Doctrine, Ecology, and Justice (Part 2 of 3)

by Eric Daryl Meyer

[Back to part 1]

The remainder of this essay seeks connections between Christian doctrine and ecological sensitivity as an ethical imperative relative to our fellow creatures (in addition to the more obvious, but anthropocentric connection to social justice within human relations). That doctrine provides spiritual orientation, rational augmentation, and virtue-based motivation for the ethical imperative to care for creation. James Nash’s Loving Nature and the chapter by Christine F. Hinze may provide sounding boards for the discussion as it progresses. From an ecological perspective, one may advance the strong thesis that Christian doctrine provides a more realistic picture of ecosystemic relationships than the theories of either the secular nation state or economic market capitalism.

The Latin word for “Lord” is “dominus.” One of the first honorific titles ascribed to Jesus is “Lord.” Jesus’ disciple Thomas, for instance, exclaims “my Lord and my God” when he recognizes the resurrected Christ.[3] The same Latin root, however, is often employed in the English translation of the Hebrew word kabash from Genesis 1:26-28 and rendered as “dominion.” The notion of human dominion within creation has been used as justification for exploitative overuse of creation’s resources and the abuse of its creatures; it is a notorious concept in environmentalist circles, and has been dealt with at length by a number of ecologically sensitive biblical scholars and theologians. Clearly, for good or for ill, here is a connection between doctrine and ecology! My present concern with the concept is not a systematic doctrinal treatment, exposition of its historical impact, or an exegetical study that might open up earth-friendly dimensions of the text in Genesis. Rather in line with the etymology above, I want to suggest a Christological re-reading of the notion of dominion that ecologically re-orients its practice through fresh moral and spiritual concerns.

The difference between human beings and other creatures on the planet is clear, if not in terms of rational and emotional faculties, then at least in the scope and perversity of destruction wrought. Dominion is an empirical reality even if (as many argue) it should not be a theological imperative. Within the planetary community, most everyone is subject to the will and whims of human beings for better or worse. Of course, hairless bipeds cannot conquer everything, and death, disease, and depravity are still universal—though most humans labor to circumvent at least two out of the three. The most pressing question then, is not, “Should human beings exercise dominion?” but rather, “How should human beings exercise the dominion they have already seized?”

The heart of Jesus’ ministry, most biblical scholars agree, was the announcement of the “kingdom of God.” The semantic range of the Hebrew kabash (“dominion”) and the Greek basileia (“kingdom”) do not entirely correspond, but there is sufficient overlap that we could arguably speak of Jesus’ inauguration of the “dominion of God.” The Lord (dominus) brings anticipatory signs of God’s dominion. This connection presents a very fruitful twist! For Christians, Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection become the functional model for human dominion. In the pattern of Jesus’ dominion, human dominion must become a kenotic enterprise of service to other creatures. If Jesus gave his life in the course of announcing the favorable day of the Lord in which sight is restored to the blind, freedom given to the captives, good news delivered to the poor (later to be vindicated in his resurrection), then on that pattern human dominion must entail a concern for the well-being of all creatures and the integrity of their natural homes—especially where they are damaged or threatened. The violent connotations of the word kabash (“stomping, subduing”) can be seen in Jesus’ forceful response to demons and diseases; in his direct confrontation of self-righteousness, idolatry, and abuse of power; and in his driving out of the temple merchants. Yet, all of his stomping around and subduing of death and sin was quite clearly in service to the human beings involved and for the sake of their liberation. Jesus’ violence (if it can be so-called) is not exploitative or self-serving. So too human dominion, if it is to participate in the dominion of God must eschew self-serving exploitation to bring life and wholeness wherever it is exercised.[4] God’s place in the human community through Jesus Christ becomes the foundational model for the place of human beings in the planetary community with regard to the function of authority and difference.


[3] John 20:28.

[4] I find this way of thinking to be tremendously helpful and appropriately subversive of the typical misuse of the dominion concept. Nevertheless, several important questions remain (and unfortunately remain beyond the scope of this paper to resolve. How can humans think about taking the life of a creature for food in this mode of dominion? Does this ordering require a (problematic) notion of analogical hierarchy (as God is to humanity, humanity is to creation)? Does this pattern reinforce the essentialized false distinction between “humanity” and “nature” that already pervades our thought? 

[On to part 3]