The Gulf of Mexico and the Care of Creation
We exercise dominion over creation not only when we use it, but also when we conserve it.
As I type this, I am looking out at the Gulf of Mexico. You could have seen a similar sight out the window of the hospital where I was born, just a few miles down the road here on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. Now, though, those waters I grew up with, gently lapping against the sand, are threatening to bring with them millions of gallons of oil spewing up from an exploded rig out in the Gulf. Five years after Hurricane Katrina leveled this hometown of mine, it is bracing for the worst environmental disaster in the history of the United States.
Some conservatives, and some conservative evangelicals, act as though “environmentalism” is by definition “liberal” or even just downright silly. Witness a lot of the evangelical rhetoric across social media on Earth Day a while back: mostly Al Gore jokes and wisecracks about cutting down trees or eating endangered species as a means of celebration.
Do some environmentalists reject the dignity of humanity? Yes. Do some substitute reverence for creation for that due the Creator? Of course. This happens in the same way some give reverence to economic profit or any other finite thing.
There’s nothing conservative, though, and nothing “evangelical,” about dismissing the conservation of the natural environment. And the accelerating Gulf crisis reminds us of what’s at stake.
The incoming tsunami of oil isn’t just about the beaches, although that will be environmentally and economically catastrophic. Just as problematic is the creeping of the oil into inland estuaries and marshes and waterways. The crisis could potentially destroy the ecosystems of birds, shrimp, oysters, and other life forms.
Does God care about baby shrimp? I would argue, yes; God cares for the sparrow that falls to the ground (Matt. 10:29). But, even if you disagree with me on that, consider how God loves those who are “of more value than many sparrows” (Matt. 10:31).
Shrimpers here in Biloxi are mourning the potential loss of not just an industry but a way of life handed down, at least to some, from multiple generations before them. If shrimping collapses, so will tourism, apart from the in and out predation of the casinos dotting the shoreline.
Just as significant, though, is how the balance of ecology affects people in ways we never consider or notice, until it’s threatened. God gave his image-bearing humanity dominion over the natural creation (Gen. 1:28). But this isn’t a pharaoh-like dominion; it’s a Christ-like dominion. Humans aren’t made of ether; we’re made of Spirit-enlivened mud. We come from the earth, and we must receive from nature what we need to survive, in the form of light from the sun, oxygen from plants, and food from the ground.
God knows that we need the natural creation (what we so reductionistically call an “environment”). He exults in it throughout the Psalms and in his speech to Job about his mysterious ways. Jesus continually retreats to the silent places of the mountains and the hills and the deserts, sometimes in the fellowship of only the wild beasts (Mark 1:13). We are built to recognize God in the creation (Rom. 1:18-21), and we need more than just what we can pave over and build in order to flourish.
This is why the Scriptures speak of eternal life in the metaphor of a river that causes the waters to teem with life, with many kinds of fish, and with vegetation thriving on the banks (Ezek. 47:9-12). This is why one aspect of Jesus’ kingship is to make the waters teem with fish, right in the presence of his commercial fishermen disciples (John 21:3-8). And this is why the Scriptures consider it an apocalypse when the waters are poisoned, and the sea-life is gone (Rev. 8:8-9).
We need the creation around us, including the waters and all they contain, because we are not gods. We are creatures who thrive when we live as we were made to live. We exercise dominion over the creation not only when we use it, but also when we conserve it for the generations who will come after.
So pray for the Gulf Coast, that the oil wouldn’t devastate a people and a land already devastated by so much. As you do, remember: real conservatives protect what God loves.
Russell D. Moore is dean of the School of Theology and senior vice-president for academic administration at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.