“Tom, can you can come down here right away?”
It was my sister-in-law on the phone, and her request was less question than command.
“That coon’s in the chicken coop again and Jeff’s at work,” she said. “It killed a hen last night. That makes eight this week!”
Jeff being my brother, the coop being the lean-to shed where their 30-odd chickens live. They raise big, healthy free-range birds and fondly have I eaten their kind over the years—baked, souped, and barbecued—along with their lovely brown eggs, whose big orange yokes shimmer like happy suns as they sizzle in a skillet.
I retrieved my old .410 shotgun from the kitchen closet. It’s a modest weapon, built for the demise of small game, with a chipped maple stock worn smooth to the touch. I racked the bolt back and stuffed three shells into the magazine. For a moment, I was 12 again, ready for a squirrel hunt with Dad in the woods by Clarence Penoski’s dairy farm.
When I ducked beneath the cobwebs of the chicken coop, I saw the raccoon half hidden in the rafters.
BLAM! . . . the first shot raised a dust of dried chicken poop; the laying hens squawked madly from their nest boxes. The coon barely moved.
BLAM! . . . the rafters shuddered and this time the coon fell with a thump.
BLAM! The last shot, quite literally overkill, split the coon in a way I’ll not describe here.
“You got him!” my sister-in-law exclaimed from outside the coop.
“Yeah, a bit messy though,” I said, with feigned modesty and great satisfaction.
The gun felt warm and powerful in my hands. An enticing whiff of burnt gunpowder hung in the air. I hadn’t felt this exhilarated in months, maybe years. My bloodlust was up. I’d killed something deemed a family nuisance and was proud of it. I had violently exercised my dominion over creation and wasn’t ready to stop there. Had there been a dozen coons, I’d have gladly dispatched them all. Such is the alluring, conflicted nature of dominion. Once picked up, it’s a hard thing to set down.
Dominion isn’t a word that many people would use when asked to describe how we should treat creation. Harmony, yes, but dominion, no. Dominion is too fraught with dark, authoritarian overtones for that. Harmony evokes the soft trod of Ojibwa moccasins on the piney shores of Lake Superior; dominion the stomp of Nazi boots on the war-scarred cobblestones of Poland.
Nonetheless, for Christian believers dominion remains biblically important. It’s a word we are obliged to live by and live with. The book of Genesis makes that clear from the start: “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground” (genesis 1:28).
Some modern translations replace “dominion” with “subdue,” but the point remains. Materially speaking, humans were given the keys, and driver’s license, to God’s earthly kingdom. Like it or not, no other creature can run the place the way we do. It was to humans that God gave the combination of opposing thumbs, an upright carriage, and the vast language and reasoning powers of the brain’s frontal cortex. It was to humans alone that He gave immortal souls and the promise of eternal life. As we’re told in Hebrews 2:7, “You made them a little lower than the angels; you crowned them with glory and honor.”
In ways profound and mundane, creation has been made forever subject to the dominion of human agency. Our ability to dominate nature permeates every cranny of human endeavor. As minor proof, consider the history behind one of humankind’s most relished achievements. By that, I of course mean pizza. Because without dominion, there’s no deep dish—or flat crust or meat lover’s supreme, for that matter.
Consider that those first agronomists used an early form of plant selection to cultivate a wild grass whose grain became the wheat we grind for flour (crust). For topping, some nomadic herdsman tamed the wild, bovine ancestors of cows and learned to gather and preserve their milk (cheese). For sauce, some early gardener nurtured a wild fruit once thought poisonous and turned it into a pizza staple (tomatoes). For shortening, some barefoot arborist took a small, wild, scraggly Mediterranean tree and coaxed from it a product that became a marvel of nutrition, healing, and commerce (olive oil). Along the way, someone else had to master portable fire and invent masonry so that we’d have pizza ovens. Of course, how and why we Americans decided to inject gooey cheese into perfectly good pizza crust is another problem altogether.
Given our inquisitive nature, humans have been relentless tinkerers and toolmakers from the start. Our tools are literally levers that move the world (we even call some machines earth movers). They extend our dominion from arm’s length to the far reaches of our solar system. But while most tools are helpful and worthwhile, we’ve focused some of our most capable toolmaking energy on the creation of lethal weapons. Scripture may call us to beat our swords into plowshares (isaiah 2:4), yet it’s usually been the other way around. The stone axe begat a hunter’s bow, which begat a musket, which begat a rifle and machine gun, which begat a stealth bomber, ad infinitum.
