Saving the earth and protecting animal populations, when held up in comparison to other justice movements, like ending wars or abolishing slavery, is usually considered less of a priority. The latter take precedence—maybe because they involve human lives and not just trees or an obscure species of owls. Or perhaps their concepts just seem grander.
The more I think about it though, the more ironic it seems. For our negligent treatment of the earth is exactly what perpetuates much of the injustice we seek to oppose today. There is hoarding of land by the rich, which directly usurps land from the poor. But our actions can also indirectly take the land from those that need it most. Pollution strips the land of its health, and therefore its inhabitants of their livelihoods; climate change throws off the seasonal patterns, further exacerbating the problem.
Even the Bible draws the connection between caring for the land and seeking justice for the poor. It includes instructions that extend from leaving the ground fallow at certain times of the year, to not harvesting all the crops of the season, to adhering to the canceling of debts and stern warning to not usurp the territory and possessions of the more unfortunate (Leviticus 19:9-10), in order that the poor might receive just treatment in the land.
“Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God.” (Proverbs 14:31 NIV)
Upon finishing creation in Genesis, God puts humans as stewards over the earth and the things in it—stewards, not tyrants. Stewards are those who would watch over and care for what they were responsible for stewarding. The exact wording goes:
“And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Genesis 1:28 ESV)
When we hear words like “subdue” and “dominion” these days, they are often equated with abuse and tyranny. But in the Bible, God is described as ruling with justice, mercy, and humility.
“Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne; steadfast love and faithfulness go before you.” (Psalm 89:14 ESV)
Dominion was meant to be just. Our own skewed perception of what such words entail only shows just how humans have twisted the meaning of stewardship. More often than not, tyrants are exactly what we have become, whether in arrogant disregard or in simple ignorance. Instead, those we were supposed to care for are often times better stewards to us than we are to them.
My dog Charlie is the best dog in the world, in my personal opinion. My family and I are not always the best stewards to him. Sometimes we are busy—my parents with work, me with academics or extracurricular activities. Sometimes Charlie has to stay home alone for some hours, while we are out busying ourselves. Sometimes we just suck at waking up to take him for a walk.
But in the face of all this, I think this humble little Sheltie has unconditional love down better than so many of us humans. He holds no grudge for all our distracted, displaced time. He forgives quickly when I accidentally step on him. He endures uncomfortably warm blankets and carpet just to squeeze himself under our feet. Despite his increasing age, he still runs with us, sometimes even playing along with me in our version of hide-and-seek. And he stays, whenever he can, as close as possible to us.
There is a memory that I will never forget of this little dog. I was crying—for what reason, I cannot recall—sitting on the floor, in tears, hiccuping between breaths. A furry body crept up beside me, and a little wet black nose sniffed concernedly at my drippy, red face. Then a little pink tongue began to patiently lick at my cheeks, my nose and eyelids, until they were dry. After checking once more, ensuring that I was done crying, Charlie lay down beside me, letting me wrap my small arms around his neck. And for every minute I sat there on the floor, he stayed.
Every time I look back on that memory, I am so very humbled by this little creature. He has none of the intellect we humans boast so much about. Even among his peers in the animal kingdom, he probably is not the brightest. He has an almost humorous obsession with food, and will probably never make a terribly good watchdog either, considering his fears of loud noises, thunderstorms and small yappy dogs. He probably will never be one of those rescue dogs that become heroes, enshrined in legend. He is just your average pet dog.
But Charlie loves; he loves truer than so many of us intellectual, self-centered beings these days. There are still debates on whether or not animals have spirits, whether or not they go to heaven, and even whether or not they know how to love. I honestly have no idea for the first two, but I have no doubt about the third. Charlie is a small, humble little creature, but he is a true steward. Better than so many, I think he reflects the way in which Christ came to serve, not to be served, and how we have been exhorted to do the same.
The suffering of the earth and of animals is not less than human suffering. Instead, it is the very indication of human suffering and often times, the cause of it. True justice lies in the nature of how we choose to steward that over which we have authority.