Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Harvest Thanksgiving: Tilling and Keeping the earth - or Domination? Genesis 1 vs. Genesis 2

Genesis 1:26-30, 2:4-9, 15
26 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.’
27 So God created humankind in his image,
   in the image of God he created them;
   male and female he created them.
28God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’ 29God said, ‘See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. 30And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.’ And it was so.

In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, 5when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; 6but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground— 7then 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. 8And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. 9Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. 

Luke 12:54-58
Jesus also said to the crowds, ‘When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, “It is going to rain”; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, “There will be scorching heat”; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?
‘And why do you not judge for yourselves what is right? Thus, when you go with your accuser before a magistrate, on the way make an effort to settle the case, or you may be dragged before the judge, and the judge hand you over to the officer, and the officer throw you in prison.

When it comes to harvest, the question that I want to consider is, 'Are we Genesis 1 people, or Genesis 2 people?'  The two chapters were written by two authors at two different times and they say different things about creation.  Genesis 2, about Adam and Eve, is an older story than Genesis 1, and we know this because in the Hebrew they use different names for God and different writing styles. What we find in Genesis 1 is a hierarchical build-up towards humankind having dominion over the earth and subduing it. Genesis 2, on the other hand, looks towards nurturing creation with a specific emphasis on farming and our God-given human responsibility to till the ground and keep it.

The two are different. What I want to suggest is that the first almost looks like it is influenced by observation; that the writer saw what humanity does and assumes that must therefore be what God made us to do, to subdue everything before us. But, to my ears, Genesis 2 is more a command from God. 'Here is the earth in your safe keeping. Farm it, care for it and cherish it.'  You might recall later on in Genesis 2 that God asks Adam to name all the animals, again underlining this sense of the duty of care that is being placed on his shoulders.

So it's easy to see that the two chapters are really very different. If we take the Genesis 1 approach, which is to observe what humanity does and then call it the right and God-given thing to do, we realise that this has become unsustainable. When humans have 'dominion', it's one thing if there are a few million of us, and when this passage was written there were only about 50 million people in the entire world.  Now there are over 7 billion, but we haven't changed our habits.

For example, recent fossil evidence has shown what homo sapiens did as we moved out of Africa into the rest of the world. Everywhere we went all the large animals quickly became extinct. We hunted them until they were gone. That's domination; that's dominion. But we can't keep on like that. We cannot continue to be Genesis 1 people. We have to be Genesis 2 people now.  And Genesis 2 is about tilling the ground and keeping it; it's about caring for and taking responsibility for that which has been placed in our charge for a time. As we give thanks for the harvest of today, this is the approach we will have to take in the future if we are to continue to have harvests.

Another way we can think about this is in the literal name of the church. Most of us, when we hear the word, 'Catholic', automatically assume that we're talking about the Roman Catholic church, but actually the word catholic simply means, 'universal'. That's vital in understanding the meaning of what the 20th century French philosopher and Christian mystic Simone Weil meant when she asked this question:
“How can Christianity call itself catholic, if the universe itself is left out?”

So I suggest that when it comes to Harvest thanksgiving it should be about receiving with gratitude God's graceful provision in the present whilst accepting responsibility for the future, a future we are currently not paying sufficient attention to. What I mean by that is that, worldwide, we are simply taking more than the earth has got to give.  So Simone Weil's statement was that we, as Christians, cannot call our faith catholic, or universal, unless it takes account of the needs of the whole earth, and that's another reason why we have to become Genesis 2 people.

If there is to be a sustainable future we have to go much further than we are currently going, both individually and corporately. If we are to go on harvesting we are required to change how we understand the earth and all the life that's upon it. We need to move from treating our planet as a commodity over which we have dominion to treating it as a sacred gift in our care.

There are two further things in the second chapter of Genesis which, I think, back up this argument. First the name ‘Adam’ means ‘man of dust’, or more literally, 'Dirt-man'. It is a subtle acknowledgement that Adam is made of the same stuff as everything else on the planet. When we are conceived our mothers use food from the earth, including all the healthy minerals, to build our bodies. Throughout our lives we will go on doing the same thing.  But when we die we have no further use for these bodies and so we return them to the earth for the minerals to be taken up and reused in some one else. It's likely that every atom in your body has been animate before in another form of life and will be again after you have gone. We are all Adam. We are all made of the same stuff of life that everything and everyone else on this planet is.

