Undoing Domination, a Sermon

Sermon written and delivered by Michael Anthony Howard at Stanley Congregational Church, Chatham, NJ on July 15, 2018. Reprinted with permission. Listen to the sermon audio, download sermon notes, and access the sermon worksheet here.

IMAGE CREDIT: Die gelbe Kuh (The  Yellow Cow ), by Franz Marc (1911) [ https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Franz_Marc-The_Yellow_Cow-1911.jpg ]

IMAGE CREDIT: Die gelbe Kuh (The Yellow Cow), by Franz Marc (1911) [https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Franz_Marc-The_Yellow_Cow-1911.jpg]

The Logic of Domination

There are about 400 billion stars in our galaxy alone. It is amazing when you think about it. The Milky Way isn’t even very big. Every star has an approximate average of 1.6 planets. So, if you do the arithmetic, that’s 650 billion planets. The Earth is home to roughly 2 billion species of life. Some 70 to 90% of those species are bacteria. There might be a total of 40 million insect species. Yet, our science is just in its infancy. Some 10,000 species are discovered each year. To date, only about 1.5 million species have been described, and less than 1% of those are bacteria. Of those two billion species (or 1.5 million species we have named), almost 60 thousand are vertebrates, 5 thousand are mammals, and 350 are primates. Human beings are but one of them.

While the universe has been around for 13.772 billion years, we homo sapiens have only been around some 300,000 years. If my middle school math days serve me well, 13.772 billion minus 300,000 is still 13.772 billion — in other words, we’ve not been around long enough for our history to be within the order of significant digits.

Despite evidence to the contrary, many of us have been taught to think of our place in the world with an outrageous and unjust logic — the universe is ours and it exists for the taking.

But this logic doesn’t just stop with anthropocentrism. Let’s follow this logic down a little further. Of the 7.6 billion human beings on the planet, how many have access to clean drinking water, a healthy diet, good health care, a quality education, a living wage, etc? A little more than half of them are men. Of those 3.8 billion men, how many of us are white, cis-gendered, heterosexual, Christian, American? All of these characteristics are things that I share with most of our national leaders, almost all of our nation’s past presidents, and the richest man on the face of the earth. I find it curious and scary to believe that such a small portion of the world’s population has believed for so long that the world was made for them. But let us not be naïve, most of us humans think the same way about our relationship to the rest of Creation. Domination, see, comes in many forms.

This unjust logic of ours, our model of society, our understanding of the meaning of life, the way human beings have perceived themselves in relation to the rest of Creation — at least for the last four hundred years or so — has almost entirely shaped our way of life. It is hard to disagree with liberation theologian, Leonardo Boff, when he described the modern human. Most of us live, he said, as if the most important thing in life is

to accumulate vast amounts of the means of life — material wealth, goods, and services — in order to enjoy our short journey on this planet. In achieving this purpose we are aided by science, which comprehends how the Earth functions, and technology, which acts upon it for human benefit. And this is to be done as speedily as possible. Hence, we strive for maximum profit with minimum investment in the shortest possible period of time. In this type of cultural practice, human beings are regarded as above things, making use of them for their own enjoyment, never as alongside things, members of a larger planetary and cosmic community. The ultimate result, which is only now becoming strikingly visible, is contained in an expression attributed to Gandhi: The Earth is sufficient for everyone’s needs but not for everyone’s greed. [1]

In other words, our basic model for relating with each other — how we know what life is all about — is domination. When we see ourselves as being above rather than alongside, we operate within a framework — a logic — of domination.

The Dominion Argument

At Brookside Church, we’ve been wrestling lately with our ability to own up to the fact the Bible has been used to justify violence. When it comes to our interpretation of the world, our relationship to Creation, the way we think about salvation, and how we understand what it means to follow Jesus, the Bible can be both helpful and problematic. Last week, I pointed out how the gospel’s portray Jesus as skipping over problematic passages when he read from the Isaiah scroll in the synagogue. That way of reading scripture, which is commonly know as “cherry picking,” I asked us to consider thinking about it as “avoiding landmines.” I argued that if we are not careful with the way we read scripture, we will find that the body of Christ may actually lose body parts.

