lend the authority of God to his teachings and actions. Jesus’ first miracle in the Gospel of John was to create extra wine for a wedding he was attending (yes, even after everyone was already drunk). His presence at a wedding could be seen as an endorsement of the practice, but his catering of it by divine miracle can be read no other way. And the wedding that Jesus endorsed was just like any other in his day: an economic transaction, an imperfect institution of a patriarchal culture that gave one person license to dominate another, license for an old man to have sex with a young girl…and a way that God shows grace to his people, an incubator in which people can show grace to one another and become more like Christ, and a way by which, we hope, people can love each other more.

So if we’re concerned that a gay marriage is incorrect, imperfect, even sinful – well, it fits right in with marriage through the ages. It’s a way for gay and lesbian people to foster deeper love and grace for one another within a broken world, in spite of any imperfections and sins they may have and will continue to have. It is not a sacralization of sin – it’s not about sin at all; rather, it is an opportunity for love and family to grow in the midst of and despite a sinful world, and therefore a means of God’s grace to the world.

So if we ask the perennial Evangelical question of What Would Jesus Do in response to the legalization of gay marriage, I’d say he’d probably bring the wine.

The Wedding at Cana by Paolo Veronese

A Theology of Green Politics

It seems like forever since I’ve written anything here; I’ve been busy writing on Canadian politics over at the Green Party Provencher page (I’m the Green candidate for the federal riding of Provencher). But while my thoughts have been on sustainability and public policy, I still see the world theologically, so I’ve been thinking about the theological justification for a Christian entering the political arena and promoting sustainable policies.

Some people think that it’s inappropriate for Christians to be involved in politics because we may be tempted to make decisions for everyone based on our own faith, which may not be shared by those we represent. Government is secular, and therefore safe from the variety of competing religious claims that diverse Canadians may hold to. While I think it’s impossible to be non-political, or to compartmentalize faith so that we behave differently in public than in private (we need to maintain integrity), I think there is a point here. I also think that it’s a point that fits well within Christian theology, and goes all the way back to Genesis.

The Role of Christians in Society

We’re sometimes tempted to make laws and policies that reflect Christian character. Why wouldn’t we? After all, Christ taught us to love one another, and only forbade things that were harmful to us all, personally and collectively. The trouble is, you can’t legislate love. Laws and policies are blunt instruments that are only able to limit the damage of our sin, not make us better people. That’s why Christ challenged his followers to exceed the law.

Let’s think about that a little bit more. Jesus said “I did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it,” and gave several examples of how to do so by exceeding the requirements of the law. The law says not to murder; Christ says not to hate. The law says not to commit adultery; Christ says not to lust. We often read this as Christ instituting a new law, but that’s not what he said: the law remained as it was, and he called people to a way of life that involved intentionally and self-sacrificially exceeding the requirements of the law. He was very open about the fact that this way of life wasn’t for everyone, even though he thought the law was for everyone.

As followers of Christ, then, we have a role to play in society, but it’s not to enshrine the way of Christ into law. It’s to intentionally and self-sacrificially exceed the requirements of the laws we live under. Another way of looking at it might be to out-government the government by offering our own social structures and supports to society. Christians have traditionally done this by funding hospitals, running soup kitchens, and providing sanctuary in their churches; or by inviting their neighbours in for a meal, or sending an anonymous donation to the family down the street who’s struggling financially. We’re not called to undermine the other social structures that exist (unless they are unjust), but rather to consistently embody generosity and care in a way that raises the bar for public institutions and society.

So it’s not right or helpful for Christians to push legislation that would legally hold everyone to the standard of Christ. So on what basis does a person of faith interact with politics?

Humans First, Israelites Second

God chose Israel from among the nations, formed it from the offspring of a long line of barren women in order to be his special, chosen people. Then he gave them a code of laws that would govern them as God’s people. These were the laws that Jesus was talking about when he urged his disciples to go even further, but these laws didn’t apply to most of the world. These laws were God’s way of asking Israel to go further than the people around them, to stand out by the extent of their holiness and generosity just as the disciples of Jesus did in his day and still do today. These are not the kind of laws that govern any nation today (not even the modern nation of Israel). These are precisely the type of laws that are inappropriate in a diverse society like Canada.

So what other laws were there? If we go back a little bit further to Genesis 9:5-6 we see the passage that some scholars refer to as the founding of human government:

And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each man, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man.

This is the most basic law in Scripture, complete with a punishment. It implies a basic prohibition (not to kill humans), and applies to everyone, human and animal. This is the kind of law that governments can enforce, even in a pluralistic society like ours. Israel had many laws like this, which were also very similar to the Code of Hammurabi (which predates the 10 Commandments), and an Israelite probably would have expected any foreigner to fulfill this kind of law; but they would never have expected a foreigner to fulfill Israelite purity laws. Some laws are universal, and some are articles of faith and devotion; a modern secular society maintains the former, not the latter.

In this regard, then, I don’t see any reason why a Christian shouldn’t serve in a political office that requires them to represent non-Christians. The type of laws we write and uphold in Canada are universal and enforceable, applicable to human beings in general and not the product of a call to exceed the basic law that governs us all. But let’s go another step backward.

Human Purpose: A Biblical-Theological Argument for Secular Green Politics

While the covenant with Noah is often seen as the beginning of human government, it’s not the first time humans are told how to live. If we go back to the beginning of Genesis we see God creating the world, including human beings. Everything that is created is good, but humans are the only things created with an explicit purpose:

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.

-Genesis 1:26-27

If the Noahic Covenant (above) brings us a universal law against killing people, the Adamic Covenant here gives us something that is beyond a law, but is also not a voluntary way of life that only applies to certain people. The way of Christ exceeds the laws of Israel, which themselves exceed the universal laws of other humans; but this thing is foundational, both to the laws and the call to exceed those laws. This thing is more than just vocation, or what we’re called to – that’s what Christ offers us. This thing is created purpose, or our inherent reason for existing. It’s foundational, universal, and departure from it does a type of violence to ourselves and everyone around us.

