Shalom and Creation

Protectors, Cultivators, and Servants of the Land

by Lisa Sharon Harper

WaterBrook, 2016

I grew up with five brothers and sisters. My older brother and I often were put in charge of our other siblings when my mother and dad were out of the house. In the same way, God puts humans—the youngest siblings of creation—in charge of our older sibling creatures. It is our responsibility to keep these relationships intact.

God has told us what very goodness looks like (Genesis 1:26–31). What God calls very good is the wellness of all the relationships God created in the beginning. This includes the relationship between humanity and the rest of creation. The sun, the moon, and stars serve humanity and the rest of creation by providing sustenance for our bodies and light for night travel. The stars tell people—especially in ancient cultures—when to wake, sleep, harvest, and sow. Plants serve animals by offering themselves for food (see Genesis 1:30). We see humanity serving and protecting the ground when God calls humanity to till (abad = to serve) and keep (shamar = to protect) the earth (see Genesis 2:15) and to serve the animals by naming them (see Genesis 2:19–20).

And as we serve, protect, and cultivate our siblings in creation, very goodness looks like justice and peace, truth and mercy, honor and humility among humans. We are creature. God is God; we are not. Our dominion must bow to the will of God.

God issued one command in the Garden of Eden, and it was connected to the land: “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die” (Genesis 2:16–17, nkjv).

God told humanity, “Don’t do it! I want you and your children and your children’s children to know shalom. I want you to know a lush and lavish world, a world where all relationships are very good. You see this world I’ve created? When you consider it, you see who I am. I am lavish with you. I am extravagant in my love for you.”

Then the serpent sidled up to the woman and man and drilled the first crack in humanity’s relationship with God. In Genesis 3, every relationship God had declared very good was shattered, including humanity’s relationship with the rest of creation. We see the results all around us. The environment suffers because we chose not to trust God and to see our own peace instead.

The Impact Today

In a survey, the National Medical Association found that doctors are citing climate-related conditions among the factors affecting the health of patients. Included are injuries due to severe weather events, chronic diseases intensified by increased air pollution, more widespread allergy symptoms, heart-related conditions, increased incidents of infections such as Lyme disease and West Nile virus, diarrhea caused by food or water, and mental health issues. The doctors also identified groups most likely to be affected by climate change, including people with chronic diseases, people living near or below the poverty line, children from birth to age four, adults older than sixty, and people of color.1 Globally women bear most of the burden because they represent the majority of the world’s poor. Increasingly common and increasingly intense climate events disrupt the ability of poor people to survive.

In Warren County, North Carolina, the residents of a small, predominantly black town learned that a hazardous-waste landfill was slated for their community. According to a report posted on the US Department of Energy website, the state of North Carolina had considered several possible sites before choosing this African American community. Neighbors organized and pastors and congressional representatives joined the fight to keep the landfill out. But they lost the battle. The landfill was opened, and the environmental justice movement was born. Within years, several studies were commissioned, most notable the United Church of Christ 1987 study “Toxic Waste and Race.” This study found that race was the most significant factor in determining where toxic-waste facilities were located. Three out of five African Americans live in a community with a hazardous-waste facility.2

When we deprive people of the ability to exercise dominion (agency) and then we exploit the land, the image of God is crushed on earth. God does not reign in that place, and the damage to creation stands as a witness to our rebellion. We were meant to exercise dominion over the rest of creation, not over each other. We were meant to be protectors, cultivators, and servants of the land, not its exploiters. We were meant to maintain the boundaries of God’s systems, which benefit all, not to create systems that benefit a few at the expense of the rest.

Healing the Land

The people of ancient Israel cried out, “Restore us again, O God of our salvation, and put away your indignation toward us. … Let me hear what God the Lord will speak, for he will speak peace [shalom] to his people, to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts” (Psalm 85:4, 8). God told the people that God would restore shalom. God painted a picture of all the ingredients of shalom springing up from creation. God will restore was is good (tov): the wellness of all relationships in creation (shalom).

What does reconciling with creation look like in our lives? Each of us has the ability to ask God to give us the answer.

We buy into Western pride when we separate ourselves from the rest of creation, in essence claiming to be non-creatures. If we are non-creatures, then we are gods. If we are gods, it’s not hard to believe that we cannot sin against creation. We can only make choices that inherently improve creation’s conditions. We must confess this sin-filled belief and repent. We must place ourselves back in the family of creatures. And we must agree with God that the fact that we are creature is very good.

Humanity’s most basic vocation is to exercise dominion over (to serve, protect, and cultivate the wellness of) the rest of creation. Reconciliation will require deep examination of our personal and communal habits, our city systems and structures, and our national energy policies.

What can individuals do?

First, practice generosity. One of the great temptations of our time is to live in fear that our resources will run out. But the story of Jesus feeding five thousand people from five loaves of bread and two fish offers a powerful reminder. There is enough. God is the Creator of all of it.

Second, practice simple living by forsaking consumption in favor of making sure all have enough. One of the greatest lies of our culture is “I buy, therefore I am.” We must fight the lie that our worth comes from our ability to consume. God provided manna for the freed slaves who were wandering in the wilderness. It fell from heaven. God told the people to take what they needed and leave the rest. Let’s learn from the lesson of manna.

Third, practice dependence on God for basic needs. The Lord’s Prayer contains this profound line: “Give us this day our daily bread.” What would it be like if we focused on one meal at a time, savoring it, sharing it with family and friends, and thanking God for the time and food being shared?

Fourth, practice reciprocity, the process of receiving and restoring. Reciprocity is the intentional act of restoring what is taken. In Scripture, the result is shalom. Households, cities, states, and nations are beginning to take stock of the carbon imprints left by their consumption of food and energy. What would it look like if every household, town, and city made reciprocity a value as it ordered life together? We would always seek balanced relationship with the land, giving and taking, planting and harvesting. Over time we would experience Scripture’s promise: abundance.

  1. Mona Sarfaty et al., “Key Findings National Medical Association Physician Survey,” National Medical Association and George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication, June 25, 2014, 3, 13. http://climatechangecommunication.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/NMA.pdf.
  1. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. and Charles Lee, “Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States: A National Report on Racial and Socio-Economic Characteristics of Communities with Hazardous Waste Sites,” Commission for Racial Justice, United Church of Christ, 1987, http://d3n8a8pro7vhmx.cloudfront.net/unitedchurchofchrist/legacy_url/13567/toxwrace87.pdf?1418439935.

This article is adapted from “Shalom and Creation,” a chapter in The Very Good Gospel: How Everything Wrong Can Be Made Right, published in 2016 by WaterBrook.

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