The Mother Earth Cries
7“But ask the animals, and they will teach you;
the birds of the air, and they will tell you;
8 ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you;
and the fish of the sea will declare to you.
9 Who among all these does not know
that the hand of the Lord has done this?
10 In his hand is the life of every living thing
and the breath of every human being. (Job. 12:7-10)
‘Mother Earth’ is a metaphor we use to help us grasp the reality of equality and mutuality in God’s wonderful creation. The Mother Earth is the ‘Home’ of humans, including 6.5 million species on land and 2.2 million in rivers, lakes, and oceans, and today she is being impaired by greenhouse gas emissions, global warming, rising sea levels, the alarming pollution of air, water and other essential survival necessities. The earth’s resources are being exploited beyond their limits, affecting the atmospheric temperature and causing extreme earthquakes, landslides, and floods; a sign of Mother Earth’s cry in pain. The cry of Mother Earth is the cry of the poor (Gen. 4:10). They all have devastating effects on all people, most especially on the already vulnerable communities. We can say that the pandemic Covid-19 is Mother Earth’s way of shedding tears of pain. The UN Secretary-General, AntónioGuterres, said that “Mother Earth is urging a call to action,” adding, “we need a shift to a more sustainable economy that works for both people and the planet.” He further highlighted the close relationships between human, animal, and environmental health:
Nature is suffering. Australian fires, heat records, and the worst locust invasion in Kenya. Now we face COVID -19, a worldwide health pandemic linked to the health of our ecosystem.
Climate change, man-made (sic) changes to nature as well as crimes that disrupt biodiversity, such as deforestation, land-use change, intensified agriculture, and livestock production or the growing illegal wildlife trade can increase contact and the transmission of infectious diseases from animals to humans (zoonotic diseases) like COVID-19.
Why is God’s creation groaning? Who is responsible? Why do we have to talk about the redemption of God’s creation? What went wrong with God’s creation that sustains all lives? What are humans’ responsibilities in redeeming God’s creation? These are some of the issues we need to address today. Redemption and preservation of God’s creation is an issue of justice. Mother Earth is the foundation of all lives, and so also theology. The redemption of creation has to do with how human beings relate to Mother Earth. In this sense, eco-justice and social justice are so intertwined that one cannot be pursued without the other.
Wrong Perceptions of God’s Creation
God’s creation is groaning. The ideology that has contributed to the groaning of God’s creation has four major streams of praxis. The confluence of these four streams has created a forceful current in the dominant Christian traditions that set aside the truth of the communion of human beings with God’s creation. It is important to see how such an understanding of the God-world-human relationship has influenced the attitude of humans and contributed towards the exploitation and abuse of Mother Earth.
First, the western development model visualizes human progress as a highly mechanized and industrialized society. The booming of economic progress, high-tech lifestyle, accumulation of wealth, and throw away culture is perceived as the attainment of the higher quality of life. ‘Growth’ especially material growth is seen as the only principle for liberation. This one-sided extractive development undermines the values of the interconnectedness of all life. In their view, there is a sharp contrast between humans and nature. Nature is viewed as objectively and seen purely from a utilitarian perspective. There is no mystery and sacredness in nature. Creation is merely a sum-total of many material components and energies related to the physical world, which humans are capable of understanding, predicting, and controlling. Humans are not only separated from but are also the masters of the earth. Natural resources are like dead objects to be exploited for human development and enjoyment. This view of development rooted in the conquest of nature and exploitation of mother earth is the major root cause of the groaning of God’s creation today.
Second, the Hebrew teaches the hierarchy of creation. In this view of life, man (male) is the head who has the authority to exercise power over the family – the women, the children, the slaves, etc. In the same vein, several Christian theologians have explained God’s creation within this hierarchical structure. Humans are the highest among all created materials and beings, having the ultimate right over the other creatures. It was believed that hierarchical order is the divine design because “the imperfect beings are for the use of perfect.” (Thomas Aquinas) The whole material nature exists for human needs because humanity alone possesses rationality. Humans are above all creatures because of their rationality. In other words, the other non-human creatures are created, protected, preserved, and sustained by God to serve the human needs as they alone possess the intellectual capacity. This theology gives justification for the manipulation and exploitation of other segments of God’s creation without respect and care.