The passage above has been used in the past to justify humans using the whole earth for our pleasure, but that’s not a good reading of it. “Rule over” doesn’t need to mean exploiting, plundering, or abusing. Key to interpreting this is to look at the words “image” and “likeness.” In the Ancient Near East a ruler would erect a statue of themselves in cities far from the capital to remind people of what the king looked like – this was an image, or likeness. The other use for these words was to refer to idols, which were made from the ground (clay) and the spirit of a god would be “breathed” into them. The description of the creation of Adam in the next chapter very deliberately follows this formula. Humans were created to be a representation of God’s rule over creation, and to be a physical host for his spiritual presence. What this means, then, is that our relationship to all of creation is to be as stewards or representatives of God; or more powerfully, as co-creators with God, the physical presence of a spiritual God. This means that we should treat the creation as if it is our own precious creation, nurturing and tending it as God does.

Because this relationship to the rest of creation is the reason humans exist, it is at the core of our human identity and forms the foundation for all of our interactions with the rest of creation and each other. When we depart from it – i.e., when we act destructively toward the world – we cause incredible suffering, not just for animals and ecosystems, but also for other humans, ourselves, and even society. A government that writes and enforces laws that abuse the natural world is an unjust government that harms its people (even if only indirectly) and an unwise government that fails to plan for the best interests of its people.


So my theology does not allow me to impose my own Christianity on others through legislation, even if that would work. The basis of national laws is universal rather than being limited to a particular faith or ethical commitment, and my own faith and ethical commitment spur me to personally exceed the basic requirements of the universal laws while only requiring that others adhere to those laws rather than exceed them. But at the core of my faith commitment and my very humanness is my relationship to the rest of creation. Because of that, I am compelled to care about the environment and sustainability, and governments are compelled (as an aspect of serving their people if nothing else) to write and enforce laws and policies that limit negative interactions with the natural world and facilitate the kind of cohesive and caring relationship with the natural world that fulfills our created purpose as humans. We can’t force people to be Christians, or to love each other, or to care for the environment, but we can collectively agree to limit the damage that we as individuals and as a society would otherwise cause, and in so doing create space for the self-sacrificial generosity and care of Christ to raise the bar for all of us.

Beyond Just War and Pacifism

In what is so far the most challenging chapter (at least for me) in Christian Political Witness, Peter J. Leithart begins his essay “Violence” with a rather controversial claim: “From beginning to end, the Bible is utterly opposed to violence.” Violence, he says, is the only thing that “God hates down to his ‘soul’” (147). He then goes on to reference just a smattering of the many times that God directly commands Israel to wipe out entire races of people or vows to utterly destroy entire nations. Where’s the disconnect?

Leithart suggests that the Bible has a different definition of violence than we would normally use. While we would normally define violence as any use of force that inflicts harm on another, Leithart catalogues the many uses of the word hamas (Hebrew for “violence”) in the Old Testament and notes that it primarily refers to sinful uses of force, while just uses of force – even those that inflict harm – are not referred to as hamas. God hates hamas so much that he goes to war and wipes out entire people groups to eradicate it. Hamas includes false witness, exploitation of the poor/widow/orphan/stranger, fraud, and corruption. On the other hand, the intensely fiery words of the prophets are not hamas, nor are physical discipline or punishments (including capital punishment). So while our standard definition of violence refers to the use of force resulting in harm, it appears that the OT definition is the use of force (physical or verbal) from sinful motives. Or as Leithart put it, “As a shorthand answer, I would say that violence is unjust and sinful use of force.” Which raises the question: “what counts as a sinful use of force?” (155).

Leithart refers us to the theological just war tradition for guidance, and it certainly appears that God’s actions against sin and injustice support just war. “Yahweh’s war against violence is the paradigm for human judgment. Rulers are to be deacons of God’s avenging wrath…punishment is not counterviolence that keeps violence within bounds but an act of purgation…force can be used not to oppress but to deliver the oppressed” (154). I have a hard time disagreeing with his reading, and up to this point in my life I’ve placed those violent texts from the OT in my “I don’t know what to do with this, but I don’t like it” category and hoped for something that can help me to connect those passages with the teachings and actions of Christ that have led me toward pacifism. Because of this, I only reluctantly admit that just war is probably the best way to interpret God’s stance on violence (or physical force) in Scripture. But that still leaves the question of whether just use of force is actually possible for us today, or a good option even if possible. How does the Church fit into all of this, and how do members of the Church balance this with being members of a society in which this occurs?

Leithart notes how a dominant view of power in the past few centuries, and most recently exemplified by Slavoj Zizek, is the “valorization of violence” which, in the words of Hannah Arendt (from her 1970 book On Violence), is the idea that “violence is nothing more than the most flagrant manifestation of power” (157). Arendt takes Max Weber’s definition of power as the legitimate right to violence and turns it on its head, instead defining power as “the human ability ‘to act in concert’…empowered by a group to act on behalf of the group” (158). As such, a government or ruler resorts to violence due to a lack of actual power, while the use of violence erodes power, so that violence and power are actually mutually exclusive. (Note: Arendt’s definition of power corresponds to Weber’s definition of authority, which he contrast with power and violence, so that they end up saying much the same thing!) The problem with both Weber and Arendt is that they define a polity by who has power or uses violence, which means that the Church is not recognized as a polity. It is a polity, but it doesn’t use violence. It also doesn’t have much in the way of power, at least in our society: power as Arendt defines it (and authority as Weber defines it) depends on the empowerment or assent of others. The Church places authority in Scripture, but as Leithart points out, Habakkuk complains that Torah cannot restrain violence. “If the Torah cannot restrain violence, neither can the US Constitution, the criminal code of Illinois, or the Geneva Accords” (159). So while the Church does not resort to violence, in either the OT definition or our common definition today, even “legitimate” uses of force (in the just war sense) or uses of force that the OT wouldn’t consider to be hamas are incapable of fulfilling God’s war against violence.

