The United Church of Christ (UCC) Synod hosted two speakers to address environmental issues during the denominational gathering on June 30. The first was Winona LaDuke, founder and co-director of Honor Earth, and member of the Midewewin Society. The second was Rev. Matthew Laney, Senior member of Asylum Hill Congregational Church.
For the most part, LaDuke rehashed the standard environmentalist alarms, namely that increasing climate change has endangered our lives, that extreme extraction of resources via fracking is bad, and that we behave like addicts who rationalize destructive behaviors and use dealers like the energy companies that make our policies. Less expected was the fact that LaDuke called for a “graceful transition” out of a fossil fuel economy rather than a radical overnight upheaval.
While LaDuke’s presentation was nothing special, Laney provided more than enough material to raise the eyebrows of spectators.
Invoking the Genesis narrative, Laney observed that man was made from the earth and therefore whatever befalls the earth befalls man. He went so far as to say, “We can look at the rivers and say ‘I am the river. The river is me. What happens to the river happens to me.’” He commended Astronomer Carl Sagan’s observation that we are “star stuff,” but added that we are also the “consciousness of God.”
Laney then called for the need to balance our divinity (our status as children of God) with our earthliness. Too much emphasis on the former will lead to the arrogant idea that we are like “God himself or herself.” A radical shift in the opposite direction will allow ourselves to be treated like dirt and trampled on by others.
With this in mind, Laney uses Jesus’ observation that the exalted will be humbled and the humbled will be exalted as proof that Christ came to give us a proper balance, thus equalizing everything and preparing the way for the king of heaven and Earth.
Interspersed with his environmental commentary was the observation that Christ’s reclamation of the throne involves the overthrow of rival contenders, such as the principalities of racism, imperialism, militarism, white supremacy, the confederate flag, marriage inequality, etc.
LaDuke’s presence at the UCC Synod is an indication that the denomination is so far to the Left that they are utilizing non-Christians to provide them with advice on decisions.
Laney, however, is theologically misguided. He is correct to observe that man was made in God’s image and formed from the earth (Gen 2:7). His charge to remember that we are children of God is commendable. He could not be more right in his contention that Christ is the only man on the throne and attempts to dislodge Him always results in calamity. However, that is where his proper exegesis stops.
At no point does God say that an attack on the earth is an attack on man or vice versa. The earth has no connection to man beyond his origins. Furthermore, Laney’s invocation of Carl Sagan’s “star stuff” mantra is problematic, even with his added nuance of man’s divine origins. Man was not made from the stars, but from the breath of God and the dust of the earth (Gen 2:7). Put simply, man is not equal to the earth or the universe, in the eyes of God he is superior to, and distinct from both (Psalm 8:3-9, Psalm 115:16).
Secondly, while care for the environment is an admirable and biblical impulse, it is not that high on the moral hierarchy. Christ said that justice, mercy, and faithfulness were among the weightier matters of the law (Matt 23:23). The care for the earth is not on this list and is given comparably little attention and emphasis throughout the scripture. Giving the care of the earth equal importance to man risks distorting this hierarchy.
Third, Laney’s contention that man must balance his divinity with his earthliness is unsupported by scripture. If there is any conflict within man it is between the flesh and the spirit (Gal. 5:16-17). Not once does God command men to emphasize his earthliness in a positive manner, nor does he warn that doing so will cause people to treat you like dirt. Furthermore, God does not say that being treated like dirt is always a bad thing. In fact there are times where God says it is for the best (I Peter 2:18-24).
Fourth, Laney’s addressing of God as “herself” speaks against the character of God and undermines the entire patriarchal ethic he established.
Fifth, Laney is correct to observe that Christ’s lordship leaves no room for racism of any kind, but his dismissal of traditional marriage is unbiblical and his blanket condemnation of imperialism and militarism is overly simplistic. Imperialism can produce desirable effects, as demonstrated by the British forcing India to stop the religious practices of burning women alive on their husbands’ funeral pyres. Laney’s beef with militarism is difficult to dispute as he does not define the term. It is worth noting however, that God tasked governments with providing its citizens a quiet and peaceable life by praising men who do right and punishing men who do wrong (I Tim 2:2, I Tim 2:2, Rom. 13:3; 1 Pet. 2:14). If it can be demonstrated that robust military strength and presence is the best way to serve these ends, it is difficult to make a universal condemnation of it. Such a complex issue demands more than loaded terminology and immediate, blanket dismissal.
Finally, Christ did not come to help us balance our divinity and their earthliness. He came to save the lost (Luke 19:10), reconcile us to God (I Pet. 3:18), speak the truth (John 18:37) and provide a means of salvation (John 3:16) by giving us his hard earned record of obedience to God’s law (II Cor. 5:21). None of this has anything to do with man’s ties to the planet, especially given that it will be destroyed and replaced with a new one at the end of days (II Peter 3:10-13 Rev 21:1).
In the end, Laney and the theological climate at the UCC Synod that welcomed him is an object lesson in what happens when a single godly impulse (in this case care for the environment) is emphasized to the detriment of the rest of scripture: God’s truth gets distorted.