|God & Nature Magazine|
New Testament Motivation for Environmental Stewardship
by Martin LaBar
Like me, many Christians are convinced that following Christ includes helping to take care of the environment, being good environmental stewards. Some of the reason for this may be self-interest—we don’t want to burn down our house while we are living in it. But some of the reason for trying to care for nature around us stems from the fact that we think the Bible teaches that we should. Like me, many Christians like to find support for what they do, and don’t do, from scripture. Passages often used to support being careful with the environment include:
Genesis 1:26-28, in which the first humans were told that they were to “have dominion.”
Psalm 24:1: The earth is Yahweh’s, with its fullness…
Psalm 50:10: For every animal of the forest is mine,
and the livestock on a thousand hills.
I know all the birds of the mountains.
The wild animals of the field are mine.
the world, and those who dwell therein.
Psalm 104:24: Yahweh, how many are your works!
In wisdom have you made them all.
The earth is full of your riches.
There is the sea, great and wide,
in which are innumerable living things,
both small and large animals.
Jeremiah 2:7: I brought you into a plentiful land,
to eat its fruit and its goodness;
but when you entered, you defiled my land,
and made my heritage an abomination.
Other passages are also used. Almost all such support comes from the Old Testament. I have used Old Testament passages in teaching biology classes at a Christian college, and, as appropriate, in my church. But in the back of my mind, I wondered if there were good New Testament-based arguments for helping take care of the environment, as well. A few years ago, it suddenly occurred to me that there are at least two arguments that I have never used, one entirely from the New Testament, and one partly from it. I am not aware that anyone else has presented them. Perhaps that’s because I haven’t paid attention, or because they aren’t good arguments, but here they are, anyway:
1) Taking care of the environment makes God’s revelation clearer.
Psalm 19:1 The heavens declare the glory of God.
The expanse shows his handiwork.
Day after day they pour out speech,
and night after night they display knowledge.
There is no speech nor language,
where their voice is not heard.
Their voice has gone out through all the earth,
their words to the end of the world.
Romans 1:18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known of God is revealed in them, for God revealed it to them. For the invisible things of him since the creation of the world are clearly seen, being perceived through the things that are made, even his everlasting power and divinity; that they may be without excuse.
These two passages tell us that observing nature is part of God’s revelation to humans. If that is so, isn’t that a reason to try to preserve nature as well as we can?
The Bible is one of the ways that God reveals himself to us. Christians, when we think about it, believe that the Bible should be translated into languages familiar to all people, so that that revelation may be as clear as possible. Thus, those of us whose “heart language” is English have a variety of translations available to us. There are efforts to translate the Bible into many other languages. Why? So God’s revelation, through scripture, will be as clear as possible to these speakers, even if there aren’t very many of them in a particular language group.
Shouldn’t God's revelation through nature also be as clear as possible? A person is more likely to see God in a pristine stream than in a polluted river. Seeing bison herds roam freely in Western North America gave early settlers a glimpse of one aspect of God’s power and majesty that they can’t really receive now. Helping to preserve nature in as good a condition as we can is one way to bring people to a saving knowledge of Christ. Perhaps not the most direct way, but still a way.
2) Stewardship of the environment assists Christ’s mission.
Colossians 1:15: …who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in the heavens and on the earth, things visible and things invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers; all things have been created through him, and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things are held together. He is the head of the body, the assembly, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence. For all the fullness was pleased to dwell in him; and through him to reconcile all things to himself, by him, whether things on the earth, or things in the heavens, having made peace through the blood of his cross.
That passage says that Jesus the son is working to reconcile all things to himself, and that he is working to make peace through the blood of the cross. As Christians, we believe that it is our duty to be his instruments in reconciling sinners to Christ, and to help him in the ministry of making peace. The Bible tells us that we should do this:
2 Corinthians 5:18: But all things are of God, who reconciled us to himself through Jesus Christ, and gave to us the ministry of reconciliation; namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not reckoning to them their trespasses, and having committed to us the word of reconciliation. We are therefore ambassadors on behalf of Christ, as though God were entreating by us: we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.