So we see that God’s definition of violence is limited to the unjust use of force, that God readily employs just use of force to purge violence, and that God’s use of just force is a model for our own use of force. But we also see that our own use of force is incapable of finishing the job, and vulnerable to corruption:

As institutions of the saeculum, governments use force to curb worse violences, but all too often they become agents of violence themselves. Even at their best they do not have the kind of tools needed to carry on Yahweh’s war on violence. Law enforcement is a good, and Christians may legitimately do this good work. But it does not swallow violence in victory.
Only Jesus does that. (159)

This is the point at which I expect to see Leithart turn to pacifism and nonviolent direct action, and start talking about the church subverting violence with love. Not quite. While acknowledging that Jesus and his church do not engage in violence, Leithart also does not see Jesus as nonviolent: “Scripture is a manifesto neither for pacifism nor for law-and-order conservatism” (159), and “The church is not violent in either the biblical sense or in our usual sense of the word. She does not employ the normal form of political force, but negative ‘nonviolence’ is not her essence. Jesus’ city is something far stranger” (160).

“…‘nonviolence’ is not her essence.” This is hard to swallow, because I see Jesus as being nonviolent. But Leithart has already shown that God is ready and willing to kill in order to fight violence in the biblical sense, and has even pointed out with Paul that “God’s treatment of sin in the Old Testament was mild, almost jocular” (149) compared to the coming judgment. There is continuity between God’s war on violence and Jesus’ nonviolence: “God purges violence in the flood, clears out the violence of Pharaoh, destroys the Babylonian destroyers. It is Jesus who launches his decisive campaign against violence” (159). Jesus does so by absorbing violence in his own body, the Suffering Servant pierced both by and for our transgressions who swallows death and overcomes it. Jesus’ nonviolence is not a sharp contrast with God’s war on violence, but its fulfillment. As his followers, we are not nonviolent in the sense that we are not to show pity as we flay the unjust with our prophetic critique, nor are we necessarily to abhor war or punishment as inherently violent in the OT sense, nor are we to be strangers to violence. Instead, we are called to go beyond avoiding and decrying violence, and instead to act as a human shield for those who are victims of violence.

I think that Leithart has a limited notion of nonviolence when he says that the church is not essentially nonviolent. While I see his point about the biblical definition of violence, and can concede that just use of force is not inherently wrong and may even be very godly and good, I still see the example of Christ (to nonviolently absorb violence in himself) as better. Many/most nonviolent theorists would also include absorbing violence in our own flesh in imitation of Christ as essential to nonviolence, a point that Leithart’s chapter misses. But even so, without naming it he touches on something that I think is key to the just war/pacifism debate, and which may even lead to a synthesis: the gratuity of God’s grace in Christ.

While it may be good and just to use force to punish and purge violence from the world, God in Christ gives grace and forgiveness and in so doing makes peace. While it may be good and just to avoid the use of force altogether, love of neighbour compels us to protect the weak and purge violence from the earth to bring about peace. Neither just war nor pacifism in itself is wrong – both are very good! – and neither view should look down on the other (and those who hold either view should hold the other to account for any corruption or failure in practice), but what is better is the gratuity of grace and love that leads us, like Christ, to absorb violence into our own bodies for the sake of the other, even our enemies, even the enemies of God, and in so doing bring about peace.

I propose, then, a new branch of peace/just war studies that explores in practical terms just how one might sacrifice oneself for another nonviolently yet to great effect. Because I know that the first thing that people will say about the notion of self-sacrifice as the ultimate expression of both pacifism and just war is “well, it sounds good in theory, but…” A good start is made by the next chapter, “Just War as Christian Politics” by Daniel M. Bell, Jr., wherein he distinguishes between Just War as a Public Policy Checklist (i.e., Just War as it’s actually practised) and Just War as Christian Discipleship, working through the traditional criteria of just war from both perspectives to contrast them and highlight how Christian discipleship forms people capable of actually abiding by the just war criteria reflexively and generously. It’s a good start, but I’d like to see it go further.


Corporations Are People Too

Since 2010, I’ve been one of the many people frustrated by the idea, protected by law in the USA, that a corporation is a person. The Citizens United decision of the US Supreme Court in 2010 not only reinforced that corporations are people, but also that they are people with free speech. Since the US Supreme Court sees spending money as a form of speech, corporations are thus free to spend as much money as they like on elections. That this is an incredible distortion of democracy is obvious, but that’s only one reason why so many of us are frustrated by it. The book and documentary film The Corporation asks the question “If a corporation is a person, what kind of a person is it?” and ultimately concludes that a business corporation is a sociopath. Considering that our greatest societal protections are offered to persons, and corporations are potentially dangerous sociopaths who lack the features of persons we would normally protect (e.g., humanness, biological life, etc.), it seems that applying the term “person” to them is a categorical misstep: they get many of the benefits of society with none of the responsibilities, with “corporate responsibility” often serving as little more than a marketing ploy. As such I’ve long been of the opinion that “person” is entirely too good of a title for a corporation, giving them too much power and distorting the relationship between personhood and humanity.

But personhood is not necessarily identical to humanity, though it has long been held by many to be the same thing. The abortion debate centres around the definition of personhood, with the prevailing view being that a fetus, in spite of being human, is not a person until it is physically born. Given the huge variation in the time that a baby can be safely born, the actual moment of birth seems a harshly arbitrary distinction on which to hang the right to life, and our stinginess with the title of “person” in this respect makes the notion of a business corporation as a person rankle even more.

