When Theology Kills: Christianity & Mass Extinction

This is the first in a series of three posts about Christianity, ecotheology, and biodiversity. In this post, I explore the ways that centuries of Christian theology about creation has had a devastating impact on our common home. I publish these critiques with a heart full of love for the Christian tradition, and a heart full of sorrow, knowing that Christians have often failed in our duty to love our earth and our neighbors who call it home.

In the final two posts, coming out in the next two weeks, I’ll discuss some constructive ways Christians can talk about God and God’s relationship to our planet: theology that is life-giving and life-sustaining, instead of deadly, as our theology has sometimes been throughout history.

CreditCreditSoren Andersson/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images; accessed from the New York Times 18 July 2019

In May, the New York Times announced something many of us already knew: Humans are speeding up mass extinction. Across the world over, biodiversity is shrinking, native species are in a precipitous decline, and entire habitats are disappearing – all while the populations of humans and the animals we farm for food are growing at an alarming rate. 

I knew about these worrisome trends before I read this particular headline, but still, I thought a great deal about this story. In large part, I thought about the image which dominated my laptop screen when I opened the New York Times that morning. In this terrible image, a beautiful olive ridley turtle is on the sand. Its head is bowed, its face mournful and still, its eyes closed. It is being strangled by a fishing net, tied almost as if it were a deadly bow around the great creature’s neck . That turtle died, as many sea creatures do, because of our insatiable and unsustainably desire to eat aquatic animal life – tuna, halibut, scallops, sea bass, shrimp, and on and on and on. In the background of the image, children play in the sand and water. It’s haunting.

That turtle was one casualty of human disregard for the lifeforms with whom we share our planet. It is a heart-wrenching image of just one animal, but the reality is much larger than one turtle. To understand the destruction we level against our non-human animal neighbors, we’d have to imagine millions of animals like this lone olive ridley turtle.

It is an injustice that we have condemned so many innocents to such a fate, and it’s a real-life injustice which reflects a biblical one, found in the Christian account of creation. In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth and all the creatures in the waters and on the land and human beings in God’s image, and God called it all very good. And then humanity took a bite from some fruit, and God condemned not just humanity, but all creation, to pain and toil and death for the rest of our days.

Vine Deloria, Jr., Native American theologian

The animals (at least, the non-human, non-snake animals) and the earth and the waters had nothing to do with the decision of Adam and Eve to eat that fruit – and yet, they paid the price along with us. It is an injustice, one that Native American theologian Vine Deloria, Jr. correctly names as intolerable.[1] I can imagine that, if we asked that dead olive ridley turtle whether she too paid the price of humanity’s sin, she would give a resounding yes. We ate the fruit from the tree of technology and fossil fuels, and so pollution, destruction, and degradation entered the life of the whole creation. It is intolerable, and devastatingly true, that the consequences of our wrongdoings reach far beyond the human community.

Unlike the other mass extinctions long ago in the earth’s history, the responsibility of the current devastation we are witnessing lies squarely on our shoulders. This current mass extinction is the result of our clearing of forests for animal agriculture, the ever-expanding cities and suburbs, ceaseless logging, hunting, wanton water pollution, and our transportation of plant and animal life around the globe[2] – resulting in invasive species colonizing the habitats of native species. All of this is in addition to the overfishing caused solely by human demand for fish to eat.

All of this makes one thing clear: we have a poor relationship with the earth and its creatures. In human terms, we might say that we have an estranged relationship with the earth. We’re not on speaking terms; in fact, we humans are frequently actively violent towards these other earthlings and their homes.

But we didn’t get to a point of crisis over night. Relationships are not ruined in one dramatic moment – not with other humans, or with other creatures. Instead, this current moment in time, when we are so acutely aware that we are living in an ecological crisis, is the result of Western civilizations’ disrespect for the earth – and especially Christians’ poor theology around the creation that God called good. This is a bold claim, but it is not a new one. It’s an argument that is frequently associated with Lynn White, an American historian who argued in 1967 that Medieval European Christian theology laid the theological, ethical groundwork for a worldview which sees the earth as a disposable tool, which was passed down through the generations to the early modern period and the first burgeoning moments of industrialization.

