Valley Panel Looks At God, Environment

Forum Discusses Faith-Based Responses To Climate Change

Posted: March 4, 2013

HARRISONBURG — God made man, according to the Bible, and He gave him dominion to till the Earth.

People the world over have used these words from the Bible’s first book, Genesis, to justify resource consumption, but some Harrisonburg clergy say these words have been misinterpreted.

The Climate Action Alliance of the Valley assembled two clergy members, a philosophy professor, a representative of the Islamic faith and an audience of 65 recently to discuss why and how mankind should respond to climate change. The event, titled “Can Ethics and Faith Guide our Responses to Climate Change?” was held at the Massanutten Regional Library in Harrisonburg.

The Rev. Ann Held of Trinity Presbyterian Church asserted that the confusion originates from a few key misinterpretations of biblical text.

She said the word “dominion” or “radah” in Hebrew has been interpreted as “to have rule or to hold sway.”

“[It’s] not that we have dominion in that we own the Earth,” she said.

Held explained that radah refers to the point at the top of a plant’s root, or its “center of strength.” It’s the point where one grabs a weed to uproot it cleanly from the ground, she said. This in turn, Held said, means that the passage is really saying that man is supposed to be the piece of creation that holds the Earth together.

The Rev. Ross Erb of Park View Mennonite Church furthered the semantic argument by referring to how the word “till” has been interpreted to mean plow.

He said this interpretation has led to discretionless farming practices and soil depletion.

“That same word gets used throughout the scriptures and it’s really translated as ‘serve,’” Erb said.

“So we are to serve this world,” Erb said. “For me that is an important twist on what God has set us here to do.”

Held also talked about Jesus’ instructions to love your neighbor, adding that Jesus was not talking about just the people next door.

“We are to be about interconnectedness,” she said, using the Holy Spirit as an illustration.

Thus, Christians are responsible for the “least of these,” as Jesus said in Mathew 25:40, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

Professor Ehsan Ahmed of the Islamic Association of the Shenandoah Valley explained that developing nations are being hit the worst by the effects of global warming.

He noted the Republic of Maldives, an island nation in the Indian Ocean, whose president has proposed relocating the country’s entire population as tides continue to rise.

Echoing Held’s interpretation of Christianity, Ahmed said that under Islam, “We’re responsible for all the creations of God, which have lived or will live on this planet.”

And this responsibility, he said, extends to all one’s actions, big or small, intentional or not, including the actions of one’s society and culture.

Erb added that caring for the Earth should come down to love for God.

“We need to love with all of our being,” Erb said, explaining that Christians should show their love by loving what God loves, which is all of creation.

“Part of creation care is using less,” Erb said. “What we believe is worth very little if we’re not willing to put it into practice,” by taking action to at least decrease individual consumption.

And just to be sure the point got across, the alliance invited a philosophy professor to give the pragmatic point of view.

Mark Piper, assistant professor of philosophy at James Madison University, explained with applied ethics that people should take care of the planet, simply because it’s in their best interest.

Under instrumental value theory, he said, Earth’s ecosystem has worth only in its relation to human interaction.

Humankind needs water and earth to survive, thrive and propagate.

So, Piper said, taking care of these resources is “conducive to our interests,” and thus worth human devotion.

After outlining why people should protect Earth’s ecosystem, the group discussed how to do so on micro and macro scales.

They suggested small adjustments, like simply consuming less food and buying fewer products, something everyone can do.

But they argued that environmental issues have been pushed aside for short-term economic gains on a societal scale and that these problems require a grander approach.

“Are you all in any of your churches discussing nonviolent civil disobedience?” Cathy Strickler, who founded the local group, asked.

The answer was a resounding “no,” but alliance members said they had begun to speak their voice in a public way.

Many had just returned from Washington, D.C., where they attended a climate rally advocating against the Keystone XL pipeline that would connect oil fields in Canada with refineries in the Gulf of Mexico.

“Behavior has to change. People have to change,” Piper said. “People have to act differently.”
Contact Alex Rohr at 574-6293 or

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