Something else that's rather interesting is that Adam is only a living, moving being because God breathes his breath, his Spirit, into him. It is only because God is within him that Adam lives and moves and breathes. So Adam, and us, and our crops, and the birds, the dogs and cats, the sheep and cows and every other living thing exists because of a partnership between God and the earth.  Our planet supplies the material and God breathes in God's breath, God's life. God the Father is in partnership with Mother Earth, and if we are created in God's image, then we are expected to be as well. Nurture and participate, not domination. Genesis 2, not Genesis 1.

Secondly, to add a little more detail, there are two key words in this phrase from Genesis 2:15: 'The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.'  ‘Tilling’ means to cultivate - of helping the land to become everything that it is capable of becoming. Those of you who are farmers know all about this. We are grateful to you and to the many others who put such huge amounts of work in to cultivating the soil and enabling it to yield food for us to eat. So farming is certainly a part of this, but it is not the whole of it. We all have a role to play in ensuring future harvests.  The reason for that is that the phraseology is about care. This is further underlined by the use of ‘keeping’, which comes from a Hebrew word which means to take great care of and guard. What we find, therefore, is that if we read more of the story, then it emerges that God’s plan for humanity is one of nurturing and participating with creation. It's a partnership.

The trouble is, that is not what it has become over the course of just one lifetime. This is highlighted for Anglicans in the fifth of what we call ‘The five marks of mission’, (which define for us the ways in which the church should be engaging with the world), which is stated thus: To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth.  And that is where the rest of us come in. The farmers have to respond to the markets, but it is we, the people, who drive those markets, and every scientific and economic indicator shows us that we are over-consuming.

Look at what Jesus says in the Gospel reading about reading the signs. He was talking in a different context but the truth holds for us here. All the signs are that we are changing our planet and wiping out vast ecosystems by taking out more than we are putting back. We need to read those signs and respond.  And the really frightening thing is how quickly it's happened; within the lifetime of some of those reading this.

After the second world war we were left with a planet full of wrecked economies. The powers that be, especially in the USA, decided on a form of economy based on global consumerism. The result of that was the on-going post world war two boom. According to the calculations of Alan Durning, we produced and consumed as many goods and services in the fifty years between 1950 and the year 2000 as we did throughout the entire history of our species prior to that date.

This cannot continue simply because the planet isn't big enough. Some commentators suggest that if everyone on the planet lived like the rich west does we would need seven earths to sustain us. Genesis 1 domination has led us to this; now we need Genesis 2 tilling and keeping.

So what can we do? History shows that democratically elected governments eventually change their policies when there is a grass-roots shift. That's how they remain in power. So we have to change first and that eventually will shift governmental policy. Look at how the Green Party has slowly but surely had an impact on the policy of successive governments. They have changed opinions.

The change to sustainability starts with people like us. As we give thanks to God for our harvest we need to resolve to change our approach to the world in which we live. We need to learn to buy something and use it until it is worn out, not just replace it because we can. We need to move back towards repairability by buying the goods that can be repaired.

Examples of this comes from two friends of mine. One is very mechanically savvy. He owns a very elderly, very simple car. He doesn't have far to travel so he just keeps repairing it. Another covers huge miles, so every few years she buys a nearly new car that can cope with those miles. Then she runs it right into the ground before replacing it.  And when you do have to replace, take the old one to recycling. Car dismantlers, for example, will give you a few quid and keep other elderly cars going. We should aim to be the last owners of everything we buy, and whatever we buy should be aimed at what we need and should, within our budgets, be bought to last and be repairable.

Many of the generation that used to live like this are still alive. For the sake of future harvests we need to look at a more sustainable lifestyle, because this one isn't. If we care for our children and grandchildren we have to start building lifestyles that will mean that when they are old they can still give thanks for harvests whilst still breathing clean air and eating food they can trust.

We cannot continue to dominate the planet. Genesis 1 is a poor fit for over seven billion people. If we do we will wipe ourselves out and take a lot of the ecosystem with us. But we can re-learn the skill of nurturing, of tilling and keeping the ground; of naming once more the animals. Only then are we fulfilling the commands of Genesis 2. And then, not only can we give thanks for our harvests of today, we can look forward to the harvests for our children and their children.

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