And I’m sad to say that I think White was correct; Christians bear a great responsibility for creating ethical frameworks which allow people to find mistreatment of the earth and all the creatures who call it home tolerable. It’s something that Vine Deloria – the theologian I mentioned earlier – also argued. In his most famous work, God is Red, Deloria compares Christianity to Native American religions to illustrate the ways that Christian theology has often been harmful. He points out two especially egregious ways that Christian theology – especially that grounded in our creation story – has objectified and disrespected the earth.

The first egregious theological claim about creation is that it has been that it is entirely corrupted.[3] The logic goes that, since all creation fell when Adam ate the fruit, creation became sinful. But, unlike humanity which has Jesus as our savior, the earth will simply pass away and a new, virtuous one will take its place (people who hold this theological view often cite Revelation 21 here). Of course, this biblical interpretation ignores important verses that stress the redemption of all creation through Jesus, such as John 12:32: “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everything to myself.”

This theology runs deep, even today. So deep, in fact, that John 12:32 is often translated as Jesus saying, “I will draw all people to myself,” despite the fact that the Greek word in questions here is pantas; it literally just means all, the whole, and everything. Translating this word as “all people” instead of “everything” highlights exactly what Deloria is saying: Christians often see the earth as unredeemable. So unredeemable, in fact, that even Jesus isn’t promising to save it, as if God’s grace does not (or cannot?) extend to the land and waters on which we make our common home.

The second way that Christian theology has often been used to demean our ecosystem is through the idea that we have been given rightful domination over the earth and all the non-human animals in it[4]; the emphasis here is on the word “subdue” found in most translations of Genesis 1:28. This idea is ubiquitous among Western Christians, and even within the social and governmental policies Christians have created in the American Colonies and the United States.

For example, nineteenth century Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton combined racist ideas about Native Americans with biblical language to argue for Manifest Destiny, the movement which claimed that it was the God-granted right of White people to expand across North America (and take Native lands). Benton said, “It would seem that the White race alone received the divine command, to subdue and replenish the earth: for it is the only race that has obeyed it-the only race that hunts out new and distant lands, and even a New World, to subdue and replenish…”

This kind of interpretation clearly has a long history, both of its supporters and those who rightfully criticize this approach. However, this interpretation is not confined to history. In 2016, for example, Poland’s environmental minister Jan Szyszko argued for permitting aggressive logging of ancient forests by saying that we have been given the responsibility to subdue the earth.

Of course, this theology, the kind that says the earth is entirely corrupted, beyond redemption, and to be subdued by mankind (emphasis on the “man”) is not universal among Christians. There are a great deal of Christians who care deeply about creation and who seek its well being. However, this anti-earth theology has had a long history within the European traditions of the faith. And, we European-descent Christians come by it honestly: even the Roman Empire, which impacted the Christian tradition a great deal, had a poor relationship to the earth based in the misuse of its resources.

This is not to say that it is only European and Euro-descent cultures which have exploited the earth, something Deloria is quick to say, as well.[5] After all, it is well known now that deforestation led to the end of humankind on Easter Island. But Deloria points out that one would be hard-pressed to find another society that justifies its exploitation of the land and waters with theological claims of a corrupt earth which we have been commanded to subdue.

It is clear to me that my own tradition of Christianity shares the responsibility for the ecological crisis we face today. We Christians share the responsibility of that olive ridley turtle’s death; we Christians share the burden of responsibility for current crisis of mass extinction. But we are not doomed to an anti-earth theology, and the impact of anti-earth theology makes something clear: the way we practice our faith can have a real impact on the earth. Next week, I’ll talk about an alternative way that Christians can approach theologies of the earth, which is also firmly grounded in the traditions of our faith. Perhaps we can hope and pray that ecotheology might have as broad an impression on the earth as anti-earth theology has had before it.

[1] Vine Deloria, Jr. God is Red: A Native View of Religion. (Golden: Fulcrum Publishing, 2003), 86.

[2] The Editorial Board, “Life as We Know It,” The New York Times. 11 May 2019.

[3] Deloria, 78.

[4] Ibid., 81

[5] Ibid.

One thought on “When Theology Kills: Christianity & Mass Extinction”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s