Last week 16-year-old Greta Thunberg made a rousing speech at the United Nations climate summit, invigorating environmentalists and garnering the ire of climate-change deniers. Among the latter was President Donald Trump’s biggest religious apologist, Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church, Dallas, Texas.
“Somebody needs to read poor Greta Genesis, Chapter 9,” Jeffress declared, “and tell her that next time she worries about global warming, just look at a rainbow. That’s God’s promise that the polar ice caps aren’t going to melt and flood the world again.”
Rev. Jeffress might want to take another look at that passage.
To begin with, God states that the rainbow is a reminder for God, not for us: “When I send clouds over the earth, the rainbow will appear in the clouds, and I will remember my covenant with you and with all living creatures” (Gen. 9:14). A careful reading of that passage makes the rainbow a bit more ominous sign. According to the text, the rainbow was not intended to be a sign of God’s care for us, but rather a sign of God’s controlled rage at our shameful behavior.
“Jeffress and his ilk interpret ‘reigning’ and ‘governing’ in a way that resembles the reign and governance of narcissistic dictators and slaveholders.”
It’s true, God promises not to destroy the earth by flood. God did not, however, promise to stop us from destroying the earth. If we believe in free will, God gives us agency, and we are allowed to sin to our hearts’ content. And what is sin, but refusing to follow God’s will?
Genesis begins with a clear description of God’s intention for our relationship with nature. God creates the heavens and the earth and everything in it, and calls it “good.” Then God creates human beings in the image of Godself, and commands them to “reign over” and “govern” the rest of creation.
Jeffress and his ilk interpret “reigning” and “governing” in a way that resembles the reign and governance of narcissistic dictators and slaveholders. For them, “reigning over” means selfishly seeking our own comfort and wealth over the well-being of everything else in creation, including other humans. They claim that God wants us to use the earth however we choose, because the earth was created to serve only humans (most of all, it would seem, the wealthy owners of huge petroleum corporations).
Even if serving humanity is the primary purpose of God’s creation (which is highly debatable), God directly contradicts this exploitative vision of “reigning” in the example of Jesus, the King of Kings. Jesus reigns as a servant. He washes his disciples’ feet and teaches them that “the last shall be first.” In his death on the cross, Jesus shows us that God’s vision of “reigning” is radically sacrificing our own self-interest.
In light of Jesus’ example, God’s vision of humanity “reigning” over the earth and everything in it is one of sacrificial love. We are to humble ourselves and seek the good of all over the good of ourselves. In other words, if we want to be like Jesus, we must pay attention to the distress that the current climate crisis is causing for our neighbors, both human and non-human alike. We must sacrifice, as Thunberg said, our “fairytales of eternal economic growth” for the good of all creation, both present and future.
Exploiting creation at the expense of future generations is heartless selfishness, and the Bible is clear that selfishness is one of the most egregious sins. Repenting of our sins is hard. Maybe that’s why some religious apologists are so defensive of their self-imposed ignorance about the science of the climate crisis. It’s a lot easier to stick our fingers in our ears and hope against all evidence to the contrary that the science is wrong, because that way we can continue selfishly sinning against God and God’s creation.
To repent of our sin might mean sacrificing convenience, comfort and money for the sake of the rest of the world. But isn’t that what Jesus did? As Christians, we are called to follow him, even if it’s hard.
So, the next time we see a rainbow in the sky, rather than see it as a comfortable reminder of God’s care for us no matter what we do, let’s remember that God is reminding Godself to practice sacrificial love – not destruction – for the good of creation. Then, let’s do the same.
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