Shouldn’t it also be true that we should be God’s instruments in his work of sustaining all things, which work is also set forth as Christ’s, in Colossians 1:17? Our desire to please and serve Christ should motivate us, in our own small ways, to hold things together. We may please Christ by protecting endangered species, ecosystems, and biological communities. We should also be motivated to try to clean up man-caused damage to the environment. We can’t hold the earth together by ourselves, any more than we can reconcile sinners to Christ without the help of the Holy Spirit. But that’s no excuse for not being involved in these ministries.
As N. T. Wright put it:
"God is utterly committed to set the world right in the end. This doctrine, like that of the resurrection itself, is held firmly in place by the belief in God as creator, on the one side, and the belief in his goodness on the other. And that setting right must necessarily involve the elimination of all that distorts God’s good and lovely creation and in particular of all that defaces his image-bearing human creatures. (Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. New York: HarperCollins, 2008, p. 179)"
So how do I make God’s revelation clearer? How do I help hold things together?
For me, these missions mean to try to consume as little as possible, especially to consume as little fossil fuel as possible. They mean I should habitually participate in recycling. They mean I should encourage efforts to reclaim natural areas, and to preserve wild living things. They mean that I should take the prospect of human-influenced climate change seriously. They mean that I should commend politicians who work to advance such efforts, and should express displeasure with those who don’t. These missions mean that I should try to spread the message of environmental stewardship to other Christians, because I believe the Bible, both in the Old Testament and the New, encourages me to do so.
Neither the Bible nor the Qur’an (Koran) has a lot to say about homosexuality, and what they do say relates only indirectly to contemporary discussions about gay rights and same-sex marriage. Like pre-modern scholars of law and ethics, these books assume heteronormativity.
As a concept, homosexuality is relatively recent, even if there is plenty of evidence for homoerotic pleasure in the past – albeit illicit in religious terms.
Scriptures and later writers usually referred only to particular sexual acts and did not raise the issue of personal sexual orientation. For religious conservatives, though, both Muslim and Christian, the occasional derogatory reference to same-sex acts is enough to prove their inherent sinfulness in all circumstances.
More liberal interpreters point to broader ethical considerations such as compassion and empathy. They argue that the condemnations of scripture do not apply to committed relationships founded on love.
Such a perspective, however, is inevitably more common among believers concerned with human rights, influenced by gender theory, and trained in contextual and holistic methods of interpretation.
Homosexuality in the Bible
Leviticus 20:13 (cf. 18:22) declares it abominable for a man to lie with another man as with a woman, and both partners are to be executed. The possibility that one party has been coerced is not discussed: both are defiled. However, the offence seems to be no worse than other capital crimes mentioned in the same context, such as adultery and incest.
Paul evidently regarded the prohibition of sexual acts between men or between women as violations of natural law known even to non-Jews – at least if their minds were not clouded by idolatry (Romans 1:18–32; 2:14–16).
He seems to have reflected contemporary views that men should be sexually assertive and women passive, and that sexual activity must be at least potentially procreative.
Sodom and sodomy
For Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike, the story of Sodom is central to the traditional condemnation of male homosexuality. As recounted in Genesis 19, however, this is not a story about love or consensual sex between men: it is about rape and inhospitality.
The mob that gathers outside Lot’s house need not be exclusively male (the Hebrew plural anashim can include both genders), and the text says all ages were represented (Genesis 19:4, 11). When the crowd demands Lot’s visitors, he offers his two virgin daughters in their stead. Perhaps he considers the rape of his daughters a lesser evil than the rape of his guests.
The fact that the guests are male is not emphasised. After the visitors (angels in human form) rescue Lot and his family, God rains down fire and brimstone upon Sodom, Gomorrah, and other cities nearby.
Actually, he had already determined to punish all these towns and their inhabitants, male and female, young and old, before the angels’ visit and the attempted homosexual rape (Genesis 18:16–33). When the wickedness of Sodom is recalled in other parts of the Bible, homosexuality is not mentioned. Yet, despite this broader context, the story was often interpreted primarily as a condemnation of homosexual activity in any form.
In the Qur’an, the somewhat ineffectual Lot of Genesis becomes the Prophet Lut. The Arabic term for homosexual anal intercourse, liwat, comes from his name rather as English derived the term sodomy from the name of the town.