With each escalation we multiply the risk that human dominion, if unmoored from God’s grace and right reason, will attain its final conquest: self-annihilation. The brilliant physicist Robert Oppenheimer was struck by this truth in 1945 as he watched the first atomic bomb test explode in the New Mexican desert. Oppenheimer could have exulted in triumph at this culmination of the Manhattan Project’s chilling genius. Instead, what came to mind as the mushroom cloud blossomed was a verse from the Hindu Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”
What bared its teeth on the incinerated sands of Alamogordo wasn’t just nuclear fury, but a human mimicry of Lucifer’s “Non serviam”—I will not serve—rejection of God. Pride, when taken this far, says that I would rather destroy myself, and all creation, than fulfill the commandment to love. Pride, when used as justification by a person or corporation to ruin a piece of desirable land, says that it is ours alone to plunder and profit from. Without regard for who will come next and be all the poorer for our greed.
Where do good people learn such things? Or more important, how can we unlearn what we have wrongly or willfully misunderstood? Christian belief traces our flawed nature to the fall of Adam and Eve and the original sin that followed. In eating the forbidden fruit, they forfeited their intimacy with God, their innocence and their earthly home as the paradise God made it to be. Since then, all manner of godly goods—work, wealth, sex, food, drink, and natural resources—have been misused for disordered ends. Selfishness may be the most dominant gene of all.
Yet if the garden is where human dominion went wrong, why not revisit our origins to help make amends? And if the garden is where human pride first took root, why not try again to uproot it there?
By garden, I mean any place that allows us to practice care for creation. It may be a backyard vegetable garden, planters of strawberries on a patio or an herb garden in a city apartment window. The garden could be a local park, nature preserve or beach that we adopt and care for as our own. It may be a trash-strewn lot, where chicory flowers bloom amid broken glass and cigarette butts. It’s not the size, but the intent that matters. Which sounds ridiculous and pitifully small, were it not that “power is made perfect in weakness” (2 corinthians 12:9).
It’s in our everyday sacred places that we can contemplate seasonal changes that faithfully mark the year. We see the buds of a hickory tree loosen and their leaves unclasp like fingers on an infant’s hand; we cheer as the first tomato and strawberry flowers appear, as sure a sign of God’s fidelity as the first rainbow above the ark. We note the first spring bluebird, and the last night when crickets chirp before they’re stilled by autumn’s chill. To rejoice over these little signs of providence builds virtues that serve us well in this life and the next.
We are each called in our own spheres to learn and practice a humble dominion, oxymoronic as that sounds. Yes, I want homegrown cherry tomatoes for my homemade pizza. But must I engorge my plants with synthetic fertilizers, like some fanatic gym rat who bloats his biceps with steroids? Can’t I increase my yield gently with leaves from the front yard, ashes from the fireplace, and composted manure to enrich the soil in ways that mimic natural renewal?
Dominion, rightly ordered, should begin with gratitude, grow with stewardship, and end in praise. It should make us less dominator and more cooperator. Sure, we’re alpha dogs in the food chain. But does that mean we have to squish every spider and RoundUp every dandelion to kingdom come? Made as we are in God’s image, can’t we exercise our powers of dominion much as he does: with an extremely merciful hand.
Apart from the day-to-day, there’s also a larger point about dominion I’ve grappled with for the last twenty years or so. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention here. For it’s one that people of faith will soon encounter if they seek to work publicly for environmental change.
And it’s this: as an American Christian and military veteran who loves his country, and its constitutional freedoms, I am nonetheless greatly aggrieved by what dominion unbound has done to our land. Since the 1600s, the American dogma of manifest destiny, and our biblical justifications for wastefully clearing, slaughtering, damming, logging, mining, and polluting our air and water under the banner of progress and profit has left a shameful legacy of environmental carnage. Yes, it’s a complex history, one that could fill a small library, and we should always be charitable toward past generations who were shaped by their times as surely as we’re shaped by ours. (They exterminated the passenger pigeon for its breast meat and the Carolina parakeet for its fashionable feathers; we dynamite away entire Appalachian mountain tops just to more easily remove the coal.)
Still, there’s a reckoning here that American Christians must face if we’re to learn from the ecological and spiritual failings of our ancestors.