This morning, I want to draw your attention to a specific biblical landmine. This is one of the most commonly referenced passages when it comes to Creation, justice, and the role of Christianity in the world: Genesis 1. It’s not so much an entire passage or even a verse — really, it’s just one word: dominion.

This entire chapter is a beautiful and poetic description of God’s relationship with Creation. That’s why it’s so unfortunate that when it is read with the intent of asking what our relationship to Creation should be, Christians tend to narrow in on this one word. And this is specifically true when you talk about the relationship between human beings and other non-human animals. God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion…”

Dominion? “Didn’t God set human beings over Creation? Didn’t God give people dominion over animals and doesn’t that mean we can… [kill them, eat them, wear them, cage them, experiment with them, fill in the blank]?”

First off, the word dominion is repeated twice. That must mean it was important to the scribe or scribes that used it. But that should never, ever, trump what God said about Creation at every step along the way, “It is good.” For God to declare these things to be good, especially animal life, even before human beings existed, implies that they are valuable in their own right — that God delights in them. As Jewish scholar, Roberta Kalechofsky points out, “this substantiates the view that animals were regarded as integral subjects in their own right. God’s [expressed] delight in these creations…does not reflect a god who created animal life to be in bondage.” [2]

Carol J. Adams, arguably one of the most important feminist writers today and author of The Sexual Politics of Meat, wrote, “The more the word dominion is broken away from [the context of this poem of beloved relationship in] Genesis 1, the more likely it is that what one is defending is a broken relationship between humans and other animals and the world they inhabit.” [3]

Even more, what is interesting is that while the word radah, which we translate as dominion, is mentioned twice in verse 28, in the very following verse (Genesis 1:29), God says, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food.” In other words, whatever dominion humans have been granted over animals, it doesn’t involve eating them. Even more, if we’re going to be using this passage to understand our relationship with Creation, we must be constrained first and foremost by our reverence for the fact that God took delight in what God created. God said, “It is good.”

I mean, think about it.

“It is good,” so we are justified in separating a baby calf from its mother so we can have her milk. “It is good,” so it must be okay for us to cut off the beaks of chickens. “It is good,” so we can feel innocent when we pay someone to rip into their flesh in order to prepare our dinner, knowing that most of us would refuse to spill their blood if we had to do it ourselves. “It is good,” we think, because it is good for us human beings. That is the logic of domination.

If dominion doesn’t mean domination, what then does it mean?

Quoting again from Carol Adams:

It has been said that if kings and queens exercised dominion over their subjects the way human beings do over the other animals, kings and queens would have no subjects. So why is being in God’s image often interpreted in view of power, manipulation, and hegemony instead of compassion, mercy, and emptying unconditional love? We often anthropomorphize God as powerful, fierce, and angry (if not belligerent). When we are lording over others, using power — it is then that we are most likely to assert the image of God. Acts of unconditional love, suspensions of judgment, mercy for the weak, and kindness to animals get associated with a wishy-washy picture of who Jesus was, but are rarely discussed regarding God the Creator. [4]

The Impulse of Jesus

And here we come to the heart of the matter. Most of us have had our imagination of God shaped more by this logic of domination than by the teachings of Jesus. The Christian God as often taught by some Christians is a god of domination. He — and this god is always a he — could more easily be confused with the violent war gods of the Greeks or the Romans than with the teachings of Jesus. What if we approach the question christologically? What if we decided to ask what “dominion” might look like — our relationship to Creation and non-human animals — if we begin our thinking about God and humanity by learning from Jesus?

The central impulse at the heart of Jesus’ teachings was the proclamation of the Reign of God, or what Walter Wink called “God’s Domination-Free Order.” It was the creation of a new community, a new citizenship, based on a shared commitment to doing the will of God. This is what many of us have begun calling “The Beloved Community,” or the “Kin-dom.” Kin-dom, I think, helps point us to the truth that Jesus’ teachings challenge us not to see ourselves above Creation, but as alongside it as kindred earthlings. For followers of Jesus, this kin-dom teaching consisted of a twofold commitment to nonviolence and undoing that logic of domination. Walter Wink called it the Domination System: “An encompassing system characterized by unjust economic relations, oppressive political relations, patriarchal gender relations, prejudiced racial or ethnic relations, hierarchical power relations, and the use of violence to maintain them.”