Animals are people too. At least, that’s what I always used to tell my parents when they barred my pets from, say, eating at the dinner table with us or sleeping on my bed. But there is a growing movement to recognize specific animals (e.g., dolphins, whales), and even the natural systems of the planet as a whole, as people. Recognizing the environment as a whole as a morally significant stakeholder is recognizing a form of corporate personhood.

For all of these reasons I’ve been mistaken about railing against corporate personhood in general, but I didn’t recognize it until I read William Cavanaugh’s “Are Corporations People?” in Christian Political Witness. Cavanaugh makes the point that “corporate personhood is central to Christianity” (129), and that the alternative view to corporate personhood is individualism and the competition of the market in both the business and political spheres. He traces the view of corporate personhood from Genesis (Adam is often translated as “humankind”, and God interacts with humans in a corporate fashion throughout the Bible), to the corporate personhood of the Church in the New Testament and Church Fathers, to the corporate personhood of the nation state (which still appears in the form of nationalism), through to the rise of market economies which had the effect of “liberalizing” us from corporate personhood to become individuals who “deal with each other on the basis of contract…rather than as members of a social body” (138). He points out that there is no essential relationship between democracy and free markets: they’re both encouraged by liberalism, but markets do not require democracy to function, with the implication that a market-dominated society is not necessarily free and certainly not necessarily equal. So the absence of corporate personhood in our system actually removes our sense of belonging to a common body, and individualism feeds the competitive market-based systems that exacerbate inequality in society. “If we do not see each other as members or potential members of the same body, we cannot begin to see the political process as a healing process for the weakest of our members” (144). So the problem, then, is not that we might see corporations as people (i.e., moral actors with the ability to speak), but rather that the Citizens United decision privileges business corporations over others (such as the Church, unions, clubs and societies, etc).

What Cavanaugh didn’t touch on at all is the spiritual aspect of corporate people. This is the biggest reason I’m surprised I didn’t catch on to the importance of seeing corporations as people: I’ve been talking about it in other contexts for years! The New Testament notion of Powers and Principalities states that corporations such as churches, governments, and even business corporations, have a spiritual or inner aspect as well as an outward or physical aspect. By attributing a spiritual aspect to a corporate body we affirm it as a spiritual being – a status that many of us probably wouldn’t assign to individual animals even if we were willing to grant them another level of personhood. If corporate bodies are spiritual beings, how can they not be people?

The Church is a corporate person: together, Christians form the body of Christ. We believe that we actually embody Christ in the world, and that we do so more completely and powerfully in a corporate sense than we ever could individually. Cavanaugh refers to patristic thought and quotes Zizioulas to make the point that Christian identity and personhood is actually dependent upon our oneness in Christ, so that “the Eucharist ‘is the reality which makes it possible for us to exist at all’” (134, emphasis original). For Christians, corporate personhood and identity is primary; individual personhood and identity is secondary (at least, ideally). This sets the terms by which the Church interacts with the rest of society (i.e., our politics): “The church’s goal in society is to speak as a corporate person on behalf of the poor, to promote organizations of true social solidarity and also to encourage businesses to pursue legitimate profit within the telos of an economy of love” (145). The Church is to represent a different type of corporation in the world that models legitimate and healthy corporate personhood (as opposed to the sociopathic nature of the modern business corporation) and in so doing to include those excluded by other corporate persons and provide limits on, or redirect, the ambitions and power of other corporate persons.

On Submission to Authority and Romans 13:1-7

When you ask someone what the New Testament says about politics, they’ll probably point you to Romans 13:1-7, which is one of the few explicit references to government. Unfortunately, this passage has historically been used to support and justify many governments, giving them the appearance of divine sanction and suggesting that supporting a government is a Christian’s duty. Here’s the passage:

Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give everyone what you owe him: if you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honour, then honour. (Romans 13:1-7, NIV)

Historically, this passage was somewhat pivotal in the Lutheran “Two Kingdoms” theology, the distortion of which led to most of the German church being unconcerned about the rise of Adolph Hitler and the Nazi party. The implication of this passage, when taken out of context, is that governments will do what they will, but that they are set up by God and a good Christian must obey and support them.

While I’ve sometimes wondered about how God could want me to obey Hitler or someone like him, I’ve become increasingly skeptical of this interpretation for other reasons as I read more of Paul’s thoughts about powers and authorities. It seems that elsewhere he sees the gospel as being highly subversive of unjust authorities, and in some cases seems to be referring directly to Rome, though in vague or veiled language.  How could Paul talk about Christ’s victory over powers and authorities in one passage and tell us that the authorities are ordained by God and should be obeyed in another? There seems to be a disconnect.

Timothy G. Gombis sheds some light on this in his essay “The Political Vision of the Apostle to the Nations” in Christian Political Witness (Downers Grove: IVP, 2014). Gombis uses a narrative approach to examine Paul’s theology, beginning with a narrative summary of the Old Testament, then looking at how Saul’s xenophobic and violent legalism was transformed into Paul’s theology of a new polis in Christ, and then specifically examining Romans 13:1-7.

Gombis compares Romans 13:1-7 to Jeremiah 29, pointing out that even Gentile Christians in Paul’s day were strangers in a strange land as far as integration into Roman society went. Christians had been exiled from Rome only a few years earlier, and once they were allowed back there was higher taxation on them; they would have been interested in joining an anti-taxation movement at the time. But like Jeremiah, who told Israel to settle into Babylon and look out for the welfare of that city as for their own welfare, Paul was exhorting Christians toward the revolutionary community of Christ: non-violent, breaking no laws, and yet practising a kind of generous community that undermined the corrupted politics of their context. Jeremiah’s advice to Israel did not legitimate Babylon, and Paul’s advice did not legitimate Rome (or Nazi Germany); but it did legitimate the Church within Rome, giving it all the more power to subvert the corrupt powers and bring them into the loving community of Christ.