Lynn White, Jr., in his landmark 1967 essay, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” blamed much of this destruction on a distorted Christian worldview. His essay opened an argument that many Christian theologians, clergy, and lay people have long since debated and refuted. That said, many of the points White raised were well taken. Among them, that pagan religions, which Christianity replaced, were better suited to protect nature. Pagans believed that spirits lived in nature and would keep inviolate the forests, mountains, or waters where deities were thought to dwell. They wouldn’t lay an axe to a sacred oak any more than a devout Christian would desecrate a book of the Gospels.
As Christians, we don’t worship creation, but the Creator who made it. Consequently, White says, we are prone to feel “Superior to nature, contemptuous of it, willing to use it for our slightest whim . . . . To a Christian, a tree can be no more than a physical fact. The whole concept of the sacred grove is alien to Christianity and to the ethos of the West.”
To be clear, White, who was Christian, didn’t call for Christians to become pagans. Rather, he suggested that we make a more loving, less adversarial commitment to till and keep the earth, such as that adopted by St. Francis of Assisi. And whatever you think of White, when you look at Francis’s 800-year-old insights, they still hold great relevance for us today.
In his hymn “Canticle of the Sun,” Francis spoke of Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Brother Fire, and Sister Fire—not as lesser pagan gods, but as fellow creatures that through their beauty and utility give praise to the one God. In the Franciscan tradition, we begin to see that care for creation and Christ’s command to care for the poor are two sides of the same coin. That’s because when there’s environmental calamities—hurricanes, mudslides, floods, fires, droughts, chemical spills—it’s usually the under-resourced poor who get the worse of it. Pope Francis alluded to this in his widely read 2015 treatise on the environment titled “Laudato Si.’” The pope wrote, “St. Francis was particularly concerned for God’s creation and the poor and the outcast … He shows us just how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society and interior peace.”
For too long, the rationale for Christians to harmfully dominate creation has been that (a) God made the world for us to use; and (b) this world is passing away, so we shouldn’t grow too attached to it. From a biblical perspective, these general suppositions are true. Yet from what God has revealed to us of himself, do we suppose that he wants us to use the earth’s gifts with reverence and respect, or to unjustly devour them with wanton greed? And although God does promise to create a new heaven and earth, does it not seem the height of ingratitude to waste the one we have now? Are we to say at the Last Judgment, “Yes, Lord, we’ve trashed your earthly rental property (so to speak); now give us the heavenly mansion you promised . . . so we can trash that one, too?”
Not likely, if we consider the intricate plan that knits our universe together, from the nearest amoeba to the farthest star. No deity would lavish this much creative care on a single-serving, throwaway product. God could have fashioned the world as a shoddy and slap-dash prototype, and saved his energy for the next rendition—but he choose not to. He spared no detail, no chance to infuse beauty and wondrous complexity into all his creatures, great and small. Even nonbelievers can see that. As British biologist J.H.S. Halane reportedly said, “The Creator, if he exists, has an inordinate fondness for beetles. He made 400,000 species of them.”
Come to think of it, the Lord also worked with meticulous care on the manufacture of raccoons. Those marvelous little human-like hands, that bandit mask and striped tail—hilarious and precious, and why would we find them so endearing unless He made us to see them that way?
My answer to that question came two days after I’d shotgunned that momma coon in my brother’s chicken coop. It was about dusk, and here came three little ones, shuffling down the road in that funny, humpbacked way that makes coons look as if they never mastered the art of walking. They may have been orphans. I swear that the last one even whimpered as he struggled to keep up.
While they were cute, they weren’t altogether welcome. Over the winter, coons had gotten in through the cat door in our barn (which I thought too small for them) and destroyed about $150 worth of empty beehives that still held remnants of honeycomb. It was tempting to pursue the nuclear option. I could again become “the destroyer of worlds” with a few blasts of my .410.
Instead, I held my fire. I’d installed the cat door, and thus created a raccoon buffet line, because I was too lazy to let the cat in and out of the barn each day. Once I closed it off, the coons would lose interest and move on. And the barn cat, who I often didn’t see for weeks on end, would welcome my company. It was an easy fix: I’d trade a little convenience for mercy, we’d all be the better for it. The reprieved coons waddled off, and it occurred to me that what Henry David Thoreau said of government also holds true for humans and nature: the best kind of dominion is that which dominates least.
To read more about God’s Creation visit https://discoveryseries.org/courses/get-outside/