The third is an anthropocentric view. It views that humanity is the centre and reference point of everything. The value of nature is measured according to its taste and usefulness for humans; creation has meaning and values by serving the interests of humankind. It also teaches that humans are separated from nature. Luther saw the whole creation of God as something which exists only for the benefit of humans. He recognized nature simply as an existential springboard for grace. The ultimate purpose of creation is thus perceived as non-living, valueless; they are merely created so that human beings experience God’s grace. Karl Barth, a German theologian, also advocated similar theology. For him, God is the ‘wholly other’, the transcendent Lord, who can be known only when God chooses to reveal Godself, as God did pre-eminently in Jesus Christ. For Barth, the Word (The Spirit) is not the foremost principle of creation which gives life to all created things; rather the Word is the first and foremost God’s address to humanity in Jesus Christ. God is not known through God’s creation, but only through Jesus Christ. Barth is very explicit that salvation history begins from the incarnation of Jesus Christ, but not from the creation. Barth further argued that this great history of salvation cannot be actualized if there is no place or space for it to occur. It needs a “showplace” or a “theatre” outside of God and humans. This is the reason why God brought the created world into existence. Nature is sustained, protected, and upheld for the sake of the election. Such theology places creation in the second position giving justification for exploitation.
Fourth is the dualistic view of life which is very close to the hierarchical view of creation. This stream of thought is of Greek origin. Dualism includes abled-disabled, holy-unholy, soul-body, permanent-temporal, man-woman, human-nonhuman, spirit-matter, living-nonliving beings, etc. In this view of life, the latter is always seen as inferior, unclean, and associated with evil, and damnation. The former is superior, holier, and more valuable; and the former has the ultimate right over the latter. In this worldview, the soul is the highest among all created orders. The soul finds its true destiny by escaping from nature, creation, and the world. The world is evil because it is created by a lesser god (demi-God). This view stressed that God is different and distinct from created nature. A holy God cannot be related to a material world. Gnostic held the view that the world is a creation of demonic power from the chaos of the darkness. It is purely material, fleshly, and perishable. It represents the full expression of evil. They have no value and no meaning of integrity on their own. This dualistic view of life influenced humans to believe that humankind is called upon to control nature without any respect.
This World is not my Home Theology
Most of the nineteenth century Evangelicals interpreted God-world-human relationships from an anthropocentric and dualistic point of view. The Evangelicals recognized God’s revelation only in Jesus Christ, but not in the total creation of God. One can know God only through Jesus Christ but not through creation. The teaching of heaven and hell further reinforced negligence and undermining of God’s creation. The world is coming to an end, all materials will be destroyed, but only the souls will be saved and live eternally in heaven; other materials will perish. This doctrine made people think that this world is not our home. James Reeves’ song reflects/captures this theology:
This world is not my home; I’m just passing through.
My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue.
The angels beckon me from heaven’s open door.
And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.
A negative attitude toward creation is imposed. If this world is not our home, why should we take care of it? We are not sure how many Christians have been influenced by such other-worldly theology. But surely, there are many Christians today who still think and believe that this world is not their home. Some Christians even believe that ecological destruction is one of the signs of the Lord’s coming. The mindful destruction of forests; pollution of the rivers, lakes, seas, and air; and the denudation of mountains, watersheds, and parks testify to our wrong perception of Mother Earth. The earth is our mother. We must care for it. By caring for our mother earth, we are also caring for ourselves and the whole of humanity. We need a theology, ethics that promote respect, and a caring attitude towards all God’s creation.
Biblical Witness of God’s Creation
The biblical faith unfolds the fact that the creation is God’s first act of revelation: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). God reveals Godself as the Creator of the universe. Life begins with water. God cannot be perceived without water, wind, trees, vegetation, sky, light, darkness, animals, and human creatures. The most striking aspect of this first act of God’s revelation is that “God is present in creation.” God becomes the co-creator with the earth by saying, “Let the land sprout with vegetation – every sort of seed-bearing plant, and trees that grow seed-bearing fruit. These seeds will then produce the kinds of plants and trees from which they came.” (Gen. 1:11) And that is what happened. The presence of God makes this earth sacred and living. That is why God entered into a covenant relationship with all creatures. This makes “the whole earth (is) full of God’s glory” (Isa. 6:1-3). To perceive God as detached from creation/earth or a mere transcendental being, who controls life from above is not the biblical faith. We believe in God because God as the Creator is present and continues to work with the land, river, and sea to give life and hope. Everything emerged from God and was sanctified by God’s grace and love, and thus sacred. Human beings are no longer separate from nature, but form an integral part of it. This affirmation is the foundation of life.
The book of Genesis records, “And God blessed them (man and woman), and God said unto them, ‘Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moves upon the earth’” (Gen. 1:28).Throughout the history of Christian theology, the words “subdue” and “have dominion” have been misinterpreted to mean “exploitation” of the natural world for the sake of the human beings. But we should remember that creation is there not for the sake of the humans, but rather humans are there for the sake of creation. Human beings are there because of their creation. To “subdue” and “have dominion” do not mean to exploit for the sake of the humans, but rather to care for creation for the sake of the creation itself in obedience to God, the Creator. This is why we say “integrity of creation.” It means creation is not valueless but has its reason for being. The importance and significance of creation are defined by the Creator and not by human beings. When humans do not respect the integrity of creation then environmental destruction abounds. Being creatures themselves, human beings should live in ‘equality and mutuality’ with the rest of God’s creation. When the tenants take over the position of the owner and rule over the rest, then upheaval happens. Today, the whole of God’s creation “cry out in travails” in need of God’s redemption from human destruction and greed. Humans have taken over the ownership of the earth. Humans have no right to take over the position of the Creator who is the ultimate owner of the earth.
The human body shares the power of nature in its composition of water, air, and other elements of the Earth. God created humans in such a way that we cannot exist without depending on other God’s creation. Similarly, the redemption of God’s creation happens only when humans maintain a just communion and solidarity with all living and inanimate nature. Humans, thus are called to maintain a balanced relationship with all ecosystems.
The idea of sustainable development emerged from the realization that there has to be “limits in growth.” This concept is also very much tied to an anthropocentric vision of reality. The dominant concern here seems to be the survival of humanity which is not possible when the environment is damaged, or the resources of nature are overexploited. Sustainable development does not focus on the present situation of poverty in a world where about 20% of the population consumes more than 80% resources of nature. It seems to be more concerned about intergenerational equity. It means that it is the moral responsibility of the present generation to leave behind the earth’s resources for future generations. Hence, the restraint on profit-oriented massive scale development and unending desire to accumulate more and more become imperative for future human security. Such orientation does not ensure justice to God’s creation. It still looks at nature as an instrument/resource for the present and future human well-being and progress, but not having a value in itself.
Importance of Earth’s Mission
The Mother Earth is endowed with meaning and value in themselves and not in terms of their utility for human beings. This vision of life needs to be percolated in all relationships of human beings to nature, including economic activity, and this would ultimately enhance the quality of human life. All forms of life, including humans are dependent on the Earth – its products, the biosphere, and the eco-systems. Therefore, it is crucial that we engage in the earth’s mission:
a) Our understanding of church and mission. The mission of God is not limited to the conversion and planting of the church. The mission is inclusive. It involves calling persons to a commitment to the Kingdom of God, justice and peace, and the ecological health of the land. When we care for God’s creation as we care for our mothers, in return Mother Earth cares for us by giving and sustaining life.
b) Our understanding of creation is not just things to be exploited. Every living creature possesses an intrinsic value and right. Therefore, preserving the integrity of the whole inhabited earth and promoting an ecologically responsible development is a matter of survival for the whole world.
c) Our understanding of justice is not an abstract reality to be realized within the human community alone, but it is how we live in the web of life in reciprocity with people, other creatures, and the earth, recognizing that they are part of us and we are part of them.
d) Our search for a new ethical principle. Human communities must bear a responsibility towards the earth and its wholeness. The earth, with its diverse life forms, is functioning as one coherent whole. The whole earth is God’s creation and we need to respect its inherent value and rights. A lifestyle of high material consumption is unethical. Learning to live in a new way not based on exploitation and injustice would allow all to flourish in health and wholeness.