In regard to the authority being “God’s servant”, this still makes me (and Gombis) uncomfortable. For this, he refers to Isaiah’s reference to Cyrus as “messiah.” Cyrus wasn’t a good guy, but God used him for God’s own purposes. Doing so did not legitimate Cyrus, any more than it legitimated Pharaoh or the Canaanite kings or the corrupt kings of Israel before them. In the same way, Paul’s reference to Roman authorities as God’s servants doesn’t imply that they’re pious, or even legitimate; rather, it simply underscores the good advice he offered to the churches not to make trouble by directing his audience back to God’s purpose for order and peace in the world, which these authorities have the ability and calling to provide. The role of the church is not to subvert these offices, but rather to subvert their corruption by embodying a different kind of politics in their midst.

I like Gombis’ approach because it clarifies Paul’s thought in general even while tackling this particular passage. It’s challenging though: my own predilection is to embrace theologies that involve actively resisting unjust authority. Gombis does note that Paul may have softened his rhetoric in this case in order to avoid the appearance of supporting a revolt around the tax issue, or against Rome in general, but even so his political theology is harder to follow: revolt is easier than humbly giving yourself to your enemies in service.

This is a great chapter in an excellent book, with other contributors including Stanley Hauerwas, David P. Gushee, Mark Noll, Scot McKnight, and William Cavanaugh. I’ve only managed to get through 4 out of 12 chapters so far, and I hope to talk more about the other chapters soon.

On Forfeiting the Right to Life

In discussing pacifism and just war recently, the argument has come up several times that some violence is acceptable or morally just because the recipients of this violence (in this case, ISIS) have forfeited their right to life. This is a popular argument in favour of the death penalty, but I have difficulty figuring out where that logic comes from: what is a right to life, and where do we get the idea that it’s something that can be forfeited? There’s a lot to be said here, but I’ll limit myself to looking for a biblical and/or theological argument.

1. On Forfeiting the Right to Life

The first thing that comes to mind when I think of “forfeiting the right to life” is Genesis 9:

“But you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it. And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each human being, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of another human being.

“Whoever sheds human blood,
    by humans shall their blood be shed;
for in the image of God
    has God made mankind.

As for you, be fruitful and increase in number; multiply on the earth and increase upon it.”

At first glance, this passage seems to imply that God sanctions humans to shed human blood in response to shedding human blood. This passage is traditionally taken to be the creation and sanction of the first form of government for this reason. I think that reading is difficult to follow, for a few reasons.

a) Cities of Refuge. The rest of the Pentateuch has several examples of God deliberately working against the vengeance/retaliation mentality that was prevalent among Israel and in the rest of the Ancient Near East. It used to be believed that the several passages that refer to taking “an eye for an eye” and “a tooth for a tooth” imply that it’s morally acceptable (and even a duty) to repay a wrongdoer in the same manner in which they’ve harmed another; this has been thoroughly debunked by looking at the social context of these laws, wherein it was considered acceptable to escalate in retaliation. “Eye for an eye” is a limitation on retaliation, not a sanctioning of it. Note also that God limits our right to just deserts in Deuteronomy: “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord.” But limitations on retaliation are more practically shown in the example of Cities of Refuge.

Cities of Refuge were designated in all of the tribal territories allotted to the tribes of Israel, and their sole function was to provide sanctuary that allowed someone to escape the practice of retaliation or vengeance. If God told Noah that humans who shed human blood will have their blood shed by humans, and he meant it in a prescriptive sense (i.e., if he said “humans who shed human blood should have their blood shed by humans”), then we’d have a strong case for retaliation as justice; why, then, would he command his people to construct a network of sanctuaries and an intricate system of appeal and protection, if retaliation is just?

b) Prescriptive vs. Descriptive. In light of the fact that God says a lot more about limiting retaliation than he does requiring it, it’s worth considering whether this passage in Genesis 9 is descriptive rather than prescriptive. Could it be that God is actually saying the opposite? That he will demand an account of everyone who sheds human blood because he recognizes that it creates a cycle of retaliation and endless violence?

There are several places in Scripture where interpreters are asking this kind of question. Several of Paul’s sayings, for example, are now thought to be quotations of his opponents that he challenges or strips down; this makes more sense of the troublesome verses in their context, and often leads to a clearer message for the letter as a whole. The confusion about such verses has to do with punctuation and a lack of context: the Greek text had no quotation marks, and thus we aren’t aware right away that this is a quotation; and we’re unfamiliar with the works or arguments that he’s quoting or making reference to. The other reason that we don’t pick up on quotations, or descriptive statements that appear to be prescriptive, is because we (and especially us Evangelicals) have been conditioned to read the Bible as straightforward and prescriptive, so that every text is a letter directly to me, telling me how to live. This leads to assumptions about the intent of the text, and in this case I’m not 100% sure that we’ve been reading it correctly. Given the repeated contrary messages to this in the rest of the Pentateuch, I’d say the chances are good that this is one of those verses we’ve missed the point of, and in the process reversed its intended meaning.

2. On Whether We Have a Right to Life in the First Place

While talk of “human rights” is commonplace today (and I’m generally supportive of the concept and its application), it’s a very recent idea. Despite the fact that this idea descends from the ancient codes of law found in the Bible and elsewhere, as well as the application of Christian theology and morality, the Bible itself has no real notion of “rights”, except perhaps the right of ownership and a few other rights implied in the Law. The rights that existed were not universal, and the right to life wasn’t one of them in any case.

