Tuesday 16 July 2013

The Matter of Dominion

"Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet without your father's knowledge not one of them can fall to the ground.  As for you, even the hairs on your head have all been counted.  So do not be afraid; you are worth more than any number of sparrows." Matthew 10:29-31 (REB).  These famous words are among Jesus's instructions to his twelve disciples as he sends them out into an uncertain, even dangerous, world ("I send you out like sheep among wolves") to minister to the sick and outcast.

Being "worth more than any number of sparrows" sits awkwardly with our modern understanding of the equality of all creation. Last Saturday, I was celebrating the Eucharist on a hot morning, with all the doors of the church wide open: the sounds of the world outside thus penetrating the periphery of our consciousness in a way only possible in high summer and when worship is quiet and reflective.  I was aware, as I stood at the altar, of nature: the bumble-bees which have made a nest in a composter in a secluded hot-spot facing the south wall of the church; and of the sparrows which have nested in the eaves of the vicarage, squabbling and squealing in the sun.

If, as a follower of Jesus, I may take his words to apply to me, I too am apparently worth any number of sparrows.  And yet I believe they are creations of God just as I am, with, it follows, a right to live and to fulfil their created purpose.  In what sense am I worth more than they?

Lat week, BBC TV broadcast a number of "vintage" programmes by Sir David Attenborough, one of which looked at Darwin and his legacy.  I only caught a bit of it, but I was struck by Sir DA's claim that what Darwin's work on evolution demonstrated was that humanity does not, in fact, have "dominion" over the created order in the sense conveyed by the book of Genesis. This pulled me up rather sharply, partly because I have no difficulty with accepting (1) a theory of evolution as part of creation, albeit one which we have come to understand only lately in historical terms, and (2) the Genesis creation narrative as allegorical.  I also accept Sir DA as a great man and an undoubted national treasure, of such stature that one hesitates to enter into dispute with him.

But Genesis 1:26 does say that we have dominion over other creatures - "Let us make human beings in our image, after our likeness, to have dominion over the fish in the sea" etc - and I can't quite deal with this as allegorical dominion. The problem is, I think, associated with what we understand by the word. In this context, it is the English translation of the Hebrew radah, which has the sense of the rule which a monarch exercises over his or her people.  Such dominion implies more than simple power, although it obviously includes it - to what else would you attribute humanity's success in wiping out countless species in the last few hundred years alone?  That's nothing if not power. But radah combines hierarchical power with responsibility, with care, with stewardship, and with love.  And, through the prophets, God admonishes Israel's rulers who fail in this: "You have not restored the weak, tended the sick, bandaged the injured, recovered the straggler, or searched for the lost: you have driven them with ruthless severity." (Ezekiel 34:4)

I assume not even Sir David Attenborough or any other evolutionist would argue that you and I stand at what is currently the pinnacle of that process, and that position gives us both power over and responsibility for other creatures (and their habitats).  The fact that we stand hierarchically "above" them does not mean that we are free to exploit or ignore them without regard for their welfare as species.  It is surely our calling not just to control and, yes, to use them; but also to protect them, for they cannot always protect themselves.

Perhaps we are worth more than they only in the sense that this burden of responsibility has been devolved to us rather than to them.

Picture: a few years ago one of the vicarage sparrows flew into church and stayed for few days, making a home in a spider plant adorning the statue of our patron, St Mark.