Monday, May 31, 2010

Keepers of the Earth and of Our Neighbor: “Social Justice” by the Informed, Teachable, and Just

In those days we had never heard of passing up a chance to kill a wolf. In a second we were pumping lead into the pack, but with more excitement than accuracy: how to aim a steep downhill shot is always confusing. When our rifles were empty, the old wolf was down, and a pup was dragging a leg into the impassable slide-rocks.

We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes– something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger itch; I thought because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunter’s paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view(1).

In this excerpt of his essay, “Thinking Like a Mountain”, Aldo Leopold articulates so well one of the convicting challenges that earned him the reputation as one of the principal environmental ethicists of the 20th century. But what made Leopold a giant in conservation biology was not his aim with a rifle. Rather, it was his “conversion” from an arrogant young proponent of the eradication of predators for the sake of better hunting grounds to a person who recognized that ecosystems must be viewed holistically and their complex food chains studied carefully as a basis for making good management decisions.

The “converted” Leopold saw the natural order as a “world of wounds” and recognized that humans needed more than an intellectual awareness to address the wounds. In His “The Land Ethic” Leopold (1) states: To sum up: a system of conservation based solely on economic self-interest is hopelessly lopsided. (p. 214). No important change in ethics was ever accomplished without an internal change in our intellectual emphasis, loyalties, affections, and convictions (p. 209). Although it appears that Leopold did not realize the scriptural foundation needed to fully develop his prescription for conservation, he recognized three important principles– (a) that the “natural order” (cosmos or creation) is a very complex and objective reality; (b) that the cosmos is worthy of our effort to understand it and conserve it; and, (c) that humans tend toward selfish, short-sighted behaviors which must be countered by moral and ethical restraint if we are to acquire the necessary awareness, “loyalties, affections, and convictions” for conservation to occur.

Across the ocean and several decades later, in the turbulent era of Vietnam and the Irish freedom fighters, John Lennon wrote the song, “Imagine” in which he invites us to

Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace...

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world...

You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will live as one

Like Aldo Leopold, John Lennon saw a “world of wounds” but apparently did not understand the world (cosmos), the human responsibility to humbly decipher its workings, or the need for human moral and ethical restraints. Instead, Lennon “imagines” a world without political boundaries, one without anything worth dying (or living?) for, and without religion, and yet one that somehow has peace, no individual ownership (possessions), and a “brotherhood of man.” Like young Leopold who envisioned a “hunter’s paradise” by simply eliminating predators from the food chain, Lennon’s solutions are hopelessly naive and inconsistent with reality.

Interestingly, the official John Lennon website outlines the efforts now led by his wife, artist/ musician Yoko Ono Lennon, in cooperation with nonprofit organizations to fight hunger and poverty. I “cannot imagine” how a world without national governance, private ownership, and without moral and ethical restraints could usher in a peaceful brotherhood of man. Jay Richards, in Money, Greed, and God (Harper One) (2) refers to Lennon’s philosophy and asks, “Don’t Lennon’s words express the same sentimental delusions that inspired communism in the first place (p. 21)?”

We read in Genesis 2, following a summary of God’s creation of the cosmos, an account of the fundamental responsibility of man to keep the garden (v. 15). To accomplish this stewardship of creation, Adam was encouraged to study the created order so that he could understand his relationship to each creature and give names to them (v. 19-20). As a result of his understanding, Adam would be prepared to keep the garden and would also understand his need of relationship with one of his kind–woman (v. 21-25). Adam and Eve’s eventual disobedience of God’s command not to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil led to the entry of sin into the heart of mankind and into the created order. Satan’s deception in the garden was targeted at the trinity of essentials we have been highlighting in this essay. First, he misrepresented God and His created order, then he distorted the human understanding of this order, which led to the corruption of moral and ethical restraints. Therefore, as those who are redeemed by the blood of Christ, whether we wish to properly manage wildlife populations within ecosystems or work to bring relief to the poor, our approach must be based on knowledge of the created order and of the nature and spiritual need of man.

A century before John Lennon, England was, in the words of Andree Seu (3), “the worst of times. Ten percent of England’s population (3 million people) lacked the basics of food, shelter, and work. William Booth described government remedies as ‘well meaning, but more or less abortive attempts to cope with this great and appalling evil.” As Seu recounts, “Booth devised a strategy that was based on seven foundational principles. The first was that any plan for helping poor people must deal with the heart of man. Another was that the help must not cause further harm.” Booth was concerned that “Mere charity...while relieving the pinch of hunger, demoralizes the recipient...”

Booth founded the Salvation Army based on a proper recognition of the nature of man. He saw human beings as creatures needing foremost the reconciliation provided through faith in the blood of Christ. Booth also recognized that humans were created to participate as responsible stewards in the created order and from this participation they gain meaning, purpose, and dignity. According to Seu, “Booth and his helpers established institutions to rescue and provide immediate necessities and temporary employment and to teach godly principles of living. All of this was done in the midst of a raging public debate over political theories of welfare, and opposition from noise-makers of the “social justice” crowd who thought that charity was the government’s business.”

I believe there are lessons for us today in this brief account of such diverse characters as Aldo Leopold, John Lennon, and William Booth. From Leopold we learn the importance of understanding and respecting the complexity of the created order. Where removal of predators as enemies of hunters or ranchers had led to overpopulation of deer and elk, human efforts to save these populations from starvation and disease due to lack of food had little success. More recently, efforts to reintroduce predators reflects a maturing understanding of the complexity of ecosystems.

The best-laid plans of man often have, in a matter of speaking, a demoralizing effect on wildlife. For example, wild creatures such as the black bear that are allowed to become dependent upon human foods or scraps loose their independence and majesty and are, in a matter of speaking, demoralized. In a slightly different sense, the same can happen to well meaning attempts to help human beings. William Booth’s philosophy of providing a “hand up” rather than a “hand out” demonstrates the importance of providing “help” that affirms the dignity and responsibility of human personhood. Where John Lennon would have us “imagine” a world of peace, equality, and brotherhood, William Booth’s approach offers a practical and informed approach with proven results.

In these times of economic hardship, poverty, and political debate about how best to address the “world of wounds” both ecologically and socially, I believe more than ever, we must heed the Scriptures that teach us to honor our Creator and give thanks (Romans 1: 21). From this foundation and the inspiration of God’s Spirit within, we can be godly keepers of the creation through the understanding gained by “good science.” We can also be faithful keepers of “our neighbor” if we are guided by a biblical understanding of the nature of human personhood and an awareness that individual reconciliation with God through Christ is fundamental and foremost to any other acts of social responsibility toward our neighbor.
1 Leopold, A. 1949. The Land Ethic. In A Sand County Almanac, pp. 201-214. London: Oxford U. Press.
2 Richards, Jay. 2009. Money, Greed, and God: Why Capitalism is the Solution and Not the Problem. HarperOne. New York, NY.
3 Seu, Andree. 2010. A profile in social justice. WORLD Magazine. May 22, page 79.