On the contrary, the dominant notion in the Bible about human life is that it’s a gift, offered at God’s good pleasure and easily withdrawn. The value and sanctity of human life is provided by its status as a gift from God: it has sanctity because it belongs to God and reflects God (as the passage from Genesis 9 says pretty clearly). While we can see that God is a giver of good gifts, and that he is both generous and full of grace and mercy, it is clear that human life does not belong to humans. This is further emphasized in the New Testament, where it is stated explicitly and in many ways that the value of a Christian’s life is in its service to Christ and to others: we are to die to ourselves and embrace a new life in which Christ lives in us. Christians recognize that we have no right to life, but only live because of the grace of God in Jesus Christ, apart from whom we’re already dead. Christian theology has held, based on passages in Genesis, Psalms, Romans, and many other places in Scripture, that all human beings are fallen and under the penalty of death.

So how can we forfeit something that we’ve never had?

3. On Jesus’ Mercy and the Time and Place of Judgment

It’s always good to end with Jesus (and start there too). My ethics (hopefully) always come from Jesus, and my stance on pacifism comes directly from the way I see him interacting with his own enemies in the gospels, as well as his explicit statements about loving enemies and serving those who persecute you. So I was pleased to see that I’m not the only one who thinks this way when a student asked my friend and colleague Dr. V about how he can square his view of forfeiting the right to life with Jesus’ mercy and salvation. I appreciate Dr. V’s response, though I disagree with him on it.

Dr. V says (in the comments) that he sees the salvation that Jesus provides pertaining to the second death, i.e., the judgment of the living and the dead. I can certainly agree with this: one of the big changes that occurred between the OT and the NT eras was the view of an afterlife (the OT had very little notion of one, while by the NT time Jewish theology had developed a much stronger notion of a resurrection). You can actually see the turning point in Daniel, which speaks specifically of a resurrection, though not all Jews in Jesus’ day believed in an actual resurrection of the dead. The basic idea is that all of the dead will be raised to new life, but will also be judged and separated (by Jesus), good from evil. However, given the nature of this final judgment, I find it problematic to distinguish one form of salvation from another. Said differently, I don’t think that Jesus acts in two ways at the same time, demanding death in one place and giving life in another for presumably the same offences. Let’s unpack that a bit.

There’s been a recent resurgence of emphasis on the embodied nature of human existence. We long believed that “heaven” is a place on the clouds where disembodied souls spend eternity in the spiritual presence of God. Aside from the obvious gnostic problems this can create for our theology, it’s just not what Scripture describes. In the Old Testament, salvation is a physical salvation: God saved us from Egypt! God saved us from Babylon! Heaven is depicted as everyone having their own fig tree, and all of the nations coming to Jerusalem to worship God. It’s very physical. In the New Testament, in spite of the development of a notion of after-life, that after-life is (as noted above) a physical resurrection of the dead. Salvation is from sin (in its power over us as well as the consequences, both personal and social/corporate), and heaven is depicted as a city (the “new Jerusalem”) where all the world lives with and worships God. In both the OT and the NT, heaven is life on earth as God intended it, and salvation is God’s work to make that happen.

If the final judgment is to separate the good from the wicked, we must remember that these are living people in physical human bodies who will be expected to live together in the just ways that God intends for human society. If God has decreed to us that human beings can be the agents of God’s justice upon each other in this life and society by killing those whose sins warrant it, and everyone who is killed is resurrected to be judged by Jesus (who is also God), then Jesus has judged people twice. We would expect him to be somewhat consistent in his judgment, but this may not be the case. He might a) allow a sinner to live a long life and die of natural causes, only to resurrect them and consign them to death for their sins; b) authorize humans to kill someone for their sins, only to resurrect them and kill them again; or c) authorize humans to kill them, and then resurrect them to eternal life. Now surely Jesus has the ability and right to do all of these things, but the idea that God would demand us to perform his judgment duties by killing those who are deemed to have forfeited the right to life, and then either double-up on it or reverse it, seems a bit convoluted to me. It seems to pit Christ against God or Christ against us.

(Also, if God has decreed that retaliation and retribution are just, and we’ll all live in a physical world and real human society, presumably that sense of justice hasn’t changed (and there are no verses that I can think of suggesting that it has). Would we live in perfect society in the new world under the threat of righteous vengeance from our fellow citizens of heaven?)

My train of thought is unravelling a bit (it’s late), but the point is that in Jesus we see God revealed in his fullness. If Jesus tells his followers to reject the sword (and he does), we should question whether or not God has told us to pick it up. If Jesus dies for his enemies, who are certainly sinners and murderers, then we should question whether or not God has asked us to kill them for their crimes. And if Jesus will judge the living and the dead, then we should remember that God said “Vengeance is mine” and not try to add to it.

4. Okay, one more thought: Who Decides What Constitutes Forfeiting One’s Right to Life?

While not a biblical or theological objection, I can’t get past this one: who are we to say that certain people have forfeited their right to life? ISIS believes that everyone who is not of their particular brand of Islam has forfeited their right to life by rejecting God. Theologically speaking, their version is probably more accurate and certainly more straightforward (for if life is but a gift from God rather than a right…). They believe their killing is just and a service to God; we believe that using lethal force against them, whether as punishment or deterrent or in defence, is justified for the same reasons. We could go around and around this circle forever – and we already have been for far too long. So long as both sides justify their actions in reference to a different religion, there isn’t even any common ground on which to judge one side’s argument over the other. Even if we were to make the argument specifically about forfeiting the right to life by the killing of others, ISIS has more claim against Westerners in this regard than we do against ISIS: Westerners have been bombing them for decades. To say that their crimes forfeit their right to life places us on a very high horse indeed, and I hope we can get off of it in time to get out of this cycle of killing before we have another generation of it rise from the ashes of today’s conflicts.