Understood in this way, Jesus’ ministry was a radical critique of the logic domination, aimed at bringing healing to Creation by calling people to repentance and helping them discover what it means to be fully human.

The central teaching of the church is based on the idea of the incarnation — that somehow, in Jesus, God was revealed not to be above Creation, but alongside Creation. The central quest for communities of faith today is to recover for ourselves what Jesus unleashed, that original impulse at the heart of his teachings aimed at undoing the old order of domination and bringing about a new order of life and freedom. Only then will the church have what is needed to bring about positive change in people and all Creation.

I pray that this becomes our quest, that hear the voice of our still speaking God and take up our call — to learn to stand alongside Creation as kindred earthlings, following Jesus to undo the logic of domination.
 — Amen


[1] Leonardo Boff, Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1997), p. 2.

[2] Roberta Kalechofsky, “Hierarchy, Kinship, and Responsibility: The Jewish Relationship to the Animal World,” in A Communion of Subjects: Animals in Religion, Science, and Ethics, edited by Paul Waldau and Kimberly Patton (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006), 97–98. Quoted in Carol J. Adams, “What About Dominion in Genesis?” In A Faith Embracing All Creatures: Addressing Commonly Asked Questions about Christian Care for Animals (The Peaceable Kingdom Series Book 2) (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2014), p. 5.

[3] Carol J. Adams, “What About Dominion in Genesis?” p. 5.]

[4] Ibid., p 2.

[5] Walter Wink, The Human Being Jesus and the Enigma of the Son of the Man (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004), p. 270.

Guest Post: Is the Gospel “Good News” for Animals Too?

As both a Christian and a vegan, something that I think about often is the way in which my faith is compatible with my vegan values. I stopped eating meat at around the same time that I started seminary school, and at the time I did not consider the two things to be connected in any way. However, as I began studying Scripture more in depth, I began to realize that actually, my concern for animals and the environment, which originally caused me to ditch meat, and later on all animal products (including dairy, eggs, honey, leather, fur, etc.), was in fact very much related to my faith in God as Creator and Redeemer.

The question that I’ve been reflecting on and which I would like to discuss is whether or not the Christian Gospel (the “Good News”) has any bearing on animals and the earth. The answer I have come to is that yes, it has absolutely everything to do them as well. This may seem like a bit of a jump to some of my Christian brothers and sisters, many of whom are of the opinion that God actually made animals FOR us to eat (I used to be of this opinion too for most of my life), and that we have some kind of license to use them and use the planet as we see fit since God said that we are to “have dominion” over them (Gen 1:26).

Furthermore, the way that the Gospel has been presented most frequently has been with a very heavy emphasis on “personal salvation” to the extent that we think that it is all about us – US being forgiven by God, US for whom Christ died, US for whom the earth was created, US who will be going to heaven (“Do animals even have even have souls?” some may argue). It’s no wonder many have accused Christianity of being an anthropocentric (human-centered) religion. But while I would agree that Christians can often come across as such, and tend use the Bible to support their anthropocentric views, the Bible itself does not condone such a mentality.

In order to go about answering this question of whether the Gospel is good news for the animals (and the earth) as well as humans, we must start by giving a little bit of background. In the Biblical account, it all begins with God creating “the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1). This earth that God created was deemed as “good” (Gen 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31).

What was this creation like? The first word that comes to my mind when I read the creation account is “abundant.” It was abundantly filled with fruits and vegetation and all kinds of animals. Then God created the man and the woman and God's mandate to them was to “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground” (Gen 1:28). This is where some people start getting confused, thinking that this rulership somehow gives them permission to take advantage of and exploit what God has put under their care.

The second word that comes to mind when I think about what the original creation was like is “harmony.” Humans in harmonious relationships with God, with each other, with the animals and with the earth. Indeed, in the original creation, humans did not eat animals, and animals did not eat other animals. Genesis 1:29-30…“Then God said, ‘I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground – everything that has the breath of life in it [souls?] – I give every green plant for food.’ And it was so.”

