Starting at the Beginning of Justice
Have you ever heard of socially motivated divestment? Climate change? Environmental justice? These form some of the most galvanizing movements on the Bowdoin College Campus, grounded in each instance in some conception of justice. But whose justice and on what grounds are the claims and demands of justice to be normative for the shared life of the Bowdoin community? And if you use the words “creation” and “justice” in the same sentence, do your thoughts go only as far as the Green Bowdoin Alliance or Bowdoin Climate Action? If so, you have fallen short of the transformative perspective that a biblical understanding of creation holds for us in addressing injustice wherever it is found.
Looking at the world (everything from the land to the animals to us!) as formed by God requires us to place value in everything created, and charges us with responsibility over this creation, and calls us in some way to be participants in its restoration. To answer the question of what shape that participation takes is also to answer the question of what it means to be human. What does it means to live life in creatureliness before our Creator God?
You can probably think of several reasons that the created world is objectively and subjectively “good.” It all fits together in a perfect pattern that produces life. Without a world so finely tuned in its physical constants we would not survive. This world is beautiful aesthetically, scientifically, mathematically, and in a thousand other ways. In this appraisal of the goodness of the created order you stand in agreement with God. He who made the sun, the mountains, the fish, the flowers, declared that all of these things were “good”. And what about us? The humans? God said that we were “very good”. Something about you and me sets us apart from the rest of the created order. We know it by the way we are set apart to order and control the world around us, for our own use and benefit. The inference to be drawn from creation understood this way is that there is deeper spiritual purpose intended for humankind. When God created humanity, he made us “in his own image”. We are God’s self-portraits. Like God, we all have the capacity for relationship, for responsibility, and for love.
We might think of man created in God’s image as in some way a self-portrait by the three persons of the Trinity: “let us make man in our image.” What does that mean for the way we look at others? Every person around us carries with them the stamp of the Creator. Every person you meet on the Bowdoin campus is impressed with the image and representation of the God who made us. Surely that sets a different foundation for the significant weight we place on the value of human life.
I would illustrate it this way. Suppose that you gave me your self-portrait, one you had been working on for months, and entrusted to me the responsibility to care for it. If I negligently spilled my coffee all over it, or decided I would put the canvas to better use for my own art project, or sliced it to pieces and vandalized it with slanderous words, you would justly take great offense at my unjust behavior. My actions toward your image in that case range between ambivalence and aggressive hatred towards you. Your offense is justified because of the effort and care you expended to create this piece of artwork. Your sense of injustice is further grounded in the awareness that I have defaced and spoiled an image of you. The harm I caused to your self-portrait is harm I have caused to you by disfiguring the meaningful representation of yourself which you created. In that sense, the damage we do to each other with every act of neglect and malignant intention we may understand as damage done to the image of our Creator. It is for this reason that we may locate the value of human life in the concept offered by the biblical account of creation as a reflection of God’s person, with each one made as an image bearer by divine love and care.
And yet there is more. Being persons created in the image of God implies not only a simple individualist standard for human rights, but furthermore charges us with responsibilities in the way that the image bearer represents the character and attributes of the creator God whose image he was meant to reflect. When a king is called away from his kingdom, how does he ensure his kingdom’s safety until his return? He sets in place representatives who think, feel, and act like him to care for the people and the land just as he would. Like Tolkien’s Stewards of Gondor, humankind in stewardship is responsible to the Creator and for the creation, with all that implies about dependence on both the Creator and the rest of creation, as well as certain duties to both Creator and the rest of creation. As Adam named the animals and cared for and conserved the land, stewards of creation advance the conditions which promote peace, meaning, and productivity in the land. If stewardship entails right relationships and just treatment for everyone, then we might ask why? It is for answers to that deeper question that I am drawn to the creation narrative of the Bible which describes stewards with privileges of rulership, but occupying those offices only as subjects under the Creator-King who created all things. And, more importantly, this Creator-King creates his garden-shaped world with motivations of love for all that he made. “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.” As God made it good, we are charged in that way to seek and uphold the good in our aspirations for justice in all of its expressions on our campus – economic justice, environmental justice, and social justice.
So look around you. Is creation still “good”? Is our water pure and plentiful? Does the land thrive and grow without harm? Is there peace among the nations? Do we find equality between men and women? Black and white? I am humbled by our collective failure as stewards of God’s creation. I admit my part in our failure to maintain God’s “goodness” in creation. Moreover, we have been active participants in in the disintegration of a garden meant by our Creator for human flourishing. This failure-admitting attitude is a place for us to begin in our collective aim at greater justice.
We must admit as justice-seekers that we are the active participants in the rebellion against the good. We are those who have marred the image of the Creator over all of creation, most importantly that image written into the fabric of our own life. We have converted the God-given attributes that make us look like him, from our creativity to our scientific understanding to our capacity for relationship, and redirected all of these capacities for selfish and un-godlike purposes. Might we begin a quest for justice by admitting that we have forgotten our place in the created world, where God declared all things good, and then declared the human governors of his creation to be very good? If we start at that beginning, it’s a very good place to start.
1 Ge 1:10ff
2 Ge 1:31, emphasis added
3 Ge 1:27
4 Ge 9:6, Jas 3:9
5 Gen 2:15, 19-20
Bowdoin College, creation, environmentalism, gender, goodness, JRR Tolkien, justice, love, race