Subduing and Having Dominion Over the Earth

Historically, Christians have believed that human beings were created as the pinnacle of creation, that everything prior to us was made for our benefit, that we have “dominion” or rule over all of nature (and therefore can pretty much do what we want with it), and that we can enforce this dominant position by subduing or taming nature. We get all of this from Genesis 1:

Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” Then God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the surface of all the earth, and every tree which has fruit yielding seed; it shall be food for you; and to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the sky and to every thing that moves on the earth which has life, I have given every green plant for food”; and it was so. God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day. (emphasis added in bold)

John Calvin’s interpretation of these passages was that humanity is the pinnacle of creation, that everything else was made for our benefit, and that this is inherently linked to our being created in the image of God. In the 1960’s an incendiary article was printed that pointed to the Protestant work ethic (usually identified with Calvinism) and the theology behind it as a primary factor in the rape and destruction of our planet (I can’t think of the title or author offhand), and I can certainly see the connection. If nature exists for human flourishing (to the glory of God), then virtually any exploitation of nature can be justified by human beings gaining from it.

In the past few decades there have been many attempts to re-read this passage and re-write this theology to make it more eco-friendly, and much of it is very helpful. The degree to which this theology needs to be revised, however, is still an issue. For example, it’s very helpful to critique Calvin’s uncritical anthropocentrism, which he assumes with no effort at explanation or justification; yet eco-centrism is also inappropriate, and it’s difficult to dismiss the human perspective and emphasis altogether in a text communicated to humans, written by humans for humans, which culminates in God becoming a human. Yes, be critical and suspicious of anthropocentric readings and theologies, but consider carefully the Christological implications, or the implications for the doctrine of revelation. Along those lines I have a few thoughts on how this passage should be read.

1. The Meaning of Dominion

Calvin’s understanding of “ruling” is quite different from mine. He lived in a time when most countries were still ruled by monarchs who, ideally, had total control of their nations and ruled by force rather than by acclamation, not needing the approval of the lower classes who had far less dignity than them. Further, his understanding of God’s rule over creation was one of intense micromanagement: every single event in the universe happens at God’s good pleasure, ordained by his perfect will in full foreknowledge of the future, working out a perfect plan for all creation to glorify him, which is befitting to his infinite glory and dignity beside which all else is merely instrumental. In this kind of thought, “rule over” connotes power and privilege: human beings, as rulers over creation, have superior dignity and are free to enjoy and exploit those they rule over for their own benefit.

Most attempts to reassess this theology have revolved around the term “stewardship,” using it to replace the harsher terms “dominion” or “rule”. Note that “stewardship” isn’t found in the text above, but it’s implied: a steward is merely one who is appointed to rule in the place of the rightful ruler, so God telling humans to rule over the earth he created is bestowing stewardship. Note also that there’s nothing in this term that necessarily changes the theology: we still rule, it’s just emphasized that this is in God’s place. Because of God’s true dominion, it is suggested that we should treat his kingdom as he would – and our notion of how God treats his kingdom has changed since Calvin’s time. Most interpreters emphasize that God is loving and kind, and that God values everything that he has created, but most of them (that I’ve seen) still fall short of the radical reversal of rule that Jesus showed us (from Luke 22):

And there arose also a dispute among them as to which one of them was regarded to be greatest. And He said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who have authority over them are called ‘Benefactors.’ But it is not this way with you, but the one who is the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like the servant. For who is greater, the one who reclines at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at the table? But I am among you as the one who serves.

Most eco-friendly readings of Genesis still emphasize human authority over creation, but just try to make it nicer, which is terribly insufficient given the radical reversal of authority that Jesus modeled. He was authoritative because he was the one who served. His emphasis was not on power, but on responsibility and service. Christians read Scripture in light of the character and teachings of Jesus Christ, and in that light I find it impossible to see “dominion” or “rule over” creation as anything less than the responsibility for its wellbeing – the total opposite of Calvin’s view, which encouraged us to exploit it for our own wellbeing. Jesus went on to characterize his authority or rule as friendship with his disciples (John 15:15), and told them that there was no greater love than to give oneself up for one’s friends (John 15:13). This is the way that God rules the universe, and as his steward, “ruling over” creation, I can’t help but come to the conclusion that I should be willing to at least inconvenience myself for the wellbeing of the rest of the ecosystem.

Many would argue that Jesus’ example of rule only applies to human beings, and that I’m distorting his example by applying it to nature. I think that this is still tied up in human exceptionalism, or the idea that humanity is the pinnacle of creation rather than (or in addition to) being the caretaker of it. Calvin (and virtually everyone else) saw humanity’s creation last as implying that we were the pinnacle, the climax of God’s creative work, and to a certain extent that’s very true (God said that creation as a whole was “very good” only after humans were created), but we must not forget that the implication of our very creation is that we were created for a purpose, which was to have dominion, which we’ve now characterized as self-sacrificial love and friendship for our subjects. There is a sense in which humans are exceptional, in that we alone are created in God’s image, we alone represent him on the earth, we alone are adopted as siblings and co-heirs with Christ who took on human form (and not the form of an animal or plant); but again, given the inversion of dignity and authority that Christ models, this need not imply that humanity is greater or has more dignity or worth than nature in the traditional/hierarchical sense. Rather, we are exceptional because of the purpose God has given us (to rule as God rules), whereas the old view is that we were given rule because we are exceptional. That kind of anthropocentrism is little more than egocentrism, and has no place in the Kingdom of God.

