Nature begins to reclaim an abandoned and decaying Post Office in Gary, Indiana. (Photo credit: slworking2)

The reclaimed vocation of dominion

By the Rev. Cassandra Carkuff Williams, Ed.D.

As a sect within Judaism, the beliefs of early Christianity included an understanding that, in the ministry of Jesus, a shift had taken place that affects all of the created order. This belief in the cosmic character of salvation was so important to first-generation communities that the mission of sharing the gospel beyond Judaism included introducing gentile converts to the Jewish eschatological concepts that lay the foundation for this belief. If the fall did, indeed, affect all aspects of the created order, then the remedy, that is Jesus, must necessarily also have an impact on the entire created order, a notion supported in Paul’s exposition of the gospel:

In fact, all creation is eagerly waiting for God to show who his children are. Meanwhile, creation is confused, but not because it wants to be confused. God made it this way in the hope that creation would be set free from decay and would share in the glorious freedom of his children (Romans 8:19–21, CEV).

The redeemed relationship with God through Jesus, therefore, affects not only our relationships with other believers and with the world, but also our relationship with the rest of creation.

Genesis 1:28b presents the Creator’s directive to human beings to “fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” The fact that humans have power within the created order is fairly obvious; however, dominion and domination are not the same. An often overlooked yet crucial detail in this text is that, since this power was conferred by the Creator, the Creator alone gets to define how we use it. In fact, we immediately see God placing parameters around human use of that power.

God defines what is available for food and makes it clear that humans do not get to use everything; some of the bounty of the earth is given for the other creatures with whom we share this habitat. Human dominion, then, is relative dominion. The exercise of our power within the created order is qualified by God’s sovereignty over us. We are God’s envoys, earthly representatives of the Creator, and when we live out dominion in ways that reflect divine intent, we bear witness to God’s authority as Creator.

The call to compassionate treatment of creation and other creatures is evidenced elsewhere throughout scripture, especially in the legal material, for example, in the institution of the sabbatical year:

Six years you shall sow your field and six years you shall prune your vineyard and gather in their yield; but in the seventh year there shall be a sabbath of complete rest for the land, a sabbath for the Lord; you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. You shall not reap the aftergrowth of your harvest nor gather the grapes of your unpruned vine; it shall be a year of complete rest for the land. You may eat what the land yields during its Sabbath — you, your male and female slaves, your hired and your bound laborers who live with you; for your livestock also and for the wild animals in your land, all the yield shall be for food (Leviticus 25:2–7, also Exodus 23:10).

This period of rest reveals God’s protection and care, not just for people, but for the land and its other-than-human creatures.

Instead of using the power given us by God to care for creation, humans have consistently chosen to treat creation in selfish, shortsighted and destructive ways, using it in complete disregard for the parameters set by God. The ultimate model for use of power, of course, is Jesus, who lovingly and sacrificially used his power on behalf of the entire created order. This is the model for a reclaimed vocation of dominion: for our relationship with Jesus to transform all relationships within the created order from self-serving to a caring relative dominion that exemplifies Jesus’s lordship over all.

The Rev. Cassandra Carkuff Williams, Ed.D., is American Baptist Home Mission Societies’ national program director for discipleship. This piece was adapted with permission from Williams’ “Learning the Way: Reclaiming Wisdom from the Earliest Christian Communities” (Herndon, VA: The Alban Institute, 2009).

The views expressed are those of the author or authors alone, and not those of the American Baptist Home Mission Societies.