On November 15, 2022 the world’s population reached the eight billion mark. The number is mind-numbingly colossal. Seven billion, eight billion, what’s the difference? That’s the way I felt until reading some speculative analyses regarding the recent pandemic. A scientist surmised that if half the world’s population was killed by the coronavirus and we subsequently returned to a world population of four billion people, it would be the same population the earth contained in 1975. In less than 50 years, the planet’s population has doubled.
I thought about this recently when I was teaching a divinity school class in North Carolina on the subject of creation care. The first and most fundamental point I wanted to convey derived from Psalm 24:1, “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.” If it is true that everything is the Lord’s (and Christians claim it is true!), that means it is not ours. Nothing belongs to us. Nothing belongs to the United States. Sit with that awhile! If it helps you feel better, you could add, nothing belongs to Russia or China or Germany either.
The skies that give us air to breathe are the Lord’s. The rivers where we fish and canoe, which give us water to drink and energy to make electricity are the Lord’s. The mountains where we hike and catch a glimpse of God’s glory are the Lord’s. The oceans which give us food to eat and a place to dump so much of our garbage are the Lord’s. The lands on which we build our homes, plant our crops and graze our livestock are the Lord’s. The trees that convert our relentless CO2 to O2 are the Lord’s.
Of course, we live in a complex world where 8 billion people are trying to share this land, air, soil and vegetation. The Genesis creation story reveals the world is broken. Greed and mistrust are deep within the DNA of humanity. God eventually gave the Hebrew people Torah to help them mitigate their brokenness through practical laws. The seventh commandment, “Do not steal,” is one of the first efforts in such mitigation; a commandment presupposing personal property. Other laws with greater specificity would follow. Today, all modern nations have laws prescribing have land and property rights laws.
Additionally, the international community has developed “sovereignty laws” which protect nations from uninvited intruders. This is the basis for the outcry against the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The Russians have violated an independent nation’s right to secure borders. To justify their invasion, the Russians have not claimed nations do not have sovereign rights. They simply argue Ukraine is not a sovereign nation.
Truthfulness compels us to admit these laws weren’t internationally developed or recognized when the Europeans were crossing the Atlantic Ocean in the 16th century to invade and conquer indigenous populations of the Americas. The idea of “sovereign nations” wasn’t a mature global doctrine then, in part, because the world’s population was only 450 million in 1500. Nevertheless, try telling that to the Seminole nation. They had staked a claim on lands from Northern Florida through the Mississippi valley. They believed it was their land, not Ponce de Leon’s and the Spanish Conquistadors.
So how do we move from this lofty, theological principle of the Lord’s ownership of everything, to a practical living in a modern world of 8 billion people? I want to call the Christian church to become a moral and spiritual force of conscience for all communities—local and global. This must begin with a confession of guilt and/or complicity in the breaking of property laws as well as national sovereignty laws in the past. The Christian complicity in the historical exploitation of nations for the use of their natural resources and land must be confessed.
Second, the Christian church needs to be the moral conscience for land, air and water use in the modern world. If everything is the Lord’s, and human beings made in the image of God are to be stewards of it all, we must become conscientious stewards of the earth’s creatures and resources. This is a vast undertaking, so our initial framing of the effort is crucial. Instead of prioritizing the economy over the environment, we need to prioritize the environment over the economy. The argument that “people need jobs” being our first priority is ultimately counterproductive and destructive. If we degrade our garden, we can’t eat. And if we can’t eat, we can’t work. This is the only planet we have. We will continue to make disastrous stewardship decisions if we have the mentality that job production trumps environmental impact.
I contend we have the framed the question backwards for too long. We have tried to create as many jobs and make as much profit as possible while having an environmental impact study to forecast the effects on the earth. We need to start doing the reverse. We need to protect the only environment we have and then have an economic impact study to see what kinds of jobs we can produce and what kind of profits we can make in that context.
In a world with 8 billion people, dare we ask, “What would Jesus do?”