On 6th November 2021 Prof. David Clough gave the guest lecture on ‘Dominion in Crisis: The Vocation of Chrisitans in a World on Fire’ at the CCA 2021 AGM held at the Rembrandt Hotel, Kensington, London.
David Clough is about to take up a new post as Professor in Theology and Applied Sciences at the University of Aberdeen. He has recently completed the landmark two-volume monograph On Animals (2012, 2019), on the place of animals in Christian theology and ethics. He is Principal Investigator for a three-year AHRC-funded project on the Christian Ethics of Farmed Animal Welfare (CEFAW) in partnership with major UK churches. In 2022 CEFAW will be working on developing educational resources with RE teachers, church schools, and theological education institutions. He founded the DefaultVeg project, which promotes a simple policy shift to a vegetarian/vegan default for events catering, and co-founder of CreatureKind, an organization engaging Christians with farmed animal welfare. He’s vegan and has blogged for the Vegan Society. You can find him @DLClough on Twitter.
Dominion in Crisis: The Vocation of Christians in a World on Fire
“Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”
So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
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 air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” (Gen. 1:26–28)
How are Christians to understand, receive, and interpret these words from Genesis 1 in the early 21st century? In this lecture I want to suggest that we can only interpret the biblical idea of dominion appropriately in a 21st century context if we understand its context in two crises: one ancient and one current.
We are meeting during COP26, aiming to chart a strategy to avoid the catastrophic climate change already underway becoming something even worse. We’re living in a world on fire. Before the COVID pandemic, perhaps you recall the world being transfixed by the Australian wildfires of late 2019 and early 2020, which scientists estimate killed 3 billion reptiles, amphibians, birds, and mammals, and countless more invertebrates and fish; one of the worst wildlife disasters in modern history. It’s not just Australia: we’ve seen wild fires in California, and even the Pennines, near where I live. And astonishingly, we’re still setting fires: in the Amazon to clear rainforests for grazing cattle; in Britain, on grouse moors to enhance the opportunities to kill wild birds for fun.
One key to understanding how dominion should be understood theologically is to pay attention to context of power. For biblical interpretation, context is everything. You can find in the Bible the statement ‘There is no God’ (Ps. 14.1); the context that it is fools who believe this is crucial!
So in this lecture, I’d like to approach understanding the meaning of dominion by considering the context in which Genesis 1 was written, then turn to the context in which we find ourselves, and finally consider how dominion might be reconceived as a calling for Christians in relation to the more than human world. We’ll discover that the Genesis 1 text was written in the context of an ancient crisis, and that we now face a very different crisis of dominion. We must attend to both of these crises in order to understand interpret dominion in the 21st century.
1. Dominion as consolation for the powerless
Genesis chapter 1 is familiar to most of us. There is some debate among modern Christians about whether it should be taken literally. The earliest Christian theologians had no such concerns: they read it as expressing theological truths about God’s relationship with the world while taking seriously the best available contemporary scientific knowledge. I share this view that Christians have reason to learn from what cosmology and evolutionary theory have to teach us about the history of the universe we encounter.
It’s easy to think of Genesis 1 as a freestanding text setting out timeless mythic truths. But it was written in a time and place, for a particular reason. Biblical scholars believe that the Genesis creation narratives were composed during the Exilic period. In the 6th century before Christ, Israel had been conquered by the world’s superpower, Babylon, and most Jews had been deported. The words of Psalm 137 recall this time of exile: sitting down by the rivers of Babylon and weeping over the memory of the holy city, Zion. This was a community in despair at their plight: subject to the whim of their military victors, experiencing the natural world as threatening on all sides.
What does it mean that this was the context in which Genesis 1 was composed? Despite all appearances, the world is in God’s hands: God is its Creator, it is ordered, it is good. Despite all appearances, God’s original plan was for peace between humans and other creatures. The text pictures God giving humans dominion in a context in which the Israelites felt not that they had dominion, but that they were subject to the dominion of others. The text is a word of grace for a demoralized and powerless people.
