Sermon: “The Price of Dominion”

June 11, 2017: Trinity Sunday

Genesis 1:1-2:3

The author of this creation account in Genesis has such a lovely, poetic approach to telling the story. It comes with lovingly repeated phrases such as, “God said, ‘Let there be…’”, and “It was good,” and “there was evening and there was morning…” They give the passage a gentle, unhurried feel. There’s a lot of creating going on, but it never feels rushed. It’s six days of a spectacular creation, but it feels almost like a week basking at the beach.

And along comes verse 26, which is so packed with crucial questions about humanity and the nature of God and our relationship with Creation that I wish the author had written an entire book just about this verse. Listen:

“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 every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’”

For thousands of years, Jews and later Christians have wondered about what it means that humanity is made in the image of God. Since around the second century after Jesus, Christians have heard God use the words “us” and “our” in this verse and decided, “Ah ha! It’s a sign of the Trinity in the Old Testament!” That’s why our lectionary editors have assigned this passage to Trinity Sunday. Mind you, that would have probably surprised the original author quite a bit — but I’m not planning to talk about the doctrine of the Trinity today, so you’ll just have to live with the mystery.

Today, though, I’m looking squarely at that word, “dominion.”

I confess it’s not my favorite word. “Dominion” feels to me like power imposed from outside, lacking empathy or caring for those who have been, well, dominated. People who have had dominion over other people in the world have demonstrated repeatedly the truth stated by Lord Acton: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

There’s another sentence to his statement which I’ve rarely heard quoted: “Great men are almost always bad men.”

Genesis does offer guidance for the exercise of this power: It’s to be fruitful. Dominion is supposed to help those made in the image of God feed themselves, and to make sure, interestingly, that other creatures can feed themselves, too.

So there’s another quote to balance that of Lord Acton. I’ve always credited it to Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, the creators of Spiderman, but it turns out that its first known appearance in print comes from the French National Convention in 1793: “Great responsibility follows inseparably from great power.”

(It’s amazing what you can learn on the Internet.)

It’s inescapable that we have great power over the created world. Other living things do reshape their environments: insects like ants, wasps, and termites build massive structures, for instance. There’s nothing quite like the ’ohi’a plant for transforming a plain of barren rock into a forest. And we all rely on the chlorophyll in green plants to provide us with an atmosphere that we can breathe.

Human beings, though: we’re impressive. We reverse rivers, and we built a canal that connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Since shortly after World War II, we have had the power to make this planet uninhabitable as we equipped ourselves with arsenals of radioactive weapons. We could probably wipe out life on Earth. Fortunately, we stopped ourselves on the brink of that madness.

Today, we have learned that we have the power to transform the climate without even intending to. Civilization’s appetite for energy found a wealth of it in the combustion of hydrocarbons: coal, oil, and natural gas. Burning it released energy we could use to do many things: making cars and trains roll and airplanes fly, turning the drills and raising and lowering the presses of industry, powering the shredders and rollers of sugarcane.

But all that burning moved carbon from the ground into the air, and it tends to stay there, acting as an insulating blanket, and slowly allowing the air and ocean to warm up, and preventing it from cooling down quite as much.

Warmer air and warmer water have meant that the ice caps at the poles have been shrinking. To add to the problem, warmer water actually takes more space, and between melting polar ice and expanding ocean the sea levels have been rising. That’s why our “king tides” are higher, and it’s why some New York City subways flooded a few years ago when storm Sandy pushed the Atlantic’s waters into the streets, and down the station steps.

There’s our power.

Where is our responsibility?

It’s not in the White House.

When the President announced that the United States would withdraw from the Paris Accords, he justified it by placing the interests of the United States over those of the rest of the world. He asserted that the agreement placed our nation at a disadvantage, that it would cost us more than others.

The statistics he quoted in his announcement have been contested. But for a moment, let’s assume that the Parish Accords would cost Americans more. Perhaps a lot more.

Could that have something to do with just how much carbon we transfer from the ground to the air?

According to the World Bank, we’re eleventh in the world for carbon emissions per capita as of 2013. In absolute emissions, we’re second. China leads for total emissions, but it’s far lower for emissions per capita, and scientists say that they’re ahead of the goals they set under the Paris Accords.

So, yes: We’ve been exercising great power to transform our atmosphere, albeit unintentionally and ignorantly.

But now we know. And great responsibility flows inevitably from great power.

Where is that responsibility?

After I released “What I’m Thinking” this week, I had a response: a question that’s had me searching for an answer ever since. The question, of course, is, “What do we do, here in Hilo, at Church of the Holy Cross?” How do we live up to our responsibility?

Honestly, I wish I knew.

Walter C. Bouzard writes: “As ‘image of God,’ Christians are summoned to reflect God’s care for the world of creation and for human community. In that calling, we have an example and a model in Jesus, the quintessential image of God.”

We can and we should do the things that lower our individual and family carbon footprint. Turn lights off when we’re not in the room. Turn off or unplug those surge suppressor devices we’ve got our computers and stereos plugged into, so that their tell-tale lights aren’t using electricity. We can plan our drives better to use less fuel. Carpool. Walk. Use a bicycle.

Find additional resources gathered by the Ecumenical Lenten Carbon Fast here.

But I have to tell you that most of America’s emissions don’t come directly from us. Commercial and residential emissions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (that part of their website is still available), accounts for only 12%. Electricity is big at 29%, so changing the way we generate it is vital. Industry and transportation account for 21% and 27% between them; nearly half of the carbon we transfer from the ground to the air every year.

Changing those parts of our economy means creating laws. It means government and regulations and standards.

So we’ll need to advocate. We need to send letters to our Governor and legislature applauding them for setting our state’s Paris Accord goals into state law. We need to encourage our legislators to accelerate the pace as best we can to make up for our sister states who may not take the same action. We need to encourage them to move along toward Hawai’i’s goal of 100% renewable energy, hopefully before the target of 2045.

We need to encourage our Congressional delegation to set carbon reduction policy into federal law, which the Executive has to enforce. That’s going to be a steep climb in the current Congress.

So we’re going to have to change other minds. We’re going to have to awaken them to the reality of climate change and sea level rise, to the power which we humans have exercised to further these, and to the responsibility we’ve assumed. We need to remind people that we have an obligation not just to our immediate neighbors but to the distant ones. We need to remind people to care about someone other than themselves.

Then they’ll need to express that caring to their members of Congress.

We need to tell manufacturers and retailers that we will make purchasing decisions based on their efforts to reduce carbon emissions. We may pay a price for that; it’s unlikely that the bargains will always be those that save on carbon as well. And it will certainly cause us to spend time in researching something other than sticker price. More effort. More dollars. That’s part of the price of dominion.

The power is ours. The responsibility is ours. We have dominion. Let us exercise caring.


The photo is of surf leaping 50-60 feet in the air along Hawai’i Island’s cliff-bound coast. Photo by Eric Anderson.

Categories Sermons | Tags: , , , , | Posted on June 11, 2017

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