So what I see from the Creation account is that the world God created was good, it was perfect, it was harmonious and abundant, there was no harm, no evil, no violence, no death. What happened? This is where the bad news comes in, with sin and disobedience entering the picture, Adam and Eve doing the one thing God told them not to do (eating from one single tree out of the many they were allowed to eat from), wanting to live the way they wanted instead of how God wanted them to. And this is where everything falls apart.

It is at this point in the story that the relationships between God and humans, humans and each other, humans and animals, and finally, humans and the earth were distorted. The man and the woman were now hiding from each other by covering their nakedness that they were never ashamed of before (Gen 3:7). They were also hiding from God in the garden (Gen 3:8). They started playing the blame game for the sin they both committed (Gen 3:12). Now even the earth was uncooperative and would not produce food for people without hard labour (Gen 3:17). Finally, it is at this point that the first animal was killed in order to clothe the man and the woman (Gen 3:21).

Later on in the story, during the time of Noah, for the first time God actually gives humans permission to eat animals (Gen 9:3). It is important to note that this is not how things were meant to be, as we have seen from the Creation account, but rather that this is what people had actually started doing (ie. Abel raising livestock and sacrificing the fat of the firstborn to God, with the implication that the rest was eaten – Gen 4:4). This is not the only instance in Scripture where something was permitted which was not God’s original intention. When questioned about divorce, Jesus responded to the Pharisee that “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning” (Mt 19:8).

It was not a good thing, but rather a tragedy, that the once good relationship between humans and animals had devolved into “fear and dread” (Gen 9:2) on the part of the animals towards the humans that were meant to be their caretakers. It was against God’s intention for creation that humans began killing God's other created beings for food when God had abundantly provided them with fruit and vegetation to eat.

So there is the bad news. But what is the “Good News” that Christians speak of? It is that God still cares about God's creation, both humans and animals, and the earth as well. “For God so loved the world” (John 3:16). Although things have gone downhill from the goodness of the original creation and how things were meant to be, God continues to love the world, and the story of the Bible is that God is making a way for everything to be restored once again. We tend to focus only on the restoration of the relationships between God and humans, and humans and each other, but we forget about the other relationships that were destroyed and which God also wants to restore.

The good news is not only that Jesus died for sin so that we can be saved, although that is a big part of it. It is also that God is working to make things right again and that this is done through Jesus Christ, who came to earth, not only as Saviour but also as King of the coming Kingdom of God. And what is this new Kingdom? It is not a castle in the sky, but rather a new heaven and a new earth (Rev 21:1). Everything made new, the goodness of creation restored. The prophet Isaiah gives a beautiful description of the coming Kingdom of God in Isaiah 11:6-9 when he says:

The wolf will live with the lamb,
    the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
    and a little child will lead them.
The cow will feed with the bear,
    their young will lie down together,
    and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
The infant will play near the cobra’s den,
    and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.
They will neither harm nor destroy
    on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord
    as the waters cover the sea. 

The conclusion of the matter then is this: In the original creation animals were not killed for food and humans were called to be caretakers of the earth and it’s creatures; and in the coming kingdom of God, the new earth, once again all killing and violence will cease. Although this Kingdom will not be fully accomplished until Christ returns again, Christians are called to advance the Kingdom of God on earth now. Therefore, I would argue that it is flows naturally from the biblical message for Christians, as the people of God who wish to please God and live according to God's will, to adopt a vegan ethic of nonviolence to animals and an environmental ethic of earth stewardship. This is the Gospel (good news), not just for us as humans, but for the animals and for the earth.

Patricia Chan.jpg

Patricia Chan says, "I was born and raised in a Christian home, and from a young age I developed a trusting relationship with Jesus Christ. I also grew up regularly eating animals and their products. I never imagined myself becoming vegetarian let alone vegan, but that is exactly where God has led me. In September 2014 I stopped eating animals for reasons of ethics. After a year of vegetarianism, I took the logical next step and cut out all animal products to the best of my ability. Through my studies in theology at Regent College, I have come to see that my faith is not only compatible with veganism but that a vegan ethic flows naturally from the biblical message of love." This article originally appeared on Patricia's blog and is reprinted here with kind permission.