As a contemporary image of this context, picture an Iranian migrant family washed up on a South Coast beach, picked up by police and taken to one of the UK’s prison-like immigration detention facilities. What might Genesis 1 mean to them? That despite everything, they and the whole world are in God’s hands. That their current state of powerlessness is not God’s will or the final truth about them. That a different existence is possible. Dominion in the context of Genesis 1 is consolation for the powerless.
2. Dominion as judgement of the tyrant
Two thousand five hundred years later, the world has changed. Humans have unprecedented power over the world. This is an era of human domination. Some have called it the anthropocene era, because human activity is now having effects that will be recognizable in the geological record. Humans are changing the earth’s climate, making the world unliveable in for many of the world’s poorest as well as for many animals who are losing the habitats they depend on. 60% of the animals alive when I was born have now been eliminated by human impacts. We have created the conditions for a sixth mass extinction event. The global biomass of farmed animals now 24 times that of all wild land mammals. Chickens alone are three times the biomass of all wild birds. During the 20th century we depleted fish populations by 90%. The plight of the billions of farmed animals caught up in mass industrialized agriculture should appall us: bred and raised without regard to what they need to live flourishing lives as God’s creatures. Humans exercise monopolistic control over the rest of creation. Dominion in the 21st century is not part of a creation story, but a fact.
But we should note two ways in which this analysis of dominion requires qualification. First, it’s not all humans. Criticisms of anthropocentrism or human domination must recognize that it is small elites that benefit from the status quo. Oxfam estimates that the world’s 2000 billionaires — overwhelmingly white men from the Global North — own more than the 4.6 billion people who make up 60% of the world’s population. So it’s unhelpful to think of Homo sapiens sapiens having dominion in the 21st century: many of whom have no more power than did the Israelites in the 6th century BCE. Instead, it’s a small minority of our species who have gained power over the rest of their species, mostly through immoral and exploitative means. Some scholars have suggested that ‘Plantationocene’ is a better name than anthropocene for our era, in recognition that ‘the slave plantation system was the model motor for the carbon-greedy machine-based factory system that is often cited as an inflection point for the Anthropocene’ (Donna Haraway, ‘Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin’, Environmental Humanities 6(1) (2015), 159–165).
It remains to be seen how long the fundamental injustice of this arrangement can be sustained. Vast sums are being spent to keep the masses compliant in their exploitation, but this compliance cannot be assumed indefinitely. This human domination is a crisis for humans, other animals, and the future of life on earth. But this domination is also in crisis itself. The climate crisis is a sign that our exploitation of creation is beginning to hit hard limits, with feedback effects. While the origins of COVID-19 are unclear, it is likely that it is similar to other major pandemic risks in being zoonotic in origin: resulting from a virus that migrates from animal populations to humans. Industrialized animal agriculture is a major source of these risks: it creates large populations of genetically similar immunocompromised animals and also places humans and farmed animals in proximity to disrupted natural habitats.
So the dominion we are witnessing at the moment is not only causing a crisis but is itself in crisis. Ironically, it may prove to be not only unsustainable in the destruction it wreaks, but also unsustainable because it cannot continue. So to think clearly about dominion in the 21st century we need to recognize both the extent of human destruction of fellow creatures, the fragility and unsustainability of business as usual, and the political reality that it is not all humans, but political and economic elites that exercise agency in this dominion.
I previously pictured Iranian migrant family reaching the UK reading Genesis 1 as consolation. Let’s now instead picture an individual representing the thoughtless and selfish perpetuation of domination —- Donald Trump, or Jair Bolsonaro, or an English crony capitalist. Genesis 1 wasn’t written for them, for those in power, for those overseeing the destruction of God’s creation. The dominion they exercise is far from having any such divine authority: it is instead the fragile and transient thriving of evil in opposition to God’s will. For them Genesis 1 is judgment, not consolation.