As in Genesis, Lut seems to argue with the men of Sodom over the relative propriety of abusing his daughters or his guests (11:78–79; 15:67–69). More often, though, the emphasis is on his condemnation of lusting after men instead of women (7:80–81; 26:165–66; 27:55; 29:29). In the Qur'an, Lut says:
Indeed, you approach men with desire, instead of women. Rather, you are a transgressing people.
Traditional Islamic perspectives
In the Hadith (thousands of stories reporting the words and deeds of Muhammad and his companions that are comparable in authority to the Qurʾan itself), there is some support for the notion that the principal offences of Sodom were idolatry and avarice. These led in turn to inhospitality and the rape of male visitors.
Nevertheless, the Hadith do unequivocally condemn male homosexual acts. The Qur’an (4:16) demands unspecified punishment for men guilty of lewdness together unless they repent.
Yet, the Prophet is supposed to have declared that both the active and the passive partner should be subject to the same penalty as for zina (illicit heterosexual sex, usually adultery), namely execution by stoning. Abu Dawud’s authoritative hadith collection records a report from Abdullah ibn Abbas:
The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: If you find anyone doing as Lot’s people did, kill the one who does it, and the one to whom it is done (38:4447).
It is doubtful whether any passage of the Qur’an refers to lesbian acts though the condemnation of women who commit indecency (4:15) is sometimes read this way. A few hadith warn women against seeing or touching each other when naked.
Traditional Islamic jurisprudence assumed strict gender roles. The 17th-century Muslim scholar Haskafi explicitly included “a male” in his list of those whom a man could not legally marry.
Marriage was understood in hierarchical terms, but although a man could have sexual relations with female slaves, he did not have the same rights over male slaves.
Pre-modern scholars who produced lists of “enormities” included liwat and sometimes tribadism (“rubbing”, that is, lesbian intercourse) after zina. Prescribed penalties for homosexual acts varied according to different schools and individual scholars. In any case, it was difficult to attain the required level of eye-witness testimony.
In practice, homosexual encounters, including with young male prostitutes, seem to have been quite common in Islamic societies. They were no more or less a cause for moralistic concern than other forms of illicit sex.
Reinterpreting the Islamic tradition
Without actually endorsing homosexuality, some Muslims in Western societies have recognised a parallel between the religious acceptance they demand and the acceptance demanded by gays and lesbians.
The New Zealand Muslim MP Ashraf Choudary (who did not realise that the Qur'an does not urge the stoning of homosexuals) observed that,
if the law allows one minority group in our society to be discriminated against then all minorities are vulnerable.
Some, such as Cambridge philosopher Abdal Hakim Murad (Timothy Winter), have accepted that a homosexual orientation may be innate but say that does not make homosexual sex permissible.
Deducing that it may therefore be legitimate remains a step too far for most.
Traditionally, if sins can be forgiven when repented, declaring forbidden acts not to be sinful has been regarded as heresy or even apostasy. Commentators such as Mehdi Hasan, after wrestling thoughtfully with the issues, have concluded that while they do not approve of homosexual acts, they cannot condone homophobia.
A similar message was offered by Tariq Ramadan, Professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies at Oxford, when he visited New Zealand: Muslims and others have to respect each other, which includes accepting that the law permits gay marriage.
For Muslims generally, as for conservative Christians, homosexual acts are sinful. It is difficult to be openly gay or lesbian in predominantly Islamic countries, but in the West, there are even (a few) gay imams.
There are also support groups for gay and lesbian Muslims. Writers such as Scott Kugle (Siraj al-Haqq) try to reconcile Islamic identity with alternative sexual orientations. Like their Jewish and Christian counterparts, they seek the “original” meaning of scriptural texts obscured by generations of patriarchal, heteronormative interpreters.
They also question the authenticity of certain hadith – in the traditional manner by scrutinising their chains of transmission – and reopen past debates such as that concerning “temporary” marriage. The latter need not be short-term and may offer an alternative framework for co-habitation without formal marriage.
Christian gays and lesbians have had to work hard for a measure of recognition among fellow-believers; their Muslim counterparts are just beginning that struggle.
Acknowledgement: The most useful source for this essay has been Kecia Ali, Sexual Ethics and Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur'an, Hadith and Jurisprudence (Oneworld Publications, new edition, 2016).