2. The Meaning of Subdue

Most of the time we only hear the word “subdue” in police reports: police subdued an attacker, easily pictured as a person in authority physically dominating someone under their authority until that person submits to their authority and desists their antagonistic behaviour. The image is obviously negative, forceful, and assumes conflict. Sometimes we also hear the word “subdued”, often describing a boring party or even a funeral, implying that the thing that is subdued is listless, joyless, lifeless. It’s understanding, then, that some eco-conscious interpreters have a serious problem with the idea of human beings “subduing” the rest of creation, much less that this would be a good thing.

For a lot of human history there has been conflict between humanity and nature. Wolves, for example, were hunted to near extinction in many places because they constituted a threat to human settlements, cattle, and even human lives. Even a hundred years ago, a major trope in literature was man vs. nature, with the “wild” being an exotic place of danger and mystery, contrasted with the dignity and order of human civilization. Over the past century, though, in light of the barbarism of human nature revealed in the Holocaust and always-intensifying ecological crises, culture has taken a different view: “the wild” is “God’s country,” a pristine place untainted by contact with the always-destructive humans, a hidden remnant of Eden.

None of these characterizations of nature are fully true, and they reflect much more what we humans think of ourselves than any realities of the natural world, but the point still remains: is it appropriate for humans to interfere with ecosystems? We do have a history of destroying them inadvertently, even when we’re actually trying to help. Perhaps the best thing we can do to care for “the wild” is to do nothing to it at all. This is the philosophy behind nature reserves, huge tracts of land set aside to simply exist with a minimal amount of human interaction. Then again, sometimes it seems that we can help: national parks are often treated as nature reserves, but we also often interfere by reintroducing species decimated by previous human interference, culling invasive species, or performing controlled burns in fire-prone areas. Sometimes our efforts include some level of harm to the ecosystem, and we don’t discover it until decades later; other times we’re actually able to correct our past mistakes, and having learned from nature are able to encourage it to flourish.

Is that really “subduing” the earth? This sounds a lot like the sanitization of “dominion,” doesn’t it? Ultimately, “subdue” means “control” or “bring under control.” The Bible says that God controls a lot of things in nature – usually the things that we’re completely unable to influence, like the wind, the rain, the tides, the snow, the boundaries of the oceans, the quality of the harvest…except that, to an increasing extent, we are now able to influence and even control most of these things. And for the most part, we’re doing it inadvertently as part of our exploitation of the earth, just as we inadvertently harmed ecosystems and eradicated species in the past. Our climate is increasingly out of control because of our actions and habits, and must be subdued.

In this case, subduing the climate means subduing ourselves: if we stop over-consuming, burning oil and burning forests, and even reverse our habits by planting new forests, the climate will calm down. Climate scientists paint an apocalyptic image of what the climate will be like if we pass the point of no return on carbon emissions, and it’s an image of a completely out-of-control climate that makes all life precarious. That is a type of nature that will certainly need to be subdued and brought under control. But if we can subdue ourselves before we hit that tipping point (if we haven’t already – experts are torn on that), then all we need do is leave it be, like the nature reserves. That’s certainly one application of this text, but it doesn’t capture the full meaning of what is meant by “subdue” in the text; it’s really much better to use the image of a garden, as the text itself does.

Genesis 2 says that Adam was put in the garden to take care of it. Those who are critical of the notion of subduing “the wild” are also critical of seeing humans as gardeners. When we think of gardens, we tend to think of the “great” gardens of the world: carefully manicured grass and sculpted shrubs, flowers planted in blocks or patterns of colour, everything uniform and neat. This kind of garden requires the gardener to “subdue” nature in a forceful sense, and while what it produces is beautiful, it is not without violence on the ecosystem. Most species of plants and animals are viewed as “weeds” and “pests” because they break the uniformity of the gardener’s vision, and are eradicated or hunted without mercy. In this model of gardening, most of nature is devalued.

However, along with the growing ecological awareness that leads to re-reading Genesis comes increased (or rediscovered) knowledge of the diversity, resilience, and properties of nature. The great gardens of today are often just as carefully pruned but completely unmanicured, with the gardener’s role being that of providing the indigenous plants with what they need to fully thrive in their natural environment, limiting the influence of invasive species or damagingly overpopulated creatures in order to promote the “natural” equilibrium of an ecosystem. My own yard is planted with indigenous grasses that grow long, and I’m far from meticulous about “weeding” as I know that the plants that grow in the midst of my lawn are part of this habitat; I only pull them when enough of them are growing in a certain spot that they crowd out other plants that would also thrive in that area of the lawn. My lawn was planted with the knowledge that the space it grows in was once “wild” forest, and before that it was orchard (more than forty years ago), and before that it was probably “wild” forest again. Now it’s grass, and that’s a decision that I have made. I have interfered, and what grows there now grows at my good pleasure; I can pull it out, cull its numbers, or subdue it, and I do so with the goal of allowing the whole to flourish in its own beauty rather than bending it to my own view of beauty.


I subdue my yard because I love it. I mourned when a construction crew (against my wishes) cleared a large section of my yard as they dug the basement of my house, but we’ve gone out of our way to plant indigenous grasses and wildflowers to attract pollinators, butterflies and bees; we’ve planted local trees that thrive here, of the same varieties that were cut down and cleared out to make room for our house. We’re correcting the mistakes that were made last year, and using our knowledge and power to help our yard find the equilibrium that naturally occurs after many years; with our careful help a small ecosystem can be developed in our backyard within a few years, and we can enjoy the benefits it provides. I consider this ecosystem, somewhat abstract as it might seem, a friend; and I’m willing to work to give it what it needs to thrive. My “dominion” is one of service, and my “garden” is “natural” or “wild” in spite of being “subdued”. Its dignity is not diminished by my own, nor is my dignity diminished by having a “wild” yard; rather, both of our dignities are enhanced when I choose to serve and live in harmony with the natural world that I call my own.

That’s what I see in Genesis, and what I’d like to see in our world.