3. Dominion as calling for the church
So the story of dominion granted by God to the first humans in Genesis 1 was written for a particular time and place, composed by a people without power, clinging on to a vision of a different world ordered according to God’s will. We need to think of it being read by the Iranian migrant family in a UK detention centre to have a sense of its original context. It is therefore illegitimate, to say the least, to take a text from that context and use it to justify the destructive domination exercised by a powerful human few over other humans and other creatures of God.
So what can we take from an understanding of dominion in order to guide Christian action in the present?
First, we should note that humans have power: we have the ability to make things better or worse for fellow humans and other fellow creatures. In this sense Gen. 1 does express a timeless truth. Humans have dominion in the sense of having the power to affect the wellbeing of fellow creatures.
Second, the temptation to abdicate from exercising the power we have is not helpful. We cannot wish away this power or pretend it does not belong to us. We need instead to discern how to wield our power rightly.
Third, we must not forget that power is unevenly and unjustly distributed. Christians have the responsibility to resist and challenge unjust systems that perpetuate patterns of intrahuman domination on the basis of military power, economic power, racism, colonialism, gender, or any other element of social hierarchy. The Book of Revelation critiques and challenges the exercise of contemporary Roman imperial power.
Fourth, we need also to recognize our responsibility to use the power and opportunities we have to work for beneficial changes. None of us have the power to bring the globe to net zero by ourselves, to end human injustice, or to liberate our fellow animal creatures from the systems that oppress them. We are finite creatures of God, given life just for this short time, in this particular place, at this point in the history of our world and nation. Our task is to find God’s calling for our lives, to discern how we may live as disciples of Christ in the place and time we have been given.
Fifth, we can find one simple guide to the work we are called to do back in Genesis 1. God says let us make humankind in our image and let them have dominion. Often the idea of humans as image of God has been seized upon as a status symbol: a divine dividing line between humans and other creatures. But what if we instead read it as framing the dominion given by God? What if being images of was not a medal we strut around with but a responsibility? What would it mean to use our power in a way that would image God to the wider creation? God’s dominion is not for God’s advantage, but for the good of others. Genesis chapters 1 and 2 set out a peaceable dominion where humans need nothing but fellowship from fellow creatures. Creation itself is God’s grace to creatures, bringing them into existence. The life and teaching of Jesus is also an important point of reference. Dominion means lordship, and Jesus tells his followers that they are not to lord it over one another but serve one another’s needs, just as he did in washing their feet after their final meal together. So we will discover how to exercise dominion aright, how to live out our vocation, as we learn to find ways to love and serve the needs of our neighbours in need, both human and more than human.
So our challenge is to make use of the power that we have in ways that raise up the powerless and protect the vulnerable, human and non-human. Alongside the image of dominion as consolation, in the Iranian migrant family; and dominion as judgement, as Gen.1 confronts figures like Trump or Bolsonaro, or crony capitalists closer to home; I offer a third image. Picture the parents of a newborn infant: they have power over their child of course, but the experience of this power is as far as can be imagined from the freedom of the tyrant. The dominion of new parents is an awesome and incalculable responsibility before this precious new life. Others experience a similar responsibility when caring for a young companion animal. This is dominion as responsibility: how are they best to care for the life that is before them, in its utter vulnerability?
If we are to interpret the dominion set out in Genesis 1 our 21st century context, then, we need to recognize its context in an ancient crisis, that meant dominion was first of all consolation for a displaced people. We then need to understand the crisis of dominion in our own day, both in terms of its devastation of human and more than human, and its unstable unsustainability, in relation to its location with powerful elites and the hard limits human domination is encountering. Here is dominion as judgment. And finally, we need to understand dominion as a vocation for us, individually and collectively, to find ways to use the power we have to show love and lift up the vulnerable and oppressed, human and more than human. This is dominion as responsibility and this is the understanding of dominion we need to guide our actions in our 21st century context, in relation to humans, fellow animal creatures, and the wider creation. Dominion as responsibility is God’s charge to us to use the power available to us to respond as we are able to the needs of our fellow creatures. May God grant us all the grace to be wise, and energetic, and fruitful in this service.