Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Till the garden and keep it (Sunday Reflections for June 13, 2010)

Peaceable Kingdom by Edward Hicks (1780-1849)
How manifold are your works, O LORD! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.
Yonder is the sea, great and wide, with its swarms too many to number,
living things both small and great . . . .
All of them look to you
to give them their food in due season.
You give it to them; they gather it;
you open your hand, and they are filled with good things.
When you hide your face, they are terrified;
when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust.
You send forth your Spirit, and they are created;
and so you renew the face of the earth.  (Psalm 104)

When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars you have set in their courses,
what are mere mortals that you should be mindful of them,
human beings that you should care for them?
Yet you have made them little less than divine;
with glory and honor you crown them.
You have made them rule over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under their feet:
all flocks and cattle,
even the wild beasts of the field,
the birds of the air, the fish of the sea,
and whatever passes along the paths of the sea.  (Psalm 8)

And God said, "Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky." So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good. God blessed them, saying, "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth."… And God said, "Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind." And it was so. God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good. Then God said, "Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth."  (Genesis 1)

In the day that the Lord GOD made the earth and the heavens ... the Lord GOD formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. And the Lord GOD planted a garden in Eden… [and] the Lord GOD took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.  (Genesis 2)

I’ve been thinking a lot about animals lately and these texts. The Psalms were used just a few weeks ago on Pentecost and Trinity Sundays. The Genesis texts, of course, are from the two creation stories that open that book.

The Bible doesn’t often step back to think about the natural world or the plants and animals that inhabit it. This is because they are, in a way, taken for granted though not in a dismissive way. Far from it. The natural world is taken for granted because it simply is the world of biblical people. It surrounds them at all times and they are totally dependent upon it. No one forgets for a moment that their survival depends upon the plants and animals they grow, tend, and hunt. And as these passages show, the Bible does not forget that they are all gifts from God for human use and for which humanity is responsible. Human beings have been placed in the “garden” of this world “to till it and keep it.”

One of the consequences of modern life has been a weakening of our appreciation of our garden home. Few of us have the daily experiences ancient people took for granted that connected them to the natural world on which they depended. We have little interaction with the animals which provide much of our food, perhaps seeing them in the distance as we speed by on a rural Interstate.

The meat and dairy products we consume are all neatly packaged and give almost no reminder of their actual origin. Indeed, we’re slightly disgusted if too much of that “red juice” oozes out of our meat and gets on our fingers. How would anyone who didn’t know better associate restaurant chicken tenders or a hamburger patty with anything that actually lived and breathed? Robert Pirsig, in his 1970s blockbuster Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, recalls his children’s shock and sadness when they discovered the gruesome truth that cattle don’t “give meat” the way cows give milk.

Yet even that milk giving is often not as passive or innocent as it sounds. Recently a Chicago-based animal welfare group released a horrific video taken inside an Ohio dairy farm. It showed workers there needlessly and sadistically beating and torturing cows and calves. At one point the owner is present, watching with bemusement. Reportedly he is a third-generation farmer. One person has since been arrested and a police investigation is ongoing.

What had happened to these people and their perception of these innocent animals that led to such inexplicable cruelty? It’s easy to jump to conclusions but at a minimum it’s obvious that in some way these animals had become entirely “other, not me, foreign, alien.” And when we create such distance between ourselves and something else, we give ourselves permission to treat it any way we want. Thus, Nazi propaganda emphasized again and again that Jews were not human and frequently used images of rats and other vermin when talking about them.

My memory is also plagued by the heart wrenching photos of oil-soaked birds, flopping helplessly in their death throes. We have only gotten a glimpse of the catastrophic results of the ongoing hemorrhage from BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil well. We know that most of the carnage is happening out-of-sight beneath the Gulf’s surface thought that toll will be discovered soon enough.

We’re reminded here, too, how we have become distanced from the sources of the products we consume. We swipe our credit card and the gas magically pours from the hose into our car. Do we think at all of its true origin? Perhaps now we will with the image of those birds burned into our conscience.

The Bible says we “rule” over this world and have “dominion” over all its creatures. Yet the huge qualification of such statements is that we do so as stewards. We have been appointed by God to oversee his creation, the Bible says. We are in the garden to till it and keep it on God’s behalf. Ultimately none of this belongs to us; it is all on loan. And as Jesus reminds us in multiple parables, God is coming back to check up on our stewardship